“A hidden world war is being waged in Bosnia-Herzegovina, since all world forces are directly or indirectly involved there and all the contradictions of the end of century and the beginning of the third millennium emerge in Bosnia-Herzegovina”. (Kofi Annan, Report of the UN Secretary General, § 503)
The hidden world war
A few weeks after the agreements reached in Dayton (Ohio, USA) were solemnly signed in Paris at the end of 1995, Republika, the brave and almost only opposition paper in Belgrade, so commented upon the war that had devastated Bosnia and Herzegovina in the previous four years, marking the highest point of horror in the bloody collapse of Yugoslavia: “This war contained in itself all the wars known from history: it was ethnic, religious, civil, imperialist and aggressive, war of peasants against citizens, war for the destruction of the middle class, war of land and blood”. Later on, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan completed the sentence by adding an additional (and undeniable for many observers) definition: a veritable, albeit hidden world war. Thirty years ago, on 6 April 1992 Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognised as an independent state: there had been brief moments of quasi-autonomy or semi-independence during the previous centuries but, properly speaking, this was Bosnia’s first appearance as an independent state since 1453. History suggests that the country’s “national” animosities have reached the point of inter-ethnic violence only as a result of pressures coming from outside Bosnia’s borders. This continued to be true in the following years, both at the regional level — in the dramatic context of the Yugoslav disintegration — and from a global standpoint given the complex phase of the redefinition of the balance of power and the international order after the end of the Cold War.
Triumph of the lack of will (or vision)?
In a lucid assessment of the international dimension of the first phase of the Yugoslav Wars (Triumph of the Lack of Will, London 1997), James Gow examined how — and why — the major Western powers had failed in their attempts to cope with the deadly collapse of Yugoslavia and its descent into a savage war in Bosnia, concluding that the mistiming, inappropriateness and incoherence of international policies, which were all linked to the main question of political will around the use of force, were the fundamentals of failure. Such a failure also shattered long-cherished notions about how the UN, NATO, and the European Community (the European Union since 1992) would deal with global or regional crises. Actually, there was not only lack of will (about direct intervention followed by the use of force) but also lack of vision since all the major powers and players were guided by a misconceived analysis of the conflict driven by an overwhelming commitment to what they would not do. In hindsight, the consequences of such a lack of consensus seem all the more disastrous: once a coherent plan was proposed under US auspices, air power cowed the Bosnian Serbs’ military force and Western powers pushed through a peace agreement. With the fighting over, the international community had the opportunity to atone for its failure through peace-building; however, it was clear that real success would not only mean short-term stabilization but also gradual and effective political and social normalization. That would have required an absolute international commitment to justice, reconciliation, reconstruction, rehabilitation, and a pledge to rebuild Bosnia’s famous bridges, both physically, socially, and politically among its peoples. The next challenge was to help Bosnia and Herzegovina gradually move “beyond Dayton” and its short-term objectives in order to finally achieve the medium- and long-term goals. It must be sadly admitted that this too has been lost.
Cold peace: from hell to purgatory
Contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina’s destiny could be figuratively summarized as a long and frustrating way from the hell of a war (that cost over 100,000 deaths and Europe’s most horrendous genocide since the Holocaust) to a purgatory marked by the absence of an armed conflict and the persistence of a cold and paralyzing peace, far from any prospect of real stability and authentic progress. At the heart of the Bosnian question lies the so-called “ethnic trap”: a governance system based on ethnic separation established by the Constitution included in the Dayton agreements (Annex IV). That was necessary and justified in the short term for the maintenance and strengthening of peace; however, it quickly proved completely inefficient and harmful for the country, resulting in the crystallization of ethnic divisions, a sort of defacto partition, and a dysfunctional central state, which is perceived as such by majority of the population and slipped into a fatal sense of resignation over two decades, catering to nationalist and populist consensus.
The magic moment and how it was lost
Nevertheless, against the backdrop of stagnation and chronic crisis, a “magic moment” occurred, a phase of great hopes that could kickstart a season of authentic reforms, finally making breakthrough against a “deadlocked system”. It happened between 1999 and 2006 and was essentially driven by favorable international dynamics, including the consequences of the international commitment to the Balkans — with NATO’s intervention in Kosovo and the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe launched in Sarajevo in June ’99 — and the EU’s new Foreign and Security Policy, which set the stabilization and European perspective of the Western Balkans as its first test, making it a premise for further EU enlargement and a de facto promise of accession for those very countries, including post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina. Milosevic’s fall and the “regime change” in Belgrade; the containment of the dangerous Macedonian drift that had caused fear of a new Balkan war and the June 2003 EU-Western Balkans Declaration of Thessaloniki further painted a positive picture at the regional level. In this context, the “mantra” of the irreducibly opposed ethnic groups in BIH seemed to waver as if it were just a “cliché” about to lose its meaning, but the hopes vanished within a few years: the nationalist front managed to regroup into three main components (Bosnjak, Croat, and Serb). Meanwhile, in Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik’s rise to power did not result in a real change as he turned out to be a nationalist demagogue not very different, albeit much more presentable, than previous Bosnian Serb leaders. In essence, the “golden age” faded away and the constitutional reform project sponsored by Washington — which aimed at limiting the scope of the “ethnic principle” underlying central institutions — was rejected and abandoned. The inability to react to this drift wasthe West’s second failure in Bosnia, and its consequences are even more serious when considering that this new wave of ethno-nationalism was openly embraced (and exploited) by Putin’s assertive approach to foreign policy, which is generally traced back to his February 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference. Was it lack of will once again? Or lack of vision? Maybe both, but at least as far as the EU is concerned, many in Brussels had a clear vision of what was going on and highlighted the risks of inaction. Their appeals, however, fell on deaf ears.
The latest crisis (2021-22) and its international dimension
Last summer, Bosnia returned to the center of global attention when a crescendo of tensions flared up due to Dodik’s repeated and resounding threats to transfer to the Serb entity many common institutions’ competences, chiefly as regards highly sensitive matters such as defense and security, taxation, and health.
Top international envoy Christian Schmidt wrote that the country’s already fragile status quo faces “its most serious existential threat of the post-war period”, adding that “prospects for further division and conflict are very real”. By examining the succession of events, it can be concluded that BIH is confronted by a “dual crisis” provoked by the two major ethno-nationalist tendencies’ centrifugal forces, with the Serb faction (in extremely tough way) and the Croat one (in a less striking but insidious way) working to diminish common institutions’ already fragile competences and effectiveness. Moreover, the latest Bosnian crisis has also been aggravated by its internatioanl dimension, since the major global players (the US and Russia, given the EU’s inertness caused by its current identity crisis and lack of geo-political role, even in the neighboring Western Balkans and the main regional actors (Serbia and Croatia) have only exploited and stoked divisions instead of recomposing them. It is true that Washington has been able to impose economic sanctions on Dodik and his acolytes, but it is also true that the concrete effects of such initiatives are very limited and quite symbolic. Conversely, Brussels has not been able to find the necessary consensus among its member states to impose EU sanctions, which are far more feared. Furthermore, signals have also come from Brussels that Dodik’s requests were all negotiable, including the repeal of a genocide denial law, whose imposition (by Schmidt’s predecessor) was the pretext for his first confrontational move (the boycott of common institutions by Serb members). Ultimately, the impression is that a “minimalist” approach in the name of short-term compromises has prevailed, one that ignores sustainable reforms as the way to make Bosnia and Herzegovina a functional country, escape from the “ethnic trap”, and avert — rather than postpone — the crisis.
A Ukrainian effect?
At the time of writing, the world is deeply shaken by the Russian invasion of Ukraine: concerns for the potential spillover of violence into the Western Balkans, most critically in Bosnia and Herzegovina, have been raised by officials and analysts. On the same day of the invasion, the EU announced it would almost double its UN-mandated force in BIH, EUFOR, by deploying four reserve companies of around 500 personnel amid fears the crisis in Ukraine could “potentially cause instability in Bosnia”. A day later, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said more support was needed for “countries like Georgia, Moldova and…Bosnia and Herzegovina” to help them “pursue the path that they have freely chosen”. Leaving aside any useless and premature speculation, the truth is that the Russian invasion has essentially changed every equation concerning security in Europe. What this requires is an urgent and wholesale recalibration, in theory and practice, of the Western strategy towards the Balkans and the EU’s Eastern neighborhood. First, Brussels can no longer postpone an effective policy review in order to assess why its enlargement and neighborhood policies have failed to catalyze reforms in non-EU countries. Second, finding a solution to help settle the Bosnian conundrum should be a priority task. This might be Bosnia’s last resort and it would be a terrible mistake to miss it.