Rising tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina are dragging the country into its most precarious political situation since the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. In early October 2021, Milorad Dodik – Bosnian Serb leader and member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency – announced plans to form an independent Bosnian Serb Army and pull out of joint state institutions. With international presence in the region waning, unresolved rivalries and opposing interests among the various ethnic groups have resurfaced. Combined with political interference from both Russia and Serbia, the situation threatens to damage the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995.
1992-1995 Bosnian War and Dayton Agreement
In the early 1990s, with the backing of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army, Bosnian Serb forces conducted a campaign of violence including ethnic cleansing in the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. The war came in response to the Republic of Bosnia’s April 1992 declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, with Bosnian Serbs instead envisioning being part of a ‘Greater Serbia’. Bosnia’s population contained a mix of ethnic groups including the majority of Bosniak Muslims (44%), Serbs, (31%), and Croats (17%). Bosnian Serb forces removed Bosniaks from towns in the east and controlled three-quarters of the country by 1993. After peace proposals failed, it was not until NATO airstrikes against the Bosnian Serb forces that an agreement was reached in November 1995. The 1995 Dayton Agreement resulted in the creation of a Bosniak-Croat Federation covering 51% of the country’s territory and Republika Srpska covering the remaining 49%, dominated by ethnic Serbs. The constitution within the agreement also contained a tripartite presidency, shared by members elected from each of the power-sharing entities – one Bosniak, one Croat, and one Serb. International oversight was ensured through the European Union-led peacekeeping force (EUFOR) and the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The agreement re-established Bosnia as a unified state, which was contrary to the wishes of Serb and Croat nationalists and also frustrated Bosniaks by recognizing Republika Srpska as a political entity.
A Divided Country: Map picturing the divisions between the Republika Srpska and the Bosnian-Croat Federation areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Source: The Financial Times
Current Political Tensions Within Bosnia
In October 2021, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik announced plans to withdraw Republika Srpska from the Bosnian central government to form its own institutions. The plans include legislation in Republika Srpska designed to deprive the country’s state-level institutions of their prerogatives, whilst prohibiting Bosnian state-level police, intelligence, and judicial services from operating inside Serb-dominated areas. Dodik’s plans to form a Republika Srpska Army led the Biden Administration to designate the move as ‘corrupt’ and a ‘threat’ to Dayton.
Dodik is further seeking concessions by calling for the removal of the international oversight put in place by the Dayton Agreement to protect Bosnian sovereignty. In November, Christian Schmidt submitted a report to the UN containing “the most serious warnings about the existential threat facing the country communicated by the OHR since the end of the Bosnian War.” However, UN Resolution 2604, adopted in November 2021, excluded any reference to the High Representative in exchange for Russian and Chinese support to extend the mandate for EUFOR. The small detail marked a departure from the West’s long-held diplomatic position of ensuring international oversight of the Dayton Agreement’s implementation through the OHR. For this reason, Russia and Dodik want the removal of both Christian Schmidt and the OHR to which he was appointed in 2021. In refusing to recognize Schmidt and therefore the OHR, Russia is offering Dodik the political encouragement to press his secessionist agenda.
Throughout the Yugoslav wars, Russia secured a small role for itself by using its position in the United Nations to support Serbia, a policy reflected in its political efforts towards the region today. The Western Balkans are informally integrated into the West and Russia’s primary goal is to slow down, if not stop, the full integration of the Balkans into the EU and, especially, NATO. The Balkans do not represent a security interest to Russia in the same way as Ukraine, although they can be used to project power and influence.
Research suggests that whilst the present constitutional structure of the Dayton Agreement persists, secession will continue to be the biggest threat to Bosnia. Russia has the opportunity to exert influence through means such as the Gorchakov Fund, which seeks the creation of a public, political, and business climate abroad favorable to Russia. The fund has been involved in the denial of the genocide of Bosniaks at Srebrenica in July 1995. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is chairman of the Fund’s Board of Trustees, which provides a means for exerting influence in the Balkans whilst supporting local actors such as Milorad Dodik.
Dissatisfaction with the status quo has led to calls from Bosnian Serbs and Croats for devolution of powers within Bosnia, while Bosniaks call for constitutional reform. Paired with the West’s lack of engagement, Russia has a foothold in the former Yugoslavia. Milorad Dodik in isolation could arguably be considered unimportant, although Russian support has pushed him towards making increasing demands for the secession of Republika Srpska.
Responding to a deterioration in the international security situation, the EU has doubled the EUFOR peacekeeping force with an extra 500 troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina. EUFOR suggested that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had the potential to spread instability to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The resurgence of Serb nationalism combined with far-right groups coming out in support of Russia’s actions emphasizes the precarity of the current situation.
Bosnia’s population has aged significantly since the Bosnian War, in part due to young people leaving in search of jobs abroad. The country’s territory is also more ethnically homogenous than before the conflict last broke out and the military infrastructure for Bosnia to descend into violent conflict does not exist as it did from 1992-1995. There is, however, still the possibility for violence to break out on a smaller scale. Whilst the population today has less military training, the ownership of basic weapons such as AK47s is not uncommon. The fear, therefore, remains of violence emerging between local factions or clashes with Bosnian state-level police.
The political system put in place by the Dayton Agreement may have been successful in bringing an end to the Bosnian War, but lends itself to the appeal of nationalist politicians from one of the three ethnic groups. With national elections scheduled for October 2022, the weaponization of ethnic tensions by nationalist politicians such as Dodik poses a significant threat to the Bosnian state.
By Global Risk Insights
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