Germany, Russia and the Gambit for Bosnia

Main Image Credit Germany's candidate for the OHR, Christian Schmidt. Courtesy of European People's Party/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0.

Berlin wants to replace the country’s High Representative with its own candidate, but Russia has plans of its own.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently going through a debilitating health crisis. Its healthcare system is in a mess; the country has yet to start its vaccination campaign; and it has one of the highest coronavirus-related death rates per capita in the world. Yet the biggest talk of the day is none of the above.

In fact, what many are talking about instead is who the country’s new High Representative will be; whether the governor-like post should even exist; and whether the Bosnian Serb entity (Republika Srpska) has the right to secede.

The Office of the High Representative (OHR) for Bosnia and Herzegovina was established in 1995 under the Dayton Agreement, which brought peace to the country. The High Representative is in charge of monitoring the civilian aspects of the peace settlement. A governor of sorts, the OHR has the power to sack elected officials and promulgate laws. Depending on the personal will and moral integrity of each individual High Representative, Bosnia has seen the likes of Paddy Ashdown – whose no-nonsense approach was marked with significant progress – but also plenty of inaction from others, such as the incumbent Valentin Inzko, who has been mocked for his idleness.

The public concern on this issue is thus understandable. However, Bosnians have little say in who takes up the post, since the decision is made by more powerful global players – and this time, both Germany and Russia have particularly vested interests. Berlin wants to replace Inzko with a German parliamentarian of its liking, Christian Schmidt, whose nomination on Joe Biden’s inauguration day raised eyebrows among many Balkan observers. Why was Berlin rushing to appoint its man in the Balkans?

What Do Bosnians Want?

Before analysing the objectives of Berlin and Moscow, it is important to outline what Bosnians want. The country is divided into two highly autonomous political entities – the Bosnian Serb entity (Republika Srpska) and the Bosniak-Croat entity (the Federation) – with a weak central government. Bosnian Serbs largely want the OHR to be abolished. On 10 March, the parliament of the Republika Srpska – not for the first time – called for the Office’s abolition: ‘It is time for the OHR to be closed, and responsibility for the future and functioning of Bosnia to become the exclusive right and competence of the people of Bosnia’. The parliament went one step further and threatened secession if its demands are not met: ‘If this is not on the agenda soon, talks on a peaceful break-up should be launched, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, which guarantees every nation the right to self-determination’.

This is nothing new. To Bosnian Serbs and their political representatives, the High Representative is the biggest obstacle to declaring statehood and seceding from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is their unachieved wartime goal.

Bosnian Croats, after years of being more or less content with the OHR, have recently also begun to call for its abolition. Despite paying lip service to joining the EU and NATO, the leading Bosnian Croat political party – the Croatian Democratic Union – has recently forged a pact with Bosnian Serb hardliners from the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats and started cosying up to Russia. Bosnian Croats are seeking now what they failed to achieve during the 1992–1995 war: an independent or at least highly autonomous statelet for themselves, which would eventually join Croatia. In the everyday vocabulary, they refer to it as ‘the third entity’.

An independent Serb and Croat statelet would confine the country’s majority – its Bosniak Muslims – to a landlocked Bantustan whose international borders are controlled by unfriendly forces. Clearly, they oppose such a move, instead favouring a unified and multiethnic country. In fact, one of the rare principles that Bosniak Muslim politicians have stuck to since the 1990s is their desire to preserve a unified state and their opposition to any territorial fragmentation along ethnic lines. Because of previous Western support, Bosniak Muslims have very favorable views of the US and EU and are keen to join both NATO and the EU.

Lately, Bosnian Serbs and Croats have grown increasingly bold with Russia’s backing. Moscow has been calling for the closure of the OHR for years, saying that Bosnians need to decide for themselves on their future. However, it is not Bosnia’s lack of sovereignty that worries Moscow. Rather, it is Western political tutelage and pro-EU and NATO reforms that it opposes. Hence, in much the same way that Russia frames its opposition to Bosnian integration with NATO by calling for ‘military neutrality’, it opposes Western-backed reforms by claiming to support Bosnia’s ‘sovereignty’. As far as Moscow is concerned, a dysfunctional Bosnia and Herzegovina is far better than yet another member of the EU and NATO in the Balkans.

Germany’s Man in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Germany also has significant interests in Bosnia. Its candidate for the OHR, Christian Schmidt, has been referred to as a ‘Russland-Versteher’ (‘Russia-understander’) because of his familiarity with Germany’s eastern neighbour. Similarly, due to his deep understanding of Croatia and its national interests, he was awarded the Order of Ante Starčević – one of the highest-ranking Croatian state honours. Some see him as having deep sympathies towards Croatia and Bosnian Croats.

Berlin may have been positioning Schmidt as a pre-emptive strike to outsmart the Biden administration and its announced plans to reengage with the Balkans. Being the EU powerhouse that it is, Germany clearly wants a greater political say in the Balkans, where Russia, China, the US, Turkey and Arab states have also been exerting influence. Another reason could be lobbying efforts by EU member state Croatia on behalf of its Bosnian Croat brethren. Croatia is calling for the creation of a ‘third political entity’, and sees Schmidt as its ideal candidate for the OHR. This would be detrimental to multiethnicity and would further entrench segregation along ethnic lines. A third reason could be that, as some Bosnian sources have suggested, Schmidt – because of his links to both Moscow and Zagreb – is a concession from Berlin to Russia and Croatia. But this may be farfetched, given that Schmidt still faces strong opposition from Russia. The Russian ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, recently reiterated Russia’s stance on this issue and warned that Moscow would block the appointment of the new High Representative. The ambassador’s comments echoed earlier statements made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his December tour of the region.

Russia – The Disruptive Power?

Much has changed since Valentin Inzko was appointed High Representative in 2009. Russia today is far more assertive than it was 12 years ago. To be a disruptive power in the Balkans, the Kremlin can rely on a wide range of local allies to obstruct Western-backed reforms. Since Moscow has recently developed a close working relationship not only with Croatia but also with Bosnian Croat leader Dragan Čović, its outreach is no longer limited to the Bosnian Serb hardliner Milorad Dodik. Russia will gladly support Bosnian Croat nationalists in their desire for greater autonomy. It will also support Bosnian Croats in clinging onto ethnic quotas for government positions, as this gives them outsized power relative to their numbers, as well as the leverage to block state functioning if their demands are not met. As odd an alliance as it may seem, Croatia – a member state of NATO and the EU – will most likely support Russia in opposing changes in Bosnia, as their interests converge from different angles.

Even if the Peace Implementation Council elects a new High Representative in spite of Russia’s opposition, Moscow could go one step further and use its veto on the UN Security Council to block the renewal of the EU’s military force in Bosnia – Operation Althea – which requires an annual extension by the Council. Should this military mandate fail to be renewed, the High Representative would essentially become a toothless tiger.

European states have been mostly united on the need to deter Russia from further foreign adventurism by maintaining tough sanctions on Moscow following the invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. However, they have not paid due attention to the EU’s soft underbelly, the Balkans, where Russia could easily become a disruptive power.

The Road Ahead

Some have argued that the OHR is not a democratic institution. While this is true, it should also be noted that Germany, Austria and Japan had strong foreign military-governors for years following the end of the Second World War, as well as undergoing purges of wartime political and military officials. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there was no such process after 1995.

A quarter of a century after the war, there is widespread state capture and kleptocracy in the government, administration and judiciary among all ethnic groups. Hence, a capable and willing High Representative remains the only system of checks and balances with the power to sack corrupt officials.

There is also a heightened risk of state failure. Bosnian Croat and Serb hardliners often block – or threaten to block – the functioning of the state, ostensibly to show the country’s dysfunction, but in reality to blackmail others until their demands are met. This is yet another area where the High Representative has plenty of space to act and to ensure that state interests precede national ones.

Most importantly, the High Representative needs to robustly implement the Dayton Agreement and reintroduce the notion that those undermining it will face sanctions. This is a painstaking process that requires a long-term carrot-and-stick approach, particularly when neighbouring Serbia and Croatia have not given up on their irredentist aspirations and unachieved wartime goals.

Harun Karčić is a journalist and political analyst based in Sarajevo covering foreign influences in the Balkans.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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