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Time to Act on Bosnia’s Existential Threat

The EU and the United States need to stop making concessions to Serbian secessionist forces backed by Russia.

By , a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Milorad Dodik gives a speech at the Varkert Bazar cultural center in Budapest on Sept. 23.
Milorad Dodik gives a speech at the Varkert Bazar cultural center in Budapest on Sept. 23. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three-person presidency, is crying wolf yet again. Over the last 15 years, he has threatened to break up Bosnia so often that everyone, including the European Union and the United States, has ceased to take him seriously.

This time, Dodik has doubled down on his threats, announcing more than 100 pieces of legislation that would withdraw Republika Srpska from Bosnia’s central government and form its own parallel institutions. His threats include withdrawal from Bosnia’s defense forces, judiciary, tax and customs collection, and intelligence services, among many others. The timing is critical, as the threats by Dodik to abolish Bosnia as we know it come in combination with Russian pressures to block the yearly renewal of the mission of EUFOR, the EU military force responsible for maintaining a safe and secure environment in Bosnia, at the session of the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 3. This is a coordinated, two-pronged attack. While Dodik is escalating on the ground and threatening the United States and its EU allies with the worst-case scenario—the disintegration of Bosnia—Russia has been threatening the nonrenewal of the EUFOR mission at the Security Council. Both want concessions in the form of the removal of any international executive presence, most notably the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and its new German leader, from Bosnia.

High Representative Christian Schmidt’s report submitted this week to the United Nations contains the most serious warnings about the existential threat facing the country communicated by the OHR since the end of the Bosnian War in 1995. Russia has been able to prevent Schmidt from appearing in person to present his findings, which demonstrates a remarkable shift in the dynamics of the region. Russia is now holding the West hostage in Bosnia and determining the future of the country at the Security Council.

Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s three-person presidency, is crying wolf yet again. Over the last 15 years, he has threatened to break up Bosnia so often that everyone, including the European Union and the United States, has ceased to take him seriously.

This time, Dodik has doubled down on his threats, announcing more than 100 pieces of legislation that would withdraw Republika Srpska from Bosnia’s central government and form its own parallel institutions. His threats include withdrawal from Bosnia’s defense forces, judiciary, tax and customs collection, and intelligence services, among many others. The timing is critical, as the threats by Dodik to abolish Bosnia as we know it come in combination with Russian pressures to block the yearly renewal of the mission of EUFOR, the EU military force responsible for maintaining a safe and secure environment in Bosnia, at the session of the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 3. This is a coordinated, two-pronged attack. While Dodik is escalating on the ground and threatening the United States and its EU allies with the worst-case scenario—the disintegration of Bosnia—Russia has been threatening the nonrenewal of the EUFOR mission at the Security Council. Both want concessions in the form of the removal of any international executive presence, most notably the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and its new German leader, from Bosnia.

High Representative Christian Schmidt’s report submitted this week to the United Nations contains the most serious warnings about the existential threat facing the country communicated by the OHR since the end of the Bosnian War in 1995. Russia has been able to prevent Schmidt from appearing in person to present his findings, which demonstrates a remarkable shift in the dynamics of the region. Russia is now holding the West hostage in Bosnia and determining the future of the country at the Security Council.

The EU, United Kingdom, and the United States urgently need a plan to help them break away from Russia’s hostage tactics at the Security Council. In parallel, they need a plan to break the pattern of appeasing Dodik’s threats on the ground.

In the past, Dodik would make maximalist threats about the secession of Republika Srpska in order to get concessions from the United States and the EU on smaller pieces of the cake. For instance, in 2009, his yearlong threats of secession resulted in concessions by the Western allies on discontinuing the mandate of international judges and prosecutors to investigate organized crime and corruption—and their departure from Bosnia’s judiciary. This allowed state capture to consolidate in Bosnia’s public administration and its judiciary. In a country ripe with political corruption, there have been very few indictments of high-level political figures and not a single charge.

The current crisis is a continuation of Dodik’s salami-slicing tactics, aimed at abolishing the most important institutions protecting Bosnia’s sovereignty. Dodik’s short-run aim is not to withdraw from the joint institutions but to eliminate their most important safeguard: international oversight, put in place by the 1995 Dayton Agreement to protect Bosnian sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of these international institutions, the most important is the OHR and—most likely next in Dodik’s sights—the three international judges, appointed by the European Court of Human Rights, on Bosnia’s Constitutional Court.

Russia is Dodik’s strongest supporter in this endeavor. Russia and China have not recognized Schmidt and claim his mandate is illegitimate and illegal. To Russia, the OHR (which in theory still has the authority to overrule the unconstitutional moves of Russia’s local proxies) is a bigger thorn in its side than EUFOR, a small and nonthreatening mission that mostly consists of Hungarian, Austrian, and Turkish troops and isn’t even sufficiently staffed and equipped to protect Bosnia’s borders. In its current form, EUFOR offers less protection to Bosnia’s sovereignty than the OHR, assuming a sound strategy and sufficient political backing from the United States and key EU capitals for its authority. Russia has therefore made the extension of EUFOR’s mandate conditional on the removal of references to the high representative from the annual resolution on Bosnia before the Security Council. Its goal is to weaken and ultimately render the institutions of the OHR irrelevant before shutting it down.

Dodik’s plan, meanwhile, is quite straightforward. Once the OHR is made irrelevant and the European judges are removed from the Constitutional Court, he can continue dismantling or fully capturing the institutions of Bosnia not under his control politically. For Russia, this is a perfect outcome: a broken U.S. foreign-policy legacy, chaos in the EU’s neighborhood, or, in the best-case scenario, the evolution of Bosnia into a confederation that remains forever unable to adopt any foreign-policy decisions unfavorable to Russia—whether on Crimea, Ukraine, the fulfillment of Bosnia’s NATO aspirations, or any other issues that may come up.

The United States and its European allies will emerge out of the Nov. 3 vote with another year of mandate for the EUFOR mission, having swallowed the bitter pill of making concessions on the high representative’s presentation and the language of the Security Council resolution.

After that, what is next for Bosnia?

There are two issues the United States and its European allies will need to tackle. One is having a plan to prevent the same situation from recurring next November. There is no easy way to do this, but if the United States and its European allies want to avoid another humiliation, then they should consider all legal and political options for ensuring a continued military presence with a mandate not contingent on Russia’s goodwill. A broad interpretation of NATO’s mandate is one option to consider. And after making the political concessions necessary to prolong EUFOR, the mission should be reinforced so that it can continue its role in maintaining a safe and secure environment in Bosnia. Failing this, the United States and its allies will have to deal with Russia from an even weaker position at the Security Council meeting next year.

The second is to counteract Russia and Dodik’s campaign against the OHR by buttressing the institution and giving full support to the high representative on the ground. The removal of references to the OHR from the Security Council resolution in no way changes Schmidt’s legal authority—but he now needs stronger political backing. Russia may hold the United States and its European allies hostage at the Security Council, but it cannot do so on the Peace Implementation Council in Bosnia. There, Russia can abstain or protest but not block the decisions. The Quint (comprising the United States, Germany, Britain, France, and Italy) is the key decision-making group whose political support has always been critical for any high representative in the past. In fact, the greatest advances in the state-building process in Bosnia were achieved when the Quint and the high representative acted in concert, pulled in the same direction, and properly used the leverage at their disposal.

More broadly, a robust pushback against Dodik’s agenda and the reinforcement of red lines by the Quint is urgently needed. For this to happen, involvement with Bosnia needs to be elevated to the senior political level in the Quint capitals, and the high representative must be given full political support for solving the crisis, rather than watching from the sidelines as Dodik is appeased. The upcoming Peace Implementation Council Steering Board meeting in December is an opportunity to send more senior officials, demonstrate to Russia the unity of purpose among the Western allies on Bosnia, and to back Schmidt, who should present his Security Council report alongside a plan on dealing with the crisis in Bosnia.

If there is a silver lining to this story, it starts with making the crisis into an opportunity.

In fact, this could be a new start for the high representative if played right. As Russians will know from experience, censorship tends to lead to an increase in public demand for the censored material. Since Russia’s attempt at censoring Schmidt’s report to the Security Council by not permitting it to be presented in person, it has likely become the most widely read report by any high representative since Dayton.

Both the EU and the United States have legal frameworks for penalties toward those undermining Dayton Agreement. However, U.S. and EU officials have decided to appease Dodik, a man under U.S. sanctions who regularly attacks and insults the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, actively blocks Bosnia’s NATO aspirations, and is now threatening to dismantle Bosnian government institutions built with years of U.S. and EU investment of political capital and funds.

Instead, the EU and United States should call Dodik’s threats what they are: illegal attempts to undermine legitimate central institutions established under the country’s constitutional framework and that form an integral part of the Dayton Agreement. Most laws and institutions challenged by Dodik have already been unsuccessfully challenged before Bosnia’s Constitutional Court, which upheld their legality. This is one reason why Dodik wants to rid the Constitutional Court of international judges.

The Quint should also embrace meaningful action against illicit finance and put more pressure on Austria to facilitate measures against assets and money moving out of Bosnia by corrupt politicians. Some countries are ready to start taking this forward, including Britain with its new anti-corruption sanctions regime. This is not a quick process, but invigorating joint anti-kleptocracy initiatives would be a good start. If communicated credibly, just the threat of sanctions could change the balance of power in negotiations and give the United States and the EU greater leverage in putting down the crisis without making concessions on Bosnia’s statehood.

Finally, strong signals should be sent. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Gabriel Escobar recently said now is not the time for further U.S. sanctions. Such statements undermine U.S. leverage in the region at a time when it is badly needed. Similarly, EU envoy Angelina Eichhorst was photographed with a briefing in her hands that said: “Our view is that now is not yet the time to talk about sanctions, the focus needs to be on resuming dialogue.”

Without a clear message that the red lines will be reinforced, the United States and the EU’s negotiations with Dodik will result in more concessions to his demands and, ultimately, the further weakening of the Bosnian central government. Especially if the concessions made are regarding the departure of European judges, which is a demand of Dodik’s that is still to come, Bosnia’s capacity to function as a sovereign state will be critically—and perhaps irremediably—damaged.

In this scenario, renewed armed conflict is a real possibility. Even if there is no concrete plan to start a war of secession, there is a risk of violence stemming from the explosiveness of Dodik’s rhetoric and the risk of overreaction from the forces keen to defend Bosnian sovereignty. Yet equally dangerous is the possibility that Dodik will be accommodated in his demands by the EU and the United States if they continue taking the path of least resistance. If the EU and the United States want to avoid the destruction of Bosnia and the possibility of renewed conflict, they need to stand up to Dodik.

Majda Ruge is a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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