Bosnia is heading for conflict that could draw in NATO, the EU and the UK. Two weeks ago Christian Schmidt, the specially appointed High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina (B-i-H) who has very considerable powers, described the small Balkans country as facing the biggest existential threat since the ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica during the early 1990s. “The prospects of further division and conflict are very real”, Schmidt reported to the UN Security Council.
The US-brokered peace accords, the 1995 Dayton Agreement, created the present State known for short as Bosnia or B-i-H. Its constitutional arrangements are complex. The Dayton negotiators brokered a power-sharing arrangement. The State has three presidents representing its three principal ethnic groups, (Orthodox) Serbs, (Catholic) Croats and the (Muslim) Bosniak majority, and is made up of two semi-autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbian Republika Srpska. Not surprisingly the convoluted governance has been unable to resolve tensions between Bosnia’s constituent parts.
The Republika Srpska and Bosnia’s chimaera of a presidency were designed to counter Serbian separatism - and failed. The Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, supported by the West and twice President of Republika Srpska, rose to prominence as a moderating counter-weight to Bosnian Serb nationalists who were seeking complete independence. Once in power Dodik soon adopted their populist, nationalist stance even threatening secession. His most recent démarche is to announce his intention to pass ‘divorce’ legislation to create – in order of gravity – a separate armed force and judiciary, and direct Republika Srpska taxation.
These threats seems to have been a riposte to the departing High Representative, Valentin Inzko, who in July 2021 pushed through a new law criminalising genocide denial in the face of adamant Serbian assertions that Srebrenica amounted to no such thing. Inzko’s departing shot resulted in a temporary Serbian withdrawal from the Presidency, Government and Parliament. The once moderate Dodik called the new law ‘a nail in Bosnia’s coffin’.
The past remains a dead weight on Bosnia’s future. Whether or not Dodik’s threat of what amounted to secession was a bluff simply directed at Bosnian Serb voters, it produced a flurry of international activity including a visit, on 6 November, by the hard-Right nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban, and, a day later, US Assistant Secretary of State, Gabriel Escobar. A ‘leak’ had Dodik telling Escobar that he couldn’t care less if his actions resulted in US sanctions. Dodik was apparently ‘open to discussing’ his separatist legislation but was not about to stop preparing it. No sooner had Escobar departed than on 9 November Dodik went off to meet with the Turkey’s authoritarian President Erdogan in Ankara. Bosnia’s future, an important element in the stability and peace of the Balkans, was only briefly a news item.
My own first introduction to Bosnia in 2016 left me in no doubt that the 1992-1995 war cast a long shadow over the country. I was there to collaborate with the UN’s International Organisation for Migration (IOM). We were working with 18-25 year olds in a programme directed at increasing social integration amongst youth, the first post-war generation. First thing, straight off the plane, was a programme in Prijedor in Republika Srpska close to where a mass grave of Bosnian Muslims had recently been discovered. Would we like to visit the site? I explained that while we would, of course, wish to pay our respects , we could not risk being perceived as partisan of any ethnic group if our work was to be credible. Visiting the site of an atrocity by Serb military would not have been a good start.
Once we began the programme, we discovered that the ethnically diverse young people in our programme did not want to talk about the past. Their anger was directed against all of the ethnic political elites whose corruption and self-interest were served by sustaining the ethnic divisions and which they saw as taking away their future and prospects. This was not because the past had had no impact on them personally. One young man told me about his father, still suffering from post-traumatic symptoms, waking up screaming at night. We discovered that hostility to politicians and their clients was just as common in other parts of the country. For the young emigration was the key issue: should they stay or should they leave?
After Prijedor, Sarajevo - where we stayed in remarkably cheap but excellent university accommodation and worked with a new group of young people at the IOM offices. Sarajevo like an elongate City of Bath sits in a valley between mountains. You follow the river and main road into the centre to find the actual corner of a non-descript little street near the Latin Bridge where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 by a Bosnian Serb nationalist. The route inevitably evoked memories of old 1990s TV footage. I tried not to imagine women out buying bread shot down by snipers positioned in the mountain beyond the river above the city. Tourist souvenirs included biros made from rifle shells, a hopeful Bosnian variation of the biblical swords into plough shares.
600 troops in EUFOR, a small European multinational force, still provide a token peace-keeping force. In 2016 Bosnia applied to become a member of the EU but disagreements within the EU itself about future membership of Balkans States have meant negligible progress towards accession and a growing reciprocal lack of interest, despite the stability and prosperity derived from Croatia’s Accession in 2013. The UK has pledged to work for peace in Bosnia but where is Bosnia heading and what will be its significance for the UK?
The danger is that an emboldened Putin ever probing, seeking opportunities and assessing the resolve of his opponents, will see Bosnia as his next stress-test for the West. Time has elapsed since Russian military interventions in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine improved his ratings and popular appeal. For Putin the attraction of Bosnia is that his KGB State can create mischief there through an established intermediary, Serbia. An outbreak of hostilities would, by humiliating EUFOR, be mud kicked in the eye of the European Union. Russian covert support for BREXIT clearly revealed that weakening the EU is one of Putin’s goals. And Bosnia is one of NATO’s Partners for Peace. A violent political implosion in Bosnia would also be a move against NATO which has a military headquarters in Sarajevo, showing it up as a paper tiger. The pot is bubbling. It would need little stirring by Moscow.
A feint away from Ukraine would come naturally to Russia with its sense of grievance that its proprietary rights in the Balkans - and Eastern Europe - have been abused. The British Foreign Office has recently warned of Putin’s hidden hand in the current crisis. The question is what are they and the EU going to do about it? Putin may well be calculating – nothing.
See TheArticle 15/11/2021