As Bosnians look towards the new year, the list of challenges facing their country grows ever longer. Despite 26 years of peace-building by war survivors and activists, actors both within and without the country threaten to tear its fragile peace apart. EU officials appear to dither on imposing sanctions against the country’s far-right secessionist Milorad Dodik. Biden’s administration has been slow to offer much more than strong words. Russia continues to threaten retaliation if NATO tries to prevent atrocities in Bosnia. Now, the state of affairs has reached a new crisis point following new reports of cooperation between one EU Commissioner and Bosnian-Serb secessionists who are fuelling the political crisis. Further reports of cooperation suggest behind-the-scene work by senior EU figures to appease genocide denial in Bosnia. Meanwhile, Dodik has entrenched support from heads of state in Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. Bosnians are, yet again, surrounded by those content with or indifferent to a bloody partition of their country.
A security crisis years in the making
Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, was once hailed as a moderate by Western leaders. Years later and this tone of optimism could not have aged more poorly.
For months, Dodik has ramped up his ethno-nationalist rhetoric, calling on Europe’s Christians to counter Muslim birthrates at a recent summit in Budapest, and continuously denying the genocide perpetrated by Bosnian-Serb forces against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in Srebrenica in July 1995. He even oversaw two 2019 ‘commissions’ (funded by his then government of the Republika Srpska entity) to ‘re-examine’ the events of the Bosnian War, revising in the process the atrocities committed by Bosnian-Serb forces against Bosnian civilians.
Peace activists across Bosnia had been warning where such rhetoric, and acts, would lead.
It was not until earlier this year that Dodik’s alarming behaviour ratcheted up a notch. Bosnia’s outgoing High Representative (mandated with powers to ensure the upholding of the US-brokered Dayton Accords to prevent a return of genocide) used his powers to pass a law in Bosnia banning the denial of all genocides, including the one recognised by The Hague in Srebrenica. Dodik’s response was immediate. He passed his own law that declared the genocide denial ban void in the Republika Srpska (RS) entity
Upon his behest, his party’s representatives began their months-long boycott of state-level institutions, and Dodik’s talk soon turned to enacting secession.
Fast-forward a few months and Dodik made the fatal announcement that he would be pursuing the creation of a Bosnian-Serb army for and by ethnic Serbs. The revisionist ethno-nationalism he had been peddling for years was now backed by an apparent will to take military action.
Bosnia is a multicultural and multi-faith society. Its three largest ethnic groups are Bosnian Serbs (mostly Orthodox Christian), Bosnian Croats (mostly Catholic) and Bosniaks (Muslim). The last time Bosnian-Serb nationalists created their own army was in 1992. Its goal had been to carve out an ethnically homogenous Serb state from Bosnia’s territory. They failed to do so, but over the three years that followed managed to kill over 100,000 non-Serbs, the majority Muslim, in the process.
Dodik finds support in EU
The most damning aspect of the political – and potentially humanitarian – crisis brewing in Bosnia is the increasing appeasement shown by EU leaders towards Dodik and his supporters. Bosnian peace activists and political commentators say it is this support that emboldens ethno-nationalists like Dodik most.
It was EU official Angelina Eichhorst who, during meetings with Bosnian leaders, was pictured holding a document stating the EU’s refusal to impose sanctions against Dodik, despite his party’s denial of genocide and preparation for a de facto (illegal) partition of Bosnia.
Recently, investigative journalists in Bosnia reported outright collusion with Dodik by European Commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi.
The leaked report indicates that, in a tête-à-tête with Dodik, Várhelyi expressed approval of the RS’ vote on withdrawing Serb members from state-level institutions (including the national army) that would take place on 10 December. According to minutes from the meeting, Várhelyi’s approval was conditional to Dodik delaying the necessary legislation by six months. Previous remarks from a former war-time mediator that the six-month delay was proof Bosnia’s crisis is ‘a lot of theater‘ now seem even less convincing.
The EU have since refuted the report’s allegations via social media.
Reports of collusion between EU officials and Dodik are not restricted to the Bosnian press. This week The Guardian reported on more evidence that, privately, Várhelyi blames Bosnia’s genocide denial ban for the recent crisis, and not Dodik’s ethno-nationalist agenda. EU officials are reportedly colluding with Dodik to therefore ‘correct’ the law on genocide denial. Bosnia’s High Representative, Christian Schmidt, neither confirmed nor denied this support in a statement that was notably even-handed over genocide denialism:
“The High Representative takes the issue of glorification and war crimes very seriously. The High Representative’s main focus, however, is on the clear need to create the basis for a parliamentary legislative process through a broad social discussion involving social and religious stakeholders. He warns very clearly against politicising the issue. When faced with the graves of innocent people, party politics must remain silent. Humanitas is the focus, and not inciting turmoil”.
The Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Kingdom, Vanja Filipović, expressed his concern over such reports to Politika News:
“If that reporting is true, it would, first of all, seriously undermine the international credibility of the EU. That, in itself, would have serious and long term negative consequences for the EU’s conduct of foreign policy, from its neighbourhood, let alone to far away places,” Filipović says.
The Ambassador adds, “For Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU’s apparent willingness to compromise on the most delicate issues of genocide-denial in order to accommodate the peace-threatening secessionist politicians, would only reinforce the bitter feelings of duplicity and abandonment that extend from the days of 1992-1995 war of aggression and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina.“
Filipović concludes, “The integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina will be defended by all legal means and Dayton-provided instruments, regardless of the apparent readiness by certain EU top officials to compromise not only on the progress achieved in Bosnia and Herzegovina over the past 26 years, but also on the basic EU values.”
The beginning of Germany’s first post-Merkel administration has seen a stark shift in Germany’s policy towards ethno-nationalism in Bosnia. The new Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, wasted no time in ditching Merkel’s infamous non-interventionism in favour of calling for sanctions against Dodik and his kin. But it seems that now Dodik has too many EU supporters to make sanctions – which the EU insist can only be enacted unanimously – feasible. His newest allies, Hungary, have already stated their willingness to veto any sanctions, and have recently promised 100 million euros to the RS entity controlled by Dodik’s party..
Orbán’s spokesperson, Zoltán Kovács, even told reporters that ‘the challenge with Bosnia is how to integrate a country with 2 million Muslims’. During a long press conference on Tuesday, Orbán labelled Bosnia’s Muslim civilians as a ‘security’ problem for ‘Europe’s great leaders’. Political commentators and peace activists in Bosnia have widely denounced this as reflective of an unspoken prejudice among Europe’s political class. The EU Commission is yet to respond to these remarks.
The President of EU member Croatia, Zoran Milanović, has joined Hungary in supporting Dodik, who thanked him for being the only man aside from Putin not to be ‘working for Muslim interests’.
One has to wonder what connections lie between the ambiguous mixture of inertia and collusion among international actors and the issue of political Islamophobia. The EU’s endless liberal rhetoric on ‘integration’, ‘tolerance’ and technocratic legalese surely must now be critically analysed through the lens of Orientalisation. How the EU views Europe’s Muslims seems increasingly interlinked with the exasperating ‘all-sides’ diplomacy on show throughout Bosnia’s security crisis. It is a debate that will likely take years, decades even, to unpack. If history is to serve as teacher, ignoring Europe’s mistreatment of a religious minority will prove fatal.
Aside from sympathies within the EU, Dodik has never hidden his reliance on Moscow. In a telling interview with The Guardian, Dodik made clear that any Western sanctions would be of little significance given the support he has in the Kremlin and even Beijing. The circle of Dodik’s enablers looms large over Bosnia. The empowerment they give to Dodik’s ethno-nationalist agenda could be fatal for Bosnian civilians.
Fear and re-traumatisation
The scarcely-reported psychological and emotional consequences of the political crisis in Bosnia are nonetheless real. In addition to the (at least) 100,000 Bosnians who were murdered during genocidal campaigns by Serb and Croat nationalists, millions still live with the trauma of war.
It is the voices of survivors that seem to be most forgotten in the political storm created by Bosnian-Serb secessionism.
Suad Đozić, a senior figure of Bosnia’s anti-corruption group, ReSTART BiH, told Politika News how a sense of déjà vu is taking hold of war survivors:
“The latest shock of the international community’s actions reminds the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina of the old policies from 1990s. Thirty years later, the world hasn’t changed a bit.”
“This is bringing old fears home again,” Đozić adds. “Our cry for help to international leaders produces no results. Bosnians feel abandoned all over again. Panic has set in. People have started digging out their not-so-rusted guns. The emotional charge is at a tipping point.”
Đozić concludes with an ominous nod to events in Eastern Europe: “The next few months will determine whether a new Iron Curtain will divide the region. A key determinant will be the natural resources of Bosnia and Herzegovina as to whether we end up on one side or the other. While international focus is on Ukraine, we fear Bosnia and Herzegovina will be left behind to fend for itself.”
The re-traumatisation of Bosnians who (just) survived the war is the underreported aspect of this crisis. As international leaders show willingness to appease, downplay or collude with Dodik’s ethno-nationalism, they prolong the psychological torture endured by these survivors.
A new year dawns and Bosnians will be, once again, asking for new approaches from international powers. The last 26 years have seen the burden of peace-building shifted onto those whose lives were shattered by a conflict they did not ask for. Now, the international failure to protect them from the same aggressors could undo the painstaking work they have done.
And that is without mentioning the threat Dodik’s agenda, if enacted, would pose to their children.
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