Tearing Bosnia Apart… Again By Omar Khan
The three presidents of Bosnia and Herzegovina rarely see eye-to-eye but at least they can all agree that nobody wants another war to break out. At least, the world hopes so.
Alarm bells have been ringing since July 2021 when Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite presidency, began a boycott of federal institutions, calling for an end to Bosnian Serb cooperation on affairs such as defence, the judiciary and tax – moves seen as steps towards secession in all but name. The threat of Serb separation has only compounded an ongoing electoral dispute between Bosnia’s other major ethnic groups, the Croats and the Bosniaks. With elections in October 2022 and the nation, which was forged in the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, now facing disintegration, we ask: how did Bosnia get to this point? Is war likely? Or is there a better way to resolve this crisis before it’s too late?
“Men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mother’s eyes … These are truly scenes from hell,” declared the International Criminal Tribunal judge who confirmed the indictment of Bosnian Serbs Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić for war crimes during the Srebrenica genocide in 1995. The mass murder of over 8,000 Bosniaks was only the end of a violent conflict that had engulfed Bosnia since 1992. The war killed more than 100,000 people and displaced over 2,000,000 making it the most devastating conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
Slobodan Milošević, the President of Serbia within Yugoslavia, Franjo Tuđman, the President of Croatia (embroiled in its own independence war from 1991-95), and Alija Izetbegović, the Bosniak President, met in Dayton, Ohio to reach a peace agreement in November 1995, ending the war in Bosnia.
The Dayton Agreement divided the state into two regions: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for Bosniaks and Croats, and the autonomous Republika Srpska, for Serbs. The three groups would have one president each, all of whom were under the authority of the High Representative, normally an official from an EU country appointed to maintain the peace deal. For nearly thirty years, Bosnia has not only survived using this delicate system (also including a third autonomous unit in Brčko district) but became a peaceful, quickly-developing country.
So what’s gone wrong? Just before he left office, in July 2021, Austrian High Representative Valentin Inzko ruled that genocide denial in Bosnia was illegal. While the Bosniak and Croat leaders, Šefik Džaferović and Željko Komšić, praised the move, one of the three presidents was not best pleased.
Dodik, who has been sanctioned by the US since January 2022, has grown closer to Russian President Vladimir Putin in recent years and a few weeks ago told state television: “If [the Americans] think they will discipline me they are hugely mistaken.” So is Bosnia on the path to war? Probably not.
“Dodik is a good bluffer,” says Bosnian Serb Branislav Borenović, chairman of the PDP party, the main opposition to Dodik’s SNSD. With elections coming this year, it is quite likely that Dodik is emphasising identity politics perhaps to distract from his at-best average economic or COVID-19 policies. Evidence of this is Dodik’s previous pro-West leanings including times when he supported Karadžić’s indictment. However, while Inzko’s genocide denial ban gave Dodik this opportunity, it is not right to completely dismiss this issue – the crisis has put a spotlight on the fragility of the Bosnian state as well as the numerous foreign powers trying to increase their influence in the Balkans, the main contenders being Russia, China and the EU.
Unfortunately, the prospect of the Republika Srpska seceding is not the only issue Bosnia must contend with. A European Court of Human Rights ruling that all citizens (not just the three main “constituent peoples”) should be able to run for president has triggered a serious dispute between Bosnian Croat and Bosniak leaders. The ruling, intended to benefit minority groups, is one of several electoral reforms that need addressing.
The dispute arose from the Croats’ calling for their own electoral district in which they are the majority. In brief, during the last two ballots, the Croat member of the presidency was elected by Bosniaks with minimal Croat support as a result of the demographic makeup of the Federation. While the Croats see their demand as reasonable, some Bosniaks view it as a risky, anti-unity move. Yet, even the now-jeopardised safety of the October elections is not the main problem – the Bosniak-Croat dispute has fractured the anti-Serb secession front. For instance, on 17 January 2022, Croatian President Zoran Milanović called Dodik their “partner in this turmoil”. Additionally, mentioning a 10 January meeting in Dubrovnik between Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and the leader of the ruling Bosniak party, the SDA, Bakir Izetbegović (Alija’s son), Milanović called the latter dishonest. Referring to the Croat HDZ party, Izetbegović responded by affirming that “Elections have to happen,” before asserting, “I believe the HDZ leadership won’t risk joining Dodik on various blacklists,” effectively inviting the Croats to play a game of brinkmanship which they seem willing to do.
Will the situation simply deteriorate from here? Maybe, but it certainly doesn’t have to. Starting with the electoral dispute, the objective is to ensure the October elections go ahead this year without impedance, therefore the best solution is a short-term handshake deal in which the Bosniaks agree not to attempt to poach Croat seats and commit themselves to talks on reforms in the near future. In exchange, the HDZ should join the Bosniaks in confronting the Republika Srpska’s threats of secession. Though far from ending the dispute altogether, it would at least protect the nation’s young democracy.
Regarding the provocative moves by Banja Luka, the Bosnian Serb capital, diplomacy is the way to go. Specifically, envoys should point out that were the Republika Srpska to secede, it would lose billions of dollars in GDP – the separation of taxes alone would cost over $350,000,000 per year in lost revenue. Additionally, despite Putin’s record on the Balkans, there is no guarantee, or indeed evidence, that Russia would risk recognising the Republika as a sovereign state. Most significantly, even the Serbian government of President Alexander Vučić has distanced itself from Dodik and called for the Bosnian Serb leadership to remain committed to the Dayton Agreement. As mentioned before, it is unlikely that Dodik will call for secession and more probable that he is using identity politics to carve up an election victory in October, but these diplomatic efforts should not only prevent secessionist moves in the future but could also convince Bosnian Serbs to vote on more pressing issues such as corruption, economic challenges, the rule of law and the COVID-19 response.
Another solution that some experts have suggested is a “revision” of Inzko’s genocide denial ban. A precedent for this sort of takeback was set in 2007, but considering how unlikely even quasi-secession is, some argue it would be an unnecessary move that would only increase the hold that memories of the war have over the modern state.
Ultimately, Bosnia and Herzegovina deserves to move beyond its bloody past and to no longer be seen by the rest of the world as a war-ravaged state. At a recent meeting with President Vučić, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan committed his help in resolving the crisis which several parties, including Dodik, welcomed. Recent moves like this suggest that most Bosnian leaders want to resolve this crisis peacefully – it is just a shame that this dangerous game of brinkmanship must happen first. Regardless of what the leaders want, there is overwhelming evidence that most people don’t want to see an escalation. Politicians failed the Bosnian people once before – they cannot afford to do it again.