Bosnia and Herzegovina is entering uncharted waters. Even as the US and European Union (EU) were seeking to keep a lid on an explosive divide in Kosovo recently, there is trouble building to the northwest.
Milorad Dodik, the ultranationalist and pro-Russian president of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity, has launched a deeply destructive campaign targeting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of all the crises the country has endured since the late 1990s, this is by far the most serious threat to peace and security in the Dayton post-war order.
The Republika Srpska assembly has made two major decisions. Firstly, it has suspended the rulings of the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina on its territory. Dodik has also signed a decree that allows Republika Srpska to disregard any decision made by the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international community’s chief envoy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Constitutional Court and the OHR act as the ultimate authorities in interpreting and safeguarding the Dayton Peace Agreement, which brought the Bosnian war to an end in 1995.
This looks very much like de facto secession, a formal act towards the partition of the country (and indeed Dodik regularly threatens a referendum on leaving Bosnia). More so, given the Republika Srpska assembly’s unilateral move has allowed Dodik to unravel the legal architecture of Dayton. As a result, what is in essence a creeping coup d’état now threatens the complete collapse of the peace upheld for almost 30 years.
Dodik’s escalation of threats to destroy Bosnia has received direct support from Russia. The embassy in Sarajevo called the moves “logical.” The Russian mission at the UN Security Council has also supported Republika Srpska’s approach by objecting to the three constitutionally mandated foreign judges in the Constitutional Court. This support is part of a greater geopolitical objective of undermining the functionality of the Bosnian state by propping up local Russian proxies, and simultaneously weakening Western support for Bosnia’s ultimate membership of NATO and the EU.
Russia has been allowed for too long to advance its support for a new contest with the West in the Balkans. As such, Dodik’s adventures are a testament to the failings of the West’s approach to Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is founded on a willingness to appease regional leaders. In particular, the current High Representative, Christian Schmidt, has drawn criticism by negotiating with the Croatian and Serbian governments over the issue of election law changes, despite the recognition that both countries lack interest in an independent Bosnian state.
The effect is clear. Such an approach has green-lighted Russian proxies in Bosnia and Kosovo to up the nationalistic ante and push forward with formal secession processes. Furthermore, by allowing Serbian ultranationalists to run rampant with these destabilizing actions, the US and the Quint (of the US, France Germany, Italy and the UK) have violated their binding commitments to uphold Dayton. In the meantime, statements including those of US interlocutor for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar, have downplayed the immediate threat, effectively eliminating the possibility of a tough response to Dodik’s actions unless he seeks outright secession.
Even though the OHR stepped in by striking down the newly adopted laws and enacted changes to the country’s criminal code that essentially pass the ball to the domestic judiciary to deal with such violations, this will not produce long-term solutions. Rather, recent events may signal that Dayton has run its course. Dodik’s actions are so extreme as to indicate that the disintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina is his end goal. The short-term crisis management approach employed by the West is simply inadequate. It has failed to, as a Foreign Policy article put it, “finally see Serbia and Aleksandar Vučić’s regime for what they are: a Kremlin satellite state sowing discord through a network of regional proxies” whose aim is to derail Bosnia’s integration with the West.
The war of 1992-95, the biggest post-World War II conflict at least until Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, should be a reminder of the risks. If Dayton does collapse, Bosnian patriots will certainly not sit idly by as their country is dismembered. If the West wants to avoid the new conflict in the Balkans that Russia appears to desire, it should enact a major course reversal.
First and foremost, the US should work with the EU on imposing comprehensive sectoral sanctions on Dodik, his allies and Republika Srpska institutions and companies that have supported his secessionist politics. While it can be expected that Hungary, a loyal ally of Dodik and Vučić, will veto such an EU motion, members states led by Germany, Italy, and France, plus the UK, can then assemble a bilateral framework of restrictive measures.
Access to foreign stock exchanges, such as Republika Srpska borrowing in London and Vienna, should be off-limits. Furthermore, it exports 76% of its products to the EU. A targeted ban on certain imports such as footwear, rubber, and electrical energy would significantly weaken its economic position. To re-establish functioning deterrence, the West should initiate a transatlantic force strong enough to prop up the NATO-backed EUFOR peace enforcement mandate.
Once a credible group of forces is in place, the OHR would be able to consider bolder measures in confronting Dodik, the personification of the threat to peace and security. Finally, the US, UK, and the EU should initiate a final revision of Dayton in cooperation with a broad coalition of Bosnian citizens, to push for a more civic, citizen-oriented social contract while strengthening the Bosnia and Herzegovina state. This will allow a better and more effective response to any further crises without the need for further involvement by the West.
The risk is that any new conflict would further dimmish Western credibility and would provide opportunities for troublemaking countries such as Russia and China. If the Republika Srpska’s sedition continues, Bosnian patriots will likely be inclined to look for an outside power in support of their cause. For the West to risk such a course of events would be an extremely unwise course of action.
Ismet Fatih Čančar is an independent researcher, a former Partnership for Peace Fellow at NATO Defence College, and a former advisor to the Minister of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. 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.