The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is deeply worrying. Among my numerous conversations with politicians and civil society representatives, there is a clear fear that the events of the past could repeat themselves; that a war in Bosnia and Herzegovina could happen again. As a result, it appears that more than 80,000 mostly young people have recently left the country.
What is also unsettling these young people is that the European Union is not taking effective and decisive action to counter this crisis. It is true; to date, the EU has failed to respond adequately to this critical situation.
European diplomats have not sent a clear message to the direction of the Bosnian Serb Leadership, nor has the European Foreign Affairs Council found a common position on sanctions against the main people responsible of the crises, namely Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik and his followers, who constantly violate the Dayton Peace Agreement.
“There is a clear fear that the events of the past could repeat themselves; that a war in Bosnia and Herzegovina could happen again”
Since the fully lawful decision to ban genocide denial and to sentence any glorification of war criminals made by the former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, Dodik has enforced his secessionist ethno-nationalist agenda. He wants to withdraw Republika Srpska from Bosnia’s central government.
He started blocking the work of the country’s democratic state institutions in July and announced the entity’s withdrawal from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s important institutions – the key pillars of state security, rule of law and the fiscal system: the judiciary body, tax administration and armed forces. Furthermore, he recently announced the creation of an independent Republika Srpska entity army.
Strengthened by the direct support of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Dodik is continuing with his provocative and harmful ethno-nationalistic policy, pouring oil on the flames and positioning the issue as an ethnic conflict.
However, it is not - it is a geopolitical security problem with the goal of destabilising Bosnia and Herzegovina and the entire region of the Western Balkans. Without doubt, this would consequently also weaken the entire EU. However, the situation is extremely serious, and the EU and the international community have to take a clear stance against this destructive agenda and significantly increase the pressure on Dodik and his followers.
It is clear the appeasement strategy of the EU has failed; indeed it has even contributed to strengthening Dodik, whose secessionist aspirations are long standing. Since 2006, the international community and the EU have met his challenges with appeasement, making him stronger and undermining the EU’s credibility.
Therefore, it is high time to turn to stronger and firmer actions that include red lines. Once those red lines are breached, we need to deploy measures that nationalistic autocrats understand, along with a toolbox of sanctions that must be applied.
According to past and present Council decisions, restrictive measures can be imposed against natural and legal persons “whose activities undermine the sovereignty, territorial integrity, constitutional order and international personality of Bosnia and Herzegovina, seriously threaten the security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina or undermine the Dayton/Paris General Framework Agreement for Peace”.
The activities of the Republika Srpska leadership meet these criteria and the EU must introduce sanctions that will directly impact both Mr Dodik and those who support him. This will help to increase the required pressure on him and his political narrative and eventually narrow the margin of his agenda.
As well these sanctions, the EU should also consider finding a strategy for maintaining and reinforcing its peacekeeping efforts. The High Representative and the EUFOR military forces are still required in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to safeguard peace and the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
“Mr Dodik is continuing with his provocative and harmful ethno-nationalistic policy, pouring oil on the flames and positioning the issue as an ethnic conflict”
However, the EUFOR mandate has to be extended on an annual basis in the UN Security Council, where Russia has been threatening with its veto, leading to recent highly symbolic concessions towards Russia in the Security Council. Therefore, this also demands a new long-term strategy, possibly one that includes a clear and transparent commitment by NATO members to immediately step in with troops, if necessary.
All these immediate sanctions and measures are short term and need to be imposed now, in order to deescalate the current situation and to safeguard the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But for the longer term, we have to find an EU strategy where we break from European diplomacy that concentrates on negotiations with ethno-nationalists and making concessions to self-proclaimed representatives of the respective ethnic groups.
This has not brought any progress to Bosnia and Herzegovina and its citizens in the last decade; rather, it has cemented ethnic divisions and the corruption and structures, which contributed to undermining the democratic institutions of the state.
The EU has reached a turning point in its policies with Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Western Balkans in general: it needs to support those democratic forces seeking to advance the democratisation of society, the strengthening of the rule of law and the functioning of the state institutions.
We must support all actors truly embarking on the difficult path towards the European integration, which will require serious reforms, hard work and a genuine commitment to the wellbeing of all the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.