Bosnia-Herzegovina could be on the brink of a political collapse that triggers a new conflagration in the Balkans. There is a growing consensus among experts that this is the country’s most dangerous moment since the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended a war that cost 100,000 lives and displaced more than 2 million people. Analysts also say stability in the Balkans has been eroded recently by the disengagement of the European Union and United States.
“The prospects for further division and conflict are very real,” the international community’s chief representative in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, wrote in a report to the United Nations that was leaked earlier this month.
Behind the rising tensions is Bosnian Serb le-ader Milorad Dodik, who is pushing to withdraw the Republika Srpska—one of the two administrative “ent-ities” established by the D-ayton agreement—from B-osnian state institutions. Schmidt and many others see this as tantamount to s-ecession, essentially creating a majority-Serb mini-st-ate, complete with its own army. In a worst-case scen-ario, this could trigger ren-ewed war, drawing in neig-hbors and potentially even regional powers like Russia.
So far, the Republika Srpska parliament has voted to reestablish its own Agency for Medical Equipment and Drugs as an “independent administrative organization,” with a six-month timeframe. Dodik has also pledged legislation in the coming months on withdrawing from Bosnia’s top judicial body, tax authority and, perhaps most ominously, the armed forces. These maneuvers “endanger not only the peace and stability of the country and the region, but—if unanswered by the international community—could lead to the undoing of the [Dayton peace] agreement itself,” Schmidt said.
Dodik currently serves as the Serb member of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency; the other two represent the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks and ethnic Croats. He was previously the prime minister and then president of the Republika Srpska. A pugnacious nationalist, Dodik has regularly threatened to secede in the past, but never followed through.
To justify the recent withdrawal, Dodik argues that Bosnian state institutions were imposed from abroad by international envoys, including the high representatives for Bosnia and Herzegovina that preceded Schmidt, and are thus not part of the country’s constitution as established by the Dayton agreement. Yet withdrawing fr-om state institutions would only further undermine Bosnia-Herzegovina’s fragile statehood, which Dodik himself acknowledges, referring to the state as a “failed country” and Western “experiment.”
Moreover, by withdrawing from the national army, Dodik would not only tear asunder one of the few genuinely effective Bosnian institutions, but also recreate the Army of the Republika Srpska, which was responsible for war crimes during the ethnic violence of the 1990s—including the infamous Srebrenica genocide, in which Bosniak Muslims were systematically massacred. The current crisis eru-pted after Schmidt’s predecessor, Valentin Inzko, banned genocide denial in July, which prompted Bosnian Serb representatives to boycott state institutions, though some protests lasted only briefly.
Dodik has tried to allay concerns by saying that he will not sacrifice peace for the Republika Srpska, and that the entity respects Bosnia-Herzegovina’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and constitutional order. His supporters—and even some of his Serb opponents—see the Republika Srpska’s autonomy as an important security guarantee, given that Serbs make up only around 30 percent of the country’s population, according to the latest demographic figures. Many Serbs are wary of efforts to centralize the state, which they see as a way for Bosniak politicians to assert dominance.
Halting International Efforts
The international community has become accustomed—some would say inured—to Dodik’s brinksmanship, given his tendency to challenge the validity of national legislation or threaten secession, only to later back down. It would be in keeping with his modus operandi to use the current crisis to extract concessions before kicking his proposed changes into the long grass.
There is a growing consensus among experts that this is Bosnia-Herzegovina’s most dangerous moment since the 1995 Dayton Accords.
But a senior Western diplomat in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, tells WPR that the current situation is more serious.
“For those who have observed Dodik for some time, it’s familiar, but feels like a step forward in terms of specificity and detail of intent—not just vague references to withdrawing from state institutions, but putting legislation in front of parliament, and announcing his intent to create an RS army,” the diplomat says, referring to the initials for Republika Srpska. “It feels like a more serious situation than usual. What we’re seeing from Dodik is that he doesn’t seem to be changing his approach, so a serious situation is likely to get more serious.”
The matter is further complicated by the looming presence of Russia, which has become more active in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years. Dodik has said that if his efforts to secede are challenged, he has “friends” he can rely on—widely taken to mean Russia and Serbia. Former U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague has been among those warning of the risk of surrendering influence in the Balkans to Moscow and, increasingly, Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently visited Serbia and Albania in an effort to deepen ties, and China has been investing heavily across the region, including a controversial $1.1 billion coal-fired power plant in Bosnia’s other administrative entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Russia has taken a much more strident appro-ach, opposing the new high representative and making things difficult in the U.N. Security Council,” says the Sarajevo-based diplomat. “This has been a contested region for some time, and there have been changes in recent years with NATO growing in the region. But China getting involved does feel different, and new.”
But the diplomat noted that the security situation on the ground remains unchanged, with the army obeying its chain of command. And the proposed timeline for passing some of Dodik’s proposed measures has slipped, suggesting he could still blink. Some of them could also be challenged in the national constitutional court. Moreover, “there’s a hardening of resolve in the international community that this is a very serious situation and needs to change,” says the diplomat.
Earlier this month, Ger-man Foreign Minister Hei-ko Maas indicated Berlin was considering sanctions on the Republika Srpska, and that he wanted fellow EU member states to do the same. “We will not be able to accept the continuation of this irresponsible policy without taking action,” he said, accusing Republika Srpska of “actively working to destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole state.” The U.S. already has Dodik on a list of sanctioned individuals; it designated him in 2017 for “actively obstructing the Dayton Accords.”
After a long period of keeping the Balkans on the back burner, Washington has stepped up its engagement in response to Dodik’s recent provocations, dispatching senior officials for back-to-back missions in an effort to calm tensions. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and special envoy to the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar visited Bosnia earlier this month, closely followed by State Department Counselor Derek Chollet. Both envoys met Dodik, as well as his Bosniak and Croat counterparts.
The two visits illustrated what might be called a carrot-and-stick approach from the Biden administration. In his public remarks, Escobar highlighted U.S. support for the Open Balkans Initiative, which aims to promote regional economic integration and connectivity, and emphasized a recent $1 billion aid package to Serbia. But hanging over both trips was the threat of further U.S. sanctions if Dodik doesn’t back down. “If leaders continue on the path toward divisiveness, disintegration, withdrawal from the central institutions, there are tools we have to punish that kind of behavior,” Chollet told the Associated Press in Sarajevo.
While Escobar and Chollet expressed confidence that the situation could be resolved, Dodik was defiant. “We will continue with our goal to send certain laws to the parliament of the Republika Srpska and withdraw our consent from issues such as the army, indirect taxation, the court system, and that we will draft new legislation in the next six months,” he told reporters after meeting with Escobar.
When the prospect of sanctions came up in his talks, Dodik was reportedly even more blunt. “F**k the sanctions. I already went through that. If you want to talk to me, then stop threatening me,” he told Escobar, according to a leaked transcript of the meeting.
The flurry of U.S. engagement is seen partly as a firefighting mission following the repeated failure of the EU and its leading politicians to ease tensions and make progress in the Balkans. Part of the problem is a lack of unity among EU member states. While Western European powers threaten sanctions on Republika Srpska, right-wing authoritarian populists like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa have maintained close ties with Dodik. Orban even paid a visit to Bosnia earlier this month, meeting with Dodik but not the other two members of the tripartite presidency, which experts say is a breach of diplomatic protocol.
At the same time, Bosnia’s own EU accession process—widely seen as a final guarantee of its territorial integrity and stability—now appears to have ground to a halt, mostly due to the EU itself cooling on enlargement.
There is a growing sense that the bloc, distracted by other matters, has given up on aspiring member states in the Western Balkans, w-hich also include Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Nor-th Macedonia and Kosovo. An EU “reform agenda” for Bosnia, launched in 2015 and designed to promote economic liberalization to weaken networks of patronage and corruption supporting the leading ethno-nationalist parties, did not have the desired results.
Two Steps Backward for Bosnia
Many in Bosnia, particularly Bosniaks, feel that U.S. engagement has been too focused on appeasing Dodik and the nationalist Bosnian Croat politician Dragan Covic, the leader of the largest Bosnian Croat party, rather than deterring their saber-rattling.
“The EU and the U.S. should speak a clear language with domestic politicians, to criticize them for not doing anything regarding NATO and EU integration,” says Sarajevo-based political analyst Ivana Maric. “Instead, Western diplomats confuse the public by praising domestic politicians for the progress they haven’t made. The biggest mistake of the international community is that it has accepted and supported the informal division of the state into three tribes, by agreeing to talk about reforms with three self-proclaimed leaders of the Serb, Croat and Bosniak communities.”
As Bosnian journalist and analyst Srecko Latal h-as noted, Croat and Bosn-iak nationalists have also s-toked divisions in the country. Yet “ethnic chiefs,” as some call them, continue to be feted by the EU and U.S., partly because of the weakness of moderate alternatives, reinforced by Bosnia’s political structure, which often emphasizes the rights of ethnicities over those of individual citizens. Maric points out that the loud nationalist voices do not actually command a sizeable base of support. Only around 25 percent of eligible voters voted for nationalist parties during the last general election in 2018, she says.
There is a risk that the EU in particular will continue to focus on trying to immediately deescalate tensions, as opposed to making long-term investments that could decrease the likelihood of conflict in the future.
The complex system of government introduced by Dayton to end the war has proved successful at maintaining peace, but less so at delivering effective administration and encouraging economic growth. Youth unemployment stands at 38 percent, and nearly half of Bosnians aged 18-29 are considering emigration, following the tens of thousands of their fellow citizens who leave every year.
“The world is tired of Bosnia,” says Aleksandar Trifunovic, a journalist and peace activist based in Banja Luka, the Republika Srpska’s de facto capital. “All these years, our country has not progressed. I think that the U.S. and the EU do not have a plan for Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we should understand that as soon as possible.”
Trifunovic says that Bosnian Serbs are not just frustrated by the lack of economic and political progress, but have lost hope that the situation can be improved. Most do not support Dodik, but “people are angry and that anger is misdirected.” With around 60 percent of the Republika Srpska’s economy linked to the government, huge numbers of citizens are employed in the public sector or by businesses that rely on public procurement contracts. Combined with Dodik’s control of the election process, this has provided enough leverage for him to stay in power. The situation is not dissimilar in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is populated mainly by Bosniaks and Croats.
Yet Dodik’s latest ructions are a sign of weakness, rather than strength, according to Maric. His party lost control of Banja Luka and several other towns in the 2020 municipal elections and is sliding in the polls. He has also lost the support of opposition parties in Republika Srpska on key issues that they had previously backed him on. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic—a key ally in the past—has also distanced himself from Dodik in recent weeks.
Escobar has said that Dodik’s moves to weaken central institutions are attempts “to protect his power and his money.” Indeed, according to Maric, the Bosnian elite’s hunger for wealth may be the best guarantor against war.
“Many compare the current situation in [Bosnia] with the situation in the early 1990s. However, the difference is drastic,” she says. “We had nationalists in power then, and now they are corrupt politicians who are interested in the national question only in terms of greater enrichment and concealment of the corruption in which they are i-nvolved. Therefore, this ti-me we can be sure that th-ere will be no war, because leading politicians earn mo-re in peace than they could earn in war, and earnings are their basic motive.”
Even if the political will existed, the prospects of war are severely limited by constraints on resources, as well as a lack of public motivation, as researcher Valentino Grbavac has pointed out. Emigration and demographic decline, as well as the ethnic makeup of modern Bosnia, make it very difficult for nationalist leaders to muster separate armies large enough to control swaths of territory.
Still, while full-blown conflict is unlikely, regional outbreaks of violence are still possible. As such, there is a risk that the EU in particular will continue to focus on trying to immediately deescalate tensions, as opposed to making long-term investments that could decrease the likelihood of conflict in the future.
“We are in a familiar cycle of talking about the past or fears of the future, rather than improving people’s lives,” says the Sarajevo-based diplomat. “It’s always challenging to keep that at the center of attention. The real underlying crisis is the departure of young, qualified, talented individuals who are frustrated with the lack of progress, and therefore are voting with their feet.”
A permanent state of tension has become Dodik’s s-ignature. Yet even on the r-egular occasions that he b-acks down, it tends to be “one step forward for Do-dik, two steps backwards for Bosnia-Herzegovina,” writes the Balkans-based diplomat Ian Bancroft. The question is how many more steps backward the country can afford to take.