The peace deal that ended the war in Bosnia 25 years ago is in danger of unravelling.
Aggressive diplomatic action and the preparation of defence are urgently needed to address secession threats by Bosnia’s Serb President Milorad Dodik, analysts say.
Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, fuelled the country’s biggest political and security crisis in 26 years with his October announcement that the Republika Srpska entity will withdraw from key state institutions – including the armed forces – and set up Serb-only bodies in its place, in violation of the Dayton peace agreement.
The US-brokered Dayton accords signed in December 1995 in Paris officially ended the war in Bosnia, but they split the country into two administrative entities: the Serb-run entity Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat dominated Federation entity.
Dodik has for years threatened that Republika Srpska would secede and join Serbia, but his latest bid to form a separate Serb army has particularly alarmed the public.
It was the Republika Srpska army that committed war crimes against the non-Serb population during the international armed conflict in the early 1990s.
Dodik, who openly denies the Srebrenica genocide, announced his move following former high representative Valentin Inzko’s decision in July to ban genocide denial and established war crimes – as well as the glorification of war criminals.
Serb representatives responded by boycotting central institutions.
While Dodik insists the move will not lead to another war, many are unconvinced.
In a report delivered to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) earlier this month, Bosnia’s High Representative Christian Schmidt, who oversees the implementation of the Dayton accords, called Dodik’s actions “tantamount to secession without proclaiming it”.
He said that “the prospects of further division and conflict are very real” if the international community does not step in and take action.
But the international community – such as the European Union which took over responsibility from NATO in 2004 to ensure peace and security in Bosnia – has barely reacted, aside from issuing underwhelming press releases.
Ismail Cidic, head of the Sarajevo-based Bosnian Advocacy Center, told Al Jazeera that “empty words only encourage Dodik and his regime to continue with their secessionist moves.
“The red line is moving down all the time. What was unimaginable for anyone to say, let alone do, in 2005, is completely normal today. In other words, Dodik is doing all this because he understands that the international community is not going to react properly,” Cidic said.
On Tuesday, Bosnian media reported that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is considering expanding sanctions; Dodik has been on the US blacklist since 2017 for obstructing the Dayton accords.
“Moves to unilaterally withdraw from state-level institutions or otherwise destabilise the Dayton Peace Accords will be met with appropriate action, including the consideration of sanctions,” Blinken wrote in a letter addressed to the three presidents.
But Cidic said additional US sanctions would not have much of an effect as the vast majority of Dodik’s businesses, which he owns with a partner, are related to either European or Russian markets.
“If the United States wants to make a stronger impact with any type of sanctions, they would need to get the EU on board,” Cidic said.
The EU did not come out in favour of sanctions on Monday during the meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas had called for sanctions on Dodik, but the only countries in favour were reportedly the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium and Czech Republic.
Hungary strongly opposed, while the remaining EU representatives did not have a clear position.
Kurt Bassuener, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank, told Al Jazeera that no one on either side of the Atlantic wants to address Bosnia’s crisis adequately, because “nobody wants to admit how wrong the policy has gone for 15 years,” referring to the idea that EU enlargement “will induce politicians to behave like responsible, accountable democrats”.
“To change your policy now is to admit that you’ve been [messing] it up for a long time, which is the truth.”
Bosnia has been a “potential candidate” for EU membership since 2003. During the EU-Western Balkans summit last month, members fearful of migration made it clear that it will not be joining the bloc anytime soon.
Analysts say as the EU has gone shy, Russia will keep filling the geopolitical space – as it has for some time.
Supporters of Dodik and his politics, Russia as well as China have long requested the Office of the High Representative (OHR) to shut down.
At the UNSC this month, for the first time, Bosnia’s High Representative could not brief the council.
Christian Schmidt was blocked by Moscow, which had threatened to block the renewal of EUFOR, the EU’s 700-strong peacekeeping force. Schmidt’s office sent his report to the UNSC instead.
The UNSC voted to extend EUFOR in Bosnia for another year, but only after – as requested by Moscow – references to the OHR were removed, to win approval from Russia and China.
For Majda Ruge, senior fellow at the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations, the event was a watershed moment for post-Dayton Bosnia.
“The High Representative needs to present a plan for solving the crisis, and the US, EU Member States need to fully support him in putting that plan into practice,” Ruge told Al Jazeera.
“The important thing here is not to give in to Dodik’s salami-slicing tactics, but to respond to any escalation with credible threat of penalties – sanctions, asset freezes, travel bans.”
Cidic said Russia has established strong ties and influence within EU governments.
“Otherwise, how to explain, for example, numerous Merkel’s concessions and appeasement towards Russia?” Cidic asked.
For Bosnia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bisera Turkovic, it is important for Bosnia to join NATO as soon as possible to ensure peace and security.
Evidence has also shown that Russia has been undermining Bosnia’s stability in an attempt to keep the country out of NATO, following attempts to sow discord in North Macedonia and a coup attempt in Montenegro in recent years.
In March, the Russian embassy in Sarajevo warned that if Bosnia steps towards NATO membership, “our country will have to react to this hostile act.”
Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo are the only states in the Western Balkans that have not joined NATO.
Serbia – a Russian ally – and Republika Srpska remain opposed to such a move. Montenegro became a member in 2017 and North Macedonia joined last year.
Bosnia is part of NATO’s Membership Action Plan, a programme for countries wishing to join the Western military alliance.
“We are ready to send the latest ANP (Annual National Program) as soon as we see the end of this unlawful blockade of the Council of Ministers,” Turkovic told Al Jazeera.
“So, we are on track to NATO but we need support and new dynamics from both sides due to the more visible influence of other geopolitical players in the region. It would bring more security and stability.”
Bassuener said Schmidt made it clear in his UNSC report that the unfolding crisis in Bosnia is a security issue, not just a political one. As such, EUFOR needs to be reinforced in Bosnia.
There are currently 660 troops, while 5,000 are needed to fulfil the deterrent role, according to their security study from 2011.
He added that troops need to be placed in Brcko, a strategic town located in northern Bosnia bordering Croatia, that divides Republika Srpska’s west from its east.
For Cidic, pro-Bosnian politicians need to prepare defence scenarios that include police forces and they should rouse aggressive diplomatic action across the world.
Part of the reason why the international community has reacted passively is that there has been “no significant response to Dodik’s actions from the pro-Bosnian side”, Cidic said.
“I guarantee that OHR, EU, USA and others would react within minutes in case the pro-Bosnian side makes their moves on the ground, especially if that includes strategic positioning of police and reserve forces. Our experience from the 1990s tells us so,” Cidic said.