Bosnia Herzegovina, a tiny country in the western Balkans, has been in a state of uneasy calm since the US intervention brought peace in 1995. The Dayton Accords came in the wake of a bitter war amongst breakaway components of erstwhile Yugoslavia.
The accord put in place an unwieldy political structure consisting of Republika Srpska (RS,) populated mainly by Orthodox Christian Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which comprises mainly of Bosniaks who are Muslims and Catholic Croats. The presidency is shared by three communities. Other state institutions are also run on communal lines. According to 2000 estimates, Bosnia is 48 per cent Muslim (Bosniak), 37 per cent Serb, 14 per cent Croat and 0.6 per cent others.
Under the Accords, an Office of the High Representative (OHR) was created and tasked with ensuring that local leaders and officials complied with the deal’s provisions. Nato was also obliged to maintain a force on the ground to prevent outbreaks of violence. As tempers cooled, this force was replaced with a 7,000-strong EU contingent in 2004. The EU force was whittled down to 600 by 2019, a figure so small that it could not protect itself, much less fulfil the mandate of the Dayton Accords. Early this year, 700 more troops were added to this group.
New solutions needed to heal communal divisions
The political structures created under the accords outlived their purpose. They ended the civil war but cemented the communal divisions that triggered the war. New structures are needed to overcome the ethnic and nationalist sentiments. The EU and the US are best positioned to push the parties towards a common solution.
Western powers’ reluctance to enforce the Dayton provisions for the integration of the three communities in Bosnia has created a void, which the ultra-nationalist parties have stepped in to fill. The Serbs have an affinity with Russia due to the Orthodox Christian majority. Moscow backed Serbia in the last war due to geopolitical reasons also. Sensing this big power support, the leadership of RS feels encouraged to indulge in secessionist rhetoric, making renewed conflict a possibility. Therefore, the evolving situation in Bosnia is a failure of deterrence, which only a forceful Nato or EU action can provide.
An outbreak of hostilities is not imminent, but trouble is brewing. When it erupts, it could be deadlier than the last war of the early 1990s that led to ethnic cleansing and genocide — 80 per cent of all civilian casualties and 60 per cent of all casualties were Muslims.
The Serbs have always played their nationalist card. Having played victims for centuries, their ultra-nationalist sentiments and desire to dominate other communities have led to wars. Calls from Serbian leadership to “unite Serbs wherever they live” followed by rapidly increased military spending by Serbia have raised alarm bells in the neighbouring states. The rise in Seb nationalist sentiment in RS hinders communal integration and threatens the fragile peace. Like the 1990s Balkan War, Serbia and Croatia seemingly continue to hold predatory intentions towards Bosnia.
The Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodick has started systematically undermining the state institutions. In December 2021, he pushed to withdraw Serbs from the unified Bosnian military force, the common judiciary, and the tax system.
In addition to the unified defence force provided in the Dayton Accords, the RS set up an independent military-style gendarmerie. The Bosniak majority responded by planning to set up its reserve police force. These moves could spiral, with each side protecting itself against the other. Due to building mistrust and chauvinism, the RS authorities have openly cultivated the loyalty of Bosnian Serb-majority infantry units within the country’s armed forces, which are still not wholly integrated more than a decade after the war.
Dodik has set his eyes on the general elections in October. He is betting that a strategy of fearmongering and polarisation will put his political opponents — already at a disadvantage due to his incumbency — in an even less competitive position.
He is supported by the Croat leadership, tacitly backed by Croatia, a Nato member state. Like in the 1990s conflict, Serbia and Croatia would like to carve out Bosnia between themselves, making the Bosniak majority in the state a minority in Serb and Croat states.
Should a new round of violence break out among the three communities, the EU Force (EUFOR), at its current strength, will not be able to prevent it. A decade ago, the EU military commanders concluded a brigade of 5,000 was required for the EUFOR to meet its responsibilities.
EU’s lack of interest has brought the situation to a level where the weak institutions are tempting the Serb and Croat leaderships to sound secessionist bells. As Europe shrunk its commitment, the US has not stepped forward to maintain the stability of an arrangement they helped create under the Dayton Accords of 1995.
The US and the EU should assume their share of the burden and activate the Dayton mechanism fully to ensure sustained peace in the Balkans.
Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of the Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries.