Bosnia & Herzegovina is facing its most profound crisis since the war. Threats by the Serb member of the presidency, Milorad Dodik, to withdraw Bosnian Serbs from various of the country's institutions, including its armed forces, threaten to plunge the country into a deep and prolonged constitutional and security crisis, one that has already exposed the impotence of the international community and led to murmurings of war.
This latest episode can be traced back to the summer, when the country's outgoing high representative, Valentin Inzko, used the long mothballed Bonn Powers to impose changes that banned the denial of genocide and other established war crimes, plus the glorification of war criminals. In response, Bosnian Serb representatives announced that they would boycott all state institutions, thereby essentially blocking their functioning. Republika Srpska’s National Assembly also adopted counter legislation in an effort to block enforcement of the amendments in the entity.
Dodik has doubled down since then, vowing to withdraw Serbs from the country’s armed forces, the Indirect Taxation Agency, and the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC). Republika Srpska, meanwhile, adopted legislation establishing a parallel medicines procurement agency, an effort to usurp a state-level competence during a pandemic. Rarely has a president of a country done so much damage to its own institutions.
On the security front, Dodik has insisted that Bosnia’s armed forces (along with judicial, security, and intelligence structures) will be forbidden from operating on the territory of Republika Srpska, and will resort to surrounding barracks to achieve such ends. Stoking tensions further, he has vowed that Republika Srpska will re-establish its own armed forces; their war-time military having been responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the war, including the Srebrenica genocide. Such provocations were reinforced by ‘anti-terrorist operations’ conducted in the vicinity of Sarajevo, conducted by special police from Republika Srpska.
The new high representative, Christian Schmidt, in a report submitted to UN secretary general António Guterres, has warned that such moves would be "tantamount to secession without proclaiming it”, which endanger "peace and stability of the country and the region” and the Dayton Peace Agreement itself, which ended war in the country in 1995. Sefik Dzaferovic, the Bosniak member of the tripartite presidency, has publicly warned that an end to Dayton will mean an end to Republika Srpska itself.
Dodik has long proven himself to be the shrewdest political operator in the entire former Yugoslavia, identifying and exploiting points of weakness domestically and within the international community. Almost a decade ago he helped engineer the removal of international judges and prosecutors dealing with organised crime and corruption, hollowing out a key aspect of the country’s rule of law system.
It would be complacent to ascribe these current manoeuvres to next year's general elections. Dodik has again become the agenda setter and everyone else is scrambling to react. By muddying the waters about questions of sovereignty, Dodik is attempting to renew an old argument that Republika Srpska be handed back competencies it was stripped of by an interventionist international community.
Deescalating on one front (such as the boycott of state institutions) will allow him to consolidate on another (for instance, the establishment of parallel institutions). The lack of a cohesive and concerted response — ‘appeasement’ in the words of some — will embolden future adventures; adventures that will do little to enhance Bosnia’s functionality, but will firmly underpin Dodik’s hold on power.
The risks of instability arising from enlargement fatigue have long been well articulated, but shouting ‘we told you so’ is of little consolation to the people of Bosnia. Brussels is in a bind. Their fundamental logic — that the desire of the country's citizens for EU membership would compel recalcitrant politicians to compromise or be turfed out of office — hasn't been borne out in practice. The levers of state capture, reinforced by an electoral system grounded upon the notion of constituent peoples, favour the ethno-nationalist blocks that dominate politics. Progressive voices exist, but they are few in number. The country’s EU perspective is virtually non-existent.
Divisions within the EU inhibit the development of an effective common stance. Croatia pursues its own interests vis-a-vis Bosnia's Croat population, including diplomatic support for amendments to the electoral law to guarantee that an individual supported by Croat voters — namely, those backing the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) — will definitely fill the Bosnian Croat post in the tripartite presidency (the current incumbent, Zeljko Komsic, was elected largely thanks to Bosniak votes). It is a move that critics say will further reinforce the country’s ethnic division. Zagreb and Bosnia’s Croats also continue to flirt with the possible establishment of a third entity. Bosnia’s Croats can expect Dodik’s support for some of their objectives, in exchange for some reciprocal backing.
Though Dodik has already been sanctioned by the United States for his obstructionist stance, there is little prospect of the EU following suit. The need for unanimity in the European Council is presently deemed unrealistic due to the likes of, amongst others, Croatia, Hungary and Slovenia.
Dodik has further hinted that he will call on his ‘friends’ for assistance, presumably Serbia and Russia, should his provocations be met with a military response. Russia has threatened to veto the renewal of the EU’s military presence, EUFOR. Schmidt himself warns that “the level of international military presence would require reassessment” should the county’s armed forces fracture. Some wonder out loud just what Nato members would be willing to deploy and how rapidly in the event of a security crisis.
These latest developments are a further blow to a country affected by years of political deadlock, corruption, and low economic growth. COVID-19 has exposed the catastrophic state of Bosnia’s public services; it has some of the worst excess deaths statistics in Europe. A much-vaunted, EU-backed Socio-Economic Reform Agenda has failed to bear fruit due to predictable obstructionism. Investors — already deterred by corruption and the de facto veto points of the country’s multi-layered system of government — must contend with ethno-national factions eager to extract rents. The tangible result is outward migration. In the first half of 2021, an estimated 90,000 packed their bags and left. This latest crisis will make others think twice about whether Bosnia can remain their home.
Bosnia remains a place where half the population cheers when the opposition scores. Though the Dayton Peace Agreement ended a war, it served to reinforce rather than dilute divisions. Abolishing the underlying principle of constituent peoples is a pipe dream, but reinforcing the position of these extractive ethno-national elites will only further undermine the country’s future. Europe’s capitals must be careful not to ignore the lessons of the nineties, and the dangers of letting crises fester. Closing the door to a problem doesn’t resolve it; quite the opposite. Without a change of tact, Europe better be prepared to open its arms to people who refuse to live with the threat of war.