Bosnia
“I wouldn't be surprised if the six months eventually pass and nothing happens ...”

Expert on the Balkans, Prof. Florian Bieber, about the new announcements and threats from Bosnia and Herzegovina
Florian Bieber

Florian Bieber

© Uni Graz/Fetz

Three Months ago you spoke concerning the current developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina about a “clear violation of the Law” and stated that the escalation fuelled by Milorad Dodik was more widespread than in previous years. The Conclusions of the Parliament of the Republika Srpska from 10 December plan to set up their own army, their own security services, their own justice system, their own tax system and much more, all to be implemented after a period of six months. How do you rate this development? What exactly do you think will happen?

It often happens that Dodik uses these threats to create a certain climate, but backs down at the last minute when he feels he won’t get away with it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the six months eventually pass and nothing happens. Ultimately it depends on how much he and his party expect to achieve with these decisions. The long-term crisis that he creates as a result helps him in the election campaign, precisely because his support is weak, and serves the purpose of undermining trust in the state.
 

The function of the High Representative (HR) is no longer recognised. One hundred and forty laws passed by him have already been declared invalid. A referendum on the secession of the Republic of Srpska has been announced. All decisions and resolutions that, according to the observers, have long since justified the removal of the Bosnian Serb Leader Milorad Dodik. The High Representative, Christian Schmidt, has himself spoken of a “serious attack on the Dayton Peace Treaty” and that Dodik has “passed the phase of merely rhetorical arson.” Against this background, however, the reactions so far seem to be quite meagre. What do you think the response should be now?

It is hard to respond adequately. On the one hand the reaction of the HR and of the EU was too tame, on the other hand, an escalation could also be in Dodik’s interest. Threats and clear red lines are important, but only if they are implemented accordingly. The HR can formally remove Dodik if he violates the Dayton Peace Treaty, but this is only credible if it can also be implemented in practice. Otherwise, Dodik can present himself as a martyr and remain in power at the same time. It should be made clearer that the denial of war crimes and threats to unilaterally challenge state institutions already constitute a breach of the Dayton Accords, and set clear limits to Dodik’s politics.

 

The US side has now decided on further sanctions against sections of the country‘s political and economic elite. You yourself had already emphasized in November that the EU should have reacted more clearly and applied sanctions long ago. However, it still holds back from time to time and obviously cannot find a clear course due to the different interests of its members. What steps do you think the EU will finally take?

With the Hungarian government openly backing Dodik, the EU will struggle to bring itself to impose sanctions. One can wait for elections in Hungary in the hope that a new government will then support EU-wide sanctions. Otherwise, some key countries could unilaterally impose sanctions. Clearer leadership from the EU institutions is also needed. An EU envoy for the Western Balkans is needed to deal with the region as a whole and limit the role of Enlargement Commissioner Verhelyi after the commission’s credibility in the region has been damaged by his proximity to Orban.

 

The HR assesses the risk of a “hot shooting war” as low, and refers in this context to the presence of NATO and the EUFOR-Althea protection force – which, however, is still quite modest, with around 700 soldiers. Wouldn’t an increase of several thousand on the spot send a clear signal that the situation is being taken seriously, and that under no circumstances is the peace is to be endangered?

I think that an increase, especially in Brcko, would be an important signal. Brcko is important because it does not belong to the Republika Srpska, but divides it in two, although Dodik keeps claiming the district. A few hundred soldiers would suffice as a clear signal. Better management of the EUFOR mission would also be desirable after the Austrian commander, who is close to the extreme right-wing FPÖ, made problematic statements during the crisis.
 

What Strategy do you think the strong men behind the scenes, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Russian President Vladimir Putin, are pursuing? Can one assume that they have an interest in this conflict to be contained or at least de-escalated?

Dodik is on the one hand an independent player, but on the other he is certainly being propped up by both Vučić and Putin. Putin sees the crisis in Bosnia as an opportunity to question the Western peace order in the Balkans, to expose the weaknesses of the EU and to divide the West’s attention. Vučić has a more ambivalent position. He does not want to break off his good relations with the EU, but at the same time wants to maintain close contacts with Russia and China. In addition to that, his form of rule requires crises, which he can then de-escalate. In that regard Dodik is practically the cause of the crisis. Ultimately, Vučić can present himself as the crisis solver. The West also approves of his influence in Bosnia on Dodik. Ultimately, the dynamic is reminiscent of that of the 1990s, when Milošević presented himself as a moderate peacemaker compared to Karadžić and Mladić.