The Russian threat against Ukraine is not the only potential crisis in Eastern Europe this year. Bosnia and Herzegovina is heading into a period of deep political turmoil, with a key election scheduled for October.
Bosnia has never been a simple place. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it generated one crisis after another, ultimately contributing to the outbreak of World War I. Then, with the breakup of Yugoslavia at the end of the 20th century, it was the scene of a brutal war between Bosnian Muslims. (Bosnians), Serbs and Croats.
The Dayton Accords ended the conflict in 1995, after more than 100,000 people were killed – including in July’s genocidal Srebrenica massacre – and millions more were driven from their homes. The next step was to build a functional state from the wreckage. But the armies of the three groups were the only functional structures remaining, and many local leaders saw peace as little more than the continuation of war by other means. Hopes of a new generation of non-nationalist leaders rising from the ashes were quickly dashed.
Although international aid has transformed the country, covering most of the traces of the war, its politics remain deeply dysfunctional, due to the continued political dominance of nationalist parties. Consequently, the prospect of Bosnia joining the European Union seems increasingly remote.
In its 2021 annual assessment of Bosnia, the European Commission notes that “political leaders have continued to engage in divisive rhetoric and unconstructive political conflict”. There has been virtually no progress in achieving the 14 benchmarks for launching EU accession talks, and “during the pandemic, the negative effects of widespread corruption and signs of political capture have continued to manifest itself strongly”. Neither magistrates nor politicians have succeeded in tackling these problems.
And due to the “widespread phenomenon of corruption” and an “inefficient and oversized public sector”, Bosnia’s GDP per capita is only a third of the EU average. It is estimated that half a million people have left the country in recent years, draining it of valuable young talent.
Bosnia should be doing much better than it is 26 years after the end of the war.
Instead, another deep crisis looms. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik is beating the nationalist drum and pushing Republika Srpska (one of the country’s two majority autonomous regions) to assert even more independence from the central government. The rhetoric is intensifying on all sides, prompting calls from Christian Schmidt, EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, for further international intervention.
But this is not the right remedy for what is plaguing Bosnia. One of the factors in the current political crisis is a controversial new law banning genocide denial, imposed in the middle of last year by the outgoing high international representative just days before his departure. The Bosnian Serbs immediately reacted by withdrawing from joint state functions, and Dodik has since issued strident ultimatums.
Dodik sometimes calls on Republika Srpska to separate completely from Bosnia. This rhetoric is making headlines for him, but it shouldn’t be taken seriously. After all, Serbia and Russia have clearly called for respect for the territorial integrity of Bosnia.
But the crisis has both deepened nationalist divisions in Bosnia and exposed the confusion at the heart of the international community’s presumed role in the country. Is Bosnia supposed to be a protectorate, where the international community can design, impose and implement decisions as it pleases? Or is it a truly sovereign country that should solve its own problems?
In a sense, the position of high international representative – the post I was the first to occupy after the war – has gone from being part of the solution to part of the problem. On the Bosnian side, its presence invites constant demands for international action against the reluctant Bosnian Serbs or Bosnian Croats, while for the latter groups, it raises fears that such action is actually being taken. The result is paralysis and distrust, as neither side feels the need to sit down and negotiate the tough compromises needed to make the country work.
A major factor in the current crisis is the general election in Bosnia later this year. In the 2020 local elections, opposition parties made impressive gains against dominant nationalist forces in Sarajevo and central Bosnian Serb Banja Luka. Fearing further casualties, nationalist leaders on all sides are eager to create a new crisis to scare and mobilize their bases.
It is essential that the general elections take place as planned. But afterwards, the international community should reconsider its approach vis-à-vis Bosnia. If he is not ready to assume full protectorate powers, he should step back and let the country’s rulers begrudgingly sort things out for themselves. This process will be slow and difficult, but it must happen sooner or later if Bosnia is to have a chance of functioning as a sovereign country.
Stepping back, the international community should establish two strict conditions: Bosnia’s territorial integrity must be maintained and the small EU military mission in the country must remain, as it has the capacity to call in rapid reinforcements of NATO if necessary.
This year will no doubt be politically tumultuous for Bosnia. Bosnian Serb nationalists will want more power delegated to them, and Dodik – despite new US sanctions against him – may well walk the tightrope to rally his supporters. At the same time, Bosnian nationalists will demand that more power be centralized in Sarajevo, and they will seek the help of the international community to impose it. Bosnian Croat nationalists, for their part, will remain deeply unhappy (not without reason) with an electoral law that effectively deprives them of representation in the country’s highest decision-making body.
This political crisis is certainly not the first in Bosnia, and it will not be the last. Calls for another massive international intervention are not surprising, but they are misguided. Bosnia should no longer be treated as a protectorate. While the EU and US remain ready and willing to help, Bosnians must ultimately take responsibility for Bosnia.