Is Bosnia on the Verge of Conflict?
Separatist rhetoric among Bosnian Serb leadership is raising concerns about the dissolution of Bosnia. It’s part of a nationalist wave across the Balkans that threatens a return of ethnic conflict.
What’s Bosnia’s status?
Amid the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, the Dayton Accords succeeded in bringing peace to Bosnia in 1995. But the agreement also put in place an unwieldy political structure: a single state consisting of Republika Srpska, populated mainly by Serbs (Orthodox Christians), and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, populated mainly by Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats (Catholics). Bosnia’s tripartite presidency consists of one Serb, one Bosniak, and one Croat. The Dayton Accords created governing institutions in which politics and patronage have continued to run primarily along communal lines.
Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, has recently ramped up talk of withdrawing from Bosnia’s military, intelligence, judicial, and tax institutions—effectively threatening secession.
He is not the only player in the Balkans to play the nationalist card of late. Amid calls from its interior minister to “unite Serbs wherever they live,” Serbia has been rapidly increasing its defense spending and showcasing its military strength through regular drills and public displays of firepower. Serbia continues to refuse to recognize Kosovo, the predominantly ethnic Albanian and Muslim country that—following the 1999 intervention by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces to stop ethnic conflict—declared independence from Serbia in 2008. Relations between Belgrade and Pristina are on a downward trajectory. Moreover, Bulgaria is blocking North Macedonia’s accession talks with the European Union, claiming that Skopje is appropriating Bulgarian heritage and failing to recognize the linguistic, cultural, and historical ties between the two countries.
Why are nationalist sentiments surging in the region?
There are multiple factors contributing to this escalation in nationalist posturing. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the Balkans hard, bringing with it a sharp economic downturn and political blowback. In a region still rife with intercommunal tensions, politicians looking to bolster their fortunes regularly turn to nationalist drumbeating. Russia has amped up its diplomatic interference, reaching out to its Slavic and Orthodox brethren to exploit and exacerbate political fault lines. The more trouble Moscow can stir up in the Balkans, the more it is able to slow down the integration of the region into the European Union (EU) and NATO.
At the same time, Balkan leaders and electorates are frustrated with what they see as the West’s inattention. The EU was slow to share COVID-19 vaccines with neighbors not yet in the bloc, and EU enlargement is bogged down. Following the EU-Western Balkans Summit in October, the leaders of Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia issued a joint statement, complaining that “On paper, the enlargement policy remains active. In practice, however, there is a growing disappointment among the citizens of the region with the EU perspective. In addition, the region has paid grave costs for the delays in the EU perspective.” And the United States put the region on the back burner as it focused its diplomatic and military attention on the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific. Meanwhile, China has increased its economic and political influence in the Balkans, further diluting the region’s Atlantic orientation.
Is there a risk of a new outbreak of ethnic or sectarian violence?
The Balkans are not yet on the cusp of another round of ethnic warfare. The region has made much quiet progress since the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Croatia and Slovenia are members of the EU and NATO. In 2019, North Macedonia finally settled its name dispute with Greece and has since joined NATO, following in the footsteps of neighboring Albania, Bulgaria, and Montenegro. Serbia and Kosovo are still at odds, but they did strike a deal last year—brokered by the Donald Trump administration—to normalize their economic relations. Implementation has been spotty, but the pact marked a step forward.
Nonetheless, the recent uptick in nationalist jockeying is hindering this forward momentum. Dodik’s separatist gestures are particularly dangerous. A secessionist move by Republika Srpska could well spark a new outbreak of bloodshed that spreads beyond Bosnia. The last thing the region needs is another round of ethnic conflict. Putting out new fires in the Balkans would also be a daunting prospect for NATO allies. Europe and the United States have their hands full with Russia and China and are not looking for new military commitments in Europe’s periphery.
How should the United States and EU respond?
They should team up to launch a major diplomatic effort in the Balkans. The Biden administration is headed in the right direction by appointing a first-rate team of seasoned diplomats to handle the region. As for Republika Srpska, sanctioning and isolating Dodik and his inner circle might not be enough. The political entity left behind by the Dayton Accords is past its expiration date; yes, it ended the Bosnian civil war, but it also froze in place communal divisions.
It is time for the United States and EU to shepherd Bosnia toward a constitutional convention of sorts—negotiations aimed at providing the country political structures that can withstand and ultimately overcome the ethnonationalist tensions that the region should permanently leave behind. Normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo should also be a top priority.
The entirety of the Balkan Peninsula is poised to, sooner or later, be integrated into Atlantic institutions. Given the region’s propensity for ethnic conflict, sooner would be far better than later. With the recent surge in nationalist gamesmanship, now is an opportune moment for the United States and EU to make a final push to complete this task.