The chief international representative in Bosnia has warned the country may break apart if Bosnian Serbs continue moving toward secession and Bosniaks and Croats do not resolve an electoral dispute. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Marko Prelec and Ashish Pradhan explain the two-pronged crisis.
What is behind the current crisis in Bosnia?
Bosnia and Herzegovina (commonly referred to as Bosnia) is facing a dual challenge that threatens to undo the agreement that ended a war between Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). The war was marked by the worst atrocities on European soil since World War II, with more than 100,000 people killed and more than two million displaced. By way of talks in Dayton, Ohio, the U.S. brokered peace agreements that brought the fighting to a close and established a Bosnian state composed of two self-governing regions: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska. Republika Srpska is divided into eastern and western halves, which are joined at the centre by the Brčko autonomous region.
The Bosnian state is headed by a rotating three-member presidency made up of a Bosniak, a Serb and a Croat. It also has an international overseer, the “high representative”, who enjoys theoretically broad powers over local authorities; and still plays host to a small European Union (EU)-led peacekeeping force. Over the years, with a lot of prodding from the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the Bosnian state added a common army, judiciary and tax authority to its core institutions.
Today the fragile status quo in the country is facing “its greatest existential threat of the post-war period”, the present high representative, Christian Schmidt, said in a report to the UN seen by Crisis Group and circulated to members in advance of their 3 November meeting concerning Bosnia.
First, Republika Srpska is pushing to cut most (and, eventually, all) ties with the central government, laying the groundwork for independence or union with neighbouring Serbia. On 14 October, the Serb member of the Bosnian state presidency, Milorad Dodik, threatened to withdraw the region from state institutions, including the national army, and reassemble a Serb force.
Secondly, Bosniaks and Croats are at loggerheads about how to carry out long-overdue reforms of the electoral system designed to shore up the country’s shaky democracy ahead of October 2022 national elections. The stakes are high, as Croats and Serbs have threatened to boycott the poll if the latest reform effort fails, as have numerous past efforts spearheaded by international actors. Such a boycott “could mean the de facto end of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Wolfgang Petritsch, the high representative from 1999 to 2002, warned on 14 September.
What is at stake?
Both Bosnia’s viability as a state and the international project to rebuild the country after the war are at stake. That project has certainly not been an unqualified success, as today’s crisis shows. In particular, the governing structure adopted after the war has too often led to gridlock and is unloved by most Bosnians. Still, in 25 years since the conflict, the war’s physical scars have largely healed and, for all the divisions, the country has been peaceful. Ethnic groups that once took up arms against one another now engage in commerce and social interchange across the lines separating the different parts of the country without a second thought. A network of common institutions secures the border, collects the taxes, prints the currency and runs the elections. All of that is now at risk.
Without serious efforts to reverse Serb secessionism and the Croat election boycott, Bosnia looks set to disintegrate politically within the next eighteen months or so, potentially leaving in its wake a breakaway Republika Srpska entity that is unlikely to win international recognition and the remnants of the Federation paralysed by Bosniak-Croat feuds.
Armed conflict – albeit on a smaller scale than during the 1992-1995 war – is not unthinkable. Fighting could easily erupt if Republika Srpska is serious about its announced plans to break away. Should Republika Srpska police attempt to take over border posts, for instance, they could come to blows with their state-level counterparts, particularly if the central government deploys federal reinforcements. In another scenario, Federation police might refuse to tolerate an armed Republika Srpska presence on the hilltops surrounding Sarajevo, the country’s capital, which sits at the border of the two entities. The parties could also confront each other in the Brčko district that is the only link between Republika Srpska’s two halves. Still another potential flashpoint is the Federation’s ethnically mixed town of Mostar, where Croat-Bosniak tensions could spark fighting. The mass atrocities of the 1990s conflict are unlikely to be repeated, however, if only for the sad reason that Bosnia today is mostly ethnically carved up, with each of its different communities living for the most part in homogenous blocks.
What has motivated the harder line from Serbs?
The first spark came on 23 July, when outgoing High Representative Valentin Inzko imposed a law setting criminal penalties for genocide denial. This matters for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces, which has been characterised as genocide in a number of court rulings, notably by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague. Many Serbs dispute those rulings and the charge of genocide. The new law bans denial of genocides established by Bosnian or international courts; giving awards or naming public objects after persons convicted of genocide; and incitement of violence or hatred against groups. Serbs reacted furiously to Inzko’s law, with all the main Serb-majority parties boycotting Bosnia state institutions and the Republika Srpska National Assembly formally rejecting it (something it has no legal power to do).
Dodik, as Republika Srpska’s most prominent political leader, subsequently threatened that the Bosnian Serb parliament would by the end of November stop abiding by most or all of the roughly 140 laws imposed by past high representatives and create its own army, border police, tax authority and judiciary. Dodik has repeatedly pushed back the start date for these measures in the face of intense pressure from abroad and from opposition critics within Republika Srpska. But he has shown no sign of reconsidering his course, which would amount to secession in all but name.
Some of Dodik’s positions enjoy more support among Serbs than others. There is a consensus against recent past and future actions by the Office of the High Representative, but Serb opposition politicians do not share Dodik’s urgency and are wary of his personal political ambitions. They are lukewarm about reviving the most provocative relics of the Republika Srpska’s past, notably its armed forces, and fear international censure. It’s always risky to generalise, but most of Bosnia’s Serbian population probably wants independence or union with Serbia, though few are eager to fight for that, and most are content enough to live in Bosnia, with their current level of autonomy or if possible something more.
Demonstrators called for Schmidt to use his powers to remove Dodik from office or annul Republika Srpska Assembly decisions, and the High Representative may be tempted to do so, in part to reassert his authority. Acting on several criminal complaints, the State Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation of Serb leaders, which could lead to indictments. The likely – and disastrous – effect of such steps would be to unify the Serbs behind Dodik’s leadership, and perhaps to provide further justification for separatist moves.
What is the election reform dispute between Bosniaks and Croats about?
Although seemingly eclipsed by the current political crisis with the Republika Srpska, the dispute over electoral reforms is also a serious threat to the Bosnian state. Bosnia’s electoral system needs reforming to address a number of European Court of Human Rights judgements, in particular a ruling that all citizens – not just members of the three constituent peoples recognised under the constitution, ie, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats – should be eligible to run for the presidency. Bosnian Croats are also demanding their own electoral district, in which they are the majority, so that the Bosniak majority in the Federation cannot elect the Croat member of the presidency with minimal Croat support, as has happened in the past two ballots. For Bosniaks, however, drawing a Croat-majority electoral district reeks of yet more separatism.
More immediately, the dispute over electoral reforms is scuppering efforts to deal with Dodik’s secessionist threats. Frustrated by the lack of electoral reform, the main Croat party has effectively entered into a tactical alliance with Dodik, echoing many of his complaints. It is hard to see how the main Bosniak and Croat parties can mount an effective, united response to the Serb challenge while they are feuding over elections.
How has the outside world responded?
Bosnians are slowly realising that today, with attention far from the Balkans, even their most acute crises no longer sound alarms in Washington, New York or Brussels. While many citizens and leaders alike still seem to believe that one outside power or another will intervene decisively, as the U.S. did in the 1990s, there is thus far little evidence to suggest this is the case.
The Biden administration is sympathetic to Sarajevo and invested in the post-1995 state-building project, but it has its hands full with higher priorities at home and abroad – from China to climate to COVID-19. Washington is also keen not to encroach on its European Union allies, who see the Balkans as their turf. The U.S. dispatched an envoy in September 2021, Matthew Palmer, to work with EU counterparts on resolving the election reform issues disputed between Bosniaks and Croats. A month earlier, in October 2021, it threatened to sanction Serb leaders who undermine the Dayton agreements.
The EU is the regional power, yet its main instrument for promoting reform – the promise of accession – has lost much of its credibility as progress in that direction has stalled. Few EU member states seem interested in welcoming Bosnia to their ranks, with the notable exception of neighbouring Croatia, the Union’s newest member. The Union’s representative in Sarajevo, Johann Sattler, has been working hard on election reform since his appointment in September 2019.
As for Russia, Dodik claims to have Moscow’s support for his breakaway bid. Russia has offered high-level support to the Serbs, most recently during Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with Dodik in Belgrade in October. It sees Bosnia as a Western project and has been happy to undermine its cohesion, especially when it can do so at low cost. Yet it is unclear how far Moscow’s support extends, or whether it would be prepared to recognise a formal claim to independence. Russia, together with China, has long wanted the Office of the High Representative closed down and opposed the choice of Germany’s Christian Schmidt as its new head.
For its part, Serbia’s leadership has an appetite to exercise power over, and maybe one day absorb, Republika Srpska. But Belgrade is also acutely aware of how dependent it is on European good-will for its economic future and how vulnerable it is to losing that favour if it plays too aggressively in Bosnia. Dodik appeared to moderate his rhetoric after a 23 October 2021 meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
How have these dynamics played out in the UN Security Council?
The UN Security Council voted on 3 November to extend for a year the international peacekeeping force in Bosnia, but only after all mentions of the OHR were removed following threats by Russia to veto the renewal.
The Security Council dispute was less about a renewed mandate for the 600-strong EU-led peacekeeping force, known as EUFOR, than it was about the role of the OHR – an institution Russia views as outdated. Moscow and Beijing, mistrustful of Schmidt, blocked him from speaking at the meeting on Bosnia, with Russian UN Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia refusing to recognise his mandate. In July, after EU member states pushed through Schmidt’s nomination despite Russia’s objections, Russia, alongside China, tabled a draft resolution proposing to shutter the OHR within the year, but the initiative failed to secure the support of any of the other Security Council members.
Because of Russian and Chinese opposition, Schmidt lacks the explicit endorsement of the UN Security Council enjoyed by his predecessors. Under the terms of the Dayton accords, he enjoys governing powers that theoretically are almost unlimited, but without full international backing it will be difficult for him to use them effectively. Moscow’s opposition to Schmidt also means that if he attempts to brief the Council in future, which the U.S. has implied it would support, there is likely to be more controversy. One option might be that the Council invite EU High Representative Josep Borrell to brief with the UN Secretary-General during Bosnia meetings to signal the importance of the file and the EU’s role.
What should be done?
Countering Republika Srpska secessionism will require a robust response. Leaders in Washington and Brussels must first push to unite Bosniaks, Croats and others in opposition to Dodik’s plans then lay down their red lines for Republika Srpska and the consequences for crossing them. The goal for Bosnia, the United States and the EU should be to see the country through the October 2022 elections in one piece.
The electoral dispute requires a temporary truce between Bosniaks and Croats. Time is running short to broker a difficult deal on reforms to Bosnia’s complex governing system ahead of the poll. One quick-fix compromise could be based on a gentleman’s agreement by Bosniaks – backed by foreign diplomats – not to poach Croat seats in the 2022 elections alongside a commitment to working out a fair set of reforms later. In return, the HDZ, the main Bosnian Croat party, should abandon its boycott threat and fully support efforts to deter Serb separatism.
U.S. and European diplomats should also explore possible compromises with Dodik, who may be willing to go back on his threats in exchange for concessions on Republika Srpska status within Bosnia. One option might be a halt by the Serb leadership to all further moves toward withdrawal from state institutions ahead of the elections in return for a suspension of Inzko’s genocide denial law. (There is precedent for such a compromise: the OHR “reinterpreted” a decision in 2007 in the face of Serb opposition).
The threat of costly consequences and the promise of a reward could help shift Dodik’s calculations. The main threat would likely focus on Republika Srpska’s isolation should it continue down a path toward separation. The U.S., the EU and its member states should make clear that they will shun a breakaway Republika Srpska and its leadership, if necessary to the point of closing European borders to it. They could also threaten further sanctions against the leadership, though thus far sanctions appear to have had little impact. In exchange for putting breakaway plans on hold, Western powers should offer to support an internationally sponsored process, involving the Republika Srpska, to redefine the Bosnian state and revise the constitution after next year’s elections. Without the prospect of addressing their complaints about how Bosnia is governed, Republika Srpska leaders may find the pain of whatever measures the EU and Washington can impose the lesser of two evils.
The EU-led peacekeeping mission, despite its limited size, remains a vital check on actors on the ground. It enjoys the unanimous support of not only the Security Council but also politicians in Bosnia, including Dodik. If conditions deteriorate, say by Dodik acting on his threat to take sole control by force of the Brčko district, it is the force best positioned to intervene. Security Council members should take care not to instrumentalise it in the tug-of-war over the OHR.
Bosnia’s current dual crises highlight the fragility of the current status quo. Short-term compromises must be found to create the space for the longer-term reforms needed to correct that or the state will continue to slide toward disintegration.