The Latin Bridge in Sarajevo over the River Miljacka where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, sparking the First World War. Photo: Insights, UIG via Getty Images

Bosnia on the brink: could violence return to the Balkans?

A complex peace deal, backed by Europe and America, ended the Bosnian war in 1995. Now, it is falling apart
September 23, 2018

In Sarajevo recently, I sat with a colleague along the city’s main drag, watching masses of tourists and locals meander their way through the warm evening, most of them festooned with ice cream, shopping bags and pushchairs. The normality of the scene was a celebration of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s post-war recovery. My associate, for his part, was the embodiment of the generation that should have by now seized the reins of Bosnian politics: a successful small businessman across two industries, fluent in English, educated, plugged into the relevant regional and international networks.

And yet we spoke in hushed, ominous tones, exasperated by the endemic corruption of our country’s government, the increasingly aggressive nationalism of the sectarian political elites, the ineffectual opposition, and the gathering storm clouds of the coming general elections, which we both feared could lead to a return to violence.

He confided that like virtually everyone in our generation, born between the late 1970s and late 1980s, he was preparing to leave Bosnia for Western Europe. Even with his sizeable earnings, he could see no way of raising a family in this country.

The situation is worse for those unable to leave. Trapped in an emptying country, governed by an unaccountable elite, their discontent is drawing into sharp relief the deterioration of Bosnia’s precarious post-war politics.

Once the apex triumph of post-Cold War western diplomacy, the peace that has prevailed here since 1995 has become inexorably tied to the health of the global liberal order. For both Europe and the US, already beset by domestic and international crises, a return towards even low-intensity conflict in the Balkans would be a catastrophe neither they nor the Bosnian people can afford.


A broken peace

A quarter of a century on from the end of the Bosnian War, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 100,000 people, the shadow of violence lies over the upcoming elections in this small country, which is still starkly divided along ethnic lines.

The leader of Bosnia’s main Serb nationalist bloc, Milorad Dodik, backed by the Kremlin, has militarised police units under his government’s control. He has also recruited the services of Russian-trained paramilitaries from neighbouring Serbia.

And Russian militants, fresh from fighting on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine, are now routinely hosted in his presidential palace in Banja Luka, the de facto capital of the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina (the other is the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or informally, the Bosniak-Croat Federation).

Dodik makes no secret of his intentions: he wants the RS to secede from Bosnia and is willing to use arms to accomplish as much if either the state government in Sarajevo or the international community try to stop him.

Meanwhile, the leader of the primary Croat nationalist bloc, Dragan ovi, may follow suit. Despite the nominal ethnic divisions between their two parties, ovi and Dodik are united in a shared antipathy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina as a territorially integrated state. Each of them harbours a desire to revive the irredentist projects conceived in Belgrade and Zagreb in the 1990s: Dodik wishes for the RS to join Serbia, while ovi aspires to resuscitate the “Herzeg-Bosna,” possibly with an eye towards grafting it to Croatia.

The latter was Zagreb’s version of the RS: a self-declared republic from which non-Croats were ethnically cleansed, much as non-Serbs were driven out of the RS. The original architects of both the RS and the Herzeg-Bosna have been convicted of dozens of counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague. Yet Dodik and ovi remain unapologetic in their aim to preserve and revive, respectively, these para-states.

Though the largest community in the country, the Bosniaks are riven by provincial disputes. The Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the bloc co-founded by Bosnia’s first president, Alija Izetbegovi, is now purely a vehicle for the enrichment of the Izetbegovi family and their allies. As a result, the past year has seen three major splinter groups break off, each accusing Bakir Izetbegovi, Alija’s son and the party’s leader, of rampant corruption and criminality. Not to be outdone, Bosnia’s leftists and anti-nationalists have managed to split their vote across four different parties, all but ensuring their own decimation at the polls.

Amid this game of thrones, the Euro-American alliance that once guaranteed Bosnia’s peace is riven by its own factional disputes, and unprepared to intervene in the event of genuine emergency. And beneath it all is a pulsating cacophony of public anger at the country’s corrupt elite, whose decades of self-dealing have left Bosnia as one of the poorest states in Europe. The country is undeniably already on the brink, and October’s election could easily push it over the edge.


Slow burn

How did it get this way? The Dayton Peace Accords, which formally ended the Bosnian War in 1995, fragmented Bosnia, ensuring that each of the warring cliques was left with a patch of territory to call their own but with the country being a single polity in the international arena. This fragmentation was itself the product of ethnic cleansing and genocide, the process by which nationalist militias created neat, (mostly) homogenous territories that could be coalesced into latter day Bantustans. Legitimating these practices was the price of peace—but the western framers of Dayton hoped the solution would be temporary. Eventually, they believed, reform could re-establish Bosnia as a vibrant, diverse, and democratic society, capable of membership in the EU.

But after a promising first decade, between 1996 and 2006, during which Bosnia established a single currency, a unified armed forces, and state police, among other notable reforms, progress has ground to a halt. In particular, there has been no meaningful constitutional reform. This means that when Bosnia heads to the polls on 7th October, it will still be saddled with arguably the most complicated electoral and constitutional regime in the world. Voters will choose from thousands of candidates, vying for hundreds of posts, most of which are distributed according to a strict ethnic key which privileges the country’s so-called “constitutive peoples”—Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

What makes the 2018 elections alarmingly different from previous years is that for the first time since Dayton, there is a discernible drift towards violence—engineered by the country’s elites.

Bosnia’s politics have been on the cusp of boiling over for more than a decade, since the last major international push for constitutional reform. In truth, that 2006 effort, known as the “April Package,” was a modest set of amendments intended to begin dismantling Dayton’s most sectarian aspects and nudging Bosnia towards a more conventional democratic arrangement.

When the April Package fell two votes short of adoption in the parliamentary assembly, the Bosnian political class breathed a sigh of relief. Bosnia’s nationalist establishment—a hodgepodge of uncompromising demagogues and self-serving placemen who had been in power since the communist period—has come to depend on Dayton’s absurdist fragmentation for the survival of their respective regimes.

It was the aftermath of the 2010 elections that exposed how nonsensical the situation had become. It took over a year to form a government, one that was consumed by near-collapse for its duration. June 2013 saw the first wave of big anti-government protests since the war; the peaceful, optimistic tenor and size of these was eclipsed by the riots of February 2014, which saw government and party buildings across the country ransacked and torched, including the state presidency in Sarajevo.

Opinion polls at the time showed that a clear majority of Bosnians, from all ethnic backgrounds, supported the protests. But the October 2014 elections returned the entrenched nationalists to power in even greater numbers, a feat they accomplished with a campaign of intimidation and harassment of protesters through the politically controlled police, courts, and media, and by relying on their expansive patronage networks to get out the vote. The warlords would permit no dissent.


The coming chaos

The political situation has deteriorated further since then. Emigration has emerged as the primary release valve for disenchanted citizens. Those left behind are angrier than ever.

In Banja Luka, Dodik’s Russian-backed, secessionist government has spent much of the year watching a growing protest movement emerge. Dubbed “Justice for David,” the near daily protests concern the suspicious death of David Dragievi, a 21-year-old who went missing in March and whose body was found a few days later in a nearby creek.

The young man’s father has accused the Dodik government of covering up the cause of his son’s death. And although the circumstances of the case remain murky, there are popular suspicions that David crossed someone with close links to Dodik and paid for it with his life. If, as campaigners demand, the government clarifies what happened to Dragievi, then its long-rumoured connections to organised crime might be exposed, along with the rogue nature of its security services.
"Dodik has spoken openly of his desire to unite all the 'Serb lands' of the Balkans"
More worryingly, Dodik has initiated dangerous confrontations with both the state government in Sarajevo and the international community, efforts in which he is explicitly backed by the Kremlin. He has been on an arms-buying spree for the last two years, while broadening his links with extremist groups linked to the Kremlin, and signing treaties with other Russian-backed breakaway territories like South Ossetia. In short, doing everything in his power to move his government closer into the orbit of Moscow.

The Russians, for their part, see Dodik’s obstinance as key to keeping Bosnia out of Nato, the Kremlin’s primary concern in the Balkans. Russia regards this country as the region’s strategic centre and has worked diligently to shore up and legitimise the grievances of reactionary leaders like Dodik and ovi, even as western embassies blame the country’s dysfunction on their obstructionism. Despite these protests, Dodik believes his hour has come.

To this end, and largely in -co-operation with his partners in the Croat nationalist HDZ, he is trying to turn the October elections into a poll on Bosnia’s future as a state. He has spoken of his desire to unite all the “Serb lands” of the Balkans in the coming decades—a revival of Slobodan Miloševi’s “Greater Serbia” cause. And not a day goes by in which he does not threaten his opposition in the RS or Sarajevo with thinly veiled threats of violence if they stand in his way.


The way forward

Though neither Dodik nor ovi is capable of initiating the scale of violence the country saw in the 1990s, they possess a staggering capacity for chaos. Physical -altercations between Dodik’s party and the opposition in the RS have already become routine. If the October elections in Bosnia produce a contested outcome, such confrontations could quickly spiral out of control. Worse, what happens if the anger seething under the surface of the “Justice for David” protests finally erupts against a regime now backed openly by foreign paramilitaries? What kind of popular rage will be unleashed if a stray bullet or gas cannister kills another youth in Banja Luka, Mostar, or Sarajevo?

Thus the most likely scenario for October is also the grimmest: the nationalists will once again run the board, with Dodik and ovi both winning seats in the country’s tripartite presidency. From that perch, the secessionist pair can almost completely implode the already dysfunctional central government.
"What kind of popular rage will be unleashed if a stray bullet kills another youth?"
As they decide how to proceed, Dodik and ovi will keep a close eye on the Serbia-Kosovo “land swap” currently being discussed by Belgrade and Pristina, which could see part of northern Kosovo predominantly inhabited by Serbs exchanged for an area of Serbia that is home mainly to ethnic Albanians.

This matters for Bosnia because any partition deal will be read by both Dodik and ovi as a signal that the region’s post-Yugoslav boundaries are back in play; they will be emboldened to concoct a crisis in which the weary foreign powers who originally enforced the peace will now agree to likewise (re)partition Bosnia. And if Serbia and Kosovo receive the blessing of the Trump White House to proceed with their “border correction,” even against European objections, then Dodik and ovi will have an American-backed precedent to cite as they unpack Dayton.

In one sense, Bosnia has been here before. Back in 2001, the then HDZ leadership attempted a ham-fisted revival of the Herzeg-Bosna, an incident that nearly provoked a return to hostilities. But that was averted thanks to prompt intervention of international peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers, however, no longer exist. Since 2012, the EU’s contingent in Bosnia, known as EUFOR Althea, has shrunk to a mere 600 personnel. During a recent confrontation between HDZ-controlled police units from Mostar and the state police from Sarajevo who were escorting a convoy of migrants, EUFOR was nowhere to be seen. In sum, the international community no longer has the presence in Bosnia to stop such cynical brinkmanship from getting out of hand.

Since no credible international deterrent is going to be re-established before the election, the EU and US are looking on passively, while they await what will almost inevitably be a calamity in the months to come. If, as predicted, Dodik and ovi orchestrate a major crisis in or around the October elections, one of the only tools available to the international community will be sanctions. Until now, the Europeans have been loath to deploy them. Before long, however, Brussels’s hand may be forced. Because without some sort of meaningful response to the adventurist din in Bosnia, we’ll be a short slide away from a region unravelling, and—perhaps—a return to European boots on the ground.

Paddy Ashdown: if we want return to war in the Balkans we are going about it exactly the right way