Bosnia is much smaller than Ukraine. The potential refugee, security, and economic crises would be much smaller. Even so, can Europe handle another war? Even if it can, the real problem is much worse. It’s social, ethnic, and religious.
Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Sweden, and so on, all have much larger muslim populations than they did in the 90s. The EU and NATO cannot risk anything even close to the repeat of the Srebrenica massacre. It would only take a few to question again whether something like that could happen in their own respective countries, only a few to worry enough to do something panicky, proactive, and religiously motivated. The failure of the UN, of the US and UK in particular, in giving up Bosniak Muslims to slaughter is obvious material for extremist propaganda.
The West has spent the last +20 years fighting muslims. You can argue about the presentation, the spin, or the rationale, but there’s a ready case to make that it is supporting literal nazis in fighting muslims in Ukraine. The argument could go as follows.
The West is sending military support to Ukraine. The Azov Battalion is a formal part of the Ukrainian military. They are fighting against Chechen muslims on the Russian side (Reuters 26-Feb-2022). The Chechens may also be joined by recruits from the Middle East (Bloomberg 11-Mar-2022). The Azov Battalion are dipping their bullets in pig fat (Al Jazeera 28-Feb-2022) to be deliberately and provocatively anti-muslim. The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, said that she supports British volunteers joining the Ukrainian army (BBC 27-Feb-2022). There may be so many Canadian volunteers that they have their own battalion (National Post 09-Mar-2022). The UK, NATO, EU, Western countries, are not formally at war with Russia, and volunteers who go to fight would do so on a matter of individual, non-state sponsored conscience. There have been similar situations in other parts of the world (e.g. Syria, Yemen, fighting for the Kurds, against dictators and against Islamic extremists) where other volunteers are very much not supported and instead return to face prosecution. It might be asked what is different in the case of Ukraine which permits voluntary fighting and why the West is supporting some very dangerous people.
Does the West disbelieve that literal nazis, armed with great weapons, are incapable of genocide?
What could this mean if war breaks out again in Bosnia? At least a few muslims across the West might have some questions about their governments, their motivations, what is right and wrong, and some strong opinions about what to do about it.
Bosnia is a terrible, unnoticed Western vulnerability.
All it might take is a willing, awfully motivated geopolitical rival, prepared to do anything to win, to start a series of events which cause the West some very serious security, social, and economic problems.
Melting pot - about Bosnia
When people worry about Balkanisation (the fragmentation of a larger population/land mass into smaller groups which are smaller and uncooperative with each other), Bosnia is a very clear example of what is worrisome about it.
Bosnia is approximately 50% Bosniaks, 30% Serbs, and 15% Croats. They are respectively majority muslim, orthodox, and catholics. After the much larger and even more ethnically varied Yugoslav dissolved with communism and the end of the Cold War, Bosnia became an independent country in Mar-1992. The Bosnian War fully broke out in Apr-1992.
The different ethnic populations overlapped in areas which were and still are not very clear cut. This is not unusual across Eastern Europe and the Balkans in particular. There was serious political agreement about the direction of the country from before its official independence. Carving up territories so that Serbs could go with Serbia or Croats with Croatia is not as easy a solution as it sounds. There are many disputes over territory and legitimacy which could spread to many other countries. Ethnic identity and territory are some of the stated reasons behind the Russian invasion of Ukraine today, for example. The Bosniaks also typically do not see the Bosnian War as a civil war. It is viewed as instigated by external interference. In other words, there is not an authentic, legitimate reason to split the country.
The Bosnian War ultimately ended with NATO bombing and peacekeeping enforcement in line with the Dayton Accords.
The Dayton Accords split Bosnia into two main areas, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, and a third jointly administered area called the Brčko District. The Bosnian government has three presidents which represent the three main different ethnic groups and they are overseen by the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The OHR is supposed to be a civilian oversight of the three presidencies, oversees the implementation of the Dayton Accords, and it also makes final decisions where there is no agreement between the representatives of the three ethnic groups.
The Dayton Accords may have helped keep the peace for a while but it is not an elegant solution. It’s complicated, the territories and populations in Bosnia are mixed up, the memory of the war lingers on, and the original reasons for its outbreak are not really gone.
Neighbourhoods, schools, life opportunities. To this day, which ethnic group or territory you’re in affects every aspect of a Bosnian’s life.
Nobody is happy.
Get it off your chest - what everyone is unhappy about
The same fundamental problem exists. Unity vs independence, who owns what, and disagreement over foreign intervention and future plans.
Croats, the smallest of the big three ethnic groups, very conspicuously do not have their own territory. They also see Croatia, an EU and NATO member, succeeding with a higher standard of living. Very understandably, many Croats want to join with Croatia. However, there is a lot of suspicion that their political representatives merely behave as if they want to join the EU and NATO, but are aligning with the Bosnian Serbs on major political issues. In turn, many Bosnian Croats are unhappy about their lack of autonomous territory. They feel that their vote for their representatives, including their presidency, is gerrymandered by the Bosnian Serbs to serve their purposes.
Many Bosniaks see cooperation between the Croats and Serbs as a threat which could pincer them. Many Bosniaks also do not believe that Republika Srpska should exist at all. They view it as a creation of genocide. The Bosniak president Valentin Inzko recently moved to ban genocide denial (Politico, 23-Jul-2021), as they see it, which has provoked an angered response from the Serbs. Many of them make a case that nothing in the war rose to the level of genocide or point to the law as an attack on freedom of expression.
Many Bosnian Serbs, including their president, Milorad Dodik, also believe that this law is a big overstep from the central government, beyond its authority. The general opinion that Republika Srpska is illegitimate and shouldn’t exist at all is seen as a threat. It’s more cause for Bosnian Serbs to want their own full independence or unification with Serbia.
The person leading this side of the dispute is Dodik. The Bosnian Serbs and Dodik are the most important drivers of recent events in Bosnia.
Stirring the melting pot - what’s happening now
If change comes to Bosnia it looks like it will be because the Bosnian Serbs and Dodik want it and are outmanoeuvring their (theoretical) compatriots to make it happen.
They don’t have the hardest job. Bosnians are deeply divided and the Dayton Accords reinforce this division. The Dayton Accords themselves have some indefensible problems, even by Western standards, which almost certainly gives the Bosnian Serbs a strong feeling about their case for change.
At the higher levels of the problem, those from the Bosnian Serbs who support secession argue that the UN, EU, US, etc. are hypocritical. When it’s said that borders shouldn’t be redrawn or changed, secessionists say that this already happened with Yugoslavia’s dissolution. There was plenty of secession in the breakup of Yugoslavia, so what is different in the case of Bosnia?
The counter-argument seems to be centred around what minimally disrupts everyone else. A few years ago, Serbia and Kosovo discussed border changes (BBC 07-Sep–2018). The very north of Kosovo is majority Serbs. The idea was to try to solve this problem. Ultimately the plans were put off partially because redrawing the borders there could have meant redrawing borders in Bosnia. The reverse is also true. If borders are redrawn in Bosnia, it could stir up passions around redrawing borders for Serbia and Kosovo.
For a Bosnian Serb, this means that your own political interests are being put off for hypothetical (though highly likely and risky) external regional concerns.
Further on the question of secession, at the moment it is impossible under the Dayton Accords and it would be a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, and International Court of Justice Rulings. This may or may not seem watertight and stable, but two recent court cases point to weaknesses in the principles on which the whole country of Bosnia is governed.
The case of Sejdić and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina found in 2009, for example, that Jews and Roma were being denied their human rights. Bosnian politics forced every citizen of the country to identify with one of the three main ethnic groups in order to be eligible to stand for election. The ruling in favour of Sejdić and Finci prompted some movement toward amending the Bosnian constitution, but it hasn’t properly emerged yet. In 2014 a very similar case came to the ECHR, Zornić v. Bosnia and Herzegovina. In this case, Azra Zornić, refused to identify as any ethnicity at all. The ruling came back in her favour.
This means that the Dayton Accords themselves might be against human rights.
If the Bosnian constitution is open for change, there’s room for the Bosnian Serbs to advocate for any number of changes. Restructuring is a chance for decentralisation.
The question which the international community and Bosnians will have to ask themselves is whether compromise and small changes will solve anything.
Dodik is not explicitly a secessionist, though he has threatened it in the past. He is viewed as a hardliner and nationalist, but it’s not entirely clear what his aims are. It’s possible to make some very reasonable guesses and observe the direction of travel. He certainly wants to change the status quo.
Part of the initial response to the genocide denial law was for the Bosnian Serbs to move to officially block it within Republika Srpska (AP 26-Jul-2021). Dodik later declared that Serbs would withdraw from the defence, tax, and judicial systems (Reuters 08-Oct-2021) and rebuild their own institutions in Republika Srpska. The Bosnian Serbs are apparently within their legal rights to do so, but it is at best a very politically and practically disruptive move at best for the whole country of Bosnia. At worst it is an aggressive escalation. Again, the Bosnian Serbs may be within their legal rights to demand this, but Dodik removed the Bosnian army from Republika Srpska and said that he had “friends” who would support the Serbs if anyone tried to resist or intervene (Guardian 02-Nov-2021). Younger generations are less conscious of the war but this feels familiar to many in the older generations. Withdrawing very obviously undermines the Bosnian-wide legitimacy and effectiveness of these vital state-building institutions.
Separating the military is particularly provocative, especially after it had been reintegrated. The Bosnian Serbs unfortunately have increased tensions in what is seen as a deliberately insulting, even threatening, policing and military exercise (AP 22-Oct-2021). A drill involving armoured vehicles, helicopters, and special police forces was held at Mount Jahorina. This is the same area where, during the Bosnian War, the Serbian forces shelled Sarajevo.
It’s still not entirely clear what the end point is that Dodik may be working toward. The “friends” he refers to are presumably Serbia or Russia, but even this isn’t clear. Is it Hungary? Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, recently sent €100m to help small and medium enterprises in Republika Srpska (Al Jazeera 21-Dec-2021). Who else is friendly to Republika Srpska, or Dodik, Serbs, or Serbia?
A lot of these recent events do not look or feel particularly like a grass-roots driven phenomenon. Is this being driven by external influences? There is also some speculation that greater independence and autonomy for Republika Srpska helps to mask corruption in the political leadership there. The US Department of the Treasury at President Biden’s instruction has sanctioned Dodik and accused him of embezzlement (PR 05-Jan-2022). Secession would help the leadership in Republika Srpska to avoid scrutiny from the rest of Bosnia and other parts of the international community which are supposed to monitor the peace and government.
Regardless, the Bosnian Serbs have a case which is not immediately ridiculous or dismissable. The Office of the High Representative, which oversees the tripartite presidency, was only supposed to be temporary. It may even be unconstitutional. Lastly, Republika Srpska is supposed to be an autonomous region with a fully functioning parliament, but it does get overruled. Apparently it is overruled more than the Bosnian Serbs are prepared to tolerate.
Small concessions over the years do not seem to have helped heal any of Bosnia’s internal problems. If anything it looks like Dodik has been trying salami slicing tactics. The more which is conceded or lost to Republika Srpska in the hope of keeping unity, the more that unity is undermined. Bosnian law has been consistently weakened and undermined over many years.
Bosnia has a lot of internal problems. Some of these are inherent to the solutions which were originally set up to address other of these problems. The Dayton Accords may have bought a temporary peace but the reality is that they have entrenched a division between all three major ethnic groups and Bosniaks and Serbs in particular.
International politics was supposed to solve Bosnia’s problems but it is also unfortunately opening opportunities and increasing the risks of internal trouble.
Out of the frying pan and into the fire - external influences
Anyone interested in keeping peace in Bosnia, regardless of what that looks like, unity or secession, should re-examine the position of Russia.
Russia has an official role in implementing the Dayton Accords. It has usually objected to or added conditions to decisions made under implementing the Dayton Accords. Most recently Russia and China vetoed extending the EU peacekeeping presence in Bosnia, but were amenable after reference to the Office of the High Representative was removed (Reuters 03-Nov-2021). This was a misstep. It undermines the overall legitimacy of the Dayton Accords and peacekeeping framework in place since the 90s.
For Russia, which generally doesn’t like to see more countries go into NATO or the EU, this increases instability in Bosnia, and takes it further away from joining.
Russia has a friendly relationship with Republika Srpska (RFE 03-Dec-2021) on a number of fronts, including diplomatically, and energy supply. Russia has also been supplying Republika Srpska with rifles (Žurnal 09-Feb-2018) and helicopters (TASS 23-Nov-2020) and trained its special forces.
Russia has a special interest in the Balkans. It’s mostly ethnically slavic and part of its historical sphere of influence. It is suspected that it was Putin who advised Yeltsin to rush peacekeeping troops to Kosovo in 1999 after seeing NATO bomb Bosnia during the Bosnian War. More recently, Russia is claiming that mercenaries from Bosnia are fighting in Ukraine (Euractiv 22-Feb-2022). They may well be right. Ukraine has offered to pay people to fight for it and people from all over the world have gone to Ukraine. There’s a lot of ready material for Russia to make a very convenient and natural excuse to send peacekeeping forces to the West Balkans again.
When Dodik talks about “friends” it seems most likely that he is referring to Russia. He may also be referring to its proxies but it’s not clear who precisely they are or how much power they have to do anything. Traditionally, Serbia has been aligned with Russia, but different factions within Serbia want different things.
If Republika Srpska became fully independent from Bosnia, it would be a landlocked and potentially divided state. The Brčko District would not necessarily go with Republika Srpska because it is jointly administered. Could or would Serbia help Republika Srpska? The EU recently revived Serbia’s accession process (Bloomberg 21-Dec-2021). Would it want to jeopardise that? This is after Serbia and Kosovo made progress on an economic integration deal (Reuters 21-Sep-2020) brokered by Trump.
Serbia seems to be reorienting toward the West but this is not entirely popular. It goes against traditional Serbian policy of trying to balance relations between the West and Russia. These kinds of moves have opened the Serbian leadership up to criticism from the more pro-Russia elements, including from within its own party. In general, the West has been surprised that Russia seems willing to sacrifice economic opportunities in favour of its own civilisational feelings regarding Ukraine. What are the Serbian (in Serbia itself or Bosnia) feelings about the future of their people and does the West understand it? Serbia’s Prime Minister describes herself as “technocratic” (N1 27-May-2018) and pro-EU (AP 28-Oct-2020). It’s President says that Serbia will not join in with sanctions on Russia over Ukraine (Reuters 25-Feb-2022).
It looks like there’s some kind of opening, some kind of opportunity for the Bosnian Serbs to try something radical. Russia seems to be paying attention to this part of the world.
It almost certainly understands it better than the West. The US and Europe have been distracted with a lot else since the 90s. The Middle East, China, Covid, Brexit, the 07/08 financial crisis, and much else. Diplomatically, the Balkans is not the place where Western politicians, functionaries, academics, etc. typically make great careers. The incentive structure isn’t there for monitoring it. Militarily it is not an obvious or big threat and the West has limited resources in this regard too. The US withdrew troops in 2006 and recently Sifet Podzic, Bosnia’s Minister of Defence, said that US troops could be needed again to keep the peace (CBS 04-Feb-2022). The EU peacekeeping force, Operation Althea, is led by Austria. Most of its resources previously came from the UK but it lost these because of Brexit (UK Parliament 27-Jan-2021). The EU has boosted its own presence in Bosnia since the start of the war in Ukraine (Al Jazeera 24-Feb-2022) but it’s unspoken that most military strength in Europe comes from either the UK or France and most other countries have very wound down militaries since the end of WW2.
Who should Bosnia look to? Some Bosniaks are looking to Turkey (Dnevni avaz 23-Oct-2021).
Out of the UN, US, EU, Turkey, and Russia, only one of these is free from concerns about international alliances or bureaucracies. Only one is singularly unattached and able to make a unilateral decision about what to do.
Watch out for manufactured pretences in Bosnia. Any move to dissolve Bosnia, secession, war, need for peacekeepers, will be premised on a reaction to something terrible or in anticipation of preventing something terrible.
It might not take much. For now, EU airspace is closed to Russian aircraft (BBC 27-Feb-2022) but there is still a small gap next to Albania and the Aegean Sea for a Russian plane to enter. It would be very easy for it to land at any number of small airfields in Republika Srpska. A small squad with the right equipment and target could do something very terrible and make it look like an attack on one of the ethnic groups or another.
Is that really such a fantastical idea?
Just as many Western volunteers are going to fight for Ukraine, there are volunteers heading there to fight for Russia, including Serbs (Balkan Insight 08-Mar-2022). There is also a suspicious number of links and relationships between the unofficial Russian mercenary company, the Wagner Group, and Bosnian Serb mercenaries who are veterans of the Bosnian War (Fontanka 29-Mar-2016), who are reportedly in Ukraine now.
A Soviet-made military drone carrying a bomb flew from the direction of the Ukraine and crashed in the outskirts of Zagreb (AP 13-Mar-2022). Was this an attempt at instigating some sort of incident? How on earth did this drone manage to fly through three NATO countries and make its way to a NATO member’s capital city? Does it even matter that EU airspace is closed to Russian aircraft? What are the chances of each element of this event accidentally happening? Is some sort of instigating incident much closer than expected?
There’s a lot of reasons to be suspicious.
As soon as one ethnic group takes any kind of drastic action that might draw in any number of powers. The Croats might look to Croatia and the EU, the Serbs might look to Serbia and Russia, the Bosniaks might look to the US and Turkey.
It could turn into a real ethnic and religious nightmare just at a time when the West really isn’t expecting it and resources are focused elsewhere.
Any resolution is going to come after a long period of complicated, multi-sided disputes rooted in deep history, culture, and blood ties. Whether it’s total one-sided victory or compromise like the Dayton Accords, it seems like someone is always going to be unhappy.
The West might at least do well to pay attention to Bosnia before things get any worse, or at least start preparing for it.
Bosnia is a terrible, unnoticed Western vulnerability 14-Mar-2022
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine the world should expect the rapid onset of a new cold war.
Direct fighting between nuclear powers is unthinkable because it risks escalation to nuclear weapons. This will mean a return to proxy wars, sponsored insurgencies, and all manner of indirect strategic moves. The invasion of Ukraine offers some clues. Russia’s justification for the war includes issues of ethnic identity and security in a place it sees as its historic and filial area of influence. Ukrainians are also genuinely split (not necessarily evenly) between pursuing Russian or Western identities.
Bosnia is at terrible risk. All of the right conditions are ready. Bosnian cohesion is deteriorating. The relationships between its different ethnic groups are worsening. Their differences are set deep in a terrible, recent history, and may be irreconcilable.
It might not take very much for the country to return to war.
It isn’t clear that the West has noticed this. If Russia was looking to create more trouble for the West while growing its own power and influence, Bosnia would be a great target. If Bosnia returns to war the consequences could extend well beyond its borders and beyond the Balkans.
This would be very difficult for both the EU and NATO. Bosnia is deep in the middle of EU territory and further west than Ukraine.
It is also deep in the middle of NATO territory.