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30 years after Yugoslavia ruptured in horror and war, the drumbeat of rising ethnic tension gains tempo in Bosnia

© Darko Vojinovic/AP/ShutterstockTwo women in front of a mural of former Bosnian Serb military chief and convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic that has been vandalised with paint in Belgrade
Two women in front of a mural of former Bosnian Serb military chief and convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic that has been vandalised with paint in Belgrade

It is three decades since the break-up of the former Yugoslavia; the bloodiest European conflict since the Second World War; the loss of around 100,000 lives and ethnic cleansing, a freshly-coined euphemism for the ancient horror of genocide.

Now, more than 25 years after the final peace agreement, some observers fear ethnic tensions in Bosnia are again threatening to ignite catastrophe. Bosnian Serbs in the predominantly Serb-populated Republika Srpska entity are obstructing the work of Bosnia’s central government and their separatist leader Milorad Dodik has announced the dismantling of key state institutions, putting the entity on the path to possible secession.

The UN High Representative for Bosnia & Herzegovina warned in a report that Bosnia is facing an “the greatest existential threat of the post-war period,” endangering the hard-won peace.

Living in the Serbian capital of Belgrade during the war years of the 1990s, it was all too clear to me how deep the divisions ran between the different peoples of the former Yugoslavia. The work of healing those rifts seemed then to be the work of generations, and underneath the uneasy peace brought in by the 1995 Dayton Accord, which ended the Bosnian war, has always festered the threat of a renewed conflagration.

Dayton carved Bosnia into two autonomous blocs, the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and the Federation dominated by Croats and (Muslim) Bosniaks, linked in a common state, an unwieldy structure that has lead to obstructive tactics between the parties, hindering reconciliation and economic recovery. Tensions remain between the three groups.

While historically the US and EU were the most prominent actors wrestling with Balkan troubles, the EU now has to contend with its own internal problems, including the departure of the UK through Brexit. Meanwhile it has yet to be confirmed whether after the Donald Trump years, America has returned as a bedrock of multilateralism, as Joe Biden asserts.

International players are more divided now than ever. Russia, under Putin, is seeking to destabilise Bosnia, thereby rendering it too dysfunctional to join the EU or Nato. As part of this plan Moscow has tried to close the office of the High Representative and block any new appointment. China, as part of its Belt And Road initiative, is developing an increasing interest in the region, offering loans for infrastructure projects as a form of “debt diplomacy”.

The incentive to promote respect for democratic norms and reforms in Bosnia has always been the prospect of EU membership, but the hopes of West Balkan countries joining the EU any time soon were effectively sunk at a summit in October when EU leaders were unable to commit to any timeline for them to join the club.

Dodik, who came to power as a pro-western moderate before swerving into hardline nationalism, has for years been banging the anti-Muslim drum, denying the 1995 genocide of 8,000 Bosniaks in Srebrenica, and threatening to split the federal state by seeking union with Serbia.

The latest tensions were triggered in July when the then-High Representative made it illegal to deny the Srebenica massacre constituted genocide, as established by the both International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court for Former Yugoslavia.

But taken together, the change in geopolitical dynamics, the encouragement from Russia and China and support from Serbia, seems to have been emboldened Dodik, providing him with a pretext to threaten the “dissolution” of Bosnia.

Dodik said the Serb Republic will pull out of Bosnia’s armed forces, top judiciary body and tax administration – blocking institutional decision-making.

He announced the takeover of military barracks in Republika Srpska (RS) and claimed a survey among soldiers in the Bosnian Armed Forces indicated strong support among Serbs for joining a Bosnian Serb army, claiming disingenuously that RS can initiate all these de-stabilising moves peacefully “like when Slovenia left Yugoslavia”. In reality dozens died in the so-called 10-Day War.

Some see Dodik’s rough talk as mere posturing to drum up support among nationalists, as he looks likely to face a corruption probe. Dodik’s talk of secession is nothing new, according to Kenneth Morrison, professor of south eastern Europe at De Montfort University in Leicester, but it is the threat of sanctions has always made him turn back.

This time his proposals are certainly more serious, said Morrison, citing the potential reformation of the Army of Republika Srpska, the body responsible for the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica and the near four-year siege of Sarajevo.

Until a few months ago Senada Šelo Šabic, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Development and International Relations in Zagreb, dismissed the talk as “election rhetoric”. Now she is convinced the threat is real. The risk of conflict “exists and is significant, although not inevitable”, she said.

Annulling the decision by the High Representative means that he has already crossed the Rubicon, she said. “Now he is openly defying the constitution. This is not an election campaign but a clear path to dividing the country.”

Morrison says the situation today, with no sign of appetite for conflict, is not comparable to 1991/2 when the Bosnian Serb Army had acquired a significant quantity of arms from the Yugoslav People’s Army.

In Morrison’s view, Dodik’s strategy is probably not to pursue armed conflict but “by withdrawing from state level institutions, to render the Bosnian state completely dysfunctional”, making the case for secession.

Dusko Perovic, a trade envoy for the Republika Srpska and friend of Dodik’s, told The Sunday Post that the Bosnian Serbs wanted merely to maintain the powers granted to them in the Dayton accords, amid what they see as creeping centralisation of power.

“The position of Mr Dodik and the Republika Srpska is that we just want respect for Dayton and the rights guaranteed on autonomy.”

The High Representative has no legitimacy in their view.

Perovic claimed Dodik had no true intention to secede. “Independence is expensive and we don’t want to join with Sebia, Dodik has joked that after a few months we would fight to leave.”

The Bosnian Serbs don’t want a war either, he said. “We have no army, we can’t make a war without machine guns. The risk of conflict is not from our side.”

He said Russian support has been limited only to political backing, with no funding, or weapons.

Whatever the intentions of the Bosnian Serbs, the provocative rhetoric could inflame developments to a point where they are no longer under Dodik’s control.

Šabic believes the international community needs to wake up to the risks. “The EU is not taking the problem seriously enough. Where are Europe’s red lines?”

If there is a conflict “it will be Europe that feels the consequences with a new migration crisis”, she pointed out.

Morrison sees a need for constitutional reform to that could embolden civic-based parties and break the stranglehold of ethno-nationalist groups. And bolstered sanctions on Dodik and his SNSD party.

Šabic suggests sending additional military personnel to bolster the Eufor European mission, or even a Nato force, “if people see the military it would act as a calming factor”, she said.

She remains pessimistic that the international community, paralysed by lack of unity and political will, is capable of acting fast or decisively enough to prevent the crisis escalating.

In the 1990s the West left it too long before intervening, it should not make the same mistake again.