The internationally brokered Dayton peace agreement that governs Bosnia and Herzegovina is no longer fit for purpose. The EU tried to play a hand in taming post-election tensions by awarding EU candidacy in December 2022, though candidacy rings hollow in Bosnia as accession before 2030 remains unlikely. Breakaway proponents have continued to stoke tensions, sustained by groups linked to Serbia and Russia. EU and pro-Bosnian state audiences may find a powerful ally in NATO, but Bosnia cannot be reconciled until an honest interrogation of its constitution and the institutions therein are radically reformed.
Strong and frank diplomacy by the international community in Bosnia is needed. Social, cultural and geographic divides represented by Dayton’s two entities – Bosnia’s own de facto green line – are virtually unreconcilable.
This article reflects upon an unsettling 18 months in Bosnia, reporting back on fieldwork throughout 2022, interrogating drivers of secessionist rhetoric. Taming the narrative of secession in 1995 required innovative solutions. Today, innovation to tame the reality of secession is required. The article concludes that whilst the international community must be prepared to show – with an overwhelmingly big stick if necessary – those secessionist voices and their antagonist allies that they will no longer be permitted to destabilise the country and the wider region, there is an opportunity for radical reform.
An unsettling 18 months in Bosnia
Following Bosnia and Herzegovina’s October General Election, the European Commission issued a proposal on 12 October to consider Bosnia and Herzegovina for candidacy status, later awarding in December 2022. This had the short-term objective of diffusing heightening political tensions in Bosnia and managing secessionist rhetoric emanating from Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska (RS). The proposal also attempted to distract from credible allegations that disproportionally strong pro-Croat lobby groups had the ear of the custodian of the Bosnia’s Dayton Accords, the Office of the High Representative (OHR).
In addition, there is the perception that the newly awarded EU candidacy status was a geopolitical move by the EU, forced to act following Russia’s war on Ukraine. When the EU awarded Ukraine and Moldova candidacy in Summer 2022, the western Balkans were left frozen outside the club, leaving many Bosnians with a feeling of unfairness. For the EU, anticipating Putin’s probable second-year war aims to exploit levers in areas where it still holds some influence – such as RS, whose leader bestowed an honour on Mr Putin on 8 January – the EU likely felt compelled to show solidarity and signal some progress in Bosnia’s EU integration path.
Many Bosnians welcome the candidacy but treat it laudably – only believing the possibility of accession when they see it.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has been re-traumatising for many Bosnians, bringing up painful memories of the war during the 1992 – 1995 Bosnian war. Following Putin’s immediately failed “peace offer” on 5 January 2023, analysts are beginning to revisit the conditions that led to Dayton’s partition of Bosnia into two entities. Many Bosnians believe the west should be doing more to help Ukraine push Russian forces out of its territory – and not into what they fear could be a hastily constructed Dayton-esque peace agreement, accommodating too much to the aggressor, including ceding territory.
The last 18 months have contributed to many Bosnians’ long-held feelings of disillusionment with the international community. This is exemplified starkly with the current High Representative – the International Community’s touchpoint in Bosnia and Herzegovina – many feel he is, at best, out of his professional depth and, at worse, has competing and prioritised interests. Controversially, even the representatives from the EU distanced themselves from this increasingly unpopular High Representative.
As the only alternative western-led organisation, some may look to NATO to pick up the pieces. Albeit with risk, this could be seen as a window of opportunity for NATO. There are compelling reasons for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s inclusion into the alliance – from both the NATO and Bosnian perspectives.
Domestically, negotiations to form a government were still being thrashed out months after the election. Milorad Dodik, RS’s chief secessionist proponent and Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party leader, again had a magnified role in disrupting government formation – ultimately coming away with some strategic wins.
Drivers of secession
Following the EU’s candidacy announcement, Mr Dodik calibrated his pre-election secessionist rhetoric. He thanked EU leaders, stating, ‘I want to believe that the time has come for Bosnia and Herzegovina with two entities and three constituent nations.’ True to form, the mask slipped just a few weeks later, with Mr Dodik returning to his secessionist status quo ante.
Within RS, Mr Dodik sits within a generally limited ideological spectrum – almost all Bosnian-Serbs will confess they have little affinity with the Bosnian state. Željka Cvijanović, Mr Dodik’s SNSD right-hand woman and new tripartite state President, rejected Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Independence Day on 1 March, describing it as “morbid”. Even amongst Dodik’s political opponents in Banja Luka, the de facto capital of RS, it is extremely difficult to find decision-makers who will privately confide or publicly message their commitment to the Bosnian state.
Millennials in Banja Luka – including young “non-aligned” party staffers at the Mayor’s office – can generally be considered a homogenous audience. Most signal opposition to Mr Dodik’s SNSD party of ‘corruption and nepotism’. When pressed, however, most of these smart-casual millennials will echo similar shades of nationalist rhetoric comparable to Mr Dodik’s.
Draško Stanivuković is the twenty-nine year old mayor who came to power with a slick online communications campaign at the height of Covid-19 in 2020. He has incorrectly been considered a palatable alternative to Mr Dodik’s nationalist SNSD party. Within Mr Dodik’s SNSD party, Mr Stanivuković and his Party of Democratic Progress (PDP) party are dismissed as young ‘social media people’, but the perceived threat to SNSD’s dominance is clear – with one SNSD member fiercely critical, alleging opaque Mayoral appointments and claiming 90% of the PDP’s pre-2020 Mayoral mandate ‘has not and will not be delivered’.
Mr Stanivuković, who refuses to host pride festivals, recently displayed signs of repackaging history to suit a classic contemporary Serbian narrative – an oppressed Serb people fighting ‘to win freedom’. This narrative is a key indicator of a continued gulf of reconciliation between the two Bosnian entities and should be considered a stark warning against the context of increasing genocide denial in the country.
A narrative of “victimhood” runs across all ages in “the Serbian world”. Baristas at trendy coffee shops in Belgrade are comprehensive in their commentaries on NATO’s faults during the 78-day bombing campaign in 1999. A university Professor in Banja Luka wryly claims the west would ‘blame Milošević for the weather’. Gen Z students largely appear disillusioned, but some show signs of adopting the Serbian narrative.
On 9 January, the Russian-linked Night Wolves marched in celebration of the – twice declared unconstitutional – Republika Srpska day. Kosovo’s President, Albin Kurti, believes the same group have been operating in northern Kosovo in partnership with elements of Russia’s Wagner group. It is highly likely that Wagner’s objectives and presence in the Balkans will expand – with Bosnia’s former Minister of Security Selmo Cikotić citing intelligence indicating Wagner’s presence in RS.
Whilst changing of the old guard may be underfoot in RS, Mr Dodik and his SNSD party will remain dominant in the short-to-mid-term. Nationalism and resistance to the Bosnian state are set to rise, persisting well into the rest of this decade. Malign Russian and Serbian-linked actors will likely seek to stoke this feeling, widening the wedge between the two entities.
Some of the influence wielded by entities in RS can be attributed to the support it finds from its disruptive hardline Croat and Bosnian-Croat allies.
October 2022’s election returned Željko Komšić as the Bosnian-Croat member of the tripartite Presidency for the fourth time. Although Mr Komšić has ethnic Bosnian-Croat and Bosnian-Serb heritage, Mr Komšić and his DF party are fiercely neutral and pro-Bosnian state, rejecting ethnic identity politics. Being a distinguished member of the army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 90s, Mr Komšić enjoys popularity and trust among the Bosniak population.
Mr Komšić’s candidacy and strategic self-identification as the Bosnian-Croat member of the tripartite Presidency election returns many Bosniak and moderate Bosnian-Croat votes. Although constitutionally legal, this self-identifying qualification for candidacy is seen as an affront to the Bosnian-Croat – sometimes self-described as ‘Herzegovinian Croats’ – nationalist party, the HDZ BiH, and its backers in Croatia; the Croatian nationalist HDZ party and Croatian President, Zoran Milanović. The Croatian political elite and lobby groups are active in their diplomatic offensive in Brussels against the perceived ‘injustice’ towards the Croat population in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Interpreting the Dayton Accords – incorrectly – many believe only “real” Bosnian-Croats should be able to vote for the Bosnian-Croat candidacy, which they calculate would return victory for the HDZ BiH at the Presidential level. In protest, at the state and federation level, the HDZ BiH, backed by their supporters in Banja Luka, Zagreb, Budapest, Moscow and Belgrade, have used their veto power to block governmental business for years. They demand alignment of their interpretation of the Dayton Accords and a more favourable implementation of the extremely technical constitutional Ljubić case.
Echoes of Croatia’s first President, Franjo Tudjman’s narrative of a vast “diaspora” in need of protection persists – state grants for projects for ‘Croatian communities abroad’ are made available. By most estimates, around 500,000 Bosnian-Croats (many have been issued passports by Croatia and are now dual nationals) are registered as living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Like the other main ethnic groups, the number actually residing will be significantly less. Pro-Croat analysts claim dramatic demographic changes, estimating the proportion of “Herzegovinian Croats” to Bosnian Croats shifting ‘from 1:2 to 2:1’ since 1991, thereby diminishing the numbers and identity of pro-Bosnian state moderate Bosnian Croats – most of which are spread out in central and eastern Bosnia and are considered by former Mayor of Sarajevo and Bosnian-Croat Ivo Komšić as “vital in preventing the division of BiH”.
As polls closed on 2 October Election Day, the Office of The High Representative – the arbiter of the implementation of the Dayton Accords – and former German politician Christian Schmidt used the Office’s Bonn powers to impose electoral reforms, described as ‘empowering’ and ‘appeasing’ the HDZ BiH. Rather than creating reforms for conciliatory governance, the optics of the High Representative’s reforms look much like meeting the Croat lobby groups’ demands – further entrenching and incentivising those inclined to support ethno-sectarian nationalism.
Domestically in the short-term, the HDZ BiH will almost certainly play an influential role in state parliament formation and both state and federation level governance – indeed, the Vice President of the HDZ BiH, supported by Mr Dodik’s SNSD, was elected head of the Council of Ministers in late January this year after months of negotiations. The HDZ BiH and its backers are angling to set the conditions for HDZ BiH leader Dragan Čović’s installation as the Croat member of the Presidency, unseating Mr Komšić and creating a de facto de-territorialised annexation of part of western Bosnia.
The international community: Taming secession, then and now
Similar to the – now questionable – prevailing “separatist” narrative of the post-Maidan 2014 Russian control of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, what appeared to be a “separatist” conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s was, in reality, driven in large part by the ambitions of a more powerful neighbour – Serbia. Like Russian President Putin working through Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” proxies to forcibly reclaim land once administered under the USSR, President Slobodan Milosevich worked through Bosnian Serb proxies seeking to carve out a “Greater Serbia”, once under the administration of Yugoslavia.
As with the Ukraine context today, there is a degree of similarity with the management the United States (US) had in the conflict. US weapons transfers to the Ukrainian military “were necessary but not sufficient” to the Kharkiv counter offensives in September 2022. In 1995, supported by US “train and equip” proxy organisations, Croatia’s forces were in part enabled to conduct rapid counter-offensives, ‘Operation Storm’.
The Croatian counter-offensives looked likely to caputure Banja Luka violently, overreaching Belgrade and Zagreb’s previous “Karadjordjevo agreement” – a deal which sought to carve up Bosnia and Herzegovina between the two regimes. With an impending humanitarian disaster afoot across the Atlantic, isolated at the Wright-Patterson air force base in Dayton, Ohio, the US special Balkan envoy, Richard Holbrooke, came under intense pressure to find a peace deal between the parties.
Bosnian Foreign Minister, Muhamed Sacribey, resigned during the negotiations, citing unfair pressure on the Bosniaks, believing the Accords in effect accommodated ethnic cleansing and the carving out of RS. Growing weary of the conflict, the US hastily ensured the Dayton accords were constructed, ceasing hostilities. What is sometimes presented as taming secession through the Dayton accords was, in reality, cementing the lines of Belgrade’s land grab.
Today the game has changed, and the proverbial cat is out of the bag. Some transitional justice components have worked since the war – there has been some accountability, some reparations and efforts to memorialise. But there is little in the way of institutional reform, redistribution of power and wealth, and crucially, truth-telling and reconciliation today.
Most likely, over 90% of RS firmly consider themselves Serbian with little affinity for the Bosnian state, shielded from the 24% tipping point many academics feel is required to create a shift in a given system. A prevailing secessionist narrative is that the number of new-born Serbs and “Herzegovinian Croats” has only mildly decreased, whereas Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks have reduced much more significantly (birth rates are generally considered a good proxy for measuring emigration). In other words, Bosnia’s “brain drain” phenomena are almost exclusively Bosniak, against the Herzegovinian Croats and Bosnian-Serb “patriots” who are staying behind in the “failed” country, legitimising further claims of secession. Reliable statistics are impossible to find and authenticate, but in a post-truth environment, it is the prevailing narrative that has the greater impact.
Despite handing peacekeeping responsibilities to the EU’s Operation Althea (EUFOR) in 2004, according to the Dayton Accords, NATO remains the technical custodian of peace and security in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia begrudgingly knows this. On 3 November 2022, after speculation it may veto EUFOR’s yearly mandate renewal at the UN Security Council, Moscow – with its usual complaints – waved EUFOR’s mandate through. For Moscow, EUFOR is likely perceived as a preferable alternative to a reinstalled NATO implementation force (IFOR, later SFOR).
Whilst NATO’s presence in BiH is likely to be a more forceful presence than EUFOR, both missions hamper Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NATO membership aspirations. A country has never – and should never – join NATO whilst hosting an imposed peacekeeping force.
Despite this, for NATO and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the key objective should be accelerating its Membership Action Plan (MAP). The Bosnia and Herzegovinian Armed Forces (AFHiH) have been ticking NATO Combat Readiness Evaluation boxes – including passing an assessment on Human Security in military operations in September 2022. The AFHiH are professionalising, and Sarajevo continues to signal its NATO aspirations with a visit by new Bosniak Tri-Partite President Denis Bećirović to NATO HQ on 16 January 2023. For Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO membership will guarantee American commitment to the country, not least through Article 5 obligations.
From the NATO perspective, Bosnia and Herzegovina is NATO’s courtyard. Extending membership to Bosnia and Herzegovina and, although less likely, Kosovo would shore up NATO’s south-eastern flank – a region which has been prone to Russian and, to a lesser extent, Chinese and Iranian influence.
There are many significant hurdles to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NATO membership, however. This includes fierce ideological resistance from Banja Luka and its supporters. Wrapped up in this includes Mr Dodik’s continuing refusal to transfer military facilities from the entity level to central government – a precondition of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s MAP. To the contrary, in October 2022, speculations arose that military sites were actually to be transferred from the central government to the RS entity level. These claims had gone quiet, whilst political analyst Jasmin Muhanović believes the transfer to RS is still on the cards, however. Any transfer – perceived or real – would be a win for Mr Dodik and surely an end to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NATO aspirations. Like NATO’s MAP requirement of military sites being transferred to central government, the closure of the Office of the High Representative also requires this transfer.
The current incumbent, Christian Schmidt, has lost popular opinion and credibility in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Learning lessons from other peace processes, a leader who engenders respect, harnessing buy-in from as many stakeholders as possible is needed. Unlike Mr Schmidt, this person should not be a technocrat and must not be perceived as harbouring hidden agendas. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela negotiated the repeal of Apartheid from the constitution and drove the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process. In Derry in 1995, President Bill Clinton’s ‘handshake of reconciliation’ speech exemplified his three-year interest in Northern Ireland’s peace process. His and the US’ influence can be seen as setting the conditions for the Good Friday Agreement – which to this day the US seeks to safeguard.
The respected and popular but late Sir Paddy Ashdown, whose bronze bust in Sarajevo is often garnished with flowers, could have been a great candidate to return to the position of OHR. Heavyweights with clout should be considered – not necessarily the Barack Obamas and Tony Blairs of the world – both are probably too far removed from the Bosnian context to be trusted, with Blair’s lack of popularity in Serbian circles also acting as a disqualification anyway – but a known, trusted and qualified diplomat should put themselves forward the role itself or a consultative figurehead type position. A new incumbent should work to a sunset clause, in effect working to terminate their own position upon completion of the job or specified timeframe. Many Bosnians feel this person just doesn’t exist, however. Despite the Bosnian desire for a change, it will be the EU and its member states that are likely to have the final say on any OHR reshuffle, and the appetite to replace Mr Schmidt seems lacking – for now.
The EU’s candidacy in December 2022 was a step in the right direction, but Bosnia and Herzegovina is miles away from the reforms required for EU membership. So is Ukraine. Yet Ukraine’s President Zelensky is rapidly pushing through reforms for membership. President Zelensky is intelligently capitalising on his political clout for progress with his country’s EU relations – something that is not an option with the current leadership in Sarajevo.
Sarajevo will be looking with scepticism to neighbouring Albania and North Macedonia; both have been stuck at candidacy status since 2014 and 2005, respectively.
In awarding the candidacy in December, the EU has used up the key trump card that it thought would tame post-election secessionist rhetoric. Merely months on, and the rhetoric remains and seems to be increasing. Other than innovative solutions, the EU now has no further cards to play other than full membership – which seems unlikely before 2030. Taking a political gamble as it did with Bulgaria and Romania’s membership in 2007 seems equally as unlikely, despite today’s geopolitical pressures.
The international community’s current modus operandi seems to be a slowly slowly approach. With some strong donor support, the OSCE’s mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and local NGOs such as the Post Conflict Research Center (PCRC) have been developing and implementing programmes and projects that promote inter-ethnic cohesion among young people. Denis Bećirović and Željko Komšić’s election to the tripartite Presidency was seen as a victory for the moderates, with eventual government formation in January hailed a “success”.
The slowly slowly reform approach seems to bank on the passage of time, naturally churning out younger people less prone to ethno-nationalism and more inclined towards rooting out the corruption that has dogged the country for decades. This approach fails to account for the intensity of feeling in RS and assumes rational choice theory.
In 1995, a NATO spokesperson, upon completion of the Dayton Accords, said, ‘in short, neither side achieved its maximum objectives, but they were able to leave Dayton with the minimum that was acceptable to them’. Aside from the fact that Bosniaks will likely disagree with that statement, today, that statement must be revisited – are the Bosnian people obtaining what is minimally acceptable to them?
It is exceedingly unlikely that the international community and the OHR do not have a strategy for the country. Mr Schmidt must have outcomes he seeks to achieve, with the military state property issue likely to be the next big showdown against Mr Dodik. The mood music that is coming from Washington and Brussels seems to be one of endorsing “stabilitocracy” and de facto pacificism towards those secessionist voices, however.
Reform: The Radical Option
Pragmatic deliberation of Republika Srpska’s further autonomy should not be off the table. A new constitution based on devolution, whereby Banja Luka’s political elite remain in Banja Luka with full control over their internal affairs, including taxation; military; policing; judiciary; property should be considered. Power sharing in the Federation may give way to another electoral system – or it may not. An interim judiciary system loosely based on hybrid courts, such as the Kosovo Specialist Chambers could be deployed, with international judges sitting in courts in the country. This would reinstall integrity to the judicial system and decrease allegations of corruption as well as training, advising and building local capacity.
In return, the Federation could be offered near-immediate NATO membership, with Article 5 protections. Both entities remain on a newly separated dual track to EU membership. Should one entity satisfy the accession acquis and achieve EU membership before the other, the citizens within the slower entity should not be unconditionally excluded from their own EU path. There is precedence that is not wildly dissimilar in Cyprus. Recognising that agreements fixed in times often negate future developments, a formal reintegration process for the RS back into the Bosnian state could be crystallised as an option in the mid-term. Development and funding streams to the entities could be separated, with new and existing streams closely monitored and pegged to conflict sensitivities. The EU will likely receive resistance from certain member states over the accession tracks – but it should innovate with real incentives as interim exceptional measures. Complications over differing speeds and mechanics of EU integration can learn lessons from the United Kingdom’s recent Northern Ireland Windsor Framework.
Such an approach should be put to the people in an internationally observed referendum – it will force the political elites hands and reveal people’s priorities. There must be a significant majority to pass the referendum, with features similar to the Nigerian election system, where there must be at least a sizeable minority in a majority of voting districts. Legitimate overseas voters should probably be included but weighted less to those who can prove permanent presence in the country.
With the removal of Republika Srpska blocking governmental business, Kosovo’s recognition by Bosnia and Herzegovina will be unlocked.
In time and with good behaviour, Republika Srpska’s path to secession should not be categorically denied. With sequential frameworks such as UN General Assembly Observer Status being on offer in the lead up to secession.
Solutions to Bosnia’s problems are extremely complex, with a staggeringly high number of stakeholders to consult. Starting from the recognition that Dayton is no longer fit for purpose, analysis of the local, regional and global impacts of root and branch reform will be a massive piece of work. The risk of unintended consequences may be high, but that risk is arguably lower than the risk of the status quo. When weighed against the opportunities of EU and NATO membership and the economic incentives that come with the memberships and ideological autonomy for the RS, a radical reform may genuinely be considered worthwhile to the Bosnian people.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, exclusively pragmatic solutions to Bosnia will fail as fast as ideological solutions. The international community’s strategy in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 was to stop the bullets from flying. Today, the west, in partnership with the Bosnian people, should consider an innovative approach that accommodates the largely pragmatic Bosniak position and the largely ideological RS position.
The west must carry an overwhelmingly big stick and speak loudly if it wants to inject some stability into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dialogue with radical solutions should not be off the table.
Luke James is the Programme Director of Platform’s South East Europe and Black Sea region and Central Asia programmes and a Programme Officer for a humanitarian organisation and a Human Security Advisor. He is listed as an Emerging Expert on US DC based Forum on the Arms Trade. Luke holds a first-class Masters in Public International Law from the University of Amsterdam, and researches and writes on IHL and Transitional Justice.
He has previously worked for the International Criminal Court, Center for the Study of Democracy, the UNV and the British Red Cross.