As Syria Steals the Show, New Conflict Looms in Europe

As Syria Steals the Show, New Conflict Looms in Europe

November 21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Dayton peace agreement, which put an end to the bloody war between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks and created the contemporary state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A lot of things point to the fact that this artificially created entity would not last long. 

Paled by the hail of news about Russian airstrikes against U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebels in Syria and asylum seekers flooding Europe, a crisis is brewing in Bosnia-Herzegovina to become another headache for the EU and NATO.

As time goes by, another sovereign state could appear in Europe – the Serb Republic (the Republika Srpska-RS). Milorad Dodik, the President of the Serb Republic, openly supports the idea of independence. He believes that the contemporary Bosnia is a non-viable state. The President plans to hold a thinly veiled independence referendum on November 15. Dodik sees the Crimea’s accession to Russia as the exercise of the right of people to self-determination. He feels expired by this example.

On November 10, the Security Council today renewed authorization of the European Union-led multinational stabilization force (EUFOR ALTHEA) in Bosnia and Herzegovina for another year, a decision taken ahead of its semi-annual debate on the situation there in the 20 years since the historic Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian war.

The Council also renewed, for one year, the authorization contained in paragraph 11 of resolution 2183 (2014), which outlined the maintenance of NATO headquarters. 

Presenting his six-month report (document S/2015/841), Valentin Inzko, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said November 21 would mark the twentieth anniversary of the Peace Agreement, signed in Dayton, Ohio, that had ended Europe’s most brutal fighting since the Second World War.

«The peace that Dayton brought was hard won», he said, «and it must never be taken for granted». According to the official, in the second decade the country did not move in the right direction, «Problems were systemic, reflecting the complex bureaucracy and vested interests of some political leaders and state-run enterprises in a dysfunctional status quo», he said. The immediate challenge, Inzko noted, was the Republika Srpska’s decision to hold an independence referendum in 2018 and its July decision to hold another on whether their authorities must respect the country’s central judicial bodies or the High Representative.

On November 9, the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council warned that a planned Bosnian Serb referendum challenging the authority of the state-level judiciary could damage the country’s cohesion and territorial integrity.

«The holding of such a referendum would challenge the cohesion, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina,» the EU foreign ministers said in a statement.

At the referendum the people are going to be asked one question: «Do you support the unconstitutional and unauthorized imposition of laws by the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly the imposed laws on the Court and Prosecutor’s Office of [Bosnia-Herzegovina] and the implementation of their decisions on the territory of Republika Srpska?» The referendum will give Dodik political and legal cover to order Republika Srpska institutions — from government administrators to tax collectors — to stop obeying state court orders, verdicts, and rulings, and to obstruct the work of the prosecutor’s office. While formally the referendum only addresses the judiciary, it is nothing else but a de facto declaration of independence. Lest anyone doubt Dodik’s intentions, in April he announced that Republika Srpska will hold an independence referendum in 2018.

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In 1991, Croatia and Slovenia were considering leaving Yugoslavia, followed by Macedonia. In Bosnia, the situation was different. Muslims and Croats supported the idea of separation. The Serbs wanted to join with Serbia. On October 15, 1991 Muslims and Croats voted to secede from Yugoslavia. The Serbs boycotted the referendum. On August 12, 1992, they proclaimed the Republic of Srpska. It was followed by bloodshed. Then-President of Bosnia Izetbegovic wanted a united Islamic Bosnia-Herzegovina. The country got mired in civil war. Al Qaeda made its presence visible on Bosnian soil killing local Serbs and Croats. The Dayton Accords signed in late 1995 crowned the conflict. Bosnia and Herzegovina became a confederation in the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska. Muslims and some Croats (for instance, former Croatian President Stipe Mesic) state that the RS was created largely due to the genocide of the Muslims, and therefore this state institution has no right to exist.

The U.S.-brokered peace accord that split the country into two highly autonomous regions - a mainly Muslim Bosniak and Croat Federation and a Serb Republic - linked by a weak central authority. Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina is highly decentralized and frequently held hostage to ethnic bickering. The treaty put in place a complex system. The country is divided into two "ethnic entities" mentioned above governed by 14 prime ministers with three presidents acting as head of state. Both states have independent constitutions, laws, parliaments, borders, police forces, postal systems and even foreign policy, yet they still have a federal government. Predictably, the agreement didn’t convince either side to put aside their differences, and other than in Sarajevo – the capital – there isn’t really any sort of integration between the ethnic groups. 

Protests across Bosnia last year indicated widespread anger towards politicians - widely viewed as enriching themselves at the expense of the people. But come election time, the same old faces were voted back in.

There are several reasons why this may have happened. No compelling leaders emerged from the protest movement. None of the political parties made a credible effort to appeal to voters of all ethnic backgrounds. There is also a gap between the rhetoric of political leaders and the feelings of the large number of Bosnians who feel stranded in a malfunctioning state.

Multiple layers of government, sometimes with inimical interests, lead to political deadlock. Inefficient government-linked companies, run on patronage, proliferate. The youth unemployment rate is above 57 %. Although the International Monetary Fund predicts the Bosnian economy will grow by about 2 percent this year, the country has fallen far behind its regional peers. Bosnia is significantly poorer than Montenegro and Serbia. Resentment was growing with widely spread protests overtaking place in February 2014 to be dubbed the «Bosnian Spring».

Republika Srpska is one of Europe’s poorest states. Per capita GDP is just $4,100. More than half of young people here are unemployed. 

Voices of protest in RS start to resonate louder. Two world wars and the Ottoman occupation made the Serbs acutely aware that a minority status within a state often was the precursor for death, camps, and ethnic cleansing. This was the case during both world wars and remained deeply ingrained in the Serbian mindset.

The events can easily develop along the Kosovo scenario. But while in Kosovo's case the Albanians from Kosovo acted against the will of the central authorities in Belgrade as Kosovo was not even an autonomous republic, but an autonomous region, the Serb Republic has wide autonomous rights within Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is reflected in official documents and officially confirmed at the international level. Thus, the decision of the Serb Republic to exit Bosnia and Herzegovina would be a lot more legitimate from the point of view of international law, than in the situation with Kosovo.

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Forging universal attachment to a multi-ethnic Bosnian state will not be easy, but the stakes for the West are high. Any attempt at division of Bosnia and Herzegovina would restart civil war and radicalize the heretofore secular Muslim community, raising the specter of an Islamist country in the heart of Europe. Right now the Balkans could serve as a pressure point to unhinge NATO’s southern flank and cause a lot of mischief for the EU in the bargain. The challenge is growing. Anti-government protests in Bosnia last year and the ongoing political crisis in nearby Macedonia have highlighted the continuing risks of instability in the Balkans. With the Islamic State still going strong, refugee crisis in full swing and European economy stagnated shouldering the burden of Greece and other debtors, one more conflict in Europe will be one headache too many for NATO and the EU to tackle. Against this background, this is hardly the right time for the West to confront Russia, be it Syria, the Balkans or Ukraine. With the influence Moscow enjoys in the in the Balkans, joining efforts together could bring about tangible results. With the Syrian crisis hitting the radar screen, another challenge to European security has emerged to be settled as a result of international effort with the participation of all major actors.