Is War About to Break Out in the Balkans?

After 20 years of peace, Republika Srpska threatens to tear apart the agreement that has held Bosnia together. The West must stop it.

Milorad Dodik, newly elected President of the Republic of Srpska (R) kisses the Bosnian Serb flag, during an official inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Western-Bosnian town of Banja Luka, on November 15, 2010. AFP PHOTO MILAN RADULOVIC (Photo credit should read MILAN RADULOVIC/AFP/Getty Images)
Milorad Dodik, newly elected President of the Republic of Srpska (R) kisses the Bosnian Serb flag, during an official inauguration ceremony at the National Assembly in Western-Bosnian town of Banja Luka, on November 15, 2010. AFP PHOTO MILAN RADULOVIC (Photo credit should read MILAN RADULOVIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Lost in the cacophony of international news about Russian airstrikes against U.S.-backed anti-Assad rebels in Syria and refugees flooding through the Balkans on their way to Western Europe, a crisis is brewing in Bosnia-Herzegovina on the European Union’s southeast flank. And here, too, Moscow has a hand in the mischief-making.

Nov. 21 marks the 20th anniversary of the Dayton peace agreement, which ended three-and-a-half years of brutal war between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. In Dayton, Ohio, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke achieved a major diplomatic victory that ended the conflict and established the foundations of a viable state. The Dayton agreement also created an internationally backed overseer called the high representative to implement the peace accords. To this day, Bosnia is a rare success story in post-conflict state-building. The anniversary should be a time for celebration.

Unfortunately, it may not turn out that way. The Dayton agreement created two highly autonomous entities inside Bosnia: the Bosniak-Croat majority federation and the Serb majority Republika Srpska. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, plans to rain on the Dayton anniversary parade by openly violating the agreement on Nov. 15 in a move that many see as a thinly veiled independence referendum.

The scheduled plebiscite has only one question: “Do you support the unconstitutional and unauthorized imposition of laws by the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly the imposed laws on the Court and Prosecutor’s Office of [Bosnia-Herzegovina] and the implementation of their decisions on the territory of Republika Srpska?” Such a biased and leading question offers only one right answer. The referendum will give Dodik political and legal cover to order Republika Srpska institutions — from government administrators to tax collectors — to stop obeying state court orders, verdicts, and rulings, and to obstruct the work of the prosecutor’s office. This would undo 20 years of progress and commence the destruction of Bosnia’s legal order. While the referendum only addresses the judiciary, its destructive intentions make it a de facto declaration of independence. Lest anyone doubt Dodik’s intentions, in April he announced that Republika Srpska will hold an independence referendum in 2018.

The referendum threat is unfolding amid a perfect storm generated by Dodik’s strident Serbian nationalism, a demonstrably flawed EU policy of appeasing him, Russian meddling in the Balkans, and the United States’ dangerous unwillingness to override the EU on Bosnia.

In 2006, Washington let Brussels take the lead in Bosnia when a new international overseer arrived, High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who publically declared he would “step back” and take a “hands-off” approach — in keeping with EU policy. He kept his promise. The EU abandoned a functioning model of international oversight that had created a stable peace and substantial state-building achievements, just as democratic reforms were taking root. Brussels substituted a “local ownership” approach and a vague promise of EU integration. Almost immediately, Bosnia began a steady backward drift.

Sensing weakening international resolve, Dodik, then-prime minister of Republika Srpska, began using virulent nationalist rhetoric, speaking derogatorily of Bosniaks and the Bosnian state, and announcing that the state established at Dayton was temporary. Over the next nine years, he used the constitutional powers of Republika Srpska and Serbs in state institutions to block or roll back reforms, weaken state-level institutions, and hollow out the Bosnian state that had been so painstakingly crafted by the international community. He systematically attacked the Indirect Taxation Authority, the state electrical transmission corporation (Transco), the state judiciary and prosecution service, the State Border Service, the State Investigation and Protection Agency, and other government ministries.

In 2011, Dodik threatened a referendum on state judicial institutions but backed down temporarily after Brussels appeased him by creating a “Structured Dialogue on Justice,” which seemed like a bureaucratic attempt to defuse the Republika Srpska bluster. It didn’t work. Dodik’s animosity against the state-level judicial system appears to be related to his distaste for an independent judiciary and his personal fear of being indicted for corruption.

The only person with the legal authority to call off Dodik’s referendum, current High Representative Valentin Inzko, has sat on the sidelines at the insistence of both Washington and Brussels. In response to Dodik’s latest provocations, the EU has yet to formulate a response that would persuade him to cancel the referendum. Some international officials think it is merely a bargaining chip and hope to deal with it, post facto, via the very judicial institutions Dodik plans to flout. Others hope Belgrade can be called upon to rein in Dodik, ignoring that Serbia’s deep state regards Republika Srpska as its greatest foreign-policy success. Indeed, Belgrade’s officialdom openly supports Dodik and hopes to receive Republika Srpska in return for giving up on Kosovo.

Throughout these provocations, Moscow has backed Republika Srpska. The Russian ambassador to Bosnia, Pyotr Ivantsov, has stated that the referendum is an internal matter for the country and has expressed his sympathy toward Republika Srpska complaints over the state judiciary. Russian ambassadors have been notable in their refusal to support the international community’s efforts to stop Dodik’s attempts to tear Bosnia apart, as well as in their opposition to Bosnia’s EU and NATO membership, issues that they had earlier agreed to. In July, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have described the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniaks at the hands of Bosnian Serbs as “genocide.” There is now even some question as to whether Russia supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia.

By backing Dodik, Putin is able to create substantial problems for the West without needing to invest resources or diplomatic energy. This pattern should be familiar. From Abkhazia in Georgia to Transnistria in Moldova to most recently Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russia has sought to prevent Western encroachment in regions that it historically viewed as its own, yet had lost after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It seems that if Moscow can’t control a certain territory, then it will opt to create a climate of instability that prevents the EU, the United States, and NATO from gaining a meaningful foothold. This holds true for the Balkans, which Russia has traditionally viewed as its sphere of influence. As neighboring Montenegro now moves closer to NATO membership, Moscow wishes to draw a line against further Western advances in the region.

Officials who understand Bosnia’s fragility are worried — and with good reason. Inzko sent an unprecedented report to the U.N. Security Council on Sept. 4 stating that Republika Srpska is “in clear breach” of Dayton and noting that if the current course of action remains unchecked, “there will be increased risk that [Bosnia-Herzegovina] will slide further towards disintegration,” with “significant international peace and security implications.” The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo stated that it was “alarmed” by the referendum, noting that it poses a threat to the “security, stability, and prosperity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Similarly, seven of the eight foreign ambassadors in Bosnia who comprise the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council — the oversight body for the peace agreement — issued a statement in July that the referendum represents “a fundamental violation” of the Dayton agreement. (Not surprisingly, Russia refused to sign on to this statement.)

But warnings are not enough. The West must now prevent Russia from using Dodik’s nationalist agenda to destabilize the Balkans and create yet another proxy conflict. Given the EU’s distraction with its own larger issues, only vigorous and robust U.S. engagement can forestall Bosnia’s impending collapse — and Russia’s stepping into the vacuum.

Until 2006, the international community’s main policy tool was the high representative, who holds executive powers under the Dayton agreement. These powers permitted the high representative to remove obstructionist officials from office, impose legislation, and levy travel bans and asset freezes. But those powers atrophied after 2005, due mainly to a lack of will among EU members. Moscow, like Republika Srpska, opposes their use. The international peacekeeping force put in place by the Dayton accords has been reduced from 60,000 to fewer than 600 troops. Seemingly, the options open to the West are limited.

The West must find a new way to exert influence in Bosnia. It will require substantial energy and engagement, but it is far from impossible. First, as a guarantor of the Dayton peace agreement, the United States should appoint a special envoy to the region to bring together the Western alliance and use diplomatic means to thwart Dodik’s plans. Second, the high representative’s powers must be rejuvenated. Third, the West should use financial, administrative, and criminal sanctions against Bosnian politicians who violate the Dayton agreement. Fourth, and most importantly, the special envoy must revisit the Dayton agreement with an eye to rewriting it completely.

While the Dayton agreement has proved to be a worthy stop-gap measure to halt the fighting between Bosnia’s factions, it has also shown its limitations, particularly since Dodik began obstructing the functioning of the state and rolling back reforms. Almost all Bosnians — Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats alike — would like to see it replaced yet know their politicians lack the will to do so.

The West has one more card to play. If Dodik moves ahead with the referendum, it will be a blatant violation of the Dayton agreement, upon which Republika Srpska’s only legal legitimacy lies. If it chooses to renege on Dayton, then Republika Srpska legally loses all legitimacy and becomes a rogue entity founded on genocide. The international community should then act accordingly and abolish Republika Srpska, which, while extreme, would be enforceable via administrative and financial means.

True, U.S. engagement and greater international involvement requires effort. But the wait-and-see approach will prove far more costly. The Bosniaks and Croats went to war in 1992 to keep Bosnia together, and there is no indication that today they’d be willing to let Republika Srpska go without a fight. Should violence erupt, it will be felt across the Balkans. It could spill over to Kosovo, south Serbia, Macedonia, and the Muslim-majority Serbian region of Sandzak. And spillover from Bosnia could disrupt ongoing talks between Belgrade and Pristina over the normalization of relations. It could bring a return of the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s and renewed refugee flows. It could also radicalize Bosnia’s moderate Muslims, who are under growing pressure from extremist Gulf elements, risking the creation of an angry, Muslim-majority ministate directly on the EU’s border.

Washington must decide now, not later, if it will act proactively to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina together and the Balkans stable — or whether it will let Moscow set the rules. Waiting equates to letting the Balkans deteriorate into renewed regional instability and conflict. And Syria has shown that choosing to wait carries with it a significant price, one that the war-weary Balkans should not have to pay.

Photo credit: MILAN RADULOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

James Lyon is an associate researcher at the University of Graz and author of Serbia and the Balkan Front, 1914: The Outbreak of the Great War. He oversaw International Crisis Group operations in the Balkans for 10 years and worked at the Office of the High Representative.