On 9 January 2022, the world watched in awe as police officers of Republika Srpska marched across Banja Luka singing nationalist songs ‘in the name of the Serbian nation’ and in the presence of convicted war criminals. The pictures from the Bosnian Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) revived painful memories of the 1992–5 Bosnian War and stoked fear across the country.
Since it was first celebrated in 2017, 9 January, an unconstitutionally declared public holiday in Republika Srpska, has become a bizarre parade of Bosnian Serb nationalism, spearheaded by its self-styled protector and co-president of BiH, Milorad Dodik. Two days prior, as Orthodox Christians celebrated Christmas, some Bosnian Serbs fired shots into the air, singing ‘Christmas has come – shoot at the mosques’.
Even the most seasoned analysts, numbed by the brinkmanship of Bosnian Serb leaders and the recurrent secessionist threats, have started wondering: is this the prelude to another war?
The lead-up: criminalising the denial of genocide
The reasons for the current anxiety about the future of BiH are multiple and well founded. Dodik has mastered the art of paralysing the state and toying with the secession of Republika Srpska, an entity of 1.3 million people that would be territorially unviable as an independent state. But his latest actions have included practical steps beyond rhetoric. Foreign reaction has been blunted by the EU’s highly counterproductive approach of concessions, driven by the Hungarian European commissioner for enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi. Dodik also cultivates friendly relations with China and relies on Russia’s diplomatic support, especially in the UN and the multinational mechanisms that have administrative powers over BiH.
This latest crisis was triggered on 23 July 2021, when the outgoing High Representative of BiH imposed a long-debated law that criminalised the denial of genocide and war crimes and the celebration of war criminals. This was a symbolic godsend to Dodik, who since 2006 has consistently claimed that ‘his’ people – those in Republika Srpska – have been demonised, labelled guilty of genocide, treated unfairly, and oppressed. Fighting for his political survival amid growing opposition, a dire economic situation, and a grave mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dodik grasped the opportunity to present himself as the only defender of the interests of Bosnian Serbs while pursuing his ambition of self-rule.
In September 2021, Dodik announced that Republika Srpska would create its own army, pull out of BiH’s top judicial body and tax administration office, and set up its own border control, which would effectively provide material grounds for self-rule. The territory’s secession in all but name was approved in December 2021 by Republika Srpska’s parliament, which voted to endorse these steps.
The enablers: populists in the EU
Just as in previous crises, especially in 2011 and 2016, foreign reactions to the latest turmoil in BiH included threats of sanctions and a flurry of diplomacy. So far, only the US has imposed economic sanctions, which Dodik laughed off and celebrated in a video that was widely circulated in the media. Meanwhile, the EU held off because of the support that Dodik receives from Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary in particular. No other tangible international steps have so far been taken, such as beefing up the meagre 800-person EUFOR military mission in BiH or confronting populist EU members and curbing their support.
Domestically, Bosnian Croats express no qualms about Republika Srpska’s actions, which can only strengthen their negotiating position for a more favourable electoral law – one of the main points of discord in BiH, where elections are to be held this year. But the Bosniak leadership, which is notorious for its corruption and mismanagement, is at a loss for any meaningful response, absorbed in its own disputes and fully reliant on international actors for guidance.
However, the EU has proposed a package of concessions, drafted by Várhelyi, a close aide of Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán. Várhelyi is now under investigation for colluding with Dodik and enhancing the European Commission’s latest report into Serbia’s enlargement prospects. The commissioner’s strategy would effectively provide Dodik with enough financial means to pursue his ambitions. The situation is made worse by Croatia’s meddling: since its accession to the EU in 2013, Croatia has increased its nationalist politics and acted as the main advocate of Bosnian Croat interests in BiH. Croatian president Zoran Milanović has openly declared his support for Dodik and opposition to any EU action against Republika Srpska.
A key player is Serbia. But Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has rhetorically distanced himself from any secessionist plans, encouraged Dodik to cooperate with state-level institutions, and committed to de-escalating the crisis. While Vučić has had some restraining effect on Dodik, styling himself as a partner of the EU, strong Republika Srpska institutions and weaker central ones are ultimately in Serbia’s interest too, as this way Belgrade can exercise more leverage over BiH.
The consequences: permanent crisis
Despite Serbia’s intervention, the possibility of violence – even if limited and localised – still looms large. Yet, it is hard to imagine a fully fledged conflict like that of the 1990s. The regional situation has changed, and BiH’s neighbours have no interest in being pulled into another conflict over Republika Srpska. Most importantly, war is not even in Dodik’s interest. His main objective is to extend and consolidate his power while curbing any meddling from international or central authorities. However, although the majority of the Bosnian population opposes conflict, this does not mean localised violence is out of the question.
Indeed, the current crisis should not be taken lightly. The peculiar design of BiH, whose institutions were established by the 1995 Dayton Agreement, has passed its expiry date, as current threats suggest. BiH has been in dire need of constitutional reform for more than a decade. Yet, the current electoral reforms and concession packages fall short of a long-term transformation. Instead, BiH needs a deliberative reform process with the inclusion of all domestic and subnational actors. Without this, it will be hard to break the country’s cycles of secessionist threats and permanent crisis.
Dr Jessie Barton Hronešová is a political scientist and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie global fellow at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice.