The mood was subdued as a group of demonstrators gathered on a sunny morning outside the US Embassy in Sarajevo, the capital of the Western Balkan country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The protesters demanded an end to toxic nationalism in the country and urged the US president to intervene against the powerful political clans that keep inciting conflict between the population's three main ethnic groups — Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. "We want equal rights for all," argued an upset elderly woman, adding the people's position must be strengthened, the nationalists' power broken.
In late September, Milorad Dodik, the Serbian representative in the three-member Bosnian state presidency, made it clear that Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, wants to leave the common, multi-ethnic state. Republika Srpska, he said, should gradually detach itself from the state as a whole and organize its own defense and justice responsibilities — an attack on the fragile peace that has continued in the country since 1995.
For years, Dodik's secession rhetoric has been making headlines. This time, however, there may be more to it than the usual saber rattling — with Republika Srpska gendarmerie units holding a large-scale exercise in mountains that have symbolic value. Between 1992 and 1995, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted as a war criminal, orchestrated attacks on Sarajevo and the surrounding area from the nearby town of Pale. The Yugoslavia Tribunal in The Hague ruled the three-and-a-half-year siege and constant shelling of the Bosnian capital a crime against humanity.
It is a deja vu situation for many Bosnians, who ask foreigners these days whether a war is imminent. Older residents in particular remember the preparations for war and how the international community long abandoned the people of Bosnia. It wasn't until after the genocide of more than 8,000 Muslim boys and men by Bosnian Serb fighters near the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995 that the West responded, negotiating the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war.
Possible declaration of independence
Dodik's most recent moves aim at breaking down state structures. A separate health agency has already been established, and a separate army is set to follow. More than 120 decrees made by the High Representatives appointed by the UN after the war and who advanced the formation of state structures, are to be reversed, which is akin to an attack on Bosnia's territorial integrity. Dodik, warns the multi-ethnic opposition party Nasa Stranka, must be considered a "security risk."
Many people in Bosnia see the fact that the EU is not making any moves to intervene as evidence of a lack of strategy. A group of EU parliamentarians, including Reinhard Bütikofer of the German Green Party, has urged the Commission to take a tough stance against the secessionists. Michael Gahler, a conservative MEP, warned of a possible declaration of independence by Republika Srpska that would then be legitimized by Russia. Daniel Serwer, a renowned US expert on the Balkans, urged the international community to rapidly intervene and show military strength in order to prevent secession and the resulting conflicts.
Ultranationalists, hand in hand
There is no question that the political leadership in Republika Srpska has Serbian and Russian backing. Moscow is keen to prevent Bosnia from integrating into the EU and joining NATO. But Bosnian Serb leaders are not the only ones shooting holes into the Bosnian state. Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ-BiH) ultranationalists and their leader Dragan Covic have been working hand in hand with Dodik for years.
Hoping to secure power in the long run, the ethnic-minded HDZ-BiH is pushing for a change in the electoral law that would contradict fundamental European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rulings over the years, according to Joseph Marko, an Austrian constitutional expert. The ECHR ruled that a constitutional amendment is necessary to abolish discrimination against the country's non-Bosniak, non-Croatian and non-Serbian citizens — that is, minorities including Jews and Roma. The current electoral system is to their disadvantage, they are, for instance not allowed to run for president. The court's rulings have yet to be implemented.
The ECHR rulings clearly spell out a strengthening of European standards but the international community seems unwilling to put an end to the ultranationalists' move. US Special Envoy Matthew Palmer and EU envoy Angelina Eichhorst, who met last week for talks with nationalist leaders in Bosnia, advocate compromise. Palmer even touted a land swap between Serbia and Kosovo aimed at creating ethnically pure territories.
Neighboring Croatia and Serbia have been fueling the current situation by constantly interfering. Neither country takes a neutral stance — the partition of Bosnia was decided in 1991 under the former presidents of Croatia and Serbia, Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic respectively, followed by countless war crimes to achieve Greater Croatian and Greater Serbian goals.
Will the High Representative intervene?
Advocates of democratic reforms pin their hopes on Christian Schmidt, the international community's new High Representative in Bosnia. A local citizens' alliance recently gathered in front of Schmidt's office in Sarajevo, demanding he "either work or leave."
It is unclear whether the top peacekeeper will use the so-called Bonn Powers to dismiss elected officials if they take dangerous action. Schmidt recently indicated he did not plan to resort to any special powers.
If neither the US, the EU, nor the High Representative are willing to take action against the secessionist intentions in Bosnia, they risk repeating the same mistakes made in the early 1990s. Back then, politicians underestimated the radical nature of those involved. "It's like deja vu," said Stefica Galic, a Bosnian journalist. "It's as if the world has learned nothing from the wars."
Marion Kraske is a Balkans expert who has worked as a journalist for 20 years, including at the German Press Agency (dpa), ARD Tagesschau and Der Spiegel magazine. From 2015 to August 2021, she headed the office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Albania.
This article has been translated from German