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10 November 2021

Bosnia could be the next victim of the West’s weakness and polarisation

In central and eastern Europe, politicians know that the West will no longer intervene to stop hostile acts against international order.

By Jeremy Cliffe

In an essay for the New Statesman ahead of the G7 summit in June, I proposed that we were living in an age of “Westishness”. The West, as a geopolitical entity, is not gone and its governments can still achieve things together. Catastrophising proclamations of its “death” or “collapse” are all-too simplistic. Yet the alliance is clearly weaker, more divided and uncertain about its role than it was around the turn of the millennium. It is absolutely not “back”, as some predictions have put it, in the wake of Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House.

That was most graphically demonstrated by Afghanistan. In 2001, the West had intervened united under US leadership following the 9/11 attacks, which led to the first ever triggering of Nato’s mutual defence clause. Just under two decades later the last troops were withdrawn this summer, with the US failing to coordinate properly with its allies and almost the whole country falling back to the Taliban. With winter closing in, millions of Afghans are now at risk of starvation.

US strategists defend the pull-out by citing the need to devote more energy and resources to the task of containing Chinese power in the Indo-Pacific. But there too, Westishness prevails. The “Aukus” deal announced in September, whereby the US and UK are helping Australia to build nuclear submarines, could have been a powerful illustration of the resilience of the Western alliance. Yet by blindsiding France, whose own submarine deal with Australia was abandoned, it instead drove a new wedge into it. Not absent but not entirely present either, the West as a concept sways in an uneasy limbo between precipitous decline and dogged, patchy endurance.

Already the next arena is becoming clear: central and eastern Europe. Most worrying is the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the power-sharing agreement established by the Dayton Accord appears to be breaking down.

Following three nightmarish years of war and ethnic cleansing, the 1995 accord codified a multi-ethnic state combining the three main groups: Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks. It comprises a Serb entity (Republika Srpska), a joint Bosniak-Croat one (the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina) and an overarching presidency with representatives of all three groups; the settlement is overseen by an internationally appointed high representative.

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Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of that presidency, has long threatened Republika Srpska’s secession and its eventual merger with neighbouring Serbia. But last month he proposed concrete steps towards doing that: its withdrawal from shared state institutions such as the taxation agency, the courts and, most worryingly, the military. In particular, he is taking aim at the role of the high representative – an important safeguard for the peace settlement. 

Republika Srpska forces recently held a paramilitary exercise on the outskirts of Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital. Toby Vogel, a regional analyst, told the New Statesman: “In a situation where the atmosphere is so tense, all it takes is a bunch of guys with Kalashnikovs – and by God, are there a lot of those around in Bosnia – bursting into a church or a mosque or whatever. It could be anything.” In a state that saw Europe’s first mass ethnic cleansing since 1945 only a generation ago, this is more than alarming.

Dodik is emboldened by a growing sense that the West is not prepared to undergird the Dayton settlement. The Afghanistan debacle has sown doubts about Nato’s ability to act. Hopes of EU accession for the western Balkan states have stalled, and EU states are accused of undermining the office of the high representative. Right-wing nationalist leaders in the EU, most notably Slovenia’s Janez Janša and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, have backed Dodik’s anti-Muslim posturing and stand in the way of EU sanctions on his government. Most ominously of all, the recent UN resolution reaffirming the mission of the EU peacekeeping force saw the Western powers bow to Russian and Chinese demands to exclude reference to the high representative.

A similar pattern is emerging in worrying developments across central and eastern Europe. Serbia’s strongman president Aleksandar Vučić recently sent tanks to its border with Kosovo. The EU’s reluctance to give the likes of Albania and North Macedonia serious membership prospects plays into the hands of blood-and-soil nationalists in both countries. Georgia is tilting towards autocracy and away from the EU. Russia is again massing troops along its border with Ukraine. At the time of writing, some 1,000 migrants are at the Belarus-Poland border, conveyed there by Alexander Lukashenko’s rogue regime in Minsk in a bid to foment European division.

Time and again, the EU’s response has been heavy on words of concern and light on concerted action. And where in the past the US might have provided the missing leadership, now, as the UN resolution shows, it is seeking to avoid entanglements that distract from its main priority: China.

This is Westishness writ large. What is concerning is that anti-Western authoritarians are learning how to get their way in a Westish world. The West is not so far gone as to stand by if war breaks out in somewhere like Bosnia. But it is fragmented and distracted enough that leaders such as Dodik, Putin, Vučić, and Lukashenko know that they can get away with outrages against the international order that fall short of war. The age of Westishness is also the age of hybrid warfare.

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This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks