The Crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The news that the European military force in Sarajevo, EUFOR Althea, will be receiving reinforcements has been positively received in Bosnia and Herzegovina

13 April 2022

The current system is unfortunately the result of escalation and perpetuation of tensions and chaos, especially by the generation of politicians that emerged from the war in the first half of the 1990s and their career successors. 

Since the last census of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013, half a million people have left the country by 2021. At the time of the census, it had 3.6 million people, and before the war in the first half of the 1990s, it had about 4.5 million inhabitants. 

In 2021 alone, a staggering 175 000 citizens emigrated from their beautiful but miserable homeland. For the sake of comparison and to understand the enormity of this figure, it should be noted that, after the capital Sarajevo, the second-largest city, Banja Luka, has 185 000 inhabitants. 

That is to say, in a single year, almost an entire large city has left Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, it is no longer mainly young people, which is typical of almost all the countries of the Western Balkans, but increasingly complete families, so to speak including the middle-aged. 

If this trend were to continue, according to the UN Population Fund’s projections, there would be only 1.6 million people living in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2070. 

The reason is the lack of prospects in life — surveys confirm that it takes an average of 5 years to get a job. Polls say that young people are convinced that nothing will change in the next 5-10 years.

Active Disintegration by Dodik

Among the Western Balkan countries in their accession process to the European Union, Bosnia and Herzegovina is probably at the lowest level.  There is no coherent, unifying vision for the organisation and future of this state, which is both disintegrated and dysfunctional. 

This is despite the fact that formally, since the end of the war in 1995, there has been the Dayton Peace Agreement, which defines the constitutional structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state composed of two entities — the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. 

In mid-2021, the threats and actions of the ruling nationalist political current in the Republika Srpska aimed at shaping administrative steps (especially in the sphere of the judiciary, security and military structures) towards the separation of this entity from the state organism of Bosnia and Herzegovina, i.e. towards the disintegration of the state, intensified. 

These actions are associated in particular with the person of Milorad Dodik, who is the dominant figure of the nationalist forces in the Republika Srpska and is part of the three-member Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina; the collective head of state.

Ghosts From the Past Haunt Once Again

In the context of these developments, memories of the tragic 1990s, the time of the bloody and tragic break-up of Yugoslavia, marked by wars, ethnic cleansing, mass murder and genocide, have also been revived. 

In May 2021, intellectuals from the Western Balkan states, as well as from other European countries and the United States, in an appeal with 250 signatures of prominent personalities, warned the leaders of the European Union, the United States and the governments of NATO member states that:

the growing nationalism, the ideas of border changes, the tensions in the Western Balkan states are irresistibly reminiscent of the 1990s, and any relativisation of the seriousness of the situation would be erroneous and threatening

One of the signatories of the appeal, the well-known journalist and university professor Dinko Gruhonjic, who stated that nationalist ideas, extremism and considerations of border changes are very much alive and that ‘Russia, through Belgrade and its satellite Republika Srpska, is exerting a morbid influence on the region.’ 

And in it, ‘maps are being drawn showing the territories that are to be allocated to the various ‘interested parties’. We all remember that this has cost us over 130,000 dead, millions displaced and tens of thousands maimed and raped.’

EU Reinforcements to Calm Tensions

In this situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the news that the European military force in Sarajevo, EUFOR Althea, will be receiving reinforcements has been positively received. 

Competent EU and NATO authorities have made a final decision on this in the course of 2020-2021. In addition to the current 500 troops from 19 countries, another 600 will come from Bulgaria, Austria, Romania and Slovakia — the first troops have already arrived this year. 

The rationale for the move is: 

The deteriorating international security situation could potentially trigger instability in the BiH. This is a prudent measure that reflects the clear commitment of the EU and EUFOR to safeguarding the integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Security analysts stress that the EU is not strengthening its military presence in the country because of the war in Ukraine, but primarily because of the separatist-motivated actions of the ruling circles in Republika Srpska, one of the two entities in BiH, which are attempting to unconstitutionally transfer state powers to the entity. 

In January 2021, the competent authorities of the Slovak Republic approved an increase in the number of members of the Slovak military contingent in the country and in the reserve forces — which are still in their home countries — of the EUFOR Althea operation.

EU Integration Still Far Away

The European Commission’s 2021 report was very critical in its assessment of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Euro-integration process. The Commission’s experts saw no progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime, in the area of public procurement, and pointed out that the legislative and executive branches had little influence on the country’s affairs due to political polarisation and the negative effects of the pandemic. 

There has been no progress in exercising and guaranteeing freedom of expression in the media and protecting journalists. One positive is that Bosnia and Herzegovina has stepped up its efforts to manage the migration situation, but there is still a lack of systematic effort in this regard. 

Collaboration of the Old Guard

The current system is unfortunately the result of escalations and perpetuation of tension and chaos, especially by the generation of politicians that emerged from the war in the first half of the 1990s and their career successors. 

Milorad Dodik, the bearer of the politics of destruction, has already been mentioned. Now a few words about Dragan Čović of the Croatian Corps, who, unlike Dodik, is more subtle, but there is no disputing that the tendencies toward a new institutional and territorial organisation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are the work of the coordinated action of these two politicians and a not inconsiderable plethora of their supporters and collaborators. 

In Čović’s case, it is an attempt to revive the wartime concept of Herceg-Bosnia, which has also received a well-deserved condemnation at the Hague Tribunal. True, now in disguise. His idea is partly wrapped up in a call for electoral reform resulting in the formation of a third entity. 

If he does not get away with it, he is threatening to boycott the September 2022 elections. In doing so, pundits say this is just purposeful tension-mongering because of course Čović will not boycott the elections. 

He would risk losing the support of some 5 000 members of his HDZ (Croatian Democratic Community) party, whose good positions and salaries in the state and public administration would be threatened by a boycott. And Čović would suddenly become an ordinary citizen after more than 20 years. 

He would no longer have immunity and its protective shield from charges, indictments and prosecution for all that he has stolen and done in over 20 years in corruption actions of extraordinary proportions. 

Outside Forces Egging Them On

And the same would probably apply to Milorad Dodik, who has been sanctioned at least twice for so-called gigantic corruption activities — most recently earlier this year — on the basis of very accurate and reliable documentation from the relevant US financial, customs and judicial authorities. 

Admittedly, in his case, it is more complicated, because these sanctions, the justification of which is well known to the investigative and judicial authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and the EU, would have to be adopted by consensus in the EU as well. But in this case, he is being protected by his friend, the now five-time Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. 

Moreover, it is a big problem that both men are being egged on from Belgrade and Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, an EU Member State. The re-elected Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić, regularly swears that Serbia is in favour of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but Dodik regularly consults in Belgrade on how best to disintegrate Bosnia and Herzegovina and implement the project of a ‘Serbian world’, that is, a Greater Serbia. And Čović receives similarly encouraging suggestions from Zagreb. 

As regards the effectiveness of the Dayton Peace Agreement, its importance for ending the war and establishing peace in the BiH is indisputable and lasting. Since its inception and signing in 1995 by those most involved, that is, Presidents Slobodan Milošević, Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegović, and let us not forget the signatures of the key big players on behalf of the UN, the European Union and NATO — the US, Russia, the UK, France, Germany and Spain — it has been much debated. 

However, any changes to the treaty must also be agreed by the aforementioned entities. Certainly, over time, some of the shortcomings of the whole treaty system, which includes the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, have become apparent. However, the international community must reject any questioning of the integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina guaranteed by the agreement. 

It must also help to correct any shortcomings in this system by supporting the reform process. For example, the system of state bodies and public administration is monstrous and inflexible, and there are other issues that create barriers on the road to the integration of BiH into the EU. The country has three parliaments, three governments, ten cantons with strong regional governments, hundreds of MPs and ministers. 

However, almost 400 000 citizens – members of national minorities – do not have the opportunity to be elected to the three-member Presidency of the BaH and to the House of Peoples of the state parliament. This right belongs only to members of the constituent peoples – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. The European Court of Human Rights has already issued five judgments by 2009, according to which the BaH must resolve this problem. 

How Civil Society Can Play a Role

It is important that EU Member States and NGOs, in cooperation with domestic partners, help to create a space for democracy, freedom and the rule of law in the Western Balkans, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, that is resistant to nationalism and authoritarianism. For example, the project of the National Convention on the European Union (born at the Slovak Society for Foreign Policy), which has become an important export of Slovakia’s know-how in the Western Balkans, has the potential to work effectively there in favour of the spread of European values and stability. It has already proved its worth in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Serbia, and will do well to continue in the interests of the Union’s enlargement.

The new methodology of the EU enlargement process, which should simplify and speed up the accession process for candidates for membership of the Union, has not yet taken off very well. Rather, it remains only on paper. This can be seen in the fact that it has been several years since accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia could not be opened, despite the fact that both states have fulfilled all the requirements for opening them. 

The impetus for positive change in the emergency situation following the Russian aggression against Ukraine was the action of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who signed his country’s application to join the European Union on 28 February 2022. At the same time, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia (joined by Hungary) proposed that the Council of the European Union urgently recognises Ukraine as a candidate for membership in the Union. 

The idea raised sympathy, but also a number of questions, for example about the state of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. In addition to the understandable difficulty of meeting the membership criteria, this process is also a testimony to the bureaucratic dragging out of the accession process. The current period of the crisis caused by Russia’s brutal aggression underlines the importance of a real dynamisation of the Union’s enlargement in the Western Balkans, which is a strategic matter, an interest in the stability and security of the European Union itself. The situation that has arisen is an opportunity and a challenge to quickly overcome the stagnation of the overall enlargement process, particularly in the Western Balkans.

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


Picture: European Commission Newsroom Offical Meeting with the Presidency of BiH


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