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Bosnian Serbs Are Playing with Fire

The Fragile State of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik is stoking the nationalist flames in his country and would like to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a dangerous path in an explosive region. What can the EU do?

Bosnian Serbs taking part in a parade in Banja Luka in 2020

Seen from up close, the man hoping to partition a country on the European Union’s external border is large. He’s well over six feet tall, on the portly side and has a vice-like handshake. "Drago mi je,” a pleasure to meet you, says Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three-person presidency.

The meeting with Dodik takes place last Thursday afternoon in Banja Luka, the seat of the government for the Serbian entity. In just a few days, a series of parliamentary votes is set to begin which could ultimately lead to the de-facto secession of the majority Serb part of the country. Dodik wants autonomy for the Republika Srpska, a state-like entity with around 1.2 million residents that is roughly the size of Sicily and makes up roughly half of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Why though? The country is plagued by poverty and emigration and has never really recovered from the last war, but Dodik – who leads the country together with the other two representatives, one from the Muslim Bosniaks and the third from the Catholic Croats – has referred to Bosnia-Herzegovina as a "miscarriage.” Could he be worried about losing power in next year’s election, which could have legal repercussions for him given the corruption allegations that have been leveled against him?

"There is no incriminating evidence against me in court,” says Dodik. "But the opposition’s sole reason for existing is to spread such stories about me.” He insists that he doesn’t want to be responsible for starting a new war. Dodik, the most powerful man in the Serb-dominated region of the country, looks out at the city from the window of his office, located on the 16th floor of the government building in Banja Luka. Later, he will serve home-distilled brandy in long-stemmed glasses. "I don’t believe in the possibility of a new political conflict,” he says. "We won’t be the ones to start it. We are fighting politically for our goals.”

Undermined from Many Sides

It doesn’t sound particularly reassuring. Indeed, many have begun wondering if Bosnia and Herzegovina will face the same fate as Yugoslavia before it, which disintegrated in a series of wars that began in 1991 and cost the lives of 130,000 people while driving millions from their homes. The situation hasn’t deteriorated that far, despite Dodik’s secessionist proclivities, but it is serious. The 1995 Dayton Accords, which codified the peaceful coexistence of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, is being undermined from many sides.

Bosnia and Herzegovina remains an ethnic patchwork and, above all else, a complicated political construct. Since the end of the war, it has included two, roughly equally sized "entities” – one Serbian and the other Bosniak-Croatian – along with the Brčko District on the border with Croatia. The institutions of state – the presidium, the government, the judiciary and the military – govern the entire country, so long as they aren’t currently being boycotted by one of the former war adversaries. Then, there are several costly configurations at the regional level: Ten cantons with bloated administrations in just one of the entities, and a total of 180 ministers in the country as a whole.

Politician Milorad Dodik in Banja Luka Foto: Vladimir Zivojinovic / DER SPIEGEL

The current conflict began escalating when Valentin Inzko, the outgoing High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a position created by the international community in 1995 to oversee the implementation of the Dayton Accords, enacted a law making it illegal to deny genocide and war crimes. In response, Dodik began enacting boycotts to block the work of all state institutions, one after another, starting in November. Dodik also hopes to see the Serbian parliament in Banja Luka vote in favor of allowing the Serbian entity to maintain its own army – a potentially explosive move.

Dodik isn’t shy about his nationalist leanings, and on a recent Sunday, he put them on full display in the presidential palace in Sarajevo. He brought along an accordion player to entertain him and his party allies with national folk songs – all well lubricated with schnapps – in the heart of the majority Muslim capital city.

Between 1992 and 1996, more than 10,000 people died in Sarajevo – including 1,600 children – in an unceasing hail of artillery shells fired off by Serbian troops. Željko Komšić, the Croatian member of the presidential triumvirate, says of Dodik: "Until the man comes to his senses and undergoes the appropriate therapy, the insanity will continue.” What Komšić doesn’t say, though, is that the most powerful Croat party, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), headed by Dragan Čović, has also being doing its part to undercut the republic’s foundation – despite the fact that the Bosnian Croats are relatively privileged by comparison to the rest of the population in that they have been outfitted with EU passports by the government of neighboring Croatia.

Rumors of Weapons Arsenals

Mostly, though, says Meddžida Kreso, the former president of the country’s highest court, she is ashamed of Dodik. He is, she says, "a present-day Caligula,” a reference to the Roman emperor who thought he had the power to do whatever he wanted and allegedly appointed his own horse to the position of consul. Bosnian opposition leader Elmedin Konaković warns that the mood is like in 1992, on the eve of the outbreak of war. Rumors have been circulating for some time that the police in Serbian areas have been building up their weapons arsenals, including assault rifles. And the Bosnian side hasn’t shied away from combative language either. A few days ago, the Bosnian consul in Frankfurt tweeted: "Munitions in Konjic and Goražde, howitzers in Travnik, RPGs in Hadžići.” He added that there are 100,000 Bosnians with fighting experience.

Bullet holes remain in the facades of residential buildings in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja to this day, a reminder that the city was home to the bloodiest fighting in Europe since World War II. A demarcation line has run through the suburb since 1995, separating the Republika Srpska from the Bosniak-Croat Federation. Identical buildings stand on either side, decorated by identical geraniums. Only the house numbers are different – here green, there blue. The former barracks from which the almost four-year siege of Sarajevo was led, is just a short drive away.

Is Europe prepared for a potential outbreak of violence in this sensitive region? Or is this nothing but a bit of flexing – of a kind we have seen so often before? Such questions are best posed in Camp Butmir, home to the EUFOR mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where 600 troops from 19 countries are stationed. The mission has been keeping peace in the country since 2004.

"Through our mission, we have been able to buy time to reach lasting political solutions,” says Major General Alexander Platzer of Austria. He sounds diplomatic. The senior officer is reclining in mission headquarters on a leather sofa below an Andy Warhol-style picture of the EUFOR logo against a neon background.

"Dodik is a bit crazy, but he is not stupid." - Edin Forto, prime minister of the canton of Sarajevo

Platzer says that tensions have been rising, but that nobody is speaking yet of armed conflict. The two helicopters in camp, he says, are primarily used for training, and that the last real emergency came after a wasp sting sent a soldier into allergic shock. An escalation cannot, of course, be ruled out, Platzer adds.

EUFOR’s mission in Bosnia stems from a resolution by the UN Security Council and its mandate is up for renewal in November. Diplomatic sources say there is concern that Russia could veto the extension, but Platzer considers that unlikely. "I think there are advantages to a neutral mission for Russia as well, instead of us here having to build up something new.”

The new high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt of Germany, has been in office since August, but he is not currently in his Sarajevo headquarters, which are located not far from the banks of the Miljacka River. Instead, he is in Paris. He can’t currently be in Sarajevo, Schmidt says when reached by phone in a hotel on Quai d’Orsay, because he is in the process of negotiating the extension of the EUFOR mission.

What is his view of the current situation in the region? Even leaving aside "the rhetoric that is quite normal in the region,” Schmidt says, there is cause for "serious concern.” Things have been done and said recently that could have implications far beyond Bosnia’s borders, he says. "The international peace arrangement is faltering.” He says he plans to make it clear that the Serbian entity cannot simply secede.

Schmidt isn’t just an observer. He also has capacities, known as the "Bonn powers,” that allow him to interfere on a political level. Why doesn’t he just dismiss Milorad Dodik as the Serbian member of the presidential triumvirate, a move which would be within his mandate? His powers "are like a good contract, which remains in the drawer as long as things continue to go well,” says Schmidt, who previously served as Germany’s minister of agriculture and as parliamentary state secretary in the Defense Ministry. The "Bonn powers,” he says, are considered instruments of last resort.

Nothing Personal

Schmidt’s appointment was far from uncontroversial and took some time to be approved, in part because Milorad Dodik protested his candidacy with the backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin. In conversation with DER SPIEGEL, the Serbian leader says that for as long as the UN Security Council hasn’t confirmed his appointment, Schmidt is "here as a private citizen,” and completely welcome in that capacity. It is an open affront to the German, but not entirely unjustified. "Merkel didn’t know what to do with Schmidt,” says Dodik, "and then someone came up with the idea of giving him this post.”

Dodik has nothing personal against Schmidt, he just wants to get rid of the office itself. Interest in Bosnia on the part of the U.S. and the EU has also receded, making the Russian desire to leverage more influence in the region through the removal of the high representative almost understandable.

A few more questions for Dodik: Is it actually true that Bosnian-Serb youths are being trained in Russian military camps and that Russian Cossacks have been deployed to the Serbian entity? And why does the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev regularly fly in ahead of elections? Dodik, who has been received by Putin in the Kremlin on several occasions, has been quite talkative, but suddenly seems to have trouble finding his words. Just rumors, he mumbles.

The city center of Banja Luka Foto: Vladimir Zivojinovic / DER SPIEGEL

Bosnia has long been Europe’s Gordian knot. In Sarajevo, an ethnic Serb once shot and killed the Austrian heir apparent, sparking the spiral of violence that would become World War I and this is where ethnic tensions spiraled into violence in 1992. This region, the Western Balkans – home to six nations that have no real prospects of joining the European Union – will likely determine if lasting peace in the heart of Europe is possible.

The key regional player in this game is Aleksandar Vučić, the president of Serbia. He presides over his country’s 7 million citizens from Belgrade, a four-hour drive east of Banja Luka. Valued by outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel as an anchor of stability in the region, Vučić is skilled at taking advantage of the EU’s obvious fickleness -- stoking conflict then apparently resolving the tensions. He does the same in other Balkan regions that are home to Serbs. Indeed, ahead of the Western Balkans Summit in early October, the European Union wasn’t even certain if countries like Serbia, Bosnia or North Macedonia should continue to be granted accession candidate status.

It seems unlikely that Serbia or Russia, its traditional ally, are really interested in an independent Republika Srpska. But in negotiations with Brussels or Washington, a destabilizing factor like Dodik helps demonstrate their importance for maintaining peace in the region. And even though Balkan expert Janusz Bugajski of the Jamestown Foundation in Washington has outlined the possibility of an escalation of violence in two of the three possible scenarios he has developed for Bosnia, a solid majority in the country itself hopes reason will prevail. Even Banja Luka saw thousands of people take to the streets in early October to protest against Dodik and his alleged corruption. In Sarajevo, as well, many refuse to lend the warmongers an ear.

Surrounded By History

One of those is Edin Forto. It’s a Tuesday morning, the city is covered in fog. It is still quiet in the area around the State Presidium, where Dodik celebrated his accordion and schnapps parties. Forto, 49, works right next door. He is the prime minister of the Sarajevo canton.

Edin Forto, prime minister of the Sarajevo canton Foto: Dzenat Drekovic / DER SPIEGEL

There is a map in the hallway showing Sarajevo back when it was encircled by tanks. Forto, who prefers speaking of a future free of nationalist narratives, is surrounded by history. He used to live in the U.S. before returning to Bosnia, where he has intentionally refrained from identifying with a specific ethnic group. Almost in passing, he notes that if you check the "ostali” (other) box in election candidacy documents, you are unable to campaign for the presidential triumvirate. The anecdote demonstrates the unchanged nationalist structures of the country’s political class. Forto says that he at least wants to eliminate ethnic quotas and fight corruption in his canton.

But even he considers the current situation to be serious. "Dodik has played with secession again and again to win elections. But this time, he could go all the way,” Forto says. He believes that Dodik – about whom, he feels, far too much is spoken – sees no other possibility to cling to power. "It is his endgame.” Still, Forto doesn’t believe that war is imminent. "Dodik is a bit crazy, but he is not stupid. He will not bring Russian soldiers here, and he does not have a lot of his own people.”

At the end of our conversation, Dodik puts it as follows: For as long as he is in office, he will do what he can to ensure that the Serbs’ fate is not taken out of their hands. "Irresponsible decisions from foreigners with no electoral legitimacy” who try to create "a Muslim country of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he says, will encounter resistance.


(c) 2021, Spiegel


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