An interview about the ongoing political and state crisis in the Western Balkan republic
Nikolay Krastev is an international journalist and Bulgarian specialist on the Western Balkans. He has extensive experience in reporting on geopolitical issues and has worked as a correspondent for the Bulgarian National Radio in the Western Balkans and in Moscow.
Can the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina be described as the most serious conflict in the Balkans since the Bosnian War?
What is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a very big test for stability in the Western Balkans and in the Balkan region in general, because for the first time in 26 years or so we are witnessing a very deep political and ethnic crisis in the country, which could escalate and lead to a negative development. It is clear that the tensions we have witnessed over the last three months at least in the active phase indicate that what is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina is not so easily overcome. The tension is an indicator that the unfinished processes since the end of the war in 1995 are now having a boomerang effect not only on the internal political stability, but also on the international community, which is trying to stabilise, to pacify what is happening inside the country.
Does not the Dayton Agreement’s aspiration for democratic representation of the three ethnic groups make it impossible to unite them, since each has its own president?
This is precisely the problem that is now developing like a snowball and is about to become a snowman. You see the behaviour of Dragan Covic, who is the leader of the main party of the Bosnian Croats, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). They are playing along with the Bosnian Serbs to change the electoral legislation, and they want to bring in the Croats so that they can elect their representative with the votes of the Bosnian Croats. In fact, the electoral legislation there is precisely the element in which the interests of the three ethnic communities are refracted.
On the one hand, the Bosnian Muslims say that the Dayton Peace Treaty has created everything necessary for the state to function. On the other hand, the Serbs say: ‘We want to take back half or part of the powers that we have delegated to the authorities in Sarajevo’. At the same time, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, on the one hand, and Dragan Covic, on the other, are undermining stability within the country, because Dragan Covic, in turn, says that it is time to have a Croatian entity (an independent administrative-territorial community).
Today (Thursday, 27.01.2021) in the Bosnian media, for example, the position of a Bosnian-Croatian politician, a relatively young person, appeared, who says that the current young Bosnian-Croatian population and the elite that has been formed over the last 26 years can work towards giving more powers to the Croats, i.e. to have a Croatian entity, i.e. to have a Croatian entity. That is, the cantons inhabited by Croats in Bosnia should be reorganised and reduced to two. In his view, the creation of such a Croat entity would serve as an element of stability in Bosnia. Covic even says that there should be a Bosnian Croat bank that would pool the cash receipts of all Croat public enterprises.
The key problem at the moment in Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the one hand, is the Serbian demand to return some of the powers to the Bosnian Republika Srpska or to Banja Luka, which is their regional centre, and the local Croats want and are signalling, and they are supported by neighbouring Croatia, to get a separate entity, which already does not sound very good in terms of stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Do you think that the problem is partly related to the older generation, which creates barriers to communication between different ethnic groups from childhood, for example there are seperate schools for Muslims and Catholics?
Bosnia and Herzegovina has not been what it was during Yugoslavia. Back then, it has to be said that the country was a symbol of multi-ethnicity, but the ethnic conflict from the early to mid-1990s created too much mistrust, dug too deep pits between the three ethnic communities, which today really lead to each of the ethnic communities having their own separate educational institutions and the problems are not being solved, people are not living together, mixed marriages are more than rare, as far as I can see, and this is undoubtedly affecting intra-ethnic relations over time. But there are no serious open conflicts on this basis, it has to be said, but there is mistrust, which is a step in the direction of destabilising the country.
Is the mistrust in the older generation? Frankly, I am not very convinced that it is the basis for there to be mistrust. Rather, I think that the young people who grew up, both during the war and after the war period, and those 26 years in Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina, in fact, these are the people who today are used to living encapsulated, apart. They do not seek contact with their peers from other communities. We all thought that, after the war, the recovery would go slowly, but you see, we have signs all the time that show that instability is underneath at a purely human level. Things are pretty bad, I could define them.
The fact that Bosnia was also not a functional state to begin with, all of this is leading to a ruination within Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a very specific country, where three religions, three peoples meet, and the tensions from that can have a very serious and negative impact.
On 14 October 2021, Milorad Dodik said he would force the Bosnian army to withdraw from Republika Srpska and, if the West intervenes militarily, he has friends who have promised to support the Serbian cause (probably a reference to Serbia and Russia). Could the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina escalate into something bigger, once again pitting the forces of the West and the East against each other?
Maybe, this is the exact problem, that it is actually not only internal problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina that are breaking down, but also regional problems. You see the role of Croatia and Serbia, but we should not underestimate in any way the role of Turkey. On the other hand, there is Russia, which stands behind Serbia and is helping to implement the concept of a Serbian world in the Balkans. These harsh statements by Milorad Dodik actually create very serious tensions.
What does it mean for the Bosnian army to withdraw from the territory of the Republika Srpska inside Bosnia and Herzegovina? It is an integral part of the country, given that you have delegated these powers to the central authorities. While I was working in Belgrade, I followed how this process was going. It was a very complex process of transferring a number of powers from the Republika Srpska to the central authority in Sarajevo. Things were not so easy, but once you have agreed and decided that Bosnia and Herzegovina is your country, then I do not see what made it necessary for Milorad Dodik to ask for the withdrawal of the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina from the territory of Republika Srpska.
Moreover, he even said that they wanted to know about the transfer and redeployment of Bosnian army units inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. Who needs this information? Is it someone from outside, is it someone interested in the internal stability of the country? The truth is that Milorad Dodik, who appeared on the political scene as a symbol of peace, of predictability, is today no longer the dove of peace that he was at the beginning, and his statements are destabilising the situation more and more. He is beginning to lose internal control of the processes in the Republika Srpska. In the local elections a year earlier, he lost control of Banja Luka, and all this is causing him to mobilise the citizens of the Bosnian Serb part with exactly this type of rhetoric. On the one hand, he says I will take back my powers, I can separate you from Bosnia and Herzegovina, we can rejoin Serbia. These things that sound incredibly palatable and interesting to the average person, but do not bring stability.
I remember a Serbian politician who was famous for being a nationalist who made the great compromise of joining the pro-Western coalition, and he was asked “well, how did you make that compromise, you who are a nationalist, who have always supported Milosevic’s policies”, he said “you know, nationalism doesn’t actually fill the tractor’s tank.” Let’s leave aside the tractor, but the metaphor of the tank, if we transfer it, nationalism can really blow it up rather than give strength and power to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In October this year, parliamentary elections are expected to be held to elect the future three presidents. Are these statements the start of an election campaign?
Exactly, the logic is this. Milorad Dodik is beginning to worry that he is starting to lose the largest city in the Bosnian Serb part, Banja Luka. He is beginning to mobilize his electorate, to prepare it for the forthcoming elections in October and to succeed in staying on the political scene, because Dragan Covic, who we mentioned, is not among the political representatives of the Croats at the moment, as people simply did not vote for him to the extent that was necessary. That is what I am talking about, that this nationalist rhetoric, in fact, the attempt to once again create a problem within the country. That does not mean, of course, that there is no problem. Milorad Dodik is trying to take advantage of this situation and, through nationalism and nationalist techniques, to survive in power again, if not as a participant in the collective representation, where he is at the moment, then at least to be president of the Bosnian Serb Republic.
In the event of an eventual partition, how will it happen? What will happen to the Brčko district, where Bosniaks outnumber Serbs?
This is the key question. If you look at Brčko on the map, you will see that it plays this connecting role between all the territories of Republika Srpska, because the Bosniaks can intervene there militarily and stop this land corridor that connects all the territories of the Bosnian Serbs and so they can be divided. I do not know whether Mr Dodik, and I probably hope that he sees it, because he is a businessman and can read both the geographical data and the economic data inside the country. What would that lead to? So instead of solving the Serbian issue in Bosnia, conditionally speaking, you would create another smaller Serbian issue, depending on which part you look at.
In fact, let us say that the Bosnian Serb Republic, which was created in Dayton, was given, I dare say, some of the best territory in the country – plains that could be used for agricultural production. On the other hand, there are quite a number of companies there that can be revived and have already been revived to a certain extent. So I do not know, putting on the scales, one argument and the other, what Dodik would really gain if he wanted to separate the Bosnian Serb Republic. Yes, he has said Bosnia while he can, Republika Srpska forever, which means that things could go quite negative, although I do not believe that the international community would allow that type of scenario to happen.
In this connection, what should international organisations such as the UN and the EU do in this case?
They should put more diplomatic effort and capacity into working with the Serbian factor inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. Not under the power of pressure, because pressure is a double-edged sword in diplomacy. They need to work with both Belgrade and Zagreb so that they can put pressure on their communities inside Bosnia and Herzegovina accordingly. They need to invest in young people, getting them through various educational projects, not to look at the 1990s with the eyes of Bosnia. Bosnia after 26 years is a very different country. Yes, it has retained the birthmarks with which it appeared on the Balkan political map, but Bosnia and Herzegovina today has every chance of being one of the stable elements if the tensions we are witnessing are overcome.
Unfortunately, Bosnia and Herzegovina is today the ‘sick man of the Balkans’. This is the real problem and this is where the external influences of the Balkans are evident, precisely through Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the other hand, Kosovo is not immune either, and the situation there could easily blow up. You have two open issues, but, of course, today the Bosnian issue is much broader and more problematic.
The United Nations and the European Union have instruments of influence. They can use them quite effectively and see what is the good of what the Serbs want, I mean from their individual arguments and on that basis work with diplomatic methods, otherwise military solutions are not solutions. Here we have seen in Bosnia that, yes, the Dayton peace has ended the war in Bosnia, but the processes are not complete inside Bosnia. The Croats say that they are not represented in the best way because more Bosnian Muslims vote for the Croatian representative in the collective presidency than Croats do, and Croatian votes are lost. That is the big issue, we need to find a really effective working solution for Bosnia and Herzegovina. This does not mean that there should be a recomposition in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Keeping it as it is is probably the most optimal option.
Photo: Bosnia and Herzegovina’s flag (source: natanaelginting – www.freepik.com)