As tensions rise in Ukraine, peace continues to be threatened within fragile, multiethnic communities elsewhere in Europe. Almost three decades after the end of the War in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the Balkan state appears to be on the brink of crisis. Last month, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control accused Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb politician currently serving as one of the three members of the BiH Presidency, of “corrupt activities and continued threats to the stability and territorial integrity” of the country. With renewed Serbian separatist sentiments, challenges seem to be mounting for an administration already facing allegations of corruption and mismanagement. Thus, even after several decades of peace, the ongoing tensions reveal that there seems to be more to the conflict than what meets the eye.
Thirty Years since the Bosnian War
In 1992, as the world witnessed the disintegration of the USSR, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia too found itself embroiled in a process of fragmentation with the secession of the Slovenians and Croatians. Meanwhile, in the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (one of the six constituents of the Yugoslavia), an independence referendum was held to determine the fate of the Orthodox Serb, Catholic Croat and Muslim Bosniak populations of the multi-ethnic state. In spite of the boycott initiated by the Serbs who did not wish to be “cut off from Serbia,” Bosniaks and Croats who comprised sixty percent of the population voted in large numbers for independence.
With support from Serbia, the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (known today as Republika Srpska) was created and calls for Serbian secession grew louder. As Bosnian Serbs attempted to create “ethnically pure” territories that could be united with Serbia, violence broke out in several parts of the country between the Bosnian Serb separatists and the Bosniaks and Croats who had voted in favor of independence from Yugoslavia. Sporadic incidents of violence escalated into a full-blown war by 1993, and over the course of the next few years, Bosnian Serb leadership led ethnic cleansing campaigns targeting Bosniaks and Croats in different parts of the state including Prijedor and Sarajevo where several thousands were killed and many others driven out in attempts to consolidate territories with majority Serb populations. Cities such as Mostar and Srebrenica were placed under siege. In 1995, under the command of Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, UN-declared “safe areas” were captured and cut-off by serb independentists. In Srebrenica, close to 8,000 muslim males were killed the following week in what was later deemed to be a ‘genocide’ by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
The war gradually came to an end by November when the three major parties involved finally agreed to a peace deal brokered by the U.S. after repeated NATO air strikes against the Serbs. The Dayton Peace Accords came into existence and led to the establishment of not only a unique structure of governance and distribution of power, but also to an enduring international presence in the region with the arrival of the NATO peacekeeping implementation force. However, even with the recognition of Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent state and the convictions of Karadzic and Mladic in the Hague, close to four years of war solidified the divisions between ethnic groups. The ICTY estimated that over the course of the war, 104,732 individuals were killed, including Bosnian Serb victims of the conflict who also bore the brunt of the clashes between armed forces in multiethnic cities of BiH.
The Dayton Accords led to the establishment of two distinct entities within the state: the Bosniak-Croat ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’, and the Bosnian Serb ‘Republika Srpska.’ The Presidency of BiH, since then, has had three members – Bosniak, Croat and Serb – with the population of the Federation voting for the Bosniak and Croat members of the Presidency, and Republika Srpska voting for the Serb member. While the system itself has ensured a certain degree of decentralization, striking a delicate balance of power between the conflicting ethnicities, political developments over the past few weeks have raised concerns over the future of stability in the Balkans.
A Fragile Peace
More recently, the rise of the leadership of Milorad Dodik in the Republika Srpska has drawn the attention of the international community. In December 2021, the Serb Regional Parliament voted for the separation of the Serb Republic’s tax authority, judiciary and armed forces from Bosnia. Even though the vote itself is not legally or constitutionally binding, for several, this vote reignites fears of secession and reflects the nationalistic agenda of Dodik and Bosnian Serb lawmakers. Yet Dodik continues to deny these allegations. In an interview to the Financial Times, he emphasized how he did not want a war, claiming “that is not our agenda.” He claimed that Serbian demands remain limited to the assurance of wide regional autonomy, however, he underlined that while there is no plan to secede yet, “if there is no agreement that will satisfy all stakeholders, a question arises of what happens to Bosnia then.”
These assurances have been unsuccessful thus far in preventing the imposition of sanctions. In a press release last month, the U.S. Department of the Treasury described Dodik’s actions as efforts to undermine the institutions of BiH “by calling for the seizure of state competencies and setting in motion the creation of parallel institutions in BiH’s Republika Srpska entity”: actions that not only threaten “Bosnia’s stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity” by violating the Dayton Accord, but also risk “wider regional instability.” Moreover, these assertions have been further supplemented with claims of Dodik’s corrupt activity, with the U.S. alleging that Dodik’s “divisive ethno-nationalistic rhetoric” is a means of advancing political goals and diverting attention away from corruption and mismanagement.
Concerns have also been raised over Dodik’s perceived ties with the Kremlin. Even though these charges have been denied by Dodik, Russia has, notably, pledged its support for Dodik. Analysts suggest that this may be a way for Russia not only to expand its influence further in the Balkans, but to divert attention from its actions on the Ukrainian border.
Growing Russian influence in Europe?
Earlier this week, European Union foreign ministers discussed ways to ease tensions and prevent the possible break-up of BiH. The situation was described as ‘extremely dangerous’ by the Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, echoing the willingness of most EU nations to impose sanctions similar to that of the U.S. on Dodik. Alluding to Russian involvement, Schallenberg added that “Bosnia and the Balkans must not become a playground for actors outside Europe.” However, the opposition of Slovenia, Hungary and Croatia to restrictive measures will likely prevent the imposition of EU sanctions against Dodik.
Given the upcoming polls, the EU has also demanded electoral reform ahead of the Bosnian elections. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney emphasized the need for a “full reform package agreed and implemented in advance of the elections” in order to ensure that elections can then result in “the formation of a government that can function.”
Yet with the evolving conflict in Ukraine and the ongoing Russian invasion, tensions in BiH seem to be indicative of what some have described as expanding Russian influence. Majda Ruge of the European Council on Foreign Relations highlights how, for instance, in the case of EUFOR Althea (EU’s military mission in Bosnia), Russia has been “using its veto over EUFOR’s mandate to obtain concessions that weaken American and European political initiatives in Bosnia.” This means that initiatives to assist BiH’s constitutional reform essential for obtaining EU and NATO membership could be significantly hampered.
Dodik’s unwavering position however, remains that while Europe and the U.S. have constantly sidelined the Bosnian Serbs and their concerns over the “perceived dangers” of multiethnic societies, leaders such as Putin and Orban have embraced them.
“We are not enthusiastic about Bosnia,” he claims. “Bosnia was imposed on us.”