BY RÉJEANNE LACROIX
The Balkan state of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has struggled to achieve a sense of national unity and economic prosperity since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995. Over the years, discord between the regions that compose BiH has been routine as the federal entities of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) and the local self-governing unit Brčko District routinely disagree over constitutional and cultural issues. Political insecurity is palpable as tensions between ethnic groups (Bosniak, Serb, and Croat) and nationalist sentiments have become common in Bosnian internal affairs. For context, Bosnia ranked 77th on the 2021 Fragile States Index, a 2.9 increase in overall fragility, firmly placing it in the “elevated warning” category. Indeed, this trajectory was timely, as the report recently released by Office of the High Representative Christian Schmidt notes that ethnic tensions in Bosnia are at the point where the small Balkan country is at its most severe crisis since the mid-1990s.
Fragile States Index, Country Dashboard, Bosnia and Herzegovina
While the ongoing situation in BiH has been picked up by major international outlets, it is worthwhile to provide a basic primer of Bosnian political arrangements and how they have affected recent developments. The Bosnian political system is labyrinthine and unlike political systems found in any other sovereign states. Both entities have a significant level of autonomy, including their own constitutions, presidents and parliaments — a 98-member House of Representatives in FBiH and an 83-member National Assembly in Republika Srpska. The Brčko District Assembly is the 31-member parliament of the neutral self-governing administrative unit. Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Accord acts as the constitution of BiH, and Article III § 9 declares that the state-level government is responsible for foreign policy and trade, monetary policy, immigration, air traffic control, common and international communications facilities, and inter-entity transportation and criminal law enforcement.[i] However, this arrangement gives FBiH and Republika Srpska de jure power over cultural affairs, policing and internal affairs, education, health care, labor policy, and other relevant matters. As the entities were divided by ethnic composition (FBiH is home to mostly Bosniaks and Croats versus the Serbian majority in Republika Srpska) based on the military front lines at the end of the Bosnian War, this arrangement has resulted in two regions existing as distinct communities with their own political cultures loosely connected through state institutions, rather than a federal structure in which states or provinces have rights but subscribe to a unitary national identity.
Divisions along ethnic lines extend into elections for important offices as well. The 42-member federal House of Representatives is elected by proportional representation with 28 members from FBiH and 14 from Republika Srpska. Conversely, in the House of Peoples (Croat and Bosniak delegates are selected from the House of Representatives in FBiH and Serb delegates are selected from the National Assembly of the Republika Srpska) each community is apportioned 5 seats each. Finally, the three national communities elect their respective members of the Presidency; currently, Milorad Dodik of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) represents Bosnian Serbs, Šefik Džaferović of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) represents Bosniaks and Željko Komšić of the Democratic Front (DF) represents Croats. Presidency is a rotating tripartite presidential arrangement in which each member serves as for 8-months at a time over a 4-year period. While originally meant to provide each group with an opportunity to lead, this framework has instead led to successful politicians using their positions to benefit their regional agenda, rather than focus on common national policies. The combination of nationalist rhetoric, complex internal histories, and ethnic divisions further entrenches discord and gives rise to frequent stalemates.
Above the presidents, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) sits at the pinnacle of Bosnian political arrangements, though it is a diplomatic mission tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Agreement. However, the OHR holds Bonn Powers, or the ability to make “binding decisions… when parties are unable to reach agreement” and the ability to take “actions against persons holding public office or officials… who are found by the High Representative to be in violation of legal commitments” made under the Dayton Agreement.[ii] The OHR is appointed by the Peace Implementation Council, an international body composed of 55 countries, international organizations, and other observers to ensure impartiality. In recent years, this body’s legitimacy has been questioned by ethnic Serb politicians, including current Bosnian Serb member of the presidency Dodik,[iii] as well as states such as the Russian Federation[iv] and China.[v] It is within this context that the events of July 2021 acted as the catalyst for the current predicament.
Two Problems at Once
Tensions over events related to the Bosnian War (1992-1995) often enter into political discussions in BiH; however, legal amendments made by then OHR Valentin Inzko sparked this current impasse. On July 23, 2021, Inzko used his powers to make binding decisions to introduce jail terms for denial or justification of the internationally-recognized Srebrenica genocide or war crimes that occurred during the Bosnian War.[vi] Debate over responsibility of Srebrenica has been a longstanding sticking point between the leadership of Republika Srpska, the government of BiH, international organizations, and the International Criminal Court. Bosnian Serbs have not acknowledged that the Army of Republika Srpska committed genocide and nationalist rhetoric by some politicians have elevated Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić as heroes, though both have been convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.[vii] Keen observers of Balkan politics understood that this decision could destabilize already fragile internal relations. As expected, Dodik told the press that, “This is the last nail in the coffin of BiH, and BiH cannot function after this.”[viii] Only days after, on July 30, the National Assembly of the Serb Republic (NSPS) unanimously adopted the “Law on the Non-Applicability of the Decision of the High Representative Enacting the Law on Amendment to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, thus nullifying the decree by Inzko and any prosecutions related to it in Republika Srpska.[ix] While these events are viewed as serious in the internal affairs of any country, they are typical of contemporary Bosnian political culture, and events at this point did not seem to be especially destabilizing to national unity.
The internal dispute over the genocide denial laws was accompanied by disagreements over the OHR at the international level as well. On July 22, 2021, China and the Russian Federation presented a resolution at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) that ultimately sought to close the OHR on July 31, 2022. Both countries considered the tenets of the peace implementation plan in the Dayton Agreement fulfilled and believe decisions over the political future of BiH should be made without an international overseer.[x] Ultimately, the resolution was rejected and German diplomat Christian Schmidt succeeded Inzko as the OHR on August 1, 2021.
The difference between current events and past instances of prepucavanje (bickering) is that the leadership of Republika Srpska, primarily its presidential representative Dodik, expressed support for tangible means of destabilizing Bosnian state institutions. This factor, combined with stronger efforts to dismantle the office of the OHR, has resulted in a different level of complexity in the BiH unity question. On October 8, 2021, after a meeting of the SNSD, Dodik announced that Republika Srpska would withdraw from the state-level defense law, the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council and the Indirect Taxation Authority.[xi] Such a move would destabilize inter-entity cooperation over the national economic framework, rule of law, and security. Further, Dodik opined that withdrawal from these state-level bodies did not contravene the constitution of BiH, as these state institutions were formed by international peace envoys, and therefore not protected in the constitution.[xii] In light of these proposed moves, the Serb Republic leader noted that Republika Srpska would draft its new constitution with the proposed changes to the entity’s economic system, judiciary, and defense forces by the end of November 2021.
The topic of the continuance of an international peacekeeping force in BiH was debated at the UNSC on November 3, 2021. While previous votes to extend the mandate of the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR- Althea) for an additional 12 months passed easily, the overall debate over the necessity of the OHR complicated matters. Russia and China pushed for the removal of all mentions of the peace envoy from the resolution and Schmidt could not present his report to the Security Council in order to secure authorization of the peacekeeping forces.[xiii] Ultimately, S/RES/2604 (2021) was approved, allowing EUFOR-Althea to continue their mission and permitting NATO to maintain a headquarters in the Balkan country for an additional 12 months.[xiv] However, Schmidt’s report entered the public domain and revealed some concerns. It stated that BiH currently faced the “greatest existential threat of the postwar period”, that the actions by Dodik were “tantamount to secession without proclaiming it”, and briefly discussed the possibility of the reestablishment of the Republika Srpska Army if armed forces based in and loyal to the entity came to possess facilities and armaments belonging to the national BiH Armed Forces (AFBiH).[xv] These warnings grabbed the attention of the international community, subsequently leading to pressure on Dodik to step away from his destabilizing actions.
International attention turned towards the Balkans yet again as some observers hinted at a threat of potential conflict. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar paid a visit to Sarajevo on 7 November where he held meetings with Bosniak, Croat, and Bosnian Serb presidency members. Since this flurry of diplomatic activity, Dodik has stepped back from his strong claims of withdrawing the armed forces based in Republika Srpska.[xvi] However, Dodik has not officially walked back his plans to withdraw Republika Srpska from the state-level judiciary and taxation bodies. Assertions over the secession of the Serb Republic have been routine, but these recent events were of unique significance and the issue could easily flare up to a critical point again.
Debates over the legitimacy of the OHR and the level of autonomy between entities in BiH are inextricably linked to the Dayton Agreement. Although it is viewed as the “most impressive example of conflict resolution”,[xvii] the agreement was imperfect. The decentralization of power and granting of significant autonomy to the entities provided a pathway for peace, but did little to create support for a unified state. The establishment of entities and political representation based on ethnicity gave rise to a scenario where citizens vote along ethnic lines and political parties representing narrow interests. Further, the longstanding tension between Republika Srpska and the OHR has developed into open opposition to the latter, with Bosnian Serb politicians contending that laws created by the OHR are illegitimate and need not be respected.
Politicians are often able to garner significant support through interest-based politics in a country where different ethnicities have extremely complex, unresolved histories. These politicians stoke feelings of victimization, creating an unending cycle of feelings of transgression, threats of secession, blocking cooperation at the state level, and enduring stalemates, leading to developmental stagnation. Since 1995, there has been no real opportunity for all citizens of BiH to “buy in” to the concept of the Bosnian state project and national unity.
While Dodik walked back his rhetoric once diplomatic forces united and pressed the need for a unified BiH, the threat of sanctions by the United States and the European Union remain.[xviii] Though combative with Western powers, Dodik is appreciative of EU programming meant to stabilize and benefit Republika Srpska.[xix] These recent events are a reminder that the Balkans, and BiH in particular, are still experiencing the trials of being new democracies in a neighborhood laden with insecurities. Yet, despite his rhetoric, Dodik himself has stated: “I am not ready to sacrifice peace for a fight for Republika Srpska.”[xx] He must be held to this hopeful sentiment by all that have an interest in the future of a prosperous Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Posts on Deconflictions represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of FFP.
[i] University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, Dayton Peace Accords Annex 4: Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 21 November 1995. http://hrlibrary.umn.edu/icty/dayton/daytonannex4.html
[ii] Office of the High Representative, “Peace Implementation Council (PIC) – Bonn Conclusions”, 1998. http://www.ohr.int/pic-bonn-conclusions/
[iii] Srecko Latal, “New Bosnian Peace Envoy Inherits Mission Impossible”, BalkanInsight, 9 August 2021. https://balkaninsight.com/2021/08/09/new-bosnian-peace-envoy-inherits-mission-impossible/
[iv] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, “Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s Answers to Questions from the Financial Times on Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 29 September 2021. https://www.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4872840
[v] United Nations Security Council, “Security Council Turns Down Resolution That Would End Powers of Bosnia and Herzegovina High Representative”, United Nations, 22 July 2021. https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14585.doc.htm
[vi] Reuters, “Bosnia’s Peace Envoy Imposes Jail Terms for Genocide Denial”, Reuters, 23 July 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/bosnias-peace-envoy-imposes-jail-terms-genocide-denial-2021-07-23/
[vii] CBC News, “Bosnian Serb Leader Wants Official Report into Srebrenica Massacre Revoked”, CBC, 14 August 2018. https://www.cbc.ca/news/world/srebrenica-report-controversy-serbia-1.4784482
[viii] RTS, “Dodik: Republika Srpska odbacuje odluku Valentina Incka/ Dodik: Republika Srpska Rejects Valentin Inzko’s Decision”, RTS, 23 July 2021. https://www.rts.rs/page/stories/ci/story/3/region/4454424/dodik-incko-odluka-.html
[ix] National Assembly of Republika Srpska, “Narodna skupština usvojila Zakon o neprimjenjivanju Odluke visokog predstavnika i Zakon o dopuni Krivičnog zakonika/ The National Assembly Adopted the Law on the Non-Applicability of the Decision of the High Representative Enacting the Law on Amendment to the Criminal Code, 30 July 2021. https://www.narodnaskupstinars.net
[x] United Nations Security Council, “Security Council Turns Down Resolution.”
[xi] Reuters, “Serbs Say They Will Pull Their Region Out of Bosnia’s Army, Judiciary, Tax System”, 8 October 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/serbs-say-they-will-pull-their-region-out-bosnias-army-judiciary-tax-system-2021-10-08/
[xii] Reuters, “Serbs Say They Will.”
[xiii] Michelle Nichols, “U.N. Extends EU-Force in Bosnia after Russia, China Appeased”, Reuters, 3 November 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/china/un-extends-eu-force-bosnia-after-russia-china-appeased-2021-11-03/
[xiv] United Nations Security Council, “Security Council Extends Mandate of European Union-Led Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina for One Year, Adopting Resolution 2604 (2021), United Nations, 3 November 2021. https://www.un.org/press/en/2021/sc14685.doc.htm
[xv] Office of the High Representative, “60th Report of the High Representative for Implementation of the Peace Agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Secretary-General of the United Nations”, 5 November 2021. http://www.ohr.int/60th-report-of-the-high-representative-for-implementation-of-the-peace-agreement-on-bosnia-and-herzegovina-to-the-secretary-general-of-the-united-nations/
[xvi] Julian Borger, “Bosnia and Surrounding Region Still Heading for Crisis, Says Top Official”, The Guardian, 24 November 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/24/bosnia-and-surrounding-region-still-heading-for-crisis-says-top-official
[xvii] Charles-Phillipe David, “Alice in Wonderland Meets Frankenstein: Constructivism, Realism and Peacebuilding in Bosnia, Contemporary Security Policy 22:1 (2010) p. 8.
[xviii] Daniel Boffey, “Bosnian Serb Leader: Putin and China Will Help If West Imposes Sanctions”, The Guardian, 29 November 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/nov/29/bosnian-serb-leader-putin-and-china-will-help-if-west-imposes-sanctions
[xx] Daria Sito-sucic, “I’ll Not Sacrifice Peace for Republika Srpska, Bosnian Serb Leader Says”, Reuters, 11 November 2021. https://www.reuters.com/world/ill-not-sacrifice-peace-republika-srpska-bosnian-serb-leader-says-2021-11-11/