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Bosnia On The Brink Again: Is 2022 Going To Be The Year Everything Falls Apart? – Analysis

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By Andy Heil*

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(RFE/RL) — Mirko Zecevic Tadic was a member of the self-styled Croatian Defense Council during the Bosnian War. He had just reached adulthood as the fighting broke out in 1992, and eventually lost his right leg below the knee in a conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor and majority Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats against each other in the former Yugoslav republic.

Nearly three decades later, the 47-year-old resident of Brcko, in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina, is part of a veterans’ support group called Pravipozar.

“We all lost a lot in the war: friends, relatives. None of us gained anything, no matter where he is,” Tadic tells RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

In addition to helping ex-soldiers of any ethnicity, he and other members meet with younger generations to share their experiences about the horrors of war in the Balkans.

“We want to draw attention to the fact that we who were in that war in the 1990s and who experienced the greatest troubles, to point out the need to talk and move toward a better life. We don’t need talk of a new war or a new conflict,” Tadic says.

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Their message took on new urgency in 2021 as fears intensified of a messy dissolution of Bosnia, which is still governed under the terms of a 1995 peace treaty known as the Dayton agreement that divides the country into a Bosniak and Croat federation and a majority Serb entity, Republika Srpska.

The concerns have been sparked by a constitutional crisis and threats of secession from Bosnian Serbs, along with planned boycotts of next year’s national elections over decades-old grievances that have left Bosnian Croats bitter over their level of representation in federal and national institutions.

Some Bosnians, and many outside observers, have wondered aloud whether 2022 could even see a descent into armed conflict.

“Roughly the next year, and maybe a bit more than that, is crucial,” says Marko Prelec, a consultant and analyst on the Balkans, including for the International Crisis Group. He calls it “probably the most serious crisis in at least 20 years, so since the early post-Dayton years.”

And he’s not alone.

Bosnia’s ‘Existential Threat’

The international community’s new overseer of civilian affairs in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, warned the United Nations recently that the situation represents the “greatest existential threat of the postwar period” in Bosnia.

Most analysts agree. But they say that while large-scale violence can’t be ruled out, it is unlikely for a number of reasons.

“I do think it is an existential threat to Bosnia, but not in the sense that there will be a return to 1990s-style warfare,” Toby Vogel, a Western Balkans analyst and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, says. “I think that is highly improbable, maybe even impossible — although I wouldn’t necessarily want to make that judgment call.”

Some 105,000 people died in the 1992-95 Bosnian War, roughly two-thirds of them Bosniaks along with 23,000 Serbs and 9,000 Croats, according to war-crimes researchers in The Hague. It was particularly brutal for the “ethnic cleansing” that accompanied the fighting.

Analysts say Bosnia’s population has aged considerably since then, thanks in part to an exodus of youth seeking jobs and brighter prospects abroad, and its population has less military training and possibly fewer weapons. Its territory is also much more ethnically homogeneous now.

But they are still worried about the country’s fate, for Bosnia’s 3 million residents and for the region.

“The existential threat to Bosnia I see not so much in war between organized armed forces as in an accelerating of the gradual dissolution of the common state, of the state institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Vogel says. He adds that “chipping away at the foundations of the state has intensified.”

“What is possible is a lower level of violence that leads to a ‘frozen conflict’ and essentially a failed state. And we don’t need another Transdniester, or another South Ossetia, in the Balkans,” Prelec says, in a reference to unsettled conflicts in breakaway regions of Moldova and Georgia, respectively.

‘Good’ And ‘Bad’ Camps?

There is general consensus among Balkans watchers that the Dayton framework was successful at re-creating at least a partially viable state and letting people put their lives back together, but that it has arguably failed at laying down a sustainable constitutional foundation. In the absence of a sufficiently acceptable alternative, it will probably have to do for now.

“Maybe the most important point is that you have a situation in which the representatives of the various communities — however you want to define them — are almost exactly divided fifty-fifty between those who want to continue the state-building project and build up the state government headquartered in Sarajevo more, and those who want to ratchet it back, either to a point in which it’s a looser federation or all the way back to actual disintegration through secession and independence,” Prelec says.

While there’s a rough correlation between ethnicity and commitment to Bosnian nationhood or national institutions, he says, there’s also a “non-negligible” amount of crossover among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks who disagree with their respective majorities.

“That means that no one really can seize the initiative,” Prelec says. He argues that there’s a misconception that the country “is divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ camps, and the ‘bad’ camp are nationalist and the ‘good’ camp are progressives or pro-state, pro-European people.”

“That really prevents us from understanding that all of the parties are, at bottom, trying to get a good deal for their constituency,” Prelec says.

The Dodik Factor

Into that combustible mix, outgoing international High Representative Valentin Inzko imposed a genocide-denial ban in July, infuriating the Bosnian Serb member of the current three-man presidency, Milorad Dodik.

Inzko used his powers to ban the denial of internationally or Bosnian-recognized genocides, like the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 mostly Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb troops. It also outlawed hate speech and some public honors for convicted war criminals.

Experts say that no matter how well-intentioned or appropriate Inzko’s imposition might have been, it was wildly unpopular among many Serbs and probably ill-timed as he was preparing to hand over his duties to Balkan newcomer Schmidt.

“This is really a red rag for Dodik,” Vogel says. At Dodik’s urging, Republika Srpska lawmakers and the republican president in October challenged the high commissioner’s authority by prohibiting enforcement of his impositions and doubled down by banning suggestions that Republika Srpska was the result of ethnic cleansing.

Dodik also announced that Republika Srpska would soon pull out of the country’s joint military, its top judiciary body, and tax administration, and field its own border authority.

On questionable authority at best, Republika Srpska’s assembly has since advanced the purported secession bid, called for the draft of a new constitution, and declared all of the high representative’s laws unconstitutional. Prosecutors for the national government are investigating Dodik for allegedly “undermining the constitutional order” of the country.

It is unclear how deeply Dodik’s support runs or how far he is willing to press his demands. Making good on his long-stated threat to declare independence from the rest of Bosnia could not only spell doom for the Dayton framework but also trigger wide-scale violence.

Prelec says “the more hopeful interpretation is that what Dodik wants is some kind of relatively mildly renegotiated deal that would simply shore up the autonomy that they already have.” Analysts suggest there is no critical mass within Bosnia’s Serb community for an attempted breakaway, although Dodik has been known to overreach before.

“Dodik has been very good at testing the red lines and seeing how far he can go, and I think that’s exactly what we’ve been seeing,” says Florian Bieber, director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at Austria’s University of Graz. He says such probing in the past has threatened to erode the Bosnian state, and now he’s “making it more imaginable and kind of pushing, pushing his agenda forward.”

Mladen Lisanin, a research associate at the Institute for Political Studies in Belgrade, warns that even if Dodik is unprepared to organize violence in an effort to win independence, his statements and the resulting counterthreats risk grave consequences in a society like Bosnia’s.

“I think that even for [Dodik] and his immediate inner circle of advisers, and people who work for him, physical violence is currently a red line, because after all, it would be most likely a fatal blow to his own political career in the long term — even if he didn’t care about people’s lives in Republika Srpska and the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Lisanin says. “The danger is, of course, that if you’re not actually ready to act on your threats of the use of force, that doesn’t mean that someone else will not take you seriously because no one is obliged to understand your political logic behind your fiery rhetoric.”

Impasse Over Elections

Meanwhile, another crisis has already paralyzed other institutions, particularly within the Bosniak and Croat federation, and threatens to derail national elections due in October that are already creaking under the weight of boycotts by both Serbs and Croats.

Bosnian Croats have complained for years that unlike Bosniaks and Serbs, they don’t have their own majority in any “entity” under the Dayton framework.

The prescribed Croat member of Bosnia’s ethnically tripartite presidency has been elected in each of the past two polls on the strength of votes from the Bosniak majority, without the backing of the largest ethnic Croat party, the Bosnian Croat Democratic Union, or its leader, Dragan Covic.

Bosniaks have staunchly resisted calls for the formation of a Croat-majority district, prompting Covic and his party to abandon cooperation with their Bosniak counterparts in many forums.

“Obviously, Republika Srpska and Dodik are in the spotlight, not least because of his fiery rhetoric, but I do think that the situation with Croatian representation in the presidency of the country has to be addressed, and has to be addressed soon,” Lisanin says.

Multiple decisions by the European Court of Human Rights and the Venice Commission have called for changes to eliminate the current ethnic- and residence-based system for Bosnia’s voters and candidates.

It’s one of those crises that have simply accrued over the past 26 years, according to Lisanin. “In different periods they play out in various manners, but they never went away, actually,” Lisanin says.

The United States has named a special envoy for election reform in Bosnia, Mathew Palmer, in an effort to help break the impasse over electoral reform. Vogel suggests that the European Union and the United States “will do anything to make sure that these elections go ahead.”

He acknowledges threats by Dodik and Covic to boycott — and possibly even disrupt, in the latter’s case — the October elections, but warns against short-term concessions that could “deepen artificial divisions and entrench the power of the nationalist parties.”

“So now can be a moment of great tension, of great contestation,” Vogel says.

The clock is ticking on enacting electoral reforms in time for the October voting, with general agreement that they’d need to be in place at least six months beforehand.

“In Bosnia, there are always narrow windows of opportunity, moments when you could actually engage in reforms — and you can’t do it in election years,” Bieber says. He certainly doesn’t envisage any alternative to the Dayton constitution arising anytime very soon.

“I don’t see it happening in the short-term future,” Bieber says. “And whatever reforms of Dayton will happen, they’re not going to fundamentally change the overall dynamics of the country in a substantial way, because whatever the solution is it will still have a Republika Srpska, it will still have largely ethnically defined political actors…[and] the clientelist system they’ve built up over the last decades.”

Lisanin acknowledges that it’s inconvenient and potentially dangerous to have institutions that aren’t functioning, especially in the long term.

“However, what’s even more dangerous is to treat day-to-day developments as isolated events and isolated incidents and not observe all this in the context of the process which has been going on for over 20 years and might very, very easily protract well into the next 10 or 20 years,” Lisanin says.

He suggests that it could be enough for now “to send a signal to political actors that they are acknowledged as legitimate representatives within their own communities.”

Watching For Danger Signs

But quick fixes for a country with such deeply rooted problems make others more nervous.

“I’m not somebody who believes that stability is the most important thing to achieve,” Vogel says. “I think fully accountable, democratic government, at the end of the day, is more important than whether a particular situation is momentarily a little unstable.”

But, he warns, “the problem is that we’ve removed all the guardrails.” Allowing ethnic leaders like Dodik and Covic to “blackmail the international community into discussing things that should really be nonnegotiable” is a mistake, Vogel says.

Experts warn of what to watch out for in 2022 to know whether Bosnia is truly disintegrating.

They say a declaration of independence by Republika Srpska or the formal launch of a Republika Srpska army — both of which Dodik has already mooted — could be such a moment.

Prelec says that, for him, a “situation in which the two sides are just ignoring each other’s laws represents several long steps on the road to disintegration.”

“And if on top of that you add that people who are elected in October of next year are not recognized in half the country because it’s in a boycott, then that’s another big step,” Prelec adds.

Vogel says serious violence could be another irrevocable trigger.

“If the conditions for war are created, it will not have been by the hands of the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Balkan-born anti-war activists Gorana Mlinarevic and Nela Porobic Isakovic complained in a November commentary on “the anticipated war.” They blamed ethno-nationalist elites and an international community whose responses invariably “create more tension.”

They tell RFE/RL that some readers have since expressed relief to them that “finally an anti-war voice made it into the public space.”

“People who have lived through the 1990s will, of course, never again be able to say ‘a war is not possible’ because they have lived through one and they know that nothing is impossible. But again, the point is, they don’t want it. Other people want it for them!” they add.

Finding any eventual alternative to the Dayton architecture will require bold, innovative thinking. “I’m the last person to pretend that’s easy,” Vogel says, “but the way you cannot overcome it is to continue empowering the nationalist leaders.”

For his part, Bieber says “the optimistic interpretation of the pessimism” is that change must come from Bosnia’s own social [forces] and its admittedly unpopular political forces, rather than being imposed from abroad.

“I could imagine political alternatives emerging, even if they’re not yet visible or forceful enough to really change the dynamics,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean that they can’t become so in due course.”

Illustrating a related point, Prelec describes the casual ease with which Bosnians regard the mostly un-demarcated lines between the ethnically aligned entities that compose the country.

Depending on the route, a drive from Sarajevo to Banja Luka might meander between the Bosniak and Croat federation and Republika Srpska several times, with the only distinction being signage in Latin script or Cyrillic.

“You have no idea where the line was, and nobody knows,” Prelec says.

For all its faults, he credits the durability of Dayton, at least in part.

“There is a kind of fund or reservoir of willingness to coexist that comes from just having been together for 26 years now peacefully. For younger people especially, because they were born into this world, into this Dayton Bosnia.”

With contributions by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Arnes Grbesic

  • Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering the Balkans, the Transcaucasus, and science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for Reuters, Oxford Analytica, Acquisitions Monthly, the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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