Is Bosnia backsliding into renewed conflict?
Despite a US-brokered peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, ethnic tensions and sectarian politics have remained in the Balkan state.
The Dayton agreement ended the bloodiest conflict on European soil since World War II, with more than 100,000 people killed and over two million displaced between 1992-1995. It also established a Bosnian state composed of two self-governing regions: the Muslim-Croat-controlled Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a Serbian entity called Republika Srpska.
For some, the Dayton agreement, reached after US intervention, demonstrated the limits of a disunited European approach towards the crisis, with the peace agreement far from optimal.
“Perhaps there should have a been a Dayton 2.0 accord to better reflect the changing reality,” Dr Nina Markovic Khaze, a political scientist at the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Australia-based Macquarie University, told The New Arab.
“Instead, animosities between and within constituent ethnic groups have certainly intensified, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, this unfortunate situation has only escalated.”
"For some, the Dayton agreement, reached after US intervention, demonstrated the limits of a disunited European approach towards the crisis, with the peace agreement far from optimal"
Political disputes are heating up
The crisis escalated last summer when Valentin Inzko, outgoing High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, a body which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, amended the criminal code to ban the denial of genocide and the glorification of war criminals.
The decision was closely related to the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the summer of 1995 committed by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladić.
The massacre has been defined as genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, but this definition has often been rejected by many right-wing Serb politicians from Bosnia as well as from Serbia.
Bosnian Serbs responded furiously by withdrawing from Bosnian federal institutions, while Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, a member of the country's Presidential Council, denounced the proposed amendments and threatened to take drastic measures in the army, judiciary, and tax systems if the Dayton Agreement did not return in its entirety.
Tensions have further spiralled since October, when Dodik threatened to force the Bosnian army to withdraw from the Serbian entity. Finally, on 10 December, the parliament of the Republika Srpska adopted a Declaration on Constitutional Principles that stated that the legislation imposed by the high representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be considered unconstitutional.
In addition, the legislator also adopted conclusions withdrawing formerly given consent to delegate some of the Republika Srpska’s authority to the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The new high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, expressed his deepest concerns after these Bosnian Serb moves and warned that the country is in imminent danger of breaking apart, adding that there is a “very real” prospect of a return to conflict.
Dodik is just the tip of the iceberg
Dodik’s radical moves have caused a great deal of anger and concern among Western diplomatic circles and on 5 January the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), imposed sanctions on the Bosnian Serb leader, accusing him of corruption and threatening the stability and territorial integrity of Bosnia.
The Treasury previously designated Dodik in 2017 for having actively obstructed or posed a significant risk of actively obstructing the Dayton Accords, with little or no effect.
Moreover, when warned about the possibility of facing sanctions from Gabriel Escobar, the newly-appointed deputy assistant secretary at the US State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian affairs, Dodik simply snapped that he does not “give a f**k about sanctions,” showing not only how radical he has become but also how the West has completely lost its influence in the region.
However, it would be misleading to attribute the ongoing crisis exclusively to Dodik.
While the Bosnian Serb leader is hardly a moderate politician in favour of reconciliation, Bosnian joint state institutions were effectively dysfunctional long before Bosnian Serbs decided to abandon them last July, in part due to policies pursued by Bosniak Muslim and Bosnian Croat leaders as well.
Speaking to The New Arab, Jovo Bakić, Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology at the University of Belgrade, said that back in 1997 Dodik was the favourite politician among Western diplomatic circles, while Bosnian Serbs had been quite sceptical about him. While Dodik has been an utterly corrupt politician, Bakić said that US and EU politicians overlooked it for years.
For many, this is hardly surprising. The US and the EU, as well as Russia, have for the last three decades supported (and still support) corrupt, authoritarian, and compromised leaders in the region who supposedly provide “stability”.
"The US and the EU, as well as Russia, have for the last three decades supported (and still support) corrupt, authoritarian, and compromised leaders in the region who supposedly provide 'stability'"
They include Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić, Montenegro’s Milo Djukanović, Bosnian nationalist leaders, as well as notorious Serb leader Slobodan Milošević, who was considered a figure for peace and stability until standing trial for genocide in 2002, and Croatia’s former president Franjo Tudjman.
In Bakić’s view, Bosnian Serbs could survive the political death of Dodik, as he is unimportant for Serbian nationalism in the long term. “Dodik has manipulated Serbian nationalism, but Serbian nationalism is older than Dodik,” he told TNA.
And even if the West tries to intervene in Bosnia using more radical means, including the military, in order to “discipline” Dodik and Bosnian Serbs, Bakić is unconvinced that it would solve the problem.
Bosnia's internal divisions and dysfunctional design
While Bosnia has been a highly dysfunctional and divided state, it would be wrong to assume that simply dissolving both current entities and introducing another model of internal regionalisation at some future conference (a “Dayton 2.0”) would automatically solve accumulated problems, or that Dayton demarcation lines within Bosnia would not be contested if it were not for politicians like Dodik.
It is largely Bosnian Muslims who feel a commitment to Bosnia and Herzegovina, with many of their leaders sympathising with the idea of a more unitary state that would abandon ethnic or national principles in the election of political representatives - a solution viewed as oppression by other ethnicities.
Yugoslavia could not survive as a national state, and Bosnia has faced a similar problem as it consists of three nations. In this complicated puzzle, Bosnian Croats were simply incorporated into the Bosniak-Croat entity named the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, causing dissatisfaction among this ethnic group as many of them see Croatia rather than Bosnia as their homeland.
But while ethnic and religious divisions have determined the Bosnian reality over the last three decades, the country also has a long tradition of multicultural and multi-confessional tolerance and coexistence.
The brightest example of the struggle to preserve this unique mixture is the joint fight of all constitutive nations of Yugoslavia (including Bosnia) against Nazi German forces and their local collaborationist allies within the all-Yugoslavian anti-fascist resistance movement led by Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia.
Yugoslav partisans were able to overcome ethnic differences and fratricidal war among Bosnian and Yugoslav peoples and made great efforts to implement national reconciliation after World War II, with Bosnia and Herzegovina becoming the bastion of Yugoslavism and “brotherhood and unity” - a concept promoted by Socialist Yugoslavia.
Nevertheless, the voices of the broader community, including civil society, are often completely missing in the contemporary debate about the future of Bosnia.
While many foreign analysts and diplomats have promoted the idea of a new peace conference (Dayton 2.0), that would aim to diminish ethnic and territorial concepts and promote multinational ideas, Markovic Khaze thinks that the process of reaching such an agreement would need to be transparent, inclusive, and supported by all regional, international, and local players to succeed.
A victim of the unfinished disintegration of Yugoslavia?
The ongoing political crisis in Bosnia reflects, in some ways, that the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslav federation is still an unfinished process, as numerous unsolved border issues suggest.
Bosnia cannot be isolated from other hots spots in the region and many observers usually link the future of the country with the future of Kosovo. Serbian leaders, regardless of their political affiliation, have explicitly said that if parts of the international community support Kosovan independence, and increase the pressure on Serbia to recognise Kosovo, Serbia would then reopen the issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska.
"The ongoing political crisis in Bosnia reflects, in some ways, that the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslav federation is still an unfinished process, as numerous unsolved border issues suggest"
Moreover, since there have been ever louder voices about “border corrections” between Serbia and Kosovo, some observers believe that similar proposals can be applied to Bosnia as well. While some analysts see this approach as a pragmatic solution, others condemn it as politically immoral as is would legitimise ethnic cleansing and reward extremist nationalists.
There have also been calls for Kosovo to hold a referendum on joining Albania.“If Kosovo were to eventually join a unitary state with Albania, this will inevitably intensify efforts to hold a similar referendum in Republika Srpska on joining with Serbia in a unitary state. However, this is unlikely to succeed within any current framework of operations and governance for BiH,” Khaze said.
The Arbitration Commission of the Conference on Yugoslavia (commonly known as the Badinter Arbitration Committee), applied the principle of uti possidetis juris and concluded that the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) had been completed.
According to this principle, the boundaries between Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, and possibly other adjacent independent states, may not be altered except where otherwise agreed, with the former boundaries becoming frontiers protected by international law.
However, Bakić and other analysts observe that the US and major powers in the EU have decided that they will not necessarily attach themselves to this principle, as was evident in the case of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
In this way, some analysts view the West as promoting multinationalism in one case and a national, or territorial, approach in others, with the independence of Kosovo opening a ‘pandora’s box’ of future secessionist claims and linking the future of Bosnia with the case of Kosovo.
Over the past decade, the western Balkans, including Bosnia, have been off the radar of the international community, especially of the EU and the US, which has only emboldened autocratic tendencies and nationalist rhetoric.
As a result, many in the region have lost confidence in the EU, which has sacrificed much of its credibility and reputation on stalled promises of accession. Moreover, the EU has made it clear that there will be no expansion until at least 2025 and possibly beyond too.
While an accelerated path towards full EU membership could ease (but not solve) accumulated problems and ethnic tensions in the region in a way that disputed interstate borders would become irrelevant, with a presumption that full membership would also offer greater economic prosperity and stability, it is more likely that Bosnia, as well as the whole region, will continue to stagnate at the periphery of Europe and the global capitalist system, living in a state of permanent instability.
"Over the past decade, the western Balkans, including Bosnia, have been off the radar of the international community, especially of the EU and the US, which has only emboldened autocratic tendencies and nationalist rhetoric"
“Permanent crisis hotspots are being created in those parts of the world where neither side can achieve supremacy and dominance,” Dr Nevenka Tromp Nevenka, a lecturer in East European Studies at the University of Amsterdam, said in an interview last year.
“These trends include - but also precede - the situation in the post-Yugoslav area where the West does not really know what to do with Kosovo and BiH as majority Muslim states.”
In Marković Khaze’s view, while the federation can continue to exist in its current form in the short term, issues such as a massive brain drain, poverty, underdevelopment, and a lack of investment are structural issues that inevitably impact the functioning of the whole country.
While frozen conflict is clearly not the best solution either for Bosnia or Kosovo, other radical solutions could do even more harm. In Bakić’s view, the EU is not a reachable destination for Bosnia, Serbia, or Kosovo, with Bosnians of all stripes better served by depending on each other rather than Serbia or Croatia or any other foreign power.
But, unfortunately, whether realistic or unrealistic, there seem to be no immediate solutions. In short, get ready for another Balkan storm.
Stasa Salacanin is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on Middle Eastern affairs, trade and political relations, Syria and Yemen, and terrorism and defence.