Why is Bosnia on the Brink Again?

Bosnia and Herzegovina is once again making headlines. There is talk of renewed violence, with the blessing of Belgrade and Moscow. But the entire region is in a precarious situation.

Back in September 2021, tensions ran high in Montenegro following the decision to anoint Bishop Joanikije II as the new Serbian Orthodox Metropolitan of Montenegro. Since Serbia heavily backs the Serbian Orthodox Church and utilises it to expand its soft power influence throughout the Balkans, its meddling in Montenegro did much to aggravate relations between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Montenegrins, who are a majority. There were explosions, teargas being fired by law enforcement agencies and barricades blocking roads.

Then, towards the end of September, tensions between Kosovo and Serbia came to a boiling point in a dispute over vehicle license plates. NATO forces had to step up patrols as Serbia deployed armoured vehicles and flew its jets low over the Kosovo–Serbia border.

Then the situation in Bosnia escalated when Valentin Inzko, the former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, enacted a law making it illegal to deny genocide. Bosnian Serbs were furious and, led by Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the country’s rotating tripartite presidency, they began boycotting state institutions, essentially bringing the country to a standstill.

Then, likely backed by Belgrade and Moscow, Dodik began brazenly talking of declaring independence. The situation became so heated that the EU’s chief representative in Bosnia warned the UN Security Council that the country is in imminent danger of renewed conflict and partition.

To be clear, Dodik has been flirting with secession since first coming to power in 2006. From time to time, he escalates his rhetoric by playing both the ‘arsonist and fireman’, often gaining short term concessions from EU officials. For example, in 2011 Dodik created an artificial political crisis by arguing that he would not recognise the State Court and State Prosecutor’s office unless foreign judges and advisors were expelled. The EU’s then foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton went to Banja Luka personally to meet Dodik and to calm him down, and within a few months, foreign judges were expelled.

Dodik’s party, the Union of Social Democrats (SNSD), has been winning democratic elections and gaining most of the ethnic Serb votes in the Republic of Srpska over the past 15 years. He has referred to Bosniak Muslims as ‘converts’ and a ‘servile nation’ while members of his political party have used pejorative terms that disparage or belittle Bosniak Muslims. He does not hide his disdain for Bosnia and has on numerous occasions called it a ‘failed state’ and a failed ‘experiment’.

More recently, he has taken concrete steps to cleave away from state institutions by setting up separate governing bodies for the Republic of Srpska and promising to disallow state institutions from functioning on their territory. This includes the creation of the Republic of Srpska’s own pharmaceutical regulatory agency, which was approved by a majority of votes in parliament. Since there were hardly any reactions from the international community or Bosnian state institutions based in Sarajevo (which are effectively blocked from functioning), Dodik voiced his plan to resurrect the Army of the Republic of Srpska, which was not so long ago headed by the génocidaire General Ratko Mladić.

The key regional player in this game is Aleksandar Vučić, the president of Serbia. He has been valued by EU leaders, including outgoing German Chancellor Angel Merkel, as a pillar of stability, a reputation he has skilfully created over the years by artificially stoking tensions in the region and then resolving them. Vučić and Dodik meet very frequently and Dodik enjoys Vučić’s backing. Another key player is Aleksandar Vulin, the former defence minister of Serbia and incumbent interior minister. He has been the key ideological creator of the ‘Serbian world’ concept, which would encompass all Serbs living inside and outside Serbia.

Dodik has Russia’s backing as well. By cultivating links with far-right Serb and Croat politicians and prominent ethnonationalists in Bosnia, Russia encourages the country’s dangerous internal polarisation. Moscow wants Bosnia to remain an ungovernable country. Russia achieves two goals by fomenting chaos in Bosnia – it prevents yet another state from joining NATO; and it makes sure the EU remains preoccupied in South East Europe while Moscow can remain focused on its near abroad – Ukraine, the Black Sea and the Baltics.

Some political analysts argue that Dodik's aggressive tactics are likely fuelled by his own declining popularity ahead of elections next year. Dodik may fear legal repercussions could be levelled against him for corruption and misappropriation of state funds should he lose the election. However, what he is doing is in line with the ideas espoused by hardline Serb nationalists since the 1990s. Dodik has been in power since 2006 and it only shows his popularity among average Bosnian Serbs. The larger objectives of the current crisis are achieving the decades’ old goal of breaking up Bosnia and Herzegovina and adjoining the Republic of Srpska with neighbouring Serbia. Their default enemies are Bosniak Muslims as a people, depicted in Serbian historiography as the physical remnants of the much detested Ottoman Empire.

Along with Serb calls for secession, nationalist Bosnian Croats have also stepped up their calls for greater autonomy in Western parts of the country. An independent Serb and Croat statelet would confine the country's majority Bosniak Muslim population to a landlocked Bantustan whose international borders would be controlled by unfriendly forces. Bosniaks clearly oppose such a move and insist on a unified and multi-ethnic country. This has been a consistent political stance of the Bosniak Muslim leadership since the 1990s. Many have publicly stated that any secession from the state will lead to outright war – one that would undoubtedly have a spillover effect in the region, where Serbia and Croatia would step in to aid Serb and Croat secessionists, as they did in the 1990s.

If you are wondering how 25 years of international tutelage and billions of dollars spent by international organisations on state building, rule of law and reconciliation resulted in this, you have every right to wonder so. Part of the reason was insufficient local knowledge in international organisations. Often, these ‘internationals’, as they were known locally, were far more interested in using their time in Bosnia as a stepping stone in their careers and to earn above-average salaries. They did not speak the local language, and had a limited understanding of the granular dynamics at play on the ground.

Furthermore, there was cognitive dissonance within the top echelons of the EU. They found it far easier to foster peace and security by appeasing ethnonationalist kleptocrats. A case in point was the April 2020 meeting arranged and chaired by the EU’s chief representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Johann Sattler, who instead of inviting state representatives to negotiate the terms of the new IMF loan, instead invited political party leaders of the three major ethnic groups – Bosniak Bakir Izetbegović, Serb Milorad Dodik and Croat Dragan Čović – even though at that point neither Izetbegović nor Čović were elected members of the presidency, but simply leaders of ethnonationalist political parties. In doing so, the EU essentially treated Bosnians as tribes and undermined its own efforts in talking to elected officials and thereby failed to shore up state institutions.

While Dodik’s secessionist proclivities show no sign of abating, Bosniak Muslim intellectuals and political leaders do not seem to have concrete ideas on how to deal with such a destructive force. They place their faith in the international community, hoping it will do its utmost to prevent another war from erupting. They also seem to place immense trust in the legal system, arguing that secessions are illegal and contrary to the existing international legal order. Such an approach shows a lack of understanding of international affairs and great power geopolitics.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Harun Karčić

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