If we recently talked about the escalation of tension in the Balkans due to Kosovo and Serbia, now the focus is shifting to the Republika Srpska and its place within the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In early October, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik announced his intention to seek greater autonomy for his republic by tearing down several of the main institutions of the Bosnian state. Dodik also called for an end to the Bosnian interethnic army and to the creation of one for the Republika Srpska. This situation has brought to the minds of many Bosnians the situation that the country lived during the years before the war — something that has only increased, both in them and in analysts, the fear of a possible conflict in the country.
Dodik elevates his nationalist rhetoric
On October 8th, Milorad Dodik, Bosnian Serb leader and Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite and inter-ethnic presidency, announced that the Republika Srpska would abandon three of the main institutions of the Balkan state: the armed forces, the top Judicial Body, and the tax administration (Sito-Sucic, 2021). Exiting these institutions, which represent the pillars of Bosnia’s security, rule of law, and economy, would be a blow to the survival of the fragile Bosnian state. In addition, he also announced his plan to deny the State Investigation and Protection Agency, the Intelligence-Security Agency, state court, and prosecution, as well as the constitutional court the possibility to operate in the Republika Srpska (Sito-Sucic, 2021).
This quest for the secession of the Republika Srpska is not new to Dodik. For the past decade, Dodik has advocated the need to hold a self-determination referendum to separate the majority-inhabited region from Bosnia and, moreover, he has always predicted the disintegration of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina because it is “a failed project” and a western “experiment” that “does not work” (France24, 2021). He even launched the slogan “Goodbye Bosnia, welcome RSexit” (Dizdarevic, 2021) in 2020. At the same time, Dodik has always complained about certain institutions such as the judiciary and the prosecutors, as he considers that they were established based on decisions made by the peace envoys and are therefore not enshrined in their constitution (Sito-Sucic, 2021).
Dodik’s intention is to return at least to the situation that existed in the country after the war that ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords. Based on this agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two autonomous regions: the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, controlled by Croats and Bosniaks, united by a weak central government. However, the arrangement proved to be dysfunctional in many aspects, so the representatives of the international community imposed new rules through externally imposed institutions in order to create laws that were deemed necessary when the representatives of the three ethnic groups could not reach agreements (Sito-Sucic, 2021). This is the reason why Dodik proclaimed that these steps he is willing to take should end with this situation after a meeting with the European Ambassadors in Bosnia. He further added that at the moment there are more than 130 laws that have been imposed by the peace envoys which should be therefore revoked, as well as the authority returned to the regional parliament (Sito-Sucic, 2021).
In fact, this whole situation accelerated from July 2021, following the announcement by the at the time High Representative for Bosnia, Velentin Inzko, of a new law prohibiting the denial of genocide and war crimes and the glorification of war criminals. This law, mainly intended for those Bosnian Serbs who applaud their criminals, sparked a boycott to the central institutions by the Representative of the Bosnian Serbs Dodik (Al-Jazeera, 2021). From this moment on, he began a battle against the figure of the High Representative for Bosnia, whom he considers a Western element of intervention in the country with a marked anti-Serb character. After the end of Valentin Inzko’s mandate, Dodik has done everything possible to boycott the work of the office while finding in Russia the necessary support to delay and hinder the appointment of a new Representative.
The High Representative is not only an observer but also has legislative powers, known as “Bonn powers”, by which he can create laws when he deems it convenient or when the representatives of the three ethnic groups represented in the country fail to agree. Schmidt has been entrusted with this new role and is already exercising it to some extent, having recently signed a report raising the alarm about a possible conflict in the country and considering the situation as the most worrying since the end of the war. However, Dodik considers Schmidt to be nobody in Bosnia but a mere citizen (Mayr, Sarovic, Verschwele, 2021), as the renewal of the Mandate of European Union-Led Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina was still pending until November 3rd, 2021.
Just two days after his inflammatory statement, the Bosnian Serb representative toned down his rhetoric saying he was willing to talk to any Bosnian politician as long as there were no foreign political representatives present. He also reached out to the Bosniak politic, Bakir Izetbegovic, and the Croat member of the Bosnian Presidency, Dragan Čović, but only within the framework of the Dayton Constitution (Dizdarevic, 2021).
Dodik has assured that there will be no war, despite the fact that both the Bosnian population and Bosnian analysts indicate that this is the most worrying situation in the country since the end of the war in 1995. “There is no war, there will be no war and there is no possibility for the war” (Sito-Sucic, 2021) indicated the Bosnian Serb representative while assuring that he did not intend to be the one to start a new war in the country (Mayr, Sarovic, Verschwele; 2021).
Of course, these words have not reassured anyone, especially because at the same time Dodik indicated, in a vague and unclear manner, that he has “friends” who have promised to help Republika Srpska in case of a “Western military intervention” (Al-Jazeera, 2021). Moreover, when asked how he will expel the employees of the institutions he intends to leave of his territory, he indicated that “as the Slovenians did in 1992” (Al-Jazeera, 2021). This could mean by using violence since the short war of secession in Slovenia resulted in the death of almost 100 people and hundreds wounded. Besides, all those who did not want or did not obtain Slovenian citizenship because they were not considered authentic Slovenians because of their ethnic, political, or cultural origins were erased from the registers. This meant that 25,000 people became stateless and today they are still in this situation or have fled their country (Savio, 2018).
If this situation was not worrying enough, Republika Srpska’s leader seems convinced of the need to keep sending messages that bring out the parallels between the present and the 1990s war. Recently, Bosnian Serb Special Forces carried out a series of “anti-terrorist” exercises on Mount Jahorina, from where Serb forces shelled Sarajevo during the siege of Sarajevo (Borger, 2021). The exercise “involved armored vehicles, helicopters, and special police force personnel in camouflage uniforms and armed with assault rifles” and asked the EU peacekeeping force (that has remained in the country since the 1990s) to deploy “an aircraft to monitor the exercise” (The Week Staff, 2021).
Dodik does not seem interested in changing his rhetoric or his intentions, nor does it appear that possible threats from Western powers will change his mind. In fact, Dodik met with US Western Balkans Envoy Gabriel Escobar and, after unveiling possible sanctions against him and his territory, Dodik said: “Fuck the sanctions. I already went through that. If you want to talk to me, then stop threatening me” (Trkanjec, 2021).
Meanwhile, Dodik is seeking support from the regional parliament to carry out his plans. Whether he gets it or not is yet unclear, as some Serbian parties in the region have spoken out against his plans (Dizdarevic, 2021). It also remains to be seen whether he will try to circumvent the power of his own parliament if he does not receive the support, he expects in Republika Srpska. Later on, time will tell what the central power of the Bosnian Republic will do if he goes ahead with his plans, as well as the international reactions. For the time being, he has already succeeded in its own medicine procurement agency, the first Serbian unconnected agency of its plan (Al-Jazeera, 2021).
The conflict at the international level
What is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina has various international ramifications. The first and most obvious is the game that Dodik and Russia are playing to prevent the reappointment of a High Representative for Bosnia as well as the renewal of the UN Mandate for the EU Military Mission in the country. Russia has acted as Dodik’s voice in the UN Security Council, refusing to sign the renewal of the Mandate if it also renewed the mandate of the High Representative. As explained above, this representative has the power to impose laws in the country through the “Bonn powers” which can improve its governance and strengthen its rule of law whenever the representatives of the three main ethnic groups fail to reach an agreement.
Russia, which defends the alleged Serb and Bosnian Serb interests in the highest UN bodies, considers the High Representative to be biased against the Serbs. This situation worsened after the new laws against genocide denial and war crimes in the country, which Dodik has refused to respect.
Since the departure of the previous representative, Schmidt has held his post from Paris, as he was not officially appointed and could not be in Bosnia officially, but only privately, as Dodik pointed out (Mayr, Sarovic, Verschwele, 2021). Despite this, Schmidt made an alarming report pointing out the dangers of Dodik’s secessionist drift and indicating that the situation is the most serious for the country since the end of the war. According to him, the country is in danger of disintegrating and falling back into the war (Borger, 2021).
However, Schmidt has not had the opportunity to present this report to the UN Security Council following the Russian veto. Moreover, although an agreement was reached on November 4th for the renewal of the UN Mandate, Schmidt could not attend the meeting and was not even mentioned in the agreement document. At the same time, Russia maintains that it does not recognize any High Representative and that, therefore, “the post remains vacant. There is no High Representative or candidate to be a High Representative today,” said Vassily Nebenzia, Russian Ambassador to the UN (France24, 2021).
In the meantime, it is also important to look at Serbia and observe its role in the conflict. While Serbia has been accused by some Western analysts (Helic, Mangnall, 2021) of being the problem in the Balkans for its actions against Kosovo, in Montenegro, or now in Bosnia with its support to Republika Srpska, Vučić seems to show another face this time.
Last October 23rd, the Bosnian Serb representative met with the Serbian President in Belgrade in a meeting organized to discuss the tensions in Bosnia after Dodik’s announcement that the Serbs would leave the state-level institutions.
Despite using increasingly alarming rhetoric, Dodik was conciliatory after the meeting and repeatedly dismissed the possibility of a war in the country. Meanwhile, Vučić indicated that “what matters to me is Dodik’s message that, if problems are solved, he is ready to talk and have the institutions function uninterruptedly,” while indicating that possible sanctions hinted at by Gabriel Escobar would only exacerbate the situation and could lead to a domino effect. Again, Vučić emphasized that Republika Srpska was not the source of the problems in Bosnia (Dizdarevic, 2021). Although this conciliatory tone from the Serbian part could always be seen as a way to hide its real intentions, Bakir Izetbegovic, Bosniac president of the Party of Democratic Action, indicated that “Serbia at the UN called for the unblocking of the institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina” (Bosnia, 2021). For Vuk Vuksanovic, a political analyst on the Balkans, all this may indicate that there is no Belgrade-Moscow-Banja Luka axis in this case and that Belgrade wants to avoid unnecessary conflict (Vuk Vuksanovic Twitter, 2021).
Another important actor in this conflict and in the development of the modern Bosnian state —albeit often forgotten— is Croatia. Although Croats share the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Bosniaks, during the war the Croats also had their own expansionist and secessionist desires over the Bosnian territory inhabited by Croats. More recently, the strongest Croat party in the country, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) headed by Dragan Čović, has also done its part to undermine the central power of the Republic of Bosnia (Mayr, Sarovic, Verschewele, 2021). Neither should we forget the ongoing relations between Serb and Croat nationalist and secessionist groups, both eager to dismember Bosnia in order to include the territories inhabited by each ethnic group in their respective nation-states. In fact, Croatian ultranationalists and their leader, Dragan Čović, have been working hand in hand with Dodik for years. The HDZ is pushing for a change in the electoral law to create ethnically “pure” electoral bodies and thus secure a permanent position in power.
Moreover, the Sarajevo newspaper Zurnal recently accused the Croatian intelligence of smuggling weapons into Bosnia so that they would end up in the hands of Muslim extremist groups so that they could be able to accuse Bosnia with evidence of being a territory taken over by Radical Islam. Thus, Croats could justify the previous statements of top Croatian officials such as President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic that Bosnia is a “hotbed of terrorism” and home to at least “10,000 radicalized persons”. While several Croatian representatives vehemently denied the above, Bosnian Security Minister Dragan Mektic confirmed that Croatia had been involved in acts of hybrid warfare against Bosnia (Brezar, 2021).
Finally, although Croatia is seen by EU circles as a great friend and protector of the Bosnian state, the alleged plan of Slovenian President Janez Janša to solve the Balkan problems mentioned the disappearance of Bosnia from the Dayton agreements and the handover of the territories inhabited by Croats and Serbs to Croatia and Serbia respectively.
For the time being, Croatian representatives are against Dodik’s plans. However, it is not to be discounted that the more nationalistic elements of the Bosnian Croats may follow Dodik’s footsteps in case he succeeds in his plans or at least comes close to achieving them. This situation would drag the country up to a point very similar to the one in 1992 at the beginning of the war, which is clearly worrying.
Naturally, NATO powers have also spoken out. The US and the EU issued a joint communiqué showing their support for the European path for the Balkan countries. In addition, they showed their support for the territorial integrity of Bosnia, while calling on all parties to protect the institutions, dialogue, and advance their integration into the EU, while asking them to work on de-escalating tensions (Al-Jazeera, 2021).
Again, the EU is bound by its now-famous equidistance, always appealing to the “two sides” even though attacks or problems may clearly be created or spurred by only one of them (Al-Jazeera, 2021). At the same time, the EU is not in favor of increasing its military presence in the country. On top of this, the views on the conflict are not unanimous within the EU, with Hungary openly supporting Dodik (Borger, 2021). This support even included a visit of the Hungarian Premier, Viktor Orban, to Dodik during the first weekend of November. The trip included a visit to Dodik’s hometown, Laktasi, in Republika Srpska. However, the details of the visit remain unclear, as “There is no Hungarian national interest which would justify this visit,” according to former Hungarian foreign minister and EU commissioner Peter Balazs (Inotai, Latal, 2021)
Meanwhile, Bosniak organizations and different Balkan NGOs have looked to Turkey to get solid and clear support for international power. For these organizations, Turkey has no other supporter, friend, and confidant than Turkey. “The support of our homeland is the greatest strength for Bosniaks in Bosnia and Sandzak [Muslim-majority region in southern Serbia and northern Montenegro]”. At the same time, several Bosniak leaders have been lobbying Turkey and its allies, in search of the support they do not seem to receive from their Western allies (Buyuk, 2021).
It also should not escape notice that according to Istragra newspaper (Avdic, 2021), the former High Representative Valentin Inzko asked to sanction Dodik and other Republika Srpska officials through a letter addressed to the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, last May 17th, 2021. The reason behind Inzko’s letter to Borrell was the conclusions of the Republika Srpska National Assembly adopted at the session held on May 11th, 2021, whereby the legislative body “rejects the request of the High Representative and supports the assemblies of the former Republika Srpska”. Thus, the ruling parliamentary majority adopted a resolution in support of the original decision of the ad hoc parliamentary body, which previously decided to reward the three convicted war criminals. However, the letter was not even answered by Borrell and his proposals were not taken into account.
On the other hand, the US through Gabriel Escobar is working on “solutions” with the EU (Borger, 2021). However, the Biden administration seems uninterested in getting too involved in the Balkans, having its sights set on Asia-Pacific. Moreover, it is not certain that Biden would support the reinstatement of a NATO peacekeeping mission.
In detriment of the international position of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its integrity, it seems that finally, the Americans, British and French have bowed to Russia’s demand that there be no mention of the High Representative in the renewal of the UN Mandate for Bosnia. Of course, this does not end the power of the High Representative, but politically it shows a reduction in the backing he should receive from the UN Security Council members that support him (Borger, 2021).
The situation in Bosnia is not rosy at all. Dodik has launched an attack on the very existence of the Bosnian Republic probably at the best moment for his interests. The EU, the USA, and NATO are not convinced that they are willing or even able to act. They do not have a clear idea on what to do with the Balkans and Bosnia, since despite 25 years of peace, the country is still dysfunctional.
Fires and hot spots are constantly growing in the Balkans, some of them with the clear help of Russia, always faithful to its friendship with Serbia. Probably, the Russians are not looking for full open conflicts in the area, but rather to continue to test NATO and its ability to act. Moreover, the more NATO fails to help its regional allies, the more room there is for the disdain of Western institutions and countries in the Balkans.
At the UN level, the Bosnian state has not found totally clear support either, as the High Representative for the country has lost important backing from the USA, France, and United Kingdom. Although it seems that he will continue to exercise his powers in the country, his non-mention in the renewal of the UN Mandate has been a small victory for Russia and Dodik.
The attack on the judiciary and, above all, on the unified army bombards the basic pillars of the Bosnian state. The possibility of a Serbian mono-ethnic army brings back the worst memories to the people of the rest of the country, especially if the proponent is a nationalist politician who denies genocide and war crimes.
All parties assure that war must not occur. However, the tighter a rope is pulled, the more likely it is that one day it may break. Then, it will be too late.
Al-Jazeera. (2021). “Bosnia’s political crisis: What you should know, in 600 words”. Al-Jazeera, accessed on November 1, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/21/all-you-need-to-know-about-bosnias-crisis-in-600-words
Avdic, Avdo. (2021) “Oslobođenje i Istraga objavljuju dokumente: Inzko od EU tražio sankcije za Dodika i Stevandića, Brisel još šuti”. Istraga, accessed on November 1, 2021, https://istraga.ba/oslobodenje-i-istraga-objavljuju-dokumente-inzko-od-eu-trazio-sankcije-za-dodika-i-stevandica-brisel-jos-suti/
Borger, Julian. (2021). “Bosnia is in danger of breaking up, warns top international official”. The Guardian, accessed on November 2, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/02/bosnia-is-in-danger-of-breaking-up-warns-eus-top-official-in-the-state
Bosna. (2021). “IZETBEGOVIĆ U ČUDU: “Indikativno, Srbija u UN-u pozvala na deblokadu institucija BiH” Bosna, accessed on November 5, 2021, https://www.slobodna-bosna.ba/vijest/222451/izetbegovic_u_chudu_indikativno_srbija_u_un_u_pozvala_na_deblokadu_institucija_bih.html
Brezar, Aleksandar. (2019) “Croatia Looks Implicated in Serious Hybrid Warfare Against Bosnia”. Balkan Insitghts, accessed on November 4, 2021, https://balkaninsight.com/2019/03/15/croatia-looks-implicated-in-serious-hybrid-warfare-against-bosnia/
Buyuk, Hamdi Firat. (2021). “Turkish Govt Urged to Speak Out about Bosnia’s Political Crisis”. Balkan Insight, accessed on November, 9, 2021, https://balkaninsight.com/2021/11/04/turkish-govt-urged-to-speak-out-about-bosnias-political-crisis/
Dizdarevic, Eldar. (2021). “Bosnia’s Dodik steps up RSexit rhetoric”. BNE Intellinews, accessed on November 1, 2021, https://www.intellinews.com/bosnia-s-dodik-steps-up-rsexit-rhetoric-223227/?source=bosnia-and-herzegovina
Dizdarevic, Eldar. (2021). “Serbian President Vucic reins in Dodik to calm situation in Bosnia”. BNE Intellinews, accessed on November 1, 2021, https://www.intellinews.com/serbian-president-vucic-reins-in-dodik-to-calm-situation-in-bosnia-224718/
France24. (2021) “Bosnia’s Serb leader Dodik unveils plans to dismantle ‘failed country’”. France 24, accessed on November 1, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20211022-bosnia-s-serb-leader-dodik-unveils-plans-to-dismantle-failed-country
France24. (2021). “UN renews mandate of EU military mission in Bosnia”. France 24, accessed on November 4, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20211103-un-renews-mandate-of-eu-military-mission-in-bosnia
Gligorov, Vladimir. (2021). “The Janša Plan is not a solution to Western Balkan territorial disputes”. WIIW, accessed on November 3, 2021, https://wiiw.ac.at/the-jansa-plan-is-not-a-solution-to-western-balkan-territorial-disputes-n-510.html
Helic, Arminka & Mangnall, Anthony. (2021) “We need to talk about the Western Balkans”. Politico.eu, accessed on November 3, 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/western-balkans-eu-enlargement-talks-unstable/
Inotai, Edit & Srecko, Latal. (2021). “Viktor Orban’s Visit to Bosnian Serb Strongman Puzzles Observers” Balkan Insight, accessed on November 9, 2021, https://balkaninsight.com/2021/11/09/viktor-orbans-visit-to-bosnian-serb-strongman-puzzles-observers/”
Kraske, Marion. (2021). “Bosnia-Herzegovina: ¿habrá guerra otra vez?”. DW, accessed on November 3, 2021, https://www.dw.com/es/bosnia-herzegovina-habr%C3%A1-guerra-otra-vez/a-59699135
Mayr, Walter; Sarovic, Alexander & Verschwele, Lina. (2021) “Bosnian Serbs Are Playing with Fire”. Spiegel, accessed on November 1, 2021, https://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/the-fragile-state-of-bosnia-and-herzegovina-bosnian-serbs-are-playing-with-fire-a-f9daaf05-9c06-42ef-82ea-8a3826bf45bd
Savio, Irene. (2018). “El día después de la vía eslovena: la purga que dejó sin nacionalidad a 25.000 personas”. El Confidencial, accessed on November 2, 2021, https://www.elconfidencial.com/mundo/2018-12-12/eslovenia-retirada-ciudadania-25000-personas_1700098/
Sito-Sucic, Daria. (2021). “Secessionist leader says Serbs will undo Bosnia state institutions”. Reuters, accessed on November 1, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/secessionist-leader-says-serbs-will-undo-bosnia-state-institutions-2021-10-14/
Sito-Sucic, Daria. (2021). “Serbs say they will pull their region out of Bosnia’s army, judiciary, tax system”. Reuters, accessed on November 1, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/serbs-say-they-will-pull-their-region-out-bosnias-army-judiciary-tax-system-2021-10-08/
The Week Staff. (2021). “Is Bosnia on brink of another war?” The Week, accessed on November 2, 2021, https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/world-news/europe/954657/could-war-return-to-europe-bosnia
Trkanjec, Željko. (2021). “Dodik to US envoy Escobar: F**k the sanctions!”. Euractiv, accessed on November 4, 2021, https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/dodik-to-us-envoy-escobar-fk-the-sanctions/
Vuksanovic, Vuk. [@v_vuksanovic]. (2021, November, 4) #bakirizetbegovic, Bosniak leader, noted #Serbia’s balanced position regarding the crisis in #Bosnia. Lessons: 1) No axis between Belgrade, Moscow and Bosnian Serbs 2) Belgrade avoids unnecessary conflicts 3) The grand bargain between Belgrade and Sarajevo is not excluded. Twitter, https://twitter.com/v_vuksanovic/status/1456329530914844683?s=20
Written by Óscar Méndez Pérez