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Secession threats and nationalist strife shock Bosnia as EU offers limited response

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik is bellowing secessionist rhetoric. Nationalist riots just swept across the country. 

And, once again, the EU has expressed outrage — but held off on a concrete response. 

It’s a pattern that has played out in recent years as Bosnia faces rising threats to the 1995 peace accords that ended a devastating war and established a power-sharing arrangement among Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups: the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Croats.

Those threats have accelerated during the last few months. Dodik — the Serb member of the three-person presidential body governing Bosnia — is, once again, fomenting nationalist sentiment, making a string of moves aimed at securing more rights for the Serb-majority Republika Srpska entity within Bosnia. It’s a campaign many have likened to a secession attempt. 

Earlier this month, Bosnian Serbs took to the streets to celebrate the Day of Republika Srpska, a banned holiday marking the creation of a detached Serb parastate in 1992, a precursor to the ethnic cleansing that soon enveloped the country during the Bosnian War.

While Dodik spent the day waving at adoring crowds, nationalist riots broke out in a dozen towns across Republika Srpska. Supporters sang nationalist and Islamophobic songs. They carried the Serbian tricolor flag alongside banners dedicated to Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general convicted of genocide. The rest of the country was spooked.

The EU expressed its own concern, strongly condemning the day’s rhetoric and threatening to consider sanctions or revise its regional assistance if the situation gets worse. Yet if history and the bloc’s current political dynamics are any guides, sustained follow-up could be sparse. EU members are not even united in opposition to Dodik’s politics, with Hungary expressing support. 

And, regional experts say, the bloc has a tendency to parachute in during a crisis, only to quickly recede after accepting minor concessions from local leaders. 

“The big problem is that Bosnia’s international observers have a very short attention span,” said Florian Bieber, a professor of southeast European politics at the University of Graz. “When there’s a crisis, they see it as a window of opportunity for something to get done. And to get it done as fast as possible, they bypass all the institutions and talk to the ethnic leaders outside the institutional framework.”

The EU has been here before

This is not the first time Dodik has taken steps toward withdrawing Republika Srpska from Bosnia. In 2016, he began vocally backing an independence referendum for the entity, even though the practice was illegal under the 1995 peace treaty, known as the Dayton Accords.  

The EU special representative to Bosnia at the time, Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, went to Banjaluka, the entity’s administrative center, to speak to Bosnian Serb leaders in what was seen as an attempt to diffuse the situation.

Most people expected Wigemark to pressure Dodik to back down. Yet the EU ambassador emerged stating he had just had “open and useful talks” with Dodik about Bosnia’s EU application. He also inaugurated an EU-funded, freshly renovated section of the city’s Kastel fort, waxing poetic about Banjaluka becoming a tourist hub. 

While Dodik did ultimately withdraw the independence question, he went through with a separate referendum on officially creating the Day of Republika Srpska — the event he just celebrated. A whopping 99.8 percent of people voted in favor.

Bieber said the incident reflects the typical dynamic between international groups and Bosnia’s powerbrokers: Local political leaders promise just enough to get the EU off their backs, then sabotage the agreement “once the EU blinks or looks elsewhere.”

The result?

“It’s this constant phenomenon of having pyromaniacs act as firefighters,” Bieber argued.

An excuse often heard in Brussels is that Bosnia’s system is too complicated, its political scene too convoluted and its political leaders — most of whom established political careers after being involved in the war — too entrenched.

“This is not a foreign country which has all of a sudden popped on the radar,” Bieber countered. “There have been plenty of opportunities to understand what’s going on and it’s been the same political system for 26 years, and to a large degree the same politicians.”

Dodik revives his old playbook

Now, Dodik is once again chest-thumping and making moves that could unravel the Dayton Accords.

In December, the Republika Srpska regional parliament voted in favor of provisions that would see the entity opt out of national institutions such as the tax authority, the judiciary and the armed forces. The measures will come into force within a six-month period needed to draft new laws and possibly change the entity’s constitution.

If Dodik succeeds in entirely pulling Bosnian Serbs out of state-level institutions, the whole system would fall apart.

“In the last couple of months, Dodik’s behavior has gone from being political rhetoric to concrete actions,” said Ćamil Duraković, a politician who used to be the mayor of Srebrenica, where the Bosnian Serb army in 1995 slaughtered thousands of Bosniaks for their Muslim faith. “That’s why the situation is now at the brink of a serious escalation.”

The main person in the country tasked with solving the crisis is not a Bosnian. 

The country’s post-war development is monitored by a high representative — similar to a governor — who acts as a peace envoy and has the power to remove politicians and pass laws circumventing the country’s institutions. This role, too, was part of the peace deal.

Christian Schmidt, a former center-right German politician, became high representative in August and was met with a crisis from his first day on the job.

“It was not expected that this would be a calm time,” Schmidt told POLITICO.

He insists his main goal is to increase Europe’s interest in solving the country’s problems.

“The international community needs to once again care a bit more about the Western Balkans and Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially,” he said. “There has to be more commitment and political investment to get this crisis done and to not allow for the danger of a war, like 30 years ago.”

The current crisis traces back to the middle of last year, when Schmidt’s predecessor, Austrian politician Valentin Inzko, used his powers as high representative to pass a law banning genocide denial. The law also included punishment for those who glorify war criminals.

The move came after Bosnia’s own institutions struggled to pass such a law for over two decades. 

Serb leaders, including Dodik, have repeatedly denied Srebrenica is a genocide, despite it being declared as such in several rulings by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and have celebrated the war criminals who committed it.

Dodik uses these denials — and his fight against the genocide law — as a means to claim he is protecting Bosnian Serbs from having the events permanently etched onto their legacy. And, like many nationalist leaders in the region, Dodik espouses the idea that accusing individuals or a group of genocide means accusing an entire nation of the same crime.

“The law has been used for political means, even though all [EU] member states have similar legislation,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt insisted he would revoke the law if the Bosnian national parliament passes its own, “following international and European standards.”

Schmidt’s most extraordinary power — unique in Europe for a position not directly elected in the country — is his ability to remove Dodik from office should he represent a clear threat to peace in the country. Schmidt told POLITICO he has not ruled it out.

“I would say I’m in a situation of flexible response,” he said. “I know what tools are at my disposal and I know they are not democratic in essence, but rather serve as a form of ceasefire.”

However, Schmidt wants the EU to be the main player in Bosnia, especially since the country has begun its EU integration process and hopes to be a member someday. Schmidt recognizes, though, that he has more punitive power than the EU.

“Honestly, I have more sticks in my toolbox than the EU,” he said, “which says a lot about the EU and its carrots.” 

Indeed, the EU’s restrained response may be difficult to change, given the bloc’s disunity on how to approach the situation. 

While many EU countries have regularly admonished Dodik, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been a vocal supporter of the Bosnian Serb leader’s actions, stating in late December that it would be a security problem for Europe to integrate “a state with 2 million Muslims.”

Orbán has pledged a €100 million aid package for Dodik and Republika Srpska and opposed any potential EU sanctions, effectively blocking a German push for such penalties. The lack of action was highlighted earlier this month when the U.S. hit Dodik with its own round of sanctions.

The ramifications

In the meantime, if Dodik’s goals remain undeterred, the legislative line that divides the Republika Srpska from Bosnia’s other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, risks becoming a very real border.

Samojko Berjan, 67, owns a bar in Sarajevo right along the administrative line — currently an abstract demarcation.

“The line is no border, people walk back and forth and work on both sides,” Berjan said.

One would need a map to even deduce where the line runs. In front of Berjan’s bar, the invisible border twists around the building before running down the street, then taking a sharp right and cutting through buildings and parking lots.

“What the politicians are doing has scared average people,” Berjan said. “I don’t know a single person who wants to go to war or fight because we discuss that openly here.”

He added: “Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats — everyone comes to my bar and we all hang out together.”

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