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Amelia M. Wolf is a research associate for the Center for Preventive Action and the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Fears that the recent protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina will spiral into sectarian violence on a scale comparable to the early 1990s are unfounded. However, inflammatory language used by government officials threaten to create sectarian divisions among the protestors, and numerous upcoming events, such as scheduled elections and the announcement of census results, could trigger violence. The European Union (EU) and United States should refrain from direct intervention and, instead, provide diplomatic support for protestors and condemn corrupt leaders.
The U.S.-led Dayton Accords brought an end to the Bosnian War in 1995, but were only meant to be a temporary political solution. However, nearly two decades later, they remain the basis for the political structure of Bosnia. Reforms have not been undertaken to address economic disparity, political ineffectiveness, and corruption, which have fueled the largest anti-government protests since the war. An effective political process must be led by the Bosnian people. Otherwise, the Bosnian government risks continued stagnation and political ineffectiveness—a fate similar to the Dayton Accords. As an acquaintance from my time in Bosnia, Caroline Hopper, phrased it, this is the “first genuine opportunity for unified progress in Bosnia.”
Some government officials have called for international action, but the EU and United States should be careful to avoid working diplomatically with or responding to requests from the corrupt leaders and institutions that lie at the root of economic disparity and political ineffectiveness. Bosnian police director Himzo Selimovic said that if protests similar to those that took place on February 7 were to occur again, “The international community and the EU should consider [deploying] international military forces in Bosnia.” (Selimovic resigned shortly thereafter, claiming he could not carry out his mandate of protection.) Selimovic represents the Directorate for Coordination of Police Bodies, one of the institutions against which Bosnians are protesting. An estimated 62 percent of Bosnians believe the police, including Selimovic’s agency, are corrupt or extremely corrupt. According to Transparency International, 98 percent of Bosnians believe corruption is a problem and 70 percent believe the government’s actions against corruption are ineffective.
The EU and United States should not only avoid working with corrupt leaders, but actively condemn them and call for criminal investigations of corruption. 70 percent of corruption investigations in Bosnia are dismissed by state courts and most never result in a final verdict. Zivko Budimir, president of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, an autonomous Muslim-Croat entity of Bosnia, was arrested on corruption charges in April 2013. Reflecting an all-too-familiar circumstance in Bosnia, he was released, along with his four co-accused aides, one month later by a Constitutional Court order.
While corruption of government officials has been a persistent problem in Bosnia, the recent protests have brought new concerns to light. Numerous officials throughout Bosnia have attempted to co-opt the purpose of the protests by using inflammatory language based on sectarian divisions—which fueled the Bosnian War but have largely remained absent from the current protests.
However, these divisions, which leaders like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and Franjo Tudman used to promote nationalist sentiment, are being recycled by Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnia’s minister of foreign affairs, and Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska (a Serbian entity within Bosnia), among others. Fracturing the population would allow leaders to distract the Bosnian population from their unified objection to the government.
Defending the Bosnian Muslim population, Lagumdzija said during a press conference on February 7, “Exactly in those parts where the [Bosnian Muslims] are a majority is there an attempt to portray the institutions as non-functional…Some wish to claim that there are only problems here while elsewhere it’s milk and honey, even though that milk and honey was established on [the Srebrenica] genocide.” Just one day later, representatives of the Party of Democratic Action stated, “We would like to draw everyone’s attention to the fact that violent protests were organized exclusively in Bosniak majority areas.”
Similarly, a representative of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina accused the media of inaccurately portraying the protests as being motivated by political dissatisfaction, when they were really a “nationalist and politically-directed gathering” to bring about “inter-ethnic violence and a war-like state.” Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska who came to power through an ethno-nationalist campaign and is notorious for his provocative language—particularly in terms of denying the Srebrenica genocide—said, “Protests in the RS are being organized by members of the Bosniak associations.”
There is a possibility that the situation could “shift into something ethnic,” as Lord Paddy Ashdown, who served as high representative in Bosnia, warned. The EU and the United States can play a role in preventing an outbreak of sectarian violence by applying diplomatic pressure to officials using inflammatory rhetoric. However, they should intentionally avoid approaching the situation through an ethnic lens. Rather than responding publicly to nationalistic or ethnic-based language used by leaders, the EU and United States should privately condemn this language and publicly assist the Bosnian population with maintaining a united front to fight government corruption.
The coming months will bring additional triggers for violence. The results of the most recent census, which required citizens to label themselves according to ethnic and religious identities, are scheduled to be publicized in July and threaten to divide the population along sectarian lines. During my time in Bosnia just over a year ago, most of the NGO representatives, legal professionals, and everyday citizens that I met with made it clear that while ethnic and religious divides persist, they are no longer the sole basis of identity. To prevent an escalation of violence, the EU and United States should call for the publicizing of the results to be delayed beyond their July 2014 release date until a political process is underway, or not include ethnic and religious identifications when publicized.
In the months to come, the international community should remain wary of possible triggers for the outbreak of violence, including the census, heightened instigative language used by public officials, and the elections scheduled in eight months—which could take place sooner given the resignation of local governments in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Zenica. An effective and sustainable political process can only be forged by the Bosnian people. It is not the role of the EU or Western states to facilitate a replacement for the Dayton Accords. Rather, they should support the Bosnian population in leading its own political process, and condemn and call for the prosecution of the corrupt institutions and officials that lie at the root of economic disparity and political ineffectiveness.