While the eyes of the world are on Ukraine, there is another conflict simmering in the Balkans, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter known as Bosnia.)
Tensions have risen sharply in Republika Srpska (RS), an ethnically Serbian entity within Bosnia, since the 2020 election of Milorad Dodik, a staunch Serb nationalist and advocate for Serbian autonomy. Dodik has been sanctioned by the US and the UK for threatening to undermine the stability of Bosnia, but he has largely retained public support, thanks in part to his backers in Moscow. Currently there is no unified opposition to Dodik as the West has largely ignored the conflict and internally, Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks) and Bosnian Croats are engaged in a power struggle of their own.
The current situation in the Balkans is frighteningly reminiscent of that of the early 1990s, when the region was engulfed in a bitter ethnic conflict in which the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was divided into six new countries across ethnic lines. The war was particularly devastating for Bosnia, due to its complex demography which included Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks.
In 1995, over 8,000 Bosniak Muslims were massacred in the town of Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serb army, under the command of Ratko Mladic. Known as the butcher of Bosnia, Mladic’s crimes during the Bosnian War were so extreme that his daughter allegedly killed herself after hearing about the atrocities he committed. A UN tribunal found Mladic to be guilty of genocide, having deliberately targeted Bosnian Muslims during the war. Mladic, however, remained defiant. Today, caricatures of him adorn the streets of RS.
The history of the Balkans
The Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was established in 1945 under Josip Broz Tito who ruled the federation until his death in 1980. In the decade to follow, the federation, which consisted of six republics, began to unravel. By 1992, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Bosnia declared independence, leaving behind only Serbia and Montenegro.
Within Bosnia, ethnic struggles took root, with Bosniaks, who made up 50 per cent of the population, demanding to maintain the state’s 1945 borders. Conversely, Bosnian Serbs wanted independence for all areas with a Serbian majority. With the support of then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Bosnian Serbs formed an 80,000-member strong army, battling against the Bosniaks and Croats for territorial gains.
In 1992, Bosnian Serb forces organised by Mladic initiated a siege of Sarajevo that lasted for 46 months. Over 10,000 civilians were killed during this time, with one 1994 CIA report blaming Bosnian Serbs for 90 per cent of the conflict’s war crimes.
In 1995, the Bosniaks and Croats joined forces and, with NATO air support, compelled the Bosnian Serbs to enter into peace talks. The resulting Dayton peace agreement established two ethnically based entities — the RS (primarily comprising of Bosnian Serbs) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (dominated by Croats and Bosniaks). The entities are governed by a three-member presidency composed of Bosniak, Croat and Serb members, with one member of each ethnic group guaranteed equal representation regardless of vote tallies.
The current crisis
The current crisis, escalated in July 2021, when the outgoing UN mandated high representative imposed a law setting criminal penalties for genocide denial. This measure particularly affected Bosnian Serbs who were accused of staging a genocide against Bosniaks during the Balkan Wars. Most Bosnian Serbs and their leaders reject this claim but under the new law, would be unable to do so publicly.
According to Marko Prelec, an analyst for the Balkans at the Crisis Group, Serbs reacted “furiously” to this law, with all the Serb majority parties boycotting Bosnian state institutions. Dodik, the leader of RS, subsequently threatened that the Bosnian Serb parliament would stop abiding by the laws passed by high representatives and would leave all Bosnian state institutions.
While Dodik’s actions are likely to be struck down by the country’s constitutional court, the damage may already be done by then.
According to a report by the Crisis Group, a decision by the Court to restrict RS autonomy could be beneficial for Dodik as it could lead to “inflaming secessionist sentiment among Bosnia’s Serb population.”
In recent years, Dodik’s rhetoric has become increasingly hostile. He has referred to Bosniaks as “second-rate people” and “treacherous converts”, and has called the Srebrenica massacre a “fabricated myth.” On January 9 this year, Dodik defied a court order to stage a celebration of Serbian power. The police and armed forces participated in this event, while representatives from Russia, China, and Serbia watched from the stands.
Dodik enjoys considerable popularity in RS although according to Prelec, support for him is not unconditional. Prelec writes that “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.”
That being said, in order for fighting to break out at all, there needs to be worthy opposition to Dodik, which looks unlikely given the politics of division that exists between Bosniaks and Croats. The crux of that problem lies in representation.
A number of European Court of Human Rights judgments have called into question the constitutionality of the Bosnian system of governance, arguing that members of all ethnic groups should be eligible to contest for the presidency. Bosnian Croats are also demanding their own electoral district so that a Bosniak majority can’t elect the Croat member of the presidency with minimal Croat support, as has happened in the last two elections.
Role of the international community
The Balkans play a key role in Russia’s foreign policy. According to Ivana Stradner, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, “Russia sees the region as Europe’s soft underbelly: its growing influence there threatens to allow it to place strategic military assets near a major US base and promises to grant it access to the Adriatic Sea. Putin’s larger aim is to tip the balance of power in Europe to Moscow’s advantage, and the Balkans are a part of that strategy.”
Russia has invested heavily in the region, focusing on strategic sectors such as energy. It has also strengthened its military ties with Serbia, selling it weapons, planes and defence systems. Serbia for its part has offered support to RS leadership but has stopped short of calling directly for the region’s secession.
According to a report by the Carnegie Endowment, Russia’s primary goal in the Balkans is to stop states from integrating into the EU and NATO, a goal made easier by the inaction of European countries.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February, pro-Russian rallies have been staged in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. As the CSIS report states, “for leaders like Serbia’s Aleksander Vucic and Bosnia’s Milorad Dodik, demonstrating close ties with Russian leadership is a matter of political survival.” From the outside, it then seems as though an alliance between Serbia, Russia and Bosnian Serbs is in the interest of all parties involved.
For Russia, it would halt the ascension of Bosnia into European alliances like the EU and NATO. For Serbia, it’s domestically popular to back Bosnian Serbs. And for Bosnian Serbs, a relationship with two strong countries would give some legitimacy to a breakaway state. On top of that, an alliance with Russia could be perceived as being more beneficial given the seeming apathy demonstrated by the EU and Washington.
Amongst the EU member states, only Croatia has expressed support for Bosnia joining the bloc and although its pathway to membership is technically ongoing, very little progress has been made. The EU has also shown a reluctance to get involved in Bosnia’s internal politics, with no country meaningfully rebuking Dodik for undermining the legitimacy of the Bosnian state. Any talks of EU-led sanctions against Dodik have been blocked by Hungary, whose President, Viktor Orban, has many shared causes with the Bosnian Serb.
The US has proven to be little help as well. While the Biden administration has levied sanctions on Dodik, Bosnia does not seem high on its list of priorities. According to one Council on Foreign relations report, the US sees the Balkans as a European problem, and would expect the EU to take charge of the situation without Washington’s help.
The UN is also constrained because any attempts by the Security Council to undermine Dodik’s influence have been blocked by Russia and China. The UN did vote to maintain the international peacekeeping force in Bosnia for another year, but only after all mentions of the high representative were removed to placate Russia.
In a particularly damning assessment of the international response, Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogul, both members of the Democratization Policy Council, argue that the Dayton Agreement gave the West the tools it needed to keep the country united. Unfortunately, they write, “those tools have gone unused for years. Instead, Western powers have allowed Bosnia to backslide into instability as nationalism surges in Serbia and Croatia.”
How could the situation play out?
While the Dayton Accords were far from perfect, they did bring stability to Bosnia for nearly 25 years. Ethnic groups that were once at arms, now live side by side, often engaging in commerce and other activities with each other. However, without tangible efforts to reverse Serb secessionism and the Croat election boycott, the Bosnian state could disintegrate.
According to Prelec, “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.”
If RS makes considerable moves to break away, several areas could be at risk. Sarajevo, which sits on the borders of RS and the Federation, could be the stage for a proactive power struggle between the two entities. The parties could also confront each other in the autonomous Brcko district or the ethnically diverse town of Mostar.
Additionally, according to the CFR report, ethnic politics in the Balkans are interconnected. If Serbs try to secede in Bosnia, it could have a ripple effect in countries like Kosovo where ethnic tensions are similarly rife. If international actors like the US and the EU refuse to meaningfully intervene, Russia and China could come in to fill the void, the report says.
Given that most areas within the country are ethnically homogenous, it is unlikely that armed conflict will reach the heights that it did during the early 1990s. However, even without that threat, the situation still presents cause for concern.
When asked about the trial of Mladic, Dodik declared “I believe that General Mladic was sent to a direct legend, and the Serbian people will know that without his command and spirit, the suffering of our people would be much greater.” If his rhetoric matches the path he’s willing to take, the international community may have to prepare to say goodbye to the state of Bosnia as we know it.
Grappling with Bosnia’s Dual Crises, Marko Prelec and Ashish Pradhan, The Crisis Group (2021)
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Deterring Disintegration, The Crisis Group (2022)
Paul Stronski and Annie Himes, Russia’s Game in the Balkans, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2019)
Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel, Bosnia’s Dangerous Path, Foreign Affairs Magazine (2022)
Pierre Morcos, The War in Ukraine: Aftershocks in the Balkans, Center for Strategic and International Studies (2022)