Europe’s Islamophobia Could Be Dodik’s Undoing
Fear of a Muslim-majority Bosnia could finally induce EU leaders to stop the separatist strongman.
On July 7, Milorad Dodik ushered in a new phase of his secessionist agenda in Bosnia.
On July 7, Milorad Dodik ushered in a new phase of his secessionist agenda in Bosnia.
The hard-line Serb leader signed into law two pieces of legislation adopted by the National Assembly of Republika Srpska—one of the two administrative units of postwar Bosnia, along with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The legislation prohibits the implementation of Bosnia’s Constitutional Court rulings on the territory of Republika Srpska and effectively outlaws the enforcement of decisions handed down by the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the ad hoc international body tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Dayton Accords in the country since the war ended in 1995.
Combined, the legislation represents a two-pronged challenge: to Bosnia’s state-level institutions and to the OHR.
Dodik’s assault on the country’s Constitutional Court is the latest step in his efforts to hollow out Bosnia’s state-level institutions. A few months prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Dodik took several actions aimed at forming parallel institutions in Republika Srpska to challenge Sarajevo and lay the groundwork for future secession. By his own candid admission, what stopped him from proceeding was the war in Ukraine. But he was quick to point out that his pause in the secessionist agenda was merely temporary.
Under normal circumstances, a state would react to such blatant moves toward secession by striking down illegal decisions and issuing arrest warrants. In 2017, for instance, Spain’s top courts ruled the Catalan secession referendum illegal and issued a warrant for separatist leader Carles Puigdemont’s arrest.
But in Bosnia, state capture has been underway for some time. The 1995 Dayton peace agreement instituted an exceptionally complex political system defined by ethnic power-sharing among the three main ethnic groups—Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Erstwhile Serb secessionists were given wide-ranging powers—a highly autonomous Republika Srpska and vetoes at the state level—in exchange for remaining in Bosnia.
As a result, pro-secessionist forces came to occupy an array of key institutional positions in the country. With state capture all but complete, Bosnia now finds it daunting to respond to the latest step toward secession the way Spanish authorities did in 2017.
Dodik is not, however, only taking on Bosnia’s state institutions. The law on the OHR’s decisions is a direct challenge to this body. In the immediate postwar years, the OHR was a formidable actor with the power to dismiss elected officials. Then, over the last decade, the body’s influence declined considerably. Since former German Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt took office as the high representative in August 2021, though, the OHR has gotten back in the business of imposing decisions on the country, including playing a decisive role in the formation of a new government in the Federation.
Unlike Bosniak politicians in the Federation, Dodik has steadfastly refused to acknowledge Schmidt’s appointment to the OHR and has vowed to ignore the body’s decisions. And he has kept his word so far—at least officially. He has shunned Schmidt for almost two years and has now upped the ante by officially preventing the OHR’s decisions from being implemented in 49 percent of the country.
No Bosnian Serb official has so brazenly confronted the OHR for two and a half decades. Dodik’s actions constitute a clear and present danger to the Dayton Accords’ relevance in Bosnia. And they are a direct challenge to both Schmidt personally and the OHR as an institution. What Schmidt does or fails to do next will have long-term repercussions for Bosnia’s stability.
Were the OHR to dismiss Dodik, would he abide and step aside or challenge the OHR by ignoring its decision? If dismissed, how would that decision be implemented? The Republika Srpska Interior Ministry is ultimately under the separatist leader’s control. Assuming that the police remain loyal to him, he could simply ignore the OHR and carry on.
The OHR, after all, has no effective mechanism to enforce its decisions. This is not the mid- 1990s, when the NATO-led implementation force had around 60,000 boots on the ground. Its successor—the European Union Force (EUFOR)—is a paper tiger of around 1,000 troops. This makes it all the more challenging for the OHR’s decisions to be carried out in Republika Srpska.
In fact, the OHR’s imposed decisions so far rested on politicians’ willingness to comply with Schmidt’s decisions. Yet it is unclear whether the OHR has a roadmap for what to do when faced with an intransigent separatist. If Schmidt blinks, Dodik will have scored another victory that puts him a step closer to his ultimate dream of carving out a state of his own.
With Serb secession essentially underway in Bosnia, the postwar state-building project of almost three decades is rapidly being undone. As the country undergoes the two parallel processes of state capture and secession, the looming question is what happens next in the weeks and months ahead.
As pundits in Sarajevo and beyond ponder Bosnia’s fate, what is glaringly missing from analyses and predictions is what would happen the day after Dodik’s official secession. It is this result, and not Dodik’s separatism itself, that has Europe worried.
That’s because if Republika Srpska were to secede, what would remain would be a Muslim-majority republic in Bosnia. No Bosniak leader, politician, or political party favors the establishment of such a republic. There is no popular support for this option. Yet this would be the inevitable outcome of Republika Srpska’s secession. The European Union thus has to brace itself for this scenario if it fails to respond adequately to the secession currently underway.
This potential scenario, though overlooked, is not new. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s friend and historian Taylor Branch wrote in The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President that Clinton told him how European leaders opposed lifting the U.N.-imposed arms embargo on Bosnia during the 1992-1995 war. The embargo curtailed Bosnia’s ability to defend itself, and getting it lifted was a major foreign-policy objective of Sarajevo.
Branch has Clinton telling him that the Europeans thought that Bosnia would be “unnatural” as the only Muslim-majority state in Europe. Clinton told Branch that French President Francois Mitterrand and British officials “spoke of a painful but realistic restoration of Christian Europe.” In other words, the concern about an outcome that Bosniaks do not support has had Europe concerned since the early 1990s.
Regrettably, similar thinking has been articulated in recent years.
Then-Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic in 2019 declared that Bosnia “was very unstable, and had in some respects been taken over by people who have connections with Iran and terrorist organizations. The country is now controlled by militant Islam.”
In late 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron told the Economist that Bosnia is a “time-bomb that’s ticking right next to Croatia, and which faces the problem of returning jihadists.” This statement was widely condemned in Bosnia at the time and was seen as undercutting the country’s already dim prospects for EU membership.
Two years later, in late 2021, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s spokesman, Zoltan Kovacs, tweeted that “the challenge with Bosnia is how to integrate a country with 2 million Muslims.”
These attempts from the 1990s to today to portray the victims of genocide in Europe as a security threat on the continent represent a calculated effort at historical revisionism. Furthermore, this securitization of Bosniaks and the attempts to paint the largely secular and overwhelmingly pro-Western European nation as a problem has led many, especially the younger generation of intellectuals, to increasingly question whether the European Union and its leaders were ever sincere about Bosnia’s membership in the club.
With the country not yet a NATO member, the security vacuum is acute—particularly for Bosniaks, who comprise slightly over 50 percent of the population. Unlike Bosnian Serbs who can turn to Belgrade for support, or Bosnian Croats who can count on Zagreb, Bosniaks have no alternative homeland. For them, preserving and safeguarding Bosnia has always been and continues to be an existential imperative.
For the past three decades, I have watched as Bosniak leaders invoked universal principles, European values, and international law repeatedly in a bid to win support in Europe for keeping their country intact. In fact, the specter of a Muslim republic in Bosnia as a direct result of secession may turn out to be the single most compelling reason why European leaders may decide to step in.
Hamza Karcic is an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo’s Faculty of Political Sciences. Twitter: @KarcicHamza
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