Bosnia and Herzegovina
''The escalation goes even further this time …''

An interview about the current developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the Balkans expert, Professor Florian Bieber
Prof. Florian Bieber
Univ. Prof. dr. Florian Bieber © UniGraz

The headline published by SPIEGEL several days ago read ''Bosnian Serbs threaten to secede''. The focus is once again on Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the three-member Presidency. According to SPIEGEL, he is pushing for ''gradual dissolution'' of the Balkan state. How do you assess the latest escalation? Is it just a manoeuvre of the ''master of self-induced crises'', as another commentary read, or are we really dealing with something new?

This time, the escalation goes further than before, such as the threat to establish new RS armed forces. This is not only causing fear among numerous Bosnian citizens who still distinctly remember the war, but it also constitutes a clear breach of the law. Dodik has repeatedly triggered crises and then retreated from the most extreme positions, but by doing this, he succeeded in increasingly undermining the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina over the past 15 years. In the long run, the continuation of such political actions creates a reality that constitutes a growing threat for the state. Many persons, including myself, have been talking for years about a negative status quo that is steadily leading to a deterioration of the situation. In short, although nothing gets eaten as hot as it gets cooked, such manoeuvres are disintegrating the state. And that is his goal – to steer developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina in such a manner that in the end everyone accepts the dissolution, because the status quo has become unbearable. Of course, he has partners among other ethno-nationalist parties, who support this goal, in particular the HDZ.

What motivates the actions of the president: concern for staying in power, distraction from domestic problems: poverty, unemployment and lack of prospects? Or is he consistently pursuing a specific strategy?

Both of these are interconnected. Nationalism and generation of crises distract persons from the real problems in the country: poverty, emigration, lack of prospects, corruption and erosion of democracy. In this respect, he has a consistent strategy and uses the dismantling of the state as a distraction. As a result, he can invoke ''national unity'', make it difficult for the opposition to act and always easily find scapegoats for anything that does not work. It is actually astonishing how long such an extremely simple strategy has been functioning. He started out as a pragmatic reformer and supported the last Yugoslav Prime Minister, Ante Marković. Later on, it was rumoured that he was involved in black market dealings and corruption. He discovered his nationalist side only in 2006 with the support of Western political advisors and for pragmatic reasons. It may well be that he is now convinced of it himself, but, ultimately, it is a matter of his own political survival and advantages.

In a SPIEGEL interview he denies secessionist thoughts: ''We are not planning a secession.'' (dated October 23, 2021). However, he describes the next steps as follows: ''We will comply with the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina and see to everything within our competence in accordance with it. We will repeal the laws imposed by the High Representatives on the territory of Republika Srpska and adopt our own laws – including a transitional phase that will last as long as necessary… We will, without hesitation, take over matters that have not been expressly withdrawn from our competence.'' This refers, among other things, to their own armed forces, judiciary and police. How likely is such a scenario in your opinion? Does he have the support of Serbia for this? And what would that mean for the country?

On other occasions, he has repeatedly stressed that his goal was the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is therefore a statement for the German audience. In the country itself, he often conveys much more explicit messages. His ultimate aim is to reverse all efforts to build state structures since 1995. While doing this, he does not make a distinction between things that were imposed by a High Representative and things that were decided by the entities and the state, such as the defence sector reform. The purpose of the dismantling is to make the state de facto disappear. The state created in Dayton had three ministries, no common currency or armed forces and could hardly adopt any decisions. Such a state can neither join the EU nor adopt decisions on other issues. The state is ultimately much weaker on its own than the EU as a union of states. Such a state cannot last, and Dodik is aware of this. Such a dismantling of the state is therefore a deliberate precursor to the independence of Republika Srpska. I believe that he is carefully feeling his way towards this goal, and once the constellation is favourable, he will implement it. However, even in a case that this does not occur, every crisis, every step is an opportunity to weaken the state and make a disintegration seem more inevitable.

When it comes to the relationship with the EU, Dodik certainly has a point, but avoids to mention his own share in creating such a situation: ''The Western Balkans has never been further away from the EU than at this moment''. The EU, the international community as a whole, obviously appear to be very reserved when it comes to the current situation. Shouldn't there be a much clearer and more unambiguous reaction in this case?

He is certainly right that the EU accession seems to lie in the distant future and that there is great disappointment in the region. However, this, of course, is an insincere statement. Only few politicians are more responsible for the situation being what it is. EU Member States have their responsibilities, such as in case of Bulgaria blocking North Macedonia. However, with their authoritarian and nationalist attitudes, Dodik, Vučić and others are equally or even more responsible. Dodik has done his best over the past 15 years to make Bosnia and Herzegovina institutionally too weak to even become an EU Member State. He has repeatedly blocked the establishment of authorities and torpedoed laws that are indispensable for the accession. The EU should have reacted in a clearer manner a long time ago, imposed sanctions and demonstrated that it was not acceptable. Instead, it allowed the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina to develop further in the hope that the status quo would be permanent. However, almost every year, the country is facing the worst crisis since the end of the war, making it increasingly difficult to find a way out. It is, of course, not easy to do so and the trend is not easily reversable. In the end, it is more important to engage more, cooperate less with ethno-nationalist parties, strengthen the civil society and draw red lines.

A final and fundamental question: A year ago – on the occasion of 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement – we took stock. The historian Marie-Janine Čalić stated that the Dayton Peace Agreement had merely frozen the underlying conflict, but had not been able to overcome the causes of the war. Dayton had rather become a ''synonym of dysfunctionality and policy failure''. What is your opinion on this? What would have to change in order for the country to develop a credible and positive perspective? And what is likely to happen in the foreseeable future in your opinion?

The Dayton Peace Agreement has always been only a short-term solution, a provisional arrangement and not a basis for durable peace. On the one hand, the Dayton Agreement imposed too much on Bosnia and Herzegovina, namely a constitution that was supposed to be only provisional. On the other hand, apart from the ICTY, the Criminal Tribunal, there was no other tool to face the past and create a basis for a common state. The attempts to give the country a better and functioning constitution have unfortunately failed. But even this is not enough. There should have been support for a positive state-building. Instead, there was too much confidence that the change of perspective from Dayton to Brussels, as it was called in the mid-2000s, was a sufficient common goal. A positive perspective and a functioning state was already a difficult issue 15 years ago, and it is even more complicated to achieve today. The situation depends on whether there will be a positive turn regarding the regional dynamic or not. In such a case, the primary consequence would be that Croatia would have less negative influence and that the Vučić era in Serbia would come to an end. The current dynamic of an authoritarian Serbia seeking to secure influence in the neighbouring countries is hardly helpful for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This does not only require a clear position of the EU and cooperation with the USA, but also more self-confidence.