How Broken Politics In Bosnia-Herzegovina May Lead To War

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the mounting reports of civilian massacres, forced deportations, and systematic rape committed by Russian troops, the term ‘genocide’ has once again appeared on the forefront of European geopolitics. As always, use of this term is controversial. Some pundits have already decried the term, calling it ‘alarmist’ and ‘propagandistic’. But if Europe’s last genocide is anything to go by, it is better to call out a genocide before it happens than wait in shame after its has already taken place.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was the site of the bloodiest fighting and most pronounced instances of sectarian violence and ethnic cleansing that came from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, due in large part to the conflict between interspersed communities of Bosniak Muslims, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats of the region. When the fighting ended in 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina was left filled with trauma and mass graves. Peace has held ever since, but the same vitriol that drove the first era of sectarian massacres is being heard, with increasing volume and clarity, ringing once again between the buildings and memorials still riddled with bullet holes.

In November 2021, Milorad Dodik, President of the ‘Republika Srpska’, one of the two entities that makes up Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national government, proclaimed his intention to separate his entity from the national government’s institutions, most conspicuously including organizing all-Serb armed forces, effectively seceding from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnian Serbs committed the majority of the Bosnian War’s worst crimes against Bosniak Muslims, and now Dodik is echoing and renormalizing the same rhetoric that Bosnian Serb paramilitary groups once spat in hatred during the Srebrenica and Bijeljina Massacres. This will have consequences, but whether it will be the reform of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s government to prevent this kind of divisive rhetoric from flourishing once again, or a new round of genocide and massacre, is up to Bosnian and European leaders, and time is running out to decide what path to follow.

The Bosnian War was ended by the Dayton Accords and by founding the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina through the creation of two entities within the new country: the Serb majority ‘Republika Srpska’ and the Bosniak-Croat majority entitled the ‘Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina’. There would be a tripartite presidency with one representative from each of the major ethnic groups, overseen by a High Representative, a position filled by an appointed minister from the EU or NATO with the power to override aspects of the Bosnian state.

While the Accords successfully ended the massacres, this arrangement currently exacerbates problems in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Namely, the creation of the ‘Republika Srpska’ and the tripartite presidency essentially rewarded Bosnian Serb leaders of the Bosnian War with unimpeachable influence over the new Bosnian state. The clear ethnic divisions inherent in Bosnia’s two entities as well as its ethnically segregated presidencies enables its leaders to pit their ethnic groups against each other for political gain.

Ivan Vejvoda, the head of the ‘Europe’s Futures’ program at the ‘Institute for Human Sciences’ described the situation as follows: “the powers that be […] found out very quickly that they can ‘comfortably rule’ by making deals with each other, whipping up emotions before elections like ‘the others are out to get us, we are the only ones who can defend you.’” This created what Vejvoda calls, “a vicious cycle of agreeing to stabilocracy [sic],” which “Europe was okay with […] and allowed,” because, “there wouldn’t be war.” Bosnia-Herzegovina’s former High Representative for Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, told Euronews that this system, which the publication described as “only promot[ing] further division along ethnic lines,” was a “totally corrupt clientelistic [sic] system,” where leaders use divisive politics with the goal of “keeping the status quo, providing the three political classes with a very solid basis for their illegal gains, which is power and money.”

In June 2022, the Bosnian Croat politician Dragan Čović refused to attend a meeting with EU officials to hammer out a working plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina to join the EU and stonewalled election reforms, prompting the current High Representative to intervene. Both actions were taken because Čović argues that Bosnian Croats don’t have enough political power, mirroring the sectarian posturing of Dodik.

Pandering to sectarian fears will have consequences the politicians parroting them can’t control. Dodik has said he doesn’t want to start a war, but his deliberate, tactical inflammation of ethnic division means he is either willfully ignorant or intentionally obfuscating the consequences that rhetoric will bring. Dodik has branded Bosniak Muslims as “second-rate people” and “treacherous converts.” He has consistently refused to acknowledge Bosnian-Serb war crimes during the Bosnian War and has blocked attempts to make genocide denial illegal, by either pandering to or directly echoing the rhetoric of extremist, ultra-nationalist Serb political parties, groups which simultaneously deny genocide while calling for the cleansing of Bosniaks and Croats from their lands. As Željko Komšić, the Bosnian Croat President, described, “certain people think that the things they failed to accomplish during the war, by using weapons, violence and ethnic cleansing, they can do in political ways.”

The Dayton Accords should be reformed or thrown out entirely, and the ethnically drawn political system that ended the Bosnian War amended so that political leaders can’t continue to use divisive ethno-nationalist fearmongering to hide from actual reform, progress, and leadership. UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, called for Bosnian politicians to “turn the page on rhetoric and policies of division,” and instead, “focus on promoting the rights of everyone across the country, and to build an inclusive and democratic future, based on equality of all citizens.” For this to happen, the leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina need to stop being politically rewarded for stirring ethnic strife. The desire for power has led Bosnian leaders to lean towards divisive, sectarian politics that allow them to deflect from their own failures. Creating a more inclusive political system that addresses and respects ethnic differences without being solely defined by them would end this cycle.

Though Bosnia-Herzegovina did not attain EU candidate status in June 2022, ascension to the EU has been and remains a primary goal for Bosnian politicians, both to safeguard the country from internal strife as well as to increase its economic connections. Many in Bosnia-Herzegovina are frustrated at the slow pace of the process, but admission into the EU bloc would provide Bosnia with the resources to address some of its systemic political issues. Hamza Karcic, an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo, argues that, “building a network of strong bilateral relationships should be a primary objective,” for Bosnian leaders. This includes, “full membership of NATO…“push[ing] for the US or the UK to open a military base in Bosnia,” and to “redouble efforts to enhance bilateral relations with the US, UK, Turkey, Israel and other major actors.” Karcic describes these connections as key to securing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territorial integrity and countering the influence of Dodik’s ethno-nationalist separatism, with Foreign Policy assenting that, “for Bosnia, there is no more existential foreign-policy concern than clinching NATO membership.”

For the West, this support does not need to be altruistic. Preventing Dodik from splitting Bosnia-Herzegovina is in their interest, as it would limit Russia’s influence in the region and reaffirm Western Balkan frustration with stagnating EU ascension. But along with their interest, support for Bosnia-Herzegovina may also prevent another generation from experiencing massacres and bloodshed in the Balkans.

Inroads have already been made. In a speech before the House of Commons, UK MP Alicia Kearns, addressing Dodik’s international support, affirmed, “Bosnia also has friends, with none more committed to Bosnia’s stability than the U.K.” In a separate statement, the UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said, “The West took too long to act in the 1990s […] to prevent terrible events such as the genocide at Srebrenica,” vowing to not repeat that mistake again.

It could be said that the Balkans have always been treated as a chessboard for imposing powers to play on, a small-scale game on the side of the real ‘match’ between proud nuclear juggernauts. On this scale, political manoeuvres can appear simple; Russia may gain influence in the region if the ‘Republika Srpska’ secedes from Bosnia-Herzegovina, while the NATO-EU-US bloc maintains their influence if it persists. However, in Bosnia-Herzegovina itself, where mass graves and landmines are still discovered every year, where the village you came from, the type of building you prayed in, or even the alphabet you used determined life or death, there is more at stake than political manoeuvres and influence. It is in no one’s interest for a third genocide to take place in Europe in just as few decades.


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