Bosnia and Herzegovina on the Brink of Collapse Amidst a Political Crisis

Ethan Kellogg, Contributing Writer

Bosnia & Herzegovina, the diverse landlocked country situated between Croatia and Serbia, is currently facing a political crisis. The government of the Republika Srpska (RS), an autonomous region of the country, is threatening to secede in favor of either full independence or annexation by Serbia. Given that Bosnia’s ethnic divisions have caused war and genocide in the past, many fear that an attempt by the RS to leave the country could result in armed conflict between the three main ethnic groups: the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats.

Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) is a relatively young country. In fact, it has had no long-term historical identity as a single nation. BiH was created as one of the regional republics of Yugoslavia to prevent ethnic conflict, as tensions remained after the genocides of World War II. When Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s, the country descended into a civil war as Croats and Serbs residing in BiH sought to be absorbed into their mother countries. As the war came to a close, the warring factions agreed to reunify under the condition that a “tripartite presidency” be established, including one president of each of the three ethnicities. The role of “chairman” (head of state) rotates every eight months among the three. The component nationalities have autonomous governments as well, with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina representing Bosniaks and Croats and the RS representing Serbs. This ungainly system has managed to last since 1996, with most presidents consistently reaffirming Bosnian unity in opposition to national dissolution.

The current political crisis began when former High Representative Valentin Inzko, appointed by the international community under the rules of the Dayton Peace Agreement, banned denial of genocide and war crimes.

This norm was shattered when the Serb separatist and former RS leader, Milorad Dodik, became a member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency in 2018. Dodik has been raising the spectre of secession for over a decade, but these calls have only become louder in his new position as he is now increasingly vocal, labeling Bosnia & Herzegovina as a “failed country.”

The current political crisis began when former High Representative Valentin Inzko, appointed by the international community under the rules of the Dayton Peace Agreement, banned denial of genocide and war crimes on July 23rd of this year. While Bosniak politicians were quick to support the new ban, there was an immediate backlash from the government of the RS. Upon hearing of the decision, Dodik repudiated the ban by reaffirming his denial of the Srebrenica Massacre, one of the most heinous war crimes committed during the Bosnian War. The RS president of parliament proclaimed that “We will never again allow anyone to call us ‘genocidal’… and to humiliate us,” following that statement by saying that “He [Inzko] brought the country to the biggest crisis since the end of the war.”

Since July, tensions have escalated rapidly as Serb threats of secession grew louder. Within days of the ban, Serb political parties boycotted many of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s state institutions, including Parliament and the tripartite presidency, effectively making it impossible for the central government to operate. The RS legislature then passed two bills which would make enforcement of the ban within their territory a crime. Without the ability to do anything meaningful the Bosnian central government’s roles have since August been left to the regional governments: the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina and the RS.

The crisis further escalated when Dodik announced on October 8th that the RS would withdraw from central institutions such as the joint army, the judiciary, and the taxation authority. Many in the BiH government were further alarmed when Dodik announced that the reinstatement of a Bosnian Serb army was being planned, an action that many believe would bring the country ever closer to civil war. The demands of secession that the world had thought were empty threats are being proven to be anything but.

On October 12th, Dodik’s government banned the BiH judiciary and intelligence services from operating in the RS. According to Dodik, several groups would be directed to write a new constitution as well as draft new laws on defence, the judiciary, and finance. Many in the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina called these actions unconstitutional, with the Croat member of the presidency, Zeljko Komsic, saying “it is a criminal act of rebellion.”

The RS has still not technically seceded from Bosnia & Herzegovina. Although Dodik has advocated secession for years, he is adamant that the RS only seeks greater autonomy. Amid rumors of independence, Dodik referred to the actions of the past few weeks as “nothing radical, not because of the destabilization of BiH, but because of the strengthening of the position of RS.” However, if these decrees are fully implemented, the RS will be effectively its own state with its own legislature, judiciary, and executive, making formal secession an easy next step.

With the RS coming to the edge of secession, the possibility of civil war is again on the minds of many Bosnians.

With the RS coming to the edge of secession, the possibility of civil war is again on the minds of many Bosnians. Although Dodik claims that “there is no war, there will be no war and there is no possibility for the war,” he has also stated that he would consider military force if outside bodies such as the Bosnian central government or NATO encroached on Serb sovereignty. This would not be out of the question, however, given that many in the Federation see the RS’s actions as unconstitutional and meriting intervention—so war is a possibility.

The possibility of sanctions on the RS and its leadership has been raised by members of the European Parliament, but Dodik has made it clear that he would react to sanctions by declaring independence.

Dodik’s rhetoric does not bode well for the maintenance of a peaceful, multi-ethnic democracy. As CRLS’s Ms. Otty stated, “war and violent conflict have largely not been a feature in Bosnian society, suggesting that the Dayton Accords were successful in the short term, [but] the deeply divided nature of the government and society more broadly suggests that sustainable peace has not been attained.” Given the renewed friction between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina is much the same as the ethnic tensions of the 1990s, secession and civil war remain plausible—and grim—possibilities.