Bosnia and Herzegovina: On The Threshold Of A New Conflict?

  • Marija Kadovic
  • 18.5.2020 11:05

With North Macedonia now a member of NATO, Bosnia and Herzegovina could be next, however unresolved ethnic tension within the country remains a problem. The question of joining NATO has the potential to stir up these old conflicts, and actors like Russia or the nationalist politician Milorad Dodik may already be exploiting the situation.

“Goodbye Bosnia, welcome RS-exit”

In February, the announcement of Republika Srpska referendum on secession has drawn the attention of the international community. The Parliament of Republika Srpska demanded reform of Bosnia’s Constitution Court and termination of the mandates of its three international members after the court rejected a move by Bosnian Serbs to claim federal agricultural land that belonged to the Yugoslav state, as its own. 

The court decision that farmland belongs to the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not to Republika Srpska caused protests of representatives of the Bosnian Serbs, which demand reform; otherwise, they will secede. 

The request of Republika Srpska to remove foreign judges from the Constitutional Court is also supported by the Croatian National Assembly, HNS, an umbrella organization uniting Bosnian Croat political parties. 

The idea of secession of Republika Srpska is not something new. Throughout years politicians were talking about it, but no concrete actions were taken for it to become a reality. There are two reasons why the leader of Bosnian Serbs Milorad Dodik relaunched this topic once again. Firstly, Dodik is using the referendum as a way to increase his support among people for the upcoming local elections this autumn. He was also talking about the referendum for independence before the local election in 2016. Secondly, he wants to divert attention from the economic and political issues that are making thousands of people leave Republika Srpska to look for a better life abroad.  


Bosnian Obstacles On Its Path Towards NATO 

Bosnian current political crisis is an outcome of the state's constitution and the political culture that prevail inside the country. Twenty-five years ago, the Dayton Agreement ended Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II. Although it ended Bosnia's civil war, it also stagnated the country overall, by creating the poor governance and weak institutions, as well as divided the country itself into two separate entities – a Bosniak-Croat federation and a Serb republic. These deficiencies are preventing the country from coping with emerging problems, and that causes a further tension increase. 

One of the issues that is shaking Bosnia and Herzegovina is disagreement in the tripartite presidency over NATO membership. The significant opposition to NATO membership are Serbs in Bosnia because NATO bombed Serb troops in the country in 1995 in an attempt to halt the war. On the other hand, Bosniak Muslims are the most prominent advocates of NATO integration, because, for them, NATO represents the protector and guarantor of peace and stability in their war-torn country. Disagreement in this matter hinders the further movement of the country towards NATO because Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession is impossible without the agreement of both entities. 


The influence of Serbia and Croatia in Bosnia

The fundamental problem for Bosnia and Herzegovina is that the Serbian and Croatian governments have not entirely accepted the country as a sovereign multi-ethnic state. Governments in both Belgrade and Zagreb are trying to interfere in the internal political affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Protection of local Serbs and Serbian interest is used by Serbia as an excuse to meddle into the internal affairs not only in Bosnia but in neighbouring countries as well. With this approach, Serbia is violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia, because according to its constitution the state is the only one that can be the protector of its territory and people. 


“The fundamental problem for Bosnia and Herzegovina is that the Serbian and Croatian governments have not entirely accepted the country as a sovereign multi-ethnic state.”


The problem is that Serbia is building political and economic ties with Republika Srpska, like Bosnia and Herzegovina as a country does not exist. Leaders of Republika Srpska decided to follow the footsteps of Serbia and expressed their intention to refrain from joining NATO and to remain militarily neutral. Moreover, politicians in Republika Srpska expressed their desire to succeed from Bosnia and to become part of Serbia. The proposal was not supported, but neither clearly rejected by Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic. 

On the other side, Croatia is undermining Bosnia's sovereignty by putting pressure on Bosnia to change its election law and constitution, to ensure "equality among the three constituent people". The same as Serbia, the Croatian government uses concern for Bosnian Croats position inside of the country as an excuse for interfering inside of the sovereign country. Both ruling nationalist party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and its Bosnian sister party Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH) are requesting greater autonomy of Bosnia's Croat population, as well as the creation of the third Croat entity. For Bosnia and Herzegovina's survival as a sovereign state, it is essential to become part of NATO, because only in that way Serbian and Croatian aspirations will become unachievable.  


Russia is destabilizing Bosnia and Herzegovina

After failing to prevent entrance of Montenegro and North Macedonia in NATO, Russia is now turning towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, the only country except Serbia where it can keep its influence on the Western Balkans. While the impact of Russia in Kosovo is almost nonexistent, the same as Serbian, Russia is turning Bosnia and Herzegovina into a new battlefield for its political war with the West. 

Moscow is supporting both Serb and Croat nationalists to weaken the state and to prevent its further path towards the European Union and NATO. Russia is using different means to destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina, such as training a Bosnian Serb paramilitary unit; acquiring ownership in strategic industries; using local media to spread pro-Kremlin narratives and support political parties that are loyal to Moscow and opposed to the EU and NATO. With giving support to nationalist Russia is making sure that the country will remain ethnically fragmented and destabilized, which will effectively destabilize the whole region.


Bosnia and Herzegovina needs help from the USA and the EU

If Dodik’s talks of succession are more than just populist rhetoric, the country could be heading towards a new conflict. A new Balkan war could spread not only across the region, but it could also expand to into the European Union as Croatia would inevitably intervene on behalf of the Croat population. Moreover, this could lead to a chain of conflicts throughout Western Balkan, where Serbs in Kosovo could try to separate themselves from their country, or Macedonia’s Albanians would try to do the same, and while doing it fuel the creation of a “Great Albania”. Serbs in Montenegro could also use the opportunity to reunite the country with Serbia once again. 

This could become a real scenario only if creators of Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina stop supporting the project they helped create. The situation is aggravated by the fact that European countries are faced with Euroscepticism at home, and that Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently not their primary concern. 

Furthermore, Russia is continuing to exert its influence in the region by backing the Bosnian Serbs president and his threats that could generate conflict, to prevent Bosnian membership in NATO. In case of dispute, Russia may try to increase their influence in the region, and would not let other powers determine the fate of the region without Moscow.


“It is essential to stimulate economic growth and integrate Bosnia and Herzegovina into the European Union.”

Ambition for the secession of Republika Srpska could be diminished with improved cooperation and relations to reduce ethnic and religious tension. However, that is impossible while politicians are using current dissatisfaction of people to spark conflict. Therefore, it is essential to stimulate economic growth and integrate Bosnia and Herzegovina into the European Union.

In order to cope with long-lasting financial problems, Bosnia and Herzegovina could benefit from the European Union’s “convergence machine”, a successful economic model that could help the country improve competitiveness and raise the living standard of people. The European states, together with the United States, must cooperate with Bosnian people and their representatives and show long-term commitment to the region that will take time to change. If they do not show readiness to deal with the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a new conflict could break out and spread to the entire region, and the whole of Europe would face the consequences.

About author: Marija Kadovic


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