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Both NATO and the EU are giving inadequate attention to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). While the country has been eclipsed in recent years by the conflict in Ukraine and has received comparatively little media coverage compared to anticipated hotspots such as the Baltics, the Balkans has the potential for instability. Options for Western involvement are constrained by both the local political situation and entrenched Russian influence in BIH’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) region.
The power-sharing agreement between the Croat, Bosniak and Serb factions of BiH and the partial integration of the Bosniak-Croat Federation and RS are both a result of the 1995 Dayton Accords, which brought an end to the conflict there. Although necessary to secure an initial peace, the unreformed provisions of the Dayton Accords – based on the assumption that communities had to be separated and given their own political institutions to ensure cohabitation – have proven to be an impediment to effective governance in the long run. Political gridlock and economic stagnation have meant little changes, with BiH now in some ways resembling a frozen conflict.
BiH’s overly-complex political arrangements put in place by the Dayton Accords contribute towards making political gridlock the norm. Democratic governance is generally reliant upon cooperation, but this is something that has never been possible given the difficult political environment. Combined with the provisions of the Dayton Accords, obstructionism can have a disproportionate impact. In addition, the country is left vulnerable to political influence campaigns from external actors because it lacks the means to counter them in a coordinated fashion.
As the Croat, Bosniak and Serb representatives of the three-member presidency have been unable to come to an agreement over the country’s potential accession to NATO via the Membership Action Plan, presidential obstruction means that the country remains without a prime minister or government almost a year after the elections of October 2018. A Bosnian Serb, current President Milorad Dodik has been accused of aiming ‘to create a useless state to justify Serb independence and secession’. This is not just an allegation; Dodik explicitly advocates RS’s secession as part of his political platform.
Fortunately, despite the domestic political complications, recent threats to BiH’s fragile status quo, such as the spectre of Russian interference in the 2018 elections have not resulted in the much-feared flare-up of inter-ethnic tensions. However, this threat has not dissipated. Russia has made use of a wide array of hybrid state and non-state institutions to maintain influence, and Moscow has succeeded in slowing, though not halting, the increasing integration of the Balkans into Europe. In BiH, this often involves supporting divisive ethnonationalist interests. Interference in the country’s affairs is not a purely Russian phenomenon; there are allegations that the Croatian Security Intelligence Agency attempted to conduct a ‘false flag’ operation to plant arms caches in BiH, resulting in a diplomatic note of protest being sent by Sarajevo in response. Although many Bosnians have a strong awareness of such political manipulation efforts and may therefore be more resilient to these than other Europeans, episodes of this kind still have the potential to exacerbate divides within society.
While BiH’s political problems are long-standing, the situation has changed for the worse in several regards, and Russian interference has taken on new dimensions. Over the past decade, there has been increased Russian support for RS, initially in the form of private-sector investment. Since 2016 Russia has provided arms and paramilitary training to RS police officers. In particular, the rapid expansion of storage facilities at Banja Luka airport has been described as evidence of preparation for future conflict, establishing a capacity to receive supplies and personnel from both neighbouring Serbia and Russia. While plans to create an armed RS police reserve unit were recently dropped under pressure from the Bosnian Federation, this was immediately followed by a proposal for a strikingly similar RS gendarmerie.
Although these developments in RS are worrying, their impact may be limited. Serbia has been an official candidate for EU membership since 2009, and although it has balanced its position between alignment with the EU and Russia, the government in Belgrade has generally shown disinterest in Dodik’s proposals for RS’s self-determination. However, existing support has fed ethnonationalist and separatist rhetoric that is now intersecting with a resurgent far-right network across the US and Europe, a problem substantial enough to have warranted recent condemnation by the UN.
The growing numbers of migrants are a different matter. During the 2015 European migrant crisis, BiH did not experience significant flows of migrants, but the subsequent closing of the Hungarian, Croatian and Slovenian borders turned BiH into a preferred staging post and resulted in over 33,000 migrants passing through the country, mostly originating from Asia and North Africa. Croatian police have used violence against migrants to prevent them from crossing the border, and over 9,000 of them are stuck in Bihac in north-western BiH, unable to reach the EU and living in squalid, austere conditions. Due to a lack of resources and rapidly growing migrant numbers, the situation may turn into a humanitarian crisis with destabilising potential.
There have been some increases in regional engagement by Europe, both bilaterally and through the EU. For example, the EU has pledged an addition €10 million to deal with the migrant crisis. The UK too is increasing its soft engagement in the Balkans; in March 2018 the BBC re-launched a Serbian-language digital service, having previously shut it down in 2011. Given the mutual intelligibility of the Serbo-Croatian languages, this service has reach across the region. However, a firmer commitment to BiH has been lacking. Operation Althea, the EU military mission to BiH, remains at 600 personnel, ‘a shockingly small presence that advertises the EU’s lack of resolve’.
There are signs that Bosnian society is increasingly rejecting the divisiveness and deadlock associated with ethnic politics. Nasa Stranka (Our Party), a new multi-ethnic political party, has enjoyed unprecedented success and performed well enough in the 2018 local and national elections in Sarajevo Canton to become the dominant coalition partner there. The canton’s new prime minister, Edin Forto, focuses on anti-corruption and improving public services. Yet the longer-established ethnic-based political parties still dominate domestic politics, and any substantial shift away from them among the electorate is likely to take years.
In the meantime, the worrying developments within RS and the build-up of migrants combine to present a real risk to BiH’s stability. Taking this into account, a re-evaluation of the country’s relationship with Europe and NATO is overdue. The current gridlock over the appointment of a prime minister is only symptomatic of the deeper structural issues that plague the Bosnian government. Both NATO and Europe also need to pay more attention to BiH as a potential hotspot, notwithstanding the other prominent concerns of the Alliance’s member states.
While there is no single flashpoint which can be deemed to be imminent in threatening BiH’s fragile equilibrium, a slowly worsening domestic situation is just as menacing.
Nick Reynolds is the Research Analyst for Land Warfare at RUSI.
BANNER IMAGE: Nearly a year after elections, Bosnia and Herzegovina has not formed a new government. Courtesy of Oleksandr/Adobe Stock.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.