Is Bosnia facing another civil war?

Allegations of fraud mar elections as Putin-ally claims victory

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik
(Image credit: Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images)

For four years following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Western powers decided against intervention as ethnic conflict gripped Bosnia.

More than 100,000 people were killed during the 1992-95 war, which led to mass murder on a scale not witnessed in Europe since the Second World War.

Now, over a quarter of a century on from the peace deal that ended the war, those powers are again being confronted by the potential for deadly sectarian fighting.

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Bosnia’s electorate went to the polls on 2 October to choose from what The Independent described as “the long-established cast of sectarian candidates and their challengers” who pledged to eradicate “corruption and clientelism in government”.

As expected, there has been no great reconciliation “after a general election that otherwise maintained entrenched divisions between the Balkan state’s three main ethnic groups”, wrote Marton Dunai in the Financial Times. The three groups, said the FT, are “the mostly Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs”.

Bosnia’s “institutional set-up” is “often described as one of the most complicated in the world”, said the Belfast Telegraph. However, the prevailing story from Sunday’s controversial vote was the election of Milorad Dodik, a close ally of Vladimir Putin’s, to the presidency of Republika Srpska, one of the state’s two political entities.

“Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets”, reported the Daily Mail, amid allegations that Dodik “rigged the poll in his favour”.

Dodik, a “nationalist politician [who] has repeatedly called for the separation of Republika Srpska from the rest of Bosnia”, has been “the most powerful politician in the Bosnian Serb half of Bosnia for years”, said the Mail. Yet his recent election, and the accusations of fraud engulfing him, are “fuelling fears in the West that Moscow might try to create further instability in volatile Bosnia”.

Concerns over Dodik’s role in Bosnia’s future have been long-standing. Last year, Šefik Džaferović, joint president of the country under its power-sharing system, warned: “If Dodik carries on and nothing is done by the international community, it will most certainly result in conflict breaking out again.”

Uneasy truce

The Bosnian War was triggered when Bosnia and Herzegovina joined several republics of the former Yugoslavia and declared independence. After three and a half years of bloodshed, the conflict was ended by the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

By early 2008, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had convicted 45 Serbs, 12 Croats, and four Bosniaks of war crimes committed during the war.

Many thousands of Bosniaks and Croats died in concentration camps run by Serb forces at sites including Omarska and Trnopolje. But the Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered, was the most notorious act of genocide.

Better known as the Dayton Accords, the peace deal saw the majority Muslim Bosniaks and Serb separatists, who fought under the flag of the Republika Srpska, agree to a single sovereign state.

But in what The Washington Post described as “a complex compromise”, this state was divided into two parts: the largely Serb-populated Republika Srpska and mainly Croat-Bosniak-populated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The deal “reestablished Bosnia as a unified state and granted the right of return for victims of ethnic cleansing”, a move that ran contrary to the “wishes of Serb and Croat ultra-nationalists”, the paper continued.

But it also “adopted ethnic federal structures recognising Republika Srpska as a political entity with self-governing rights”, something Bosniaks opposed.

The uneasy peace has been maintained ever since. But a report by UN High Representative Christian Schmidt in November 2021 warned that threats by Dodik, the newly elected president of Republika Srpska, to “pull out of state-level institutions” is “tantamount to secession”.

The suggestion that Serbs could form their own military “endangers not only the peace and stability of the country and the region, but – if unanswered by the international community – could lead to the undoing of the [Dayton Accords] agreement itself”, Schmidt wrote in his first report since becoming Bosnian overseer.

A splintering of the military “into two or more armies” would mean “the level of international military presence would require reassessment”, he added. “A lack of response to the current situation would endanger the [Dayton Accords], while instability in BiH would have wider regional implications.”

‘Shopping spree’

Schmidt’s report came shortly after Bosnian Serb police held what they described as an “anti-terrorist” drill just outside the capital Sarajevo. The move was “seen by many as another provocation by the Serb separatist leadership”, reported Al Jazeera.

The exercise took place on 22 October in a ski resort at Mount Jahorina, an “area from where the Bosnian Serb military relentlessly shelled and sniped Sarajevo” during the conflict three decades ago.

The drill “involved armoured vehicles, helicopters, and special police force personnel in camouflage uniforms and armed with assault rifles”, the broadcaster added, and prompted the EU peacekeeping force that has remained in the country since the 1990s to deploy “an aircraft to monitor the exercise”.

Former Republika Srpska president Dodik “is conducting a reckless but illuminating political experiment”, said Balkan Insight.

The Serb ultra-nationalist appears to be “on a step-by-step campaign to unravel the Bosnian state, dismantle its institutions, and to realise long-stated desires for the secession of the Serb-led entity”, the news site added. “At the current rate, he may yet declare the Republika Srpska formal independence in due course.”

A “frequent genocide denier”, Dodik’s political ambition is “to secede from the Bosnian state, having rid it of its Muslim population, and join with next-door Belgrade to form a ‘Greater Serbia’”, according to Hamza Karcic, a professor in the Faculty of Political Science at the University of Sarajevo.

In an opinion piece for Haaretz, Karcic wrote that as part of his bid to achieve this goal, which “informed the wartime Serb leaders as well”, Dodik is “establishing closer links with Russia, and positioning himself as the supreme centre of political gravity in Republika Srpska”.

He is in effect “attempting to force the failure of the Bosnian state”, the academic added.

During the 1990s, ethnic Serb forces in Bosnia were supported by both Russia and the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević. And as tensions rise again, concern is mounting over a recent “shopping spree for weapons” by the Serbian government, The Economist said.

Former Yugoslavian states are worried that Serbia’s army is “rising from the ashes”, having “decayed” following multiple conflicts in the 1990s, the paper reported.

“If Serbia were merely modernising its armed forces, no one would mind.” But given Bosnia’s “political turmoil”, the spending has “set off alarms”.

‘Gordian knot’

Serb leaders in Bosnia are “playing with fire”, according to Der Spiegel. Dodik is continually “stoking nationalist flames” through a series of moves that have put the country on “a dangerous path in an explosive region”.

Bosnia “remains an ethnic patchwork” and “a complicated political construct”, said the German magazine. So the ongoing threat to the Dayton Accords has prompted fears over whether Europe is “prepared for a potential outbreak of violence”.

In The Times, former Conservative leader William Hague warned that the Western countries which took so long to decide in favour of intervention in the 1990s must “face down” the rising danger as “simmering ethnic tensions in Bosnia will plunge Europe into crisis”.

“History has shown many times that we neglect the western Balkans at our peril,” he said. “The collapse in Afghanistan indicates what happens when the West loses heart and exhausts its attention span.

“The same cannot be allowed to happen within the continent of Europe.”

The UN Security Council voted earlier this year to renew the mandates of the remaining EU peacekeeping force and Nato’s Sarajevo base, both of which Russia had “threatened to block”, The Guardian reported.

But Bosnia has “long been Europe’s Gordian knot”, Der Spiegel said. The country was the site where “an ethnic Serb once shot and killed the Austrian heir apparent, sparking the spiral of violence that would become World War One”.

And now the region “will likely determine if lasting peace in the heart of Europe is possible”.

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