The United Nations Security Council’s (UNSC) 11 May Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) meeting saw the emergence of three key international positions relating to the international community’s (IC) approach towards resolving growing instability in BiH.
- Russia, China and some of the so-called new non-aligned movement including Brazil, India and Gabon refrain from direct criticism of Republika Srpska (RS) and Milorad Dodik. These same groups push a narrative of sovereignty and independence for the BiH. The sincerity of this narrative is unclear.
- Some of Serbia’s narratives on BiH are notable departures from Serbia’s typical alignment with Russia, but like Russia, China and to a lesser extent India and Brazil, believe that the IC has too much oversight in BiH.
- Most of the NATO aligned West remain supportive of the IC’s oversight and safeguarding of BiH, with all explicitly condemning RS and Milorad Dodik as key destabilising factors.
Russia and China
Russia is the most critical of the status quo in BiH, a position which suggests that the Dayton Accords have now “slipped out of reach.” Additionally, Russia claims the Bosniaks and the IC are the dominant actors in BiH, with “manual control from Brussels” and the “destructive role of the High Representative … a tool for dubious power by the IC.”
The representative for Russia stated that there are “growing trends to centralize the multi-ethnic Bosnian State based on the majority of one ethnic group — the Bosniaks — to the detriment of the constitutional rights of the country’s two other groups.”
Russia alleges that March’s EUFOR troop increase is confrontational, stating that “EUFOR without any explanation (in March ’22) was doubled in the streets of Bosnian towns… heavy duty hardware is sowing panic amongst the population… it has gone from stability to confrontation and instability.”
China is broadly more reserved, believing the IC should leave Bosnians to determine their own future. This position seems to de facto accept the destabilising political rhetoric by RS and its leader Milorad Dodik and adds that “all members of society — including RS — have pledged to uphold the country’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity.” China also suggests the system established by the Dayton accords are “special arrangement of a special era” implying change is needed.
Both Russia and China vociferously condemn international sanctions, deeming them to be “illegal.” Additionally, both believe that BiH High Commissioner Schmidt does not have the legal right to brief the UNSC in the position of High Commissioner.
Neutral, Non-Aligned Narratives; Brazil; Gabon; India; Serbia
A neutral or non-aligned grouping takes a less divergent position compared to Russia and China but are notably more reserved in their assessment of destabilising factors in BiH – in particular RS and Mr Dodik – when compared to the West’s stark criticism.
Most states refrain from direct criticism of RS and Mr Dodik. Rather, they call for a narrative which encourages dialogue between, and sovereignty for, the Bosnian people. This cultivates a narrative of ‘true’ independence and implies a requirement of dislocation of the IC’s involvement in BiH. This stands in sharp contrast to the position advocated for by Western and NATO allies which believe that the IC must remain engaged in BiH.
Brazil’s representative stated that, “BiH can only exist if its people are committed to its laws and institutions”, of which “duties and responsibilities that only the people of BiH can accomplish.” Whilst Brazil did praise the work of the 5+2 agenda, the UN and the EU, it is notable that it did not explicitly mention RS or Dodik, nor pledge continued support to the High Representative. Brazil appears to be pushing the narrative that Bosnian people should be responsible for their own country. Thus, the inference is that Brazil is reservedly critical of the international presence in BiH – or international presence in a country generally – alternatively, it is strategically aligning itself between those states that are critical (Russia, China) and those that support presence (much of the West). Going forward, it is likely that Brazil will continue to adopt a non-aligned position in relation to the IC’s support and involvement in BiH.
Gabon’s representative noted that “the threat by the Serbian entity of RS demonstrates the scale of the political crisis.” This criticism of RS is less direct, suggesting the “political crisis” is correlated to RS and Mr Dodik’s rhetoric, but not caused by it. Without explicitly mentioning Mr Dodik, Gabon later stated that “we call on the parties to demonstrate compromise which could stoke antagonisms” which seems to imply that responsibility lies with all parties present in BiH. This is not unreasonable but is a notably softer position on RS when compared to Western responses. Although Gabon voted against the suspension of Russia from the UN Human Rights council in April, Gabon appears to be supportive of the IC’s continued oversight, having expressed Gabon’s approval of EUFOR – Brazil did not mention EUFOR.
India believes that the High Representative disagreement “needs to be sorted.” Leading with this narrative lends some legitimacy to the Russia-China led allegation that High Representative Schmidt is occupying the position illegally. In a later statement, India called upon “all sides to engage in dialogue” which implies that it is promoting the view that all sides are of equal blame, with no one destabilising actor. India’s long standing non-aligned and anti-colonial stance might also inform its position, as they may see the international actors as continuing to impose their will in BiH. Less likely, but worth considering, is India’s rising state-driven Hindu nationalism. This might also prejudice their position on the Bosniak Muslim community of BiH.
Serbia’s representative said that it reaffirms “respect for the territorial integrity of BiH, as well as, the territorial integrity of RS within BiH … the validity of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which provides the basis for stability both in that country and the entire region.” This position likely seeks to dispel speculation that Serbia had an interest in facilitating the secession of RS or accession into Serbia and should be considered a positive development. It is likely that this position in some part is motivated by realpolitik with Serbia’s Kosovo issue – any suggestion that Serbia had an interest in facilitating the secession of RS or accession into Serbia would raise significant allegations of hypocrisy, as well as, presenting a not insignificant financial burden to Serbia.
Serbia states that “unilateral interpretation of the agreement [Dayton] is not allowed as this will jeopardise peace and stability.” This is likely a veiled warning to RS and Mr Dodik whose threats to create its own military and judicial institutions have been described as “unilateral” actions. This comment is sharper and more explicit than Brazil, Gabon and India, whose position was a vague call for dialogue amongst all parties in BiH. In fact, when Interpreted as a veiled warning to RS and Mr Dodik, this would position Serbia’s language amongst the western countries of the UK, Ireland, France, Albania and the US.
Serbia’s tone has generally appeared to be a notable departure from Serbia’s typical alignment with Russia. However, Serbia does conclude that the “people of BiH should decide without pressure and foreign interference.” This aligns with China, Russia and Brazil’s position, which indicates a shared belief that the IC has too much oversight in BiH. Like Russia and China, Serbia expressed strong opposition to the sanctions applied in BiH by Western countries.
The UK, Ireland, France, Albania and the US are unified in their message. The majority align with three main points, the first being a concern about BiH’s domestic political situation, described by the UK as “political gridlock and instability” which “continue at many levels in BiH.” All comment on BiH suggest a continued need for constitutional and electoral reform, with France warning “the lack of new electoral framework must not undermine the [October] election.”
The second identifies RS leadership as a primary destabilising factor, in particular Milorad Dodik. The US said “RS is working to withdraw from the constitutional, legal and institutional order of the State and establish parallel frameworks. These actions are undemocratic, escalatory, not in the spirit or letter of the Dayton Accords and jeopardize the health, prosperity and future of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its citizens.”
Albania is the most bellicose in this regard, with the representative saying “unacceptable steps by RS to undermine sovereignty and territorial integrity of BiH. Dodik is trying to transfer, but the right word would be “steal” competencies from the central government in violation of national constitution and Dayton. His attempts should not be accepted.”
Albania’s punchy position is likely motivated by Albania’s own prolonged and protracted tensions with the Serbian peoples’ writ large, including the Bosnian-Serbs in RS. Albania is likely to continue to be deeply critical of RS and Mr Dodik, for legitimate reasons, but also in pursuit of their own geopolitical agenda that is usually deeply anti-Serb.
The third main point relates to the belief that the IC must continue to support BiH through existing mechanisms. All support the continued work of the High Representative, with Ireland stating, “Ireland remains fully supportive to both respect and engage to the fullest extent with the High Representative.” The UK adds it is “more important than ever that the UNSC maintain support for Dayton, High Representative and EUFOR.” France continues to dangle the EU carrot, stating BiH needs “to resume its European progress.”
Conclusion and What Next
The UNSC remains a central hub to understand key state narratives on various topics. State narrative can however cast greater shadow than illumination. Unfortunately for BiH, geopolitical agendas will overtly and covertly be hidden within the discussion.
A key example of this is Serbia. Serbian narratives on BiH at the UNSC are uniquely highly nuanced – the varying positions are indicative of a state with mixed interests, needs and allegiances.
The so-called new non-aligned movement may see an opportunity presented by the global fracture caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine to diverge from positions directed by the global west. Key players in the new non-aligned movement, Brazil and India – flanked by many African countries including Gabon – clearly question the IC’s involvement in BiH and push a narrative of sovereignty and independence to the Bosnian people. The sincerity of this narrative is unclear. Some of these states are likely to be conscious of their own deteriorating domestic situations that the IC is almost certainly monitoring. By seeding populist narratives of non-interference and sovereignty about other states such as BiH, it is probable that these states in the future may seek to leverage political goodwill in international fora, as well as tapping into these pre-established and ostensibly legitimate narratives.
This is a strategic narrative that is not new – both Russia and in particular China have at various times pushed this narrative relating to their own country and to various other parts of the world. Both however have demonstrated hypocrisy to this narrative when it comes to their territorial ambitions. The two UNSC members are likely to continue to use the next UNSC meeting on BiH to undermine the Western-dominated IC’s “dubious power” of BiH.
NATO aligned Western states feel they have the most to lose from a destabilised BiH and wider Balkan region. They are likely to increase their engagement and strengthen their narratives of the need for continued international support to the region, particularly in response to destabilising factors such as Mr Dodik, Russia, China and the withdrawing so-called new non-aligned movement.
- The IC should continue to voice support for the legitimacy of High Representative Schmidt to reassure his authority and to discredit claims that he is occupying the position illegally.
- Civil Society and monitoring missions such as the OSCE should continue to engage with all communities and develop coherent communication campaigns which seek to inform domestic and regional audiences of peaceful co-existence between the three peoples. This should have the impact of discrediting divisive rhetoric.
- The OSCE’s BiH mission should continue its Hate Monitor report (discontinued since Feb ’22), reframed in positive language which identifies positive indicators of co-existence between the three peoples.
- Significant investment by the IC should be allocated to BiH ahead of October’s election to enable a free, fair and smoothly implemented election. Electoral trainers and a full observation mission should be sent to BiH.
- The IC must deter any political temptation in BiH to postpone the October elections.
- BiH electoral reforms should consider a sunset clause after the election, forcing an agreement of a new government.
- A coherent communication strategy should be developed and implemented by EUFOR, to inform the IC of its work, countering harmful allegations.
Luke James has worked at the International Criminal Court, the OSCE, the Center for the Study of Democracy, the British Red Cross and is currently coordinating the South East Europe and Black Sea region series of The Peace and Security Monitor project at the Platform for Peace and Humanity. Luke has owned a small international business for nine years and a holds first class Public International Law Master’s degree with specialization in weapons law from the University of Amsterdam. He is an army reservist, teaching transitional justice as part of a human security package.