The West this week capitulated to Russia in the United Nations Security Council when it agreed to block a damning report indicating that the country currently faces “the greatest existential threat of the postwar period.”
The report, by the High Representative (OHR) for Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, was traded for an extension to the 700-strong European Union Force (EUFOR). All mentions of the document were stripped from the annual UN mandate renewal, and Schmidt (a former German government minister) was blocked from reporting to the Security Council. The maneuvering by the US, France, and the UK, was designed to appease Russia and save the Dayton peace process, which ended the Bosnian war 26 years ago,
The West’s compromise represents another in a sequence of victories for Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik — and Russia — in reducing international oversight of Bosnia. The High Representative is a key target for Serbian nationalists because he can use the so-called Bonn Powers to enforce laws and remove political office holders, something Dodik would like to revoke.
So, how serious is the situation? The answer is quite serious, made more so by the West’s apparent lack of a plan to resolve matters and Russia’s clear willingness to see the country dissolve. While the Biden administration has sought to “park” issues such as Russia and the Western Balkans so that it can focus on China, the message does not seem to have reached President Vladimir Putin and his allies.
“Russia does not want to be parked. It wants to drive noisily down the middle of the road,” as CEPA’s Edward Lucas warned in June. Europeans “should ask themselves why Russia feels so confident, and why the Biden administration is deprioritizing European security,” he wrote.
Dodik has staged a series of events, each more provocative than the last. A fortnight ago, Bosnian Serb special police appeared unannounced to “exercise” on a hilltop used by separatists to bombard Sarajevo in the 1990s. Using the threat of secession to achieve concessions and using Republika Srpska’s significant autonomy and its power in trilateral institutions, he is seeking to remove all international judges from the country’s courts and has begun establishing separate institutions.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a sovereign state composed of two entities: the Federation, largely consisting of Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats, and Republika Srpska, mostly composed of Orthodox Serbs. Following the July decision of the previous OHR to enact a law criminalizing genocide denial, Dodik declared Republika Srpska’s withdrawal from state institutions, including the judiciary, tax authority, and military. Of particular concern is the threat to reconstitute the Republika Srpska army, not only because it would represent the revival of an organization that perpetrated genocide, but because it would mark another concrete step towards secession, which is what the US and Europeans have been attempting to prevent ever since the Bosnian war.
So far, the West has largely sought to buy off Dodik’s challenges, causing a step-by-step deterioration of democracy and the rule of law. The EU continues to over-rely on what is increasingly perceived within the country as an illusory promise of enlargement to incentivize reform. And while the US and EU remain focused on negotiating a limited constitutional electoral reform package, this fails to address the core structural problem: the bureaucratically bloated, consociational political system created by the Dayton peace process, which rewards kleptocratic nationalist politicians who inflame ethnic divisions.
Russia and Bosnia’s neighbors, including the former Yugoslav constituent states of Serbia and Croatia, actively promote division and create instability. Some Croatian leaders have called for the “federalization” of Bosnia, a euphemism to promote a separate Bosnian Croat entity, while Serbian officials promote the concept of Srpski svet (Serbian world), reminiscent of the notorious Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević’s idea of “Greater Serbia.” Srpski svet is an irredentist idea that is also used to evoke emotions among Kosovo’s Serbs and also threatens to reignite the Serbia-Kosovo conflict.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić’s rapid military buildup meanwhile causes additional tensions, not least because Serbia faces no plausible military threat. The Serbian defense budget has more than doubled from $700 million in 2018 to $1.5 billion this year. For example, the purchase of advanced, medium-range Russian systems designed to destroy aircraft and cruise missiles raises dark questions about Serbia’s intentions. During the newly institutionalized “Serbian Unity” holiday on Sept 15th celebrations, Vučić stated that the “army was five times stronger” than a few years ago and would “drastically increase in the next nine months” to defend Serbia and Serbs everywhere.
The growing audacity of Serbian leaders can be traced back to Russia, whose long-standing support has increased to the point where it may be poised to cause a major international crisis in Europe. In addition to its role at the Security Council, where Russian has a veto, it has been fueling divisive, nationalistic tendencies for years. The Kremlin finances extremist paramilitary groups in Republika Srpska (a chilling echo of the 1990s when similar groups routinely committed war crimes) as well as training official police and the military. Russian money also finances the extreme ethno-nationalist group Srbska Čast (Serbian Honor) which has chapters in Serbia and Republika Srpska. The group runs training camps for Serbian youths, where they learn to glorify Serbian war criminals, engage in hand-to-hand combat and commitment to Russia. Additionally, Russian propaganda outlets, such as Sputnik, and the Russian Orthodox Church, exercise a significant soft power influence in Republika Srpska through moral influence and disinformation.
There is a route out of this for the West, but it will become narrower and trickier the more time elapses. There is an urgent need for transatlantic consensus among the US, EU, and the UK on a strategy for the Western Balkans. Such a strategy should recognize that the whole southeast European region is interconnected and that single-country band-aid solutions will not work. A solution must therefore address not just Bosnia’s current crisis, but also help resolve the Serbia-Kosovo dispute, and contain an increasingly autocratic and militarized Serbia’s expansionist ambitions.
To address the immediate crisis, steps should include:
- EUFOR should be reinforced with NATO troops. The 700 existing peacekeepers scattered around the country are unlikely to stop any sudden escalation. As a force for deterrence, some experts argue that at the very least a brigade — about 5,000 troops — is needed, to be stationed in Brčko, in the country’s east.
- The US, EU, and the UK must make clear to Serbia and Croatia that interference with Bosnia’s territorial integrity will not be tolerated. As a start, the EU and UK should follow the US lead in imposing sanctions against Dodik. Individual sanctions should similarly be imposed on other Balkan figures who work to fuel division in Bosnia or Kosovo. In addition, the EU should more effectively use development cooperation and economic leverage with Serbia to end measures aimed at further bifurcation. As the biggest investor in Bosnia, Serbia, and the Western Balkans, the EU has arguably more effective carrots and sticks than the OHR. Earlier this year, the EU pledged to invest another €9 billion ($10.4 billion) in the region.
- The US, EU, and UK should reaffirm the OHR’s prerogative to use the Bonn Powers, which should be used sparingly and strategically. In turn, the OHR should utilize those powers to once again initiate reforms aimed at tackling political and economic structural issues.
- The Biden administration, together with its allies, should wake up to the threat and dedicate time and energy to dissuading Russia from indulging in dangerous games in a dangerous region. Clearly, President Biden’s words of warning to Putin in June have not worked and Russia’s president should now face the consequences.
The risk of a political and possibly military meltdown in Bosnia has probably not been this likely since the 1990s. Wise diplomats know that you rarely get the crisis you anticipate; and without swift action at the onset, the costs can multiply at a horrifying speed.
Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.