Political Hostage Crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Ethnonationalists Keep Each Other in Power And the People Pay the Price

24 November 2021

Political mishaps and blockades in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), which have become an integral part of the political system in the country, have again become the focus of Europe and the world.

The latest barricade of state institutions has some questioning whether a new armed conflict is possible. For others, the latest decision by the ruling elites from Republika Srpska (RS) has revitalised a decade-long concept of independence of this entity from BiH, which is being promoted by the undisputed Bosnian Serb authoritarian leader Milorad Dodik.

Political Takeover

In public appearances, Dodik often stated — when someone mentioned to him that he was a Bosnian Serb — that he felt as if his healthy tooth was being extracted. Moreover, his presidency does not recognise the legitimacy of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a nation; instead, he considers it a failed and inadequate state while working publicly and openly on its dissolution.

As the leader of Alliance of Independent Social Democrats and in the process of equating himself with Republika Srpska itself, Dodik took over almost all functions in the entity with the tacit consent of close associates — he simultaneously serves as its president, the speaker of parliament, who convenes sessions of the RS National Assembly and determines their agenda, chief epidemiologist, judge and prosecutor.

He also gladly takes over the role of an editor in certain media while publicly insulting and chastising those whom he deems unloyal. In just a decade, he made the way from a favourite child of the West to a man who now labels all pro-Western people (who make a small number in RS) as foreign agents, mercenaries and traitors.

Calamities Highlight Mismanagement

Political crises have become an integral part of entertainment in BiH. They predominantly intensify prior to elections or are used to create a specific patriotic and ethnonational ambience, a perfect screen for corruption, major scandals’ cover-ups and the plundering of public goods by quasi-political elites.

The latest crisis erupted during a major affair related to the COVID-19 pandemic when it was revealed that patients in Republika Srpska hospitals had been treated with industrial oxygen (which is not suitable for human consumption) instead of the medical grade version.

Republika Srpska has one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world (per one million inhabitants), and political authorities managed to convince the local public using strong propaganda and derogation of RS institutions that it is good to treat them with industrial oxygen. Instead of an apology and reversal of policy, RS claims industrial oxygen is cheaper, can be procured through companies close to the government and has satisfactory cleanliness. By contrast, in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the affair with respirators and their procurement during the pandemic is receiving a court epilogue, and one of the first indictees is Prime Minister Fadil Novalić.


The Bosnian-Herzegovinian tango is played by three tribal chiefs, or leaders of the people, as international officials define them in the negotiations on the ‘hostage crisis’, in which BiH citizens have been detained for more than two decades.

In a captive state, ruled by a partitocracy, public concerns are subordinated to party, private and exclusively personal interests. European Union enquiries into these issues have been ongoing for almost two years, and responses to 22 items from the acquis communautaire are still due.

During this same time, an exodus has been occurring. In the first six months of this year, 81,000 people left BiH. They mostly go to that ‘hateful’ West, and almost no one goes to brotherly Russia.

Out of 14 priorities from the European Commission, received in 2019, the BiH government has managed to fulfil only one. This dynamic reflects the real mood and lack of interest of domestic authorities to civilise the country according to European legal standards because the chaos created in this way is perfectly suitable for enormous personal enrichment, the privatisation of institutions, the breaking of laws and manipulation of ignorant people.

Tragic, Albeit Familiar, Origins

How did the current crisis in BiH begin? Formally, when the former High Representative for BiH, Valentin Inzko, just before leaving office (and the country) made a decision on changes to the Criminal Code of BiH at the end of July 2021.

He essentially imposed on the country’s politicians and officials a law prohibiting them to deny genocide, in which they have valiantly competed in recent years. Civilizational shame and the belittling of victims from the recent war has become an integral part of mainstream politics in this country.

When Valentin Inzko enacted the changes, it caused a burst of dissatisfaction among politicians in RS. Serbian politicians justified their non-acceptance of this decision to the citizens by the fact that, in their interpretation, Inzko marked the entire Serbian people as genocidal, which is another in a series of deceptions by local politicians.

Nowhere in Inzko’s decision is there an ethnic prefix, and to make this whole situation even more absurd, the Criminal Code of Serbia contains identical provisions to those suggested by the former High Representative for BiH. However, it is true that some Bosniak politicians consider RS ​​a ‘genocidal creation’ by equating individual criminals with collective guilt.

It is unfortunate that this law and the attitude towards war crimes are not the fruit of the maturing or expanding awareness of domestic politicians, that they must be told that war criminals, although ours, are not heroes.

Here, too, Milorad Dodik experienced a metamorphosis of attitudes. Immediately after the war, he was the first Serbian politician to publicly say that Radovan Karadžić’s and Ratko Mladić’s place was in The Hague and that they had to answer for the crimes committed during the 1990s.

Today, Dodik considers them the fathers and creators of RS; they are not criminals, and no genocide was committed in Srebrenica. And the ban on genocide denial, instigated by Inzko, was perceived in the ruling circles in RS as a gross attack on freedom of opinion. It is paradoxical that such a premise has been promoted by those who in past distinguished themselves by limiting freedom of opinion and media in their acts against dissenters.

The Office of the High Representative in BiH (OHR) is still an integral part of the BiH legal and political system, and its closure is possible once the 5 + 2 conditions are met. This includes an acceptable and sustainable solution for military assets, full implementation of the Brčko Final Award and fiscal sustainability (i.e., the establishment of the National Fiscal Council). The biggest stumbling block in fulfilling the set conditions is the revival of the rule of law, which includes the adoptions of the National War Crimes Strategy, the Law on Foreigners and Asylum and the National Strategy for Judicial Reform.

Sabotaging Institutions and Old Divisions

In any case, the prohibition regarding genocide denial of the former High Representative, as well as the announcement that he could be succeeded by the German Christian Schmidt, led to the decisions to not participate in the work of BiH institutions and to not recognise the new High Representative. Christian Schmidt was subjected to a barrage of insults, belittling and being declared a persona non grata on the territory of the RS. Today’s Germany was equated in rhetoric with Nazi Germany, in which Milorad Dodik was the lead orator.

The decision on the blockade of state institutions meant in practice that everyone from Republika Srpska who works in the Presidency of BiH, the Council of Ministers of BiH and the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH will not perform their duties until the controversial decision of Valentin Inzko is withdrawn.

Milorad Dodik – Medija centar Beograd, CC BY-SA 3.0

The Republika Srpska opposition is of the same opinion as Dodik when it comes to war crimes and dealing with the past. Although for years the opposition focused their criticism on the crime and corruption of the government, their destruction of public goods and the weakening of institutions under autocratic rule, this time — with the explanation that they were protecting Republika Srpska — they provided a lifeline to Milorad Dodik, whose rating began to fall significantly.

As his first reaction to Inzko’s decision, Milorad Dodik once again threatened the independence of Republika Srpska, a concept he announced initially in 2006 and continues to raise almost every year. In contrast, Haris Silajdžić (from the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina — a Bosniak nationalist political party) demanded a BiH without entities and the abolition of Republika Srpska. Since then, the unrest and fear that the elites have been producing against one another have marred political life in BiH.

After Inzko’s last decision in July, Milorad Dodik renewed his call to create an independent state, come what may. In a short time, he softened his intentions, offering an independent RS within BiH, whatever that meant. He later activated the idea of ​​a peaceful split in BiH, which resulted in the rattling of weapons and preparations for a possible war, both in the media and among the so-called leaders of the people.

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Representatives of the international community remain mostly silent and are waiting for Dodik’s specific move, which if he undertakes instead of continuing with the threats that the country has been exposed to for the last ten years, would mean a blow to the constitutional and legal order of BiH. For Bosniak politicians, there is no option of ‘peaceful secession’, they only accept the option of full protection of the internationally recognised state of BiH.

Representatives of the opposition also took part in the adoption of the decision to block the state institutions. After that, Dodik created a red line demanding the return of 140 competencies which he says were ‘stolen’ from Republika Srpska although the parliamentarians of his own party voluntarily participated in their transfer.

Then, via an expedited procedure, he adopted a law on the drugs agency of the Republika Srpska in the National Assembly, where the parliamentarians have been only his voting machine, although the law is supposed to enter into force after six months. The opposition is giving up its participation in ‘Milorad Dodik’s hazardous policy’ and is coming out of his embrace, warning that the biggest cost of such an insane policy would be paid by the citizens of RS. This serves as just another reason for Dodik to blame them for the lack of patriotism; yet, at the same time and despite such criticism, Dodik calls on the ‘treacherous’ opposition to show their allegiance.

In the next round of legislation, Dodik announced the peaceful occupation of the military barracks in Republika Srpska had to be run by Serbs, which Dodik announced to the public on 27 September. ‘I am referring to the case where Slovenians did just fine, that is blocked the barracks and said that the guys who did not suit them, and there were Bosniaks there, as far as I know, had to leave,’ said Milorad Dodik.

Furthermore, he stated that ‘we will not touch anyone, no one will miss a hair from their head, and in the end, I believe that Bosniak and Croat soldiers will understand that.’

Bosniaks ‘neither understand nor support the RS’s withdrawal from the agreement on the BiH Armed Forces and the annulment of the powers of the Indirect Taxation Authority of BiH in the Republika Srpska, just like the withdrawal from the agreement on the BiH judiciary, i.e., on the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, aimed at blocking the activity of the Court and the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH, and the State Investigation and Protection Agency in the Republika Srpska entity.’

The entire policy of the leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats is based on the exclusive right of its president to be the protector of Serbian national interests, to the extent determined partly by himself and partly by Belgrade. Crossing the red line and insisting on the so-called original Dayton Agreement could ultimately lead to the abolition of the Republika Srpska itself and a return to the BiH Constitution, which does not provide for the entities, the opposition warns.

Threats of referendums and secession are an integral part of the policy which purpose is to blackmail the international community and other domestic actors. The question remains the same: what is the price of the return of Milorad Dodik and his political subjects to the BiH institutions and what will be the result of the political deal with international officials, who are closely following the events due to the new threat and challenge.

Current State of Affairs

Where is BiH today? Caught somewhere between the weak and inconsistent international community (i.e., the European Union) which focuses on itself while emphasising that BiH indisputably belongs to the European family, the Office of the High Representative in BiH, whose legitimacy is disputed in half of the country, and the domestic ethnonational kleptomaniacs who devastated the country materially, culturally, spiritually and economically.

A good part of the international community has ‘balkanised’ this area — and took on the bad manners of local politicians — by naively believing that having autocrats in the region is a guarantee of stability and peace, sacrificing democracy and human rights for the sake of stabilocracy. They moved the decision-making process from institutions to pubs and accepted ‘leaders of the people’ as the main and only negotiators.

In fact, the verbal war in BiH has never stopped. Public and political space is poisoned by hate speech, which is becoming normal and common, political actors advocate exclusionary and irreconcilable concepts, unwilling to compromise which is perceived here exclusively as a weakness. Constantly using harsh words and creating tensions, ethnonationalists continue to feed on each other and keep each other in power all these years.

The solution is to retire these politicians and place them where they have belonged for a long time — in prison. There is only a glimmer of hope that a weak judiciary without integrity will be able to break free from the embrace of politics and criminal structures, and it is unlikely that those fleeing BiH will change their long-prepared departure from the country.

This article is part of the Western Balkans Project supported by the International Visegrad Fund.



Tanja Topić

Journalist and Head of Friedrich Ebert Foundation office in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina.


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