Bosnian Serb leadership are establishing new facts on the ground that could pave the way for secession in the future.

On July 30, Bosnian Serb politicians announced their intent to block the functioning of state-level institutions soon after the outgoing High Representative in Bosnia Valentin Inzko issued a ban on genocide denial — punishing whomever “publicly condones, denies, grossly trivializes or tries to justify a crime of genocide, crimes against humanity or a war crime” with imprisonment. 

The Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 gave state-level veto powers to representatives of Republika Srpska, a Serb-majority entity in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, which they have frequently used to block legislation over the past two-and-a-half decades. Bosnia’s parliament has been unable to convene since the July decision. Bosnia’s state institutions are paralysed.

Last week, Bosnian Serb leaders upped the ante. President of Republika Srpska, Zeljka Cvijanovic, proclaimed the entry into force two laws that reject Inzko’s genocide denial ban and prohibit the “belittling or demonisation” of Republika Srpska. 

This is the first time in post-war Bosnia that Republika Srpska adopted a law at the entity level that directly rejects and proclaims as invalid legislation imposed by the High Representative. This is a sign of both the decline of the relevance of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) – an international ad hoc body overseeing the implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Accords, and the increasing assertiveness of Bosnian Serb politicians.

Soon after Cvijanovic’s decision, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, ushered the country into a new stage of political crisis. Dodik announced his plan to revoke Republika Srpska’s consent regarding the establishment of Bosnia’s Armed Forces. The Armed Forces, which integrated the Federation Armed Forces and Republika Srpska’s army, was formed in 2006 as a part of defence sector reform.

In a sign of dangerous brinkmanship, Dodik announced plans to forbid the work of state-level intelligence and police agencies in Republika Srpska. He also spoke of his intent to establish a separate army of Republika Srpska. At a press conference last week in East Sarajevo, Dodik framed his roadmap as a return to an “original Dayton” with minimal state-level competences. 

Essentially, he is trying to undo all that the OHR has done in the post-war period in strengthening Bosnia’s state-level institutions. 

Fifteen years ago this would have been unthinkable. The OHR was once the most politically powerful institution in the country, with the ability to impose laws and sack politicians. But this is no longer the case: the last High Representative was a lame-duck bureaucrat for most of his term, while the current chief of the OHR has yet to speak up more than two months into his term.

How will this crisis unfold? A number of analysts in Sarajevo are concerned, as are international observers, including Kurt Bassuener and Bodo Weber affiliated with the Democratization Policy Council. Many observers view Dodik’s decisions as establishing new facts on the ground, which could pave the way for secession in the future.

While Dodik proceeds with a clear roadmap towards clipping the wings of Bosnia’s state-level institutions, Bosniak politicians, for most part, place their faith in an “international community” and “international law”. Most Bosniak politicians’ discourse is dominated by reference to legal, constitutional and international norms as if they don’t even have a basic understanding of international relations.

In the case of a more serious crisis, the EU cannot be counted on to secure peace — the EU has had no effective response to counter the current crisis in Bosnia. Three decades ago, a much smaller and more cohesive European Community had failed to respond to the Bosnian War in a meaningful way. 

Now, with 27 member states and divergent interests along with increasing polarisation within, the EU would find it challenging to agree on a substantial response. The most likely response would be a communique on de-escalation, allocating equal responsibility to all sides. The European Union Force in Bosnia (EUFOR) has several hundred troops on the ground which are woefully inadequate in case of any serious crisis.

This leaves the US as the most credible power with the means to secure peace in Bosnia. A clear statement by the White House would send a strong signal that the US is committed to keeping peace in the Balkans. A more specific and immediate step should be for the Biden Administration to lead NATO into deploying a new mission to keep the peace in Bosnia.  

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Source: TRT World