Is Bosnia headed for another war?

On Feb. 10, lawmakers in the Serbian-controlled Republika Srpska voted to cut ties with the internationally recognized Bosnian judicial institution and create their own judicial body to appoint judges and prosecutors. 

The move comes as Milorad Dodik, the Serb representative of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, continues to stoke nationalist rhetoric and threaten secession from the fragile multiethnic federation. Often described as the “powder keg of Europe,” the Balkan peninsula has been repeatedly devastated by ethnic conflict — the most recent of these conflicts being the Bosnian War that raged from 1992 to 1995.

The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina saw episodes of ethnic cleansing and other horrific acts of violence. Major metropolitan areas, like Sarajevo, were besieged and indiscriminately shelled. Nearly 100,000 people were killed, with around 40% of those deaths being civilians. Serb forces carried out the infamous Srebrenica massacre during this three-year conflict. And the genocide of over 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys was the worst instance of mass murder in Europe since World War II.

For their role in overseeing the Srebrenica massacre, leaders of the Serb army, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, were tried and convicted of both genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal. Both Karadzic and Mladic received, and are currently serving, life sentences.

The Srebrenica massacre prompted NATO to intervene in Bosnia, launching an air campaign known as “Operation Deliberate Force.” NATO air strikes quickly forced the Serb Army to the negotiating table. In 1995, the warring parties met in Dayton, Ohio, to discuss terms and end the bloodshed. The conflict officially came to an end with a tentative peace agreement known as the “Dayton Accords.” This agreement created a single sovereign state out of the Serb-controlled  Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-muslim- and Croate-controlled Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

While the 1995 Dayton Accords did succeed in stopping the immediate violence in Bosnia, it also created a highly dysfunctional political system. The agreement, which has been widely criticized for creating a convoluted and ineffective political system incapable of dealing with important issues, lacks any sort of strong central authority, instead opting to create a triadic presidency in which all major ethnic groups are represented.

Despite the clear and verifiable evidence of genocide perpetruated by the Serb Army under Karadzic and Mladic, many Serbs feel that classifying the massacre as genocide is “unjust,” and the Republika Srpska parliment has repeatedly refused to recognize special investigative reports that acknowledge the genocide.

In 2019, Republika Srpska went so far as to set up its own independent commission — the Independent International Commission for Investigating the Sufferings of all Peoples in the Srebrenica Region in the Period from 1992 to 1995 — to investigate the Srebrenica Massacre. In July 2021, the Serb commission unsurprisingly concluded that there had been no genocide in Srebrenica and the events were simply “horrific consequences” of the larger war. This prompted Bosnia’s then-high representative Valentin Inzko to legally ban the denial of genocide and the glorification of war criminals.

This outraged Dodik and other Bosnian Serb leaders who claimed that the new law was unfairly targeting them. Dodik seized this moment as an opportunity to begin to cut ties with state institutions and launch a process of “dissolution” from Bosnia and Herzegovina. In December 2021, Serb lawmakers passed a series of resolutions aimed at re-establishing an official Serb army, intelligence service and customs system, severing the remaining ties between the Republika Srpska and Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In the wake of these resolutions, the United States announced targeted sanctions against Dodik, and Germany threatened to do the same. Just four days later, Dodik responded to these threats by marching his paramilitary force down the streets of Banja Luka in a parade commemorating the 30th anniversary of Bosnian Serb independence and the start of the Bosnian war.

Dodik dismissed the new sanctions from the west, saying that the Republika Srpska can count on allies like Russia and China for support. In recent statements, he has described both Russian president Vladamir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping as willing to “help,” and said he may turn to China for economic relief in the face of EU sanctions.

European Council on Foreign Relations Senior Fellow Majda Ruge says that while it is unlikely that Republika Srpska could fund an actual army, the possibility of conflict still looms large. Even if the situation does not escalate into a full on violent conflict, the stage is set for a political proxy war.

Bosnia and Herzegovina applied to the European Union in 2016 and has been partnered with NATO, although not an official member, since 2006. Recently, Bosnian Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic called on NATO and the European Union to urgently consider the country’s bid for membership within the international alliances.

However, Russian President Vladamir Putin seems intent on keeping Eastern European nations from joining these western organizations, as evidenced by his recent invasion of Ukraine. Russian ties to the Orthodox Serbians both in Serbia and Bosnia could mean Russian intervention in the case of a conflict. 

Amid escalating conflict in Europe, challenges in the Balkans have taken a backseat to more pressing issues. However, strong nationalist sentiments continue to brew just beneath the surface, and are threatening to emerge soon. As Dodik continues to push the limits of the fragile Bosnian political system, it looks increasingly likely that Bosnia is headed down a familiar, tragic path. 

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