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4 November 2021

In Bosnia, fears of state collapse and the return of violence

As Bosnian Serbs threaten to leave the multiethnic state, a leaked report to the UN sounds the alarm.

By Alix Kroeger

If you lived through the 1990s, you may remember the Bosnian War: the shelling of Sarajevo; the columns of refugees; the impotence of the international response for the first three years of the near-four-year conflict.

A fragile peace has held for more than 25 years despite spikes of discontent and a stagnant economy. Now there’s a new mood of alarm. A leaked report to the UN has warned of the possible collapse of the Bosnian state. Some analysts are calling it the most serious threat to peace since the war ended.

Why are the experts so worried?

Bosnia and Herzegovina is held together by a 1995 peace deal known as the Dayton Agreement, which divided the country into two ethnically based governments, known as “entities”: Republika Srpska, which is mainly Serb, and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. The two entities have most of the power but above them is the unitary Bosnian state, with a tripartite presidency.

Now, the Bosnian-Serb member of the presidency, Milorad Dodik, wants to withdraw from state institutions, including the taxation agency, the judiciary and – crucially – the military. He has said he wants to recreate a separate Bosnian-Serb army. Ultimately, Dodik would like the Bosnian Serbs to unite with Serbia itself, their neighbour to the east.

“This is the most serious crisis Bosnia and Herzegovina has experienced since the conclusion of the Dayton peace agreement,” said Majda Ruge, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a specialist on the western Balkans.  

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“Dodik’s target is not to withdraw from all these institutions immediately. He first wants to remove the protective layer [of international oversight] which shields these institutions so he can proceed with dismantling domestic institutions later on.”

Importantly, Dodik has the backing of Russia for his campaign.

How likely is a return to violence?

Violence is no longer unthinkable, believes Adnan Ćerimagić, a senior analyst with the European Stability Initiative. Conversations among politicians in Sarajevo are taking an increasingly practical turn, he said: what are the capabilities of the police? Who controls the production of weapons?

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Dodik has said that Republika Srpska is prepared to defend itself in the case of armed conflict and would ask for help from its “friends” – probably Russia.

Balkans analyst Toby Vogel says a return to armed conflict is unlikely, but violence remains possible.

“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. That’s what I’m really afraid of,” he said.

Ruge added: “If Dodik does act on his threats and tries to withdraw from the institutions of central government, this could provoke an armed response from the political forces in the [Bosniak-Croat Federation] keen to protect Bosnia. In this scenario, the Bosnian army would probably disintegrate.”

What is at stake?

The term “ethnic cleansing” first emerged during the Bosnian War. Bosnia’s two entities are ethnically based, but every fourth person lives in a municipality where their ethnicity is in the minority, said Ćerimagić. There are about 200,000 non-Serbs in Republika Srpska. What happens to them if the Bosnian-Serbs secede?

Both he and Vogel said that more and more Bosnians are wondering whether they should leave the country for their own safety.

By the end of the Bosnian War in 1995, over two million people had been displaced and about 100,000 were dead, out of a pre-war population of 4.2 million. It was this that led to the international presence – but times have changed.

What about the international community today?

There is still a military stabilisation force in Bosnia. Now known as EUFor, it was transferred from Nato to the EU in 2004 and operates under a mandate from the UN Security Council. That mandate is now up for renewal for a further year.

On 2 November, the text of the UN resolution and a report to the Security Council from the chief international representative in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, were leaked. The report called Dodik’s actions “tantamount to secession without proclaiming it”. The withdrawal of either entity from state institutions “would lead to the collapse of those institutions”. Dodik, the report said, was leading Republika Srpska on a “dangerous path”.

EUFor troop levels are now officially 600, with a mandate mostly for training the Bosnian armed forces. Most of them are based around Sarajevo. Vogel believed this isn’t enough even to secure the major embassies in the event of unrest.

The EU has shown little appetite to intervene, although a joint statement from Washington, DC and Brussels on 20 October did express “serious concerns about increasingly divisive rhetoric”.

“At the moment, the EU [Brussels] officials seem to be embracing the approach of appeasing Dodik and giving him concessions to calm the crisis down instead of robustly confronting him,” said Ruge.

EU membership, with the prospect of growth for Bosnia’s moribund economy, might help, but that’s not a realistic prospect currently. In the meantime, Ćerimagić said, the EU should open its single market to Bosnia and any other interested countries in the western Balkans as an incentive.

Violence is far from inevitable. Dodik has threatened at least twice to hold a referendum on Bosnian-Serb independence but backed down under international pressure. The peace agreement, with all its limitations, has held since 1995. But the alarm bells are getting louder, and it’s unclear whether the political will exists to silence them again.

In August, the US-led intervention in Afghanistan ended in humiliating fashion. Foreign forces rushed to secure Kabul Airport and rescue their own nationals, washing their hands of the Afghan people. If the Bosnian state did collapse, would outside powers be willing to step in again? The Bosnian Serbs are betting they won’t.

[See also: Dispatch: Migrants freeze as Belarus pursues its cold war with the EU]