If the leaders of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) continue driving every conflict with Sarajevo to the brink, they risk disaster for themselves, the country and the Western Balkans.
Bosnia: What Does Republika Srpska Want?, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, looks into the most important question in Bosnia today; do RS leaders and residents really want outright independence or merely autonomy within a loose federation? Republika Srpska’s flirtation in June with a referendum is a reminder that the smaller of the two entities still threatens the stability of the country that was wracked with four years of war (1992-1995) when Yugoslavia broke up.
“Given a free choice, many Serbs may prefer to be independent, but they are well aware that history keeps independence off any realistic agenda and that a breakaway attempt would entail grave risks”, says Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Balkans Project Director. “RS has a responsibility and a strong interest in Bosnia succeeding, since it might not survive Bosnia’s failure”.
Today, no one seriously questions the RS’s existence as a distinct entity in Bosnia and the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international community’s in-country supervisor, is not imposing legislation to centralise power further in Sarajevo. Yet, since 2006, under the leadership of the charismatic Milorad Dodik, RS has chipped away at state institutions created after the war. Relations among Bosnia’s top leaders have soured. The economy has suffered, and RS’s constant battles with Sarajevo and OHR have driven away investment.
The RS has serious internal problems. It is still too dominated by cronyism and corruption, while its elites enjoy impunity. Political, economic and social gaps between its eastern and western halves are growing. The entity government decides all budgetary issues and where most investment goes. Many eastern municipalities, especially those run by the opposition, feel deprived and are slowly beginning to seek greater decentralisation. The RS Presidency and government should push through reforms to address these challenges, even if they are mainly focussed on protecting RS vis-a-vis the Bosnian state.
In its relations with Sarajevo, instead of calling provocative referendums, as it did most recently this past spring, it should enter a dialogue on mutual issues of concern. The European Union should continue the high-level dialogue on the judiciary it launched to end the spring confrontation and expand its format to address other disputed issues, while keeping international partners fully informed of progress. RS should also improve government-to-government relations with the state government as well as with the Bosniak-dominated entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, by holding regular and frequent joint sessions and using existing institutions like the Parliamentary Assembly and Constitutional Court of Bosnia.
Seven years after a previous RS president spoke movingly about the Srebrenica massacre, RS is still not free of its wartime legacy. Many Serbs believe that they are asked to shoulder all blame for the war and worry that the RS will be taken away from them if they admit to crimes, but the opposite is true.
“RS elites should acknowledge the responsibility of their wartime leaders and support reconciliation efforts so as to become more respected and trusted authorities throughout Bosnia”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “Together, if Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks focus on state and entity level reform, they can secure a prosperous Republika Srpska within a functional Bosnia”.