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Bosnia and Herzegovina in Crisis: Factors and Implications

Bosnia and Herzegovina is experiencing “its greatest existential threat of the post-war period” according to the United Nations High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, referring to the brutal war of the 1990’s. This sentiment is echoing throughout the international community in recent months as an increasingly secessionist agenda is taking stage for the country’s Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik. The socio-political dynamics of the Western Balkans are deeply rooted in history, rendering attempts to address current political disputes no easy feat. As Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine persists, it is critical for the international community to remain involved in this situation and congregate on the issue to avoid a potential outbreak of violence by state and non-state actors; akin to the war triggered by the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s.

The Issue

Bosnia and Herzegovina in its current form were established by the Dayton Agreement, signed on December 14th, 1995, after several prior attempts by the international community to quell the violence sparked by the breakup of Yugoslavia and the desires of Serbian and Croatian leaders to create ethnically homogeneous states. While the peace agreement was not perfect – considering roughly 105,000 people were killed, millions displaced and numerous atrocities committed by all sides of the conflict made negotiations extremely difficult – it has managed to maintain the integrity of the country and peace within its borders for just over a quarter of a century. 

The constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, established by the Dayton Agreement, created two territorial and ethnic entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina primarily consisting of Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats; and the Republika Srpska of Bosnian Serbs. The presidency is a tripartite office representing the three main ethnic groups –  Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs, and Croats – with each representative holding an equal weight in the government in order to avoid one group wielding more political power. 

The Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, has made a decade-long attempt to portray Bosnia as a dysfunctional state, with the ultimate goal of secession, or being absorbed into Serbia. One of the many grievances vocalized by Dodik is the role played by the United Nations Office of High Representative (OHR) in the government. The OHR holds power in the Bosnian government by overseeing the civilian implementation of the Dayton Agreement as well as representing the countries involved in the agreement. The OHR struck the final cord with Dodik over the summer after passing a law criminalizing genocide denial, with many Bosnian Serbs viewing it as directed towards them after consistent denial of the infamous 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and the glorification of convicted war criminals. 

On December 10th, 2021, the Bosnian Serb parliament approved the implementation of steps to withdraw from state-level institutions including Bosnia’s joint judiciary, military and tax administration. As recently as February, deputy members of the Republika Srpska National Assembly adopted the draft version of a law to form a high judicial and prosecutorial council, a move which creates a separate judicial system from the rest of the country and is illegal under the constitution. If fully carried out, this decision would affront the country’s constitution and ultimately culminate in the end of Bosnia and Herzegovina as we know it. Although a push to revisit the Dayton Agreement and constitution has been considered by all sides and could potentially garner productive reforms, the secessionist route taken by Dodik poses a significant threat to stability in the region and beyond. 

International and Regional Implications

Russia’s long-standing relationship with Serbia and the Republika Srpska dates back to Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Today, Moscow’s relationship with Serb leaders, as well as the region as a whole, is fueled by the Kremlin’s modus operandi of sabotaging the prospect of EU integration and undermining ties with the West. Russian President Vladimir Putin has maintained close ties with Dodik and continues to harness and exacerbate existing tensions in the region. Moscow financially supports foundations that peddle denial of genocide carried out by Bosnian Serb forces in the 90’s. Additionally, Serbian groups in the country posing as humanitarian organizations enjoy significant financial support from Russia, as well as online radicalization material and military training. “Youth Patriotic Camps” in Serbia and Russia are specifically designed to radicalize and train young attendees. Dodik would not be able to pose this sincere threat without Russia’s support, and many of the narratives shared between Russia and Bosnian Serbs entail far-right mythologization of Russia as the ultimate protector of Serbs.  With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina may either serve as a distraction from Russia’s actions on the Ukrainian border or create a second front in the conflict.

China gained a significant footprint in the Balkan region over the past decade through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). So far, China has invested over 32 billion euros in over 136 projects ranging from infrastructure and technology to military and defense aid. Most of China’s investment in the region has gone to Serbia, with Bosnia and Herzegovina close behind. The Chinese Communist Party’s drive to win political influence through the BRI has not spared the Balkans, and this will certainly affect how the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina will play out considering the leverage such funds can have over politicians in these countries. While it’s difficult to gauge exactly how the Chinese Communist Party will navigate the situation in Bosnia, especially if the situation intensifies, it’s evident from China’s ‘Wolf Warrior Diplomacy’ and their ties with Moscow that China will not miss the opportunity to put their hat in the ring for shaping a favorable outcome.

Other regional actors have staked their position in this crisis which will certainly have important repercussions down the road. The most obvious actors, Serbia and Croatia, have largely been silent in this situation considering the governments of both countries took part in the Dayton Peace Agreement, rendering explicit support for the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina untenable. Nonetheless, the leaders of both Serbia and Croatia have implicitly displayed support for Dodik’s separatist actions. Like Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats feel underrepresented by the country’s ethnically appointed government and members of Croatian political parties have nudged at their support for the dissolution of the country.

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Victor Orban, has shown strong support for Dodik. Along with Orban’s surprise visit to Republika Srpska’s capital, Banja Luka, in November 2020, Orban’s government provides 100 million euros in financial assistance to Republika Srpska. Although the assistance is claimed to enhance stability in the region, many fear that the money will be used to fund Dodik’s political aims. One of the greatest concerns is the fact that Hungary’s European Union membership could nullify any potential sanctions against Dodik as Orban has already threatened to veto any prospective sanctions for Dodik’s actions.

Regional Extremist Threat

The unique history and geographic location of Bosnia and Herzegovina has fostered a geopolitical environment unlike anywhere else in the world. Centuries of Ottoman rule and regional alliances with European powers have left a lasting mark on the dynamic between ethnic, national, and religious entities in the region. While Balkan countries were heavily influenced by the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches throughout history, they also contain some the largest Muslim populations outside of Asia and Africa. Bosniaks comprise just over half the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, making it one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe besides Kosovo. Although the country’s diverse population maintains a peaceful coexistence, reminded of the traumatic war of the 1990’s, extremist groups from every ethnic, national, and religious perspective have continued to find air and vocalize their perceived grievances against the “other”. Moreover, the emergence of ISIS, as well as far-right militia groups in Ukraine and Russia, have provided hardline extremists an avenue to strengthen their beliefs and even gain battlefield experience in the corresponding conflicts. 

The disintegration of Yugoslavia and the war that followed caused a diverse country of neighbors to suddenly become enemies. As the war dragged on the historically moderate Muslim community became more extreme with help from the outside. As many as 3,000 Islamist militant fighters from various Islamic groups with combat experience in Afghanistan and Chechnya traveled to Bosnia during the war, including members of Al Qaeda. Notably, as many as four of the hijackers responsible for the 9/11 attacks fought in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Despite the unique and complex environment of this conflict, the history of Islamic extremist groups fighting in Bosnia has set a negative precedent for modern times. Since the rise of ISIS and the greater conflict in Iraq and Syria circa 2012, approximately 1,000 men, women and children from Western Balkan countries, 323 of whom hailing from Bosnia and Herzegovina, traveled to Iraq and Syria to join Islamic extremist groups. Furthermore, thousands of migrants fleeing from the vioence have either passed through or been stuck in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the ongoing migrant crisis caused by the war in Syria. Despite the significant majority of refugees having nothing to do with extremist beliefs, the deplorable conditions many are left to live through in conjunction with the trend of using refugees as a form of Hybrid Warfare, refugees become vulnerable to radicalization, particularly true when considering that over half the world’s refugee population is under 18 years old.

 The conditions that influence far-right extremism in Bosnia and Herzegovina also date back centuries, bolstered by more recent events in the region. Most notably, the ethno-nationalist and religious drive for independence from Ottoman-controlled territory throughout the nineteenth century maintains a sense of pride in many communities to this day. The Greek term “Turkofagos”, which translates to “eater of Turks”, is a common term used by far-right groups in Serbia and Bosnia to honor violence against Muslim communities. Far-right and ethno-nationalist extremism was reinvented during the disintegration of Yugoslavia with remnants of the anti-Ottoman Empire and World War II historical narratives baked into it. 

As the complex situation fueled by extreme political narratives played out between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks in the 1990’s, people around the world we’re witnessing the largest conflict in Europe since World War II. Similar to the foreign Islamic fighters traveling to assist Bosniak forces in the conflict, foreign right-wing extremists flooded the region to join paramilitary groups such as the Orthodox Christian Bosnian Serb Army and the Catholic Bosnian Croat Army. Many of them went back to their home countries after the war to advance their far-right extremist views, and tout their involvement in atrocities such as the Srebrenica massacre

More recently, fighting between Ukraine and Russia in the Donbas region garnered foreign support from both Croats and Serbs. At least 17,000 far-right extremists from around the world have traveled to fight on behalf of both Ukrainians and pro-Russian separatists since the conflict began in 2014. To no surprise, there are at least 100 Serbians fighting on the side of Russia, and Croatia with at least 60 citizens fighting on behalf of the Ukrainians, with smaller numbers of right-wing extremists from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Although these are estimates, in conjunction with the numbers of people fighting with Islamic extremist organizations, it shows how international networks of extremists are closely tied in many ways and can permeate many communities. 

Final Thoughts

The war between Russia and Ukraine has already had a historic impact on the region and the world. It is difficult to speculate how the capricious situation will play out in the long-term, or how alliances will move forward. Judging from the information that is known, Bosnia and Herzegovina is in a very shaky situation. As Milorad Dodik accelerates his bid to pull the Republika Srpska out of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s federal institutions, the prospect for sustained peace crumbles. Knowing that Dodik is closely allied with Vladimir Putin, the potential for a ‘second front’ to the war in Ukraine increases as Dodik’s plan advances. 

The current state of Bosnia and Herzegovina is extremely complex, involving particular implications dating back over centuries. Communicating accurate information in this convoluted situation is key to understanding how to approach it, and avoid the outbreak of violence in the region. Putin’s current use of disinformation and propaganda to stoke division among the people is eerily similar to that of the Serbian and Croatian TV and radio broadcasts during the war in the 90’s. With international tensions already high due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the historical dynamic between ethnic groups in the region, and the history of extremist groups coming and going, the old adage of the Balkans being “the powder keg of Europe” might not be too far off from the truth; and Milorad Dodik is threatening to light a match over it. It is paramount for the international community to maintain engagement with this region amid the war in Ukraine. The people living here are still dealing with the wounds of the previous war in their homeland. It will take international commitment and understanding to prevent a more consequential conflict from breaking out because this type of conflict will undoubtedly have international impacts.

About the author

Liam McHugh recently graduated from John Jay College with a Masters’s in Criminal Justice, specializing in Terrorism Studies and Criminal Law & Procedure. He also received Advanced Certificates in Terrorism Studies and Criminal Investigation. While at John Jay College, Liam studied global security issues in Athens, Greece including the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorism, and organized crime in the region.

As an undergraduate, Liam studied at the University of Denver majoring in psychology and minoring in criminology and international studies. Liam has also held internships with the Colorado Governor’s Office, the 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office of Colorado, and the Psychology Lab at the University of Denver.

The views and opinions expressed in this paper are the views of the author and not necessarily the views of the Lobo Institute. For more information on the institute or to get on the mailing list for our papers and LoboCasts, please go to Lobo Institute