The same day Russia began the invasion of Ukraine, another news went largely unnoticed: the decision to double the EUFOR mission’s personnel to Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), whose forces are now up to 1,100. Though the arrangement was settled before the start of the war, it was fuelled by “the deterioration of the security situation internationally” which “has the potential to spread instability to Bosnia-Herzegovina”, as per the EUFOR communiqué. Officially presented as a “precautionary measure”, the doubling of the international force in BiH is to be intended as a deterrent against further instability amid what has been defined by the High Representative for BiH (OHR), Christian Schmidt, as “the great existential threat of the post-war period”. Schimdt’s report refers to the Serb member of the Bosnian tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik’s secessionist moves. Since last summer, Dodik has jeopardised the integrity of central institutions by transferring exclusive state powers in favour of Republika Srpska (RS) — the Serb-majority entity that makes up part of Bosnia — including the withdrawal from the Bosnian army, security services, the tax system, and the judiciary; ultimately paving the way to the institutional paralysis of an already weak post-war Bosnian state. The fear of secession is also shared by the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, who well before the ongoing war had warned Bosnia was one of Europe’s two hotspots – the other being Ukraine. Because of his threats to Bosnian stability, Dodik has been sanctioned by the US and the UK, but not the EU. On the 12th of April, the OHR invoked the so-called Bonn Powers to counteract secessionist policies by striking down a RS law on property, which is a competence of the central state.
Is war a real option?
Last week, Bosnians commemorated the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern history, and of the war that claimed almost 100,000 lives. In spring 1992, many shared a similar perception as today: that a war was — and is — impossible. However, no secessionist threat should be underestimated. It is worth investigating whether, given the Bosnian people’s suffering experienced thirty years ago, a new war might trigger similar impulses and drive one (constitutive) people against each other again. Enquiring into the answer is perhaps a mere political calculation. The threats to Bosnian stability by Milorad Dodik are nothing new in his political career: they follow the path of his climbing over Bosnia’s multileveled system and, as such, have only grown in intensity. As a matter of fact, a key factor of Dodik’s political success has been the instrumentalization of the prospect of a new ethnic war, a bogeyman he has cultivated for years through a nationalist rhetorical apparatus made up of blaming “the Muslims”, the menace against Bosnian Serbs and an overall encirclement syndrome that was able to consolidate the RS electoral body around himself, seen as the only possible leader who can guarantee the survival of his national group. In other words, for Dodik, keeping such threats alive has been far more politically convenient than waging a real war. Keeping in check central institutions and reiterating the promise of independence from Sarajevo is pivotal to Dodik’s political survival than Bosnian Serbs’. And such a scheme will continue to bear fruit in his upcoming presential re-election bid.
Having said that, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s institutional paralysis must not be minimized. Dodik succeeded in radicalizing nationalist demands, unbalancing the fragile Daytonian equilibrium and thus reinforcing the status quo – a predicament that, as post-Yugoslav politics shows, is hard to reverse. A new war is not politically convenient nor economically sustainable; however, it will be hard for Sarajevo to reclaim state powers RS authorities now assert as theirs.
A spill-over of the war in Ukraine?
“If (Bosnia and Herzegovina) decides to be a member of any alliance, that is an internal matter. Our response is a different matter. Ukraine’s example shows what we expect. Should there be any threat, we will respond”, said the Russian ambassador to Bosnia Igor Kalbukhov last March. Russia’s readiness to respond to the prospect of Bosnia joining NATO could be read as a “diplomatic” reaction to the EUFOR reinforcement. However, Moscow is already reacting to the West in BiH – and in the Balkans in general – through its longstanding influence. Russia will continue to destabilize the region through its traditional methods, such as misinformation campaigns, anti-Western propaganda, support for local nationalist groups, and diplomatic pressures against NATO and the EU. However, it is unlikely that Moscow could actively open a new battlefront in the Balkans, especially with forces on the ground. Russia’s interest is keeping the status quo — that is, supporting Dodik’s politics — which is also a guarantee against NATO membership. To do so, a “Balkan Transnistria” — which Republika Srpska could become — ruled by a puppet leader personified by Milorad Dodik would be Russia’s best case scenario. However, besides the support from Russia – against which BiH has not imposed sanctions because of Serb and Croat opposition – Dodik must first see how Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic acts. As a matter of fact, RS foreign policy reflects Belgrade’s, and the ongoing international crisis is seriously challenging Vucic’s traditional balancing act between the West and Russia.
Between the stability factor and “the Serb world”
Thirty years ago, Serbia’s ruling elite masterfully orchestrated the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, Serbia – along with Croatia – is officially a guarantor of peace in the country as a signatory of the Dayton Agreement. However, since Aleksandar Vucic rose to power, Belgrade’s regional policy has swung between two attitudes: showing the West that Serbia is a stability factor ensuring peace in the Balkans, whilst cultivating the so-called “Serb world”, a modern version of the outdated “great Serbia” – extensively supported by a younger, radical Vucic. The Serb world is not as violent as “great Serbia” used to be: rather, it is an apparatus of rhetorical tools aiming for regional Serb leaders’ alignment with the motherland’s political guidelines. In this scheme, Milorad Dodik is merely the most important pawn, as confirmed by his attendance at Vucic’s main rallies and public events in Serbia.
Unsurprisingly, Serbia’s inconsistent political posture has only increased instability in the Balkans beyond Bosnia-Herzegovina, reaching countries with solid Serb minorities, such as Montenegro and Kosovo. Meanwhile, the EU continues to believe President Vucic’s promise of peace in the Balkans, which was part of his successful campaign slogan in the last elections.
However, recent international events have put Vucic’s strategy at a crossroads. In the same way as his dancing with two partners’ days are numbered – straddling between commercial ties with the West and Russia’s political support over the Kosovo issue –, he must unambiguously channel his regional policy either in the direction of a nationalist instigator or towards the Serbian international obligation to safeguard peace in Bosnia.
A final choice between these two paths could emerge in the next months, after the formation of the new Serbian government. Vucic is likely to align his Serbian Progressive Party with the EU – maybe even adhering to some sanctions against Moscow – while delegating pro-Russian sentiments to minor, satellite parties. His long-term ally, the Socialist Party, has traditionally overseen links with the Kremlin, though rumours seem to rule them out of the next government. Vucic could then leverage on new, smaller political partners, such as Zavetnici, a far-right formation and new entry (with 10 seats) in the national assembly. Such a move would be mainly perfunctory: a proof the President sacked Milosevic’s political heirs, while still keeping nationalism under control. A political manoeuvre with which Belgrade will attempt to retain support from both Brussels and Moscow.
A first attempt of this redrawing diplomatic equidistance took place on the 8th of April: at UNGA, Serbia voted for Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council on the grounds of war crimes allegations in Ukraine. Nonetheless, the following day, Vucic claimed on Serbia’s national broadcaster that “he can’t accept that someone call him [Putin] Hitler”, praising both Vladimir Putin and his supposed “special relation with the Serbian people”, adding that the vote was the result of “hard pressure on the country”.
Serbian policy towards Bosnia could therefore depend on the success of this ploy, that is, a new way to deceive the European Union. Ten years after acquiring the EU candidate status, Serbia has undermined both its own democratic standards and the Balkan region’s stability. As for Bosnia, the longer Sarajevo is subject to its neighbours’ geopolitical calculation and the EU’s delayed action, the more incurable its institutional paralysis.