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Bosnia and Herzegovina: world leaders risk renewed violence if the country breaks apart

Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik giving a press conference.
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has caused concern by threatening to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Alamy/Reuters

A quarter of a century since the end of the Bosnian war, Bosnia and Herzegovina is in a perilous position. People who live there are worried. After all, in the conflict that engulfed the country between 1992 and 1995, more than 100,000 people were killed or went missing. Among them were around 8,000 men and boys murdered in the genocide after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995.

Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement and the end of the war, much has been done to resolve the legacy of widespread violence. Many of the missing have been found. Some of those responsible for killing, raping and beating thousands of people have been prosecuted and jailed.

It seems, however, that what has been achieved is not enough. Fears are now mounting that violence could break out again.

The Srebrenica-Potocari memorial and cemetery for the victims of the 1995 massacre
The Srebrenica-Potocari memorial and cemetery for the victims of the 1995 massacre. mirzavis / Alamy Stock Photo

A state of dysfunction

Since the end of 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been stuck in a dysfunctional constitutional setup. The peace agreement created two entities: Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Together with the small but strategically located Brčko district, these constitute the nation state.

The Federation is run jointly by representatives of the Bosniaks (formerly referred to as Bosnian Muslims) and the Bosnian Croats. Establishing an independent Republika Srpska, meanwhile, was the political project envisioned and championed by former leaders Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić along with their sponsors in Serbia. The latter include Slobodan Milošević, who provided the funding and arms necessary to wage war.

Karadžić and Mladić were convicted in The Hague to lifelong prison sentences for crimes committed in the pursuit of their territorial and demographic ambitions. It was during the armed campaign to create this independent Republika Srpska, which would be free of non-Serbs, that many of the horrific crimes were perpetrated.

The system established under the Dayton Agreement brought the war to an end but divided the country. It created incentives for politicians to stoke the flames of ethnic tensions and made it possible for them to indulge in widespread corruption without losing office.

Meanwhile, the international community – mainly the US and the European Union – has gradually lost interest in funding state-building efforts in the region. Many commitments were made in the immediate aftermath of the conflict but since that time, crises in Syria, Ukraine and, most recently, Afghanistan have required both responsiveness and resources.

This has seen promises to integrate Bosnia and Herzegovina into the EU lose momentum. For the past 15 years, there has been no vision, no enthusiasm and little hope for a better future. Most recently, the country’s COVID-19 response made painfully apparent that the state has become dysfunctional, with deadly consequences.

The threat of a new army

In this complicated context, Bosnian Serb leaders, primarily the long-dominant politician Milorad Dodik, have raised tensions by threatening to establish a Bosnian Serb Army, pull out of joint state institutions – effectively dismantling the state – and declare independence. Dodik’s plans threaten to destroy the very system that keeps Bosnia together and at peace.

The last time nationalists tried to have an independent Republika Srpska, there was bloodshed and the widespread, systematic persecution of non-Serb communities. The Bosnian Serb Army was the force that shelled and sniped the civilians of Sarajevo for four years. Its security and intelligence officers were largely behind the Srebrenica genocide.

Criminal accountability at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in the Hague, as well as in the courtrooms around the country, was supposed to provide justice and deterrence. Bosnians facing this current crisis are not feeling confident. The pace of trials to convict war criminals has slowed in recent years, leaving killers and rapists at large.

In early 2022, it will have been 30 years since the original version of the Republika Srpska emerged as a consequence of a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide. The approach of that anniversary, alongside the wider geopolitical context – with the US, the UK and the EU distracted and an emboldened Russia – makes for an anxious winter. Russia comes encouraged with experiences from eastern Ukraine and Crimea, where it has expanded influence and control through cooperation with local actors. It could, analysts agree, do the same by supporting Bosnian Serb plans.

This context is compounded by recent tensions in the region in the border areas with Kosovo. And in Montenegro, there are concerns about a radicalised community wishing closer ties with Serbia.

People in Bosnia and Herzegovina remember the early 1990s. Many of them felt abandoned, not without reason, by the international community, who watched on the evening news as Bosnians were rounded up, put in camps with their property looted or burned, and shot at by snipers from the hills around Sarajevo.

This crisis, as a culmination of years of decay, is a call to action to ensure a reasonable way forward, without violence and with safety and prosperity for all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, regardless of background. For that, local political will and commitment are crucial. But even before that, what Bosnia and Herzegovina now desperately needs is attention from politicians abroad and a sense that someone – anyone – in a position to help cares.

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