Mr. President, De-escalate Bosnia-Herzegovina Crisis Now

Mr. President, De-escalate Bosnia-Herzegovina Crisis Now

In the Balkans, President Biden faces a foreign policy challenge.

tippinsights Editorial Board

The fragile peace established in the Balkan states a mere quarter of a century ago is beginning to unravel. With memories of the genocide and war crimes still fresh in the minds of erstwhile Yugoslavians, rising ethnic tensions stoked by political leaders are creating extreme unease.

For context, the breakup of Yugoslavia, a federation of six nominally equal republics, in 1991-92, resulted in ethnic cleansing, horrific war crimes, and a refugee crisis. The civil war claimed over 200,000 lives and forced 2 million from their homes. Since the United States brokered Dayton accords were signed in Paris in 1995, ending the civil war, the nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been run under a tripartite leadership.

The tripartite political entity representing Bosnia-Herzegovina consists of three democratically elected officials, each representing the predominant ethnic groups in the nation - Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). The three leaders represent the country's two semi-independent regions, the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Current leaders, Milorad Dodik of Bosnian-Serbian descent and representative of the Republika Srpska, Sefik Dzaferovic, the Bosniak member of the tripartite Presidency and Zeljko Komsic, the Croat member of the Presidency are at odds with one another over numerous issues.

In April 2021, a memo was leaked to the EU that one of the leaders in the Tripartite body had started to consider splitting Bosnia up once again along ethnic lines.

The memo (existence of which is still up for debate) reportedly said that "Serb-run entity of Republika Srpska should unify with Serbia and the country's Croat-majority cantons should join Croatia." In return, "Serbia is willing to agree on joining Kosovo with Albania."

In September of 2021, Bosnian Serb and head of Srpska, Milorad Dodik, a staunch denier of the Srebrenica massacre and the genocide, began to implement his agenda, what many see as a precursor for formal secession. He officially laid out plans for a Bosnian-Serb ethnic military, separate from the currently established joint Bosniak-Croat army. An independent health agency has been put in place and plans to withdraw from the top judiciary body and tax administration.

In response, the Croat tripartite official Zeljko Komsic stated that Dodik's move for an independent army is "a criminal act of rebellion."

Nationalist and ethnic tensions are already high in the country. After The Hague confirmed the genocide conviction of Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic, the UN-appointed High Representative Valentin Inzko to Bosnia imposed a ban on genocide denial. The court found that forces led by Mladic had killed about 8,000 captive Bosnian Muslim men and boys during the civil war. Bosnian Serbs strongly protested the move.

Milorad Dodik's rhetoric that Bosnia was an "experiment by the international community" and an "impossible, imposed country" has led to renewed fears of ethnic conflict. The call for Republika Srpska's secession by Bosnian Serbs and the call from neighboring Serbia for the "uniting of all Serbians under one flag" add to the tension.

Interference by neighbors Croatia, Serbia, and Russia has worsened the situation. Serbia, a traditional ally, has always advocated the cause of the Bosnian Serbs. Moscow is keen to keep the country away from the EU and out of NATO. Many believe Russia will readily legitimize a declaration of independence by Dodik.

The lukewarm response to the development, if not outright apathy shown by the international community so far, has led to speculation that the mistakes of the past will be repeated. The EU envoy and the US Special Envoy called for compromise. The U.S. diplomat went so far as to propose a "land swap between Serbia and Kosovo aimed at creating ethnically pure territories."

Bear in mind, the conflict that raged in the first half of the 1990s was a war for territory between the country's three ethnic groups. It was triggered by Bosnia's declaration of independence from the federal Yugoslavia. For a nation barely three decades out of an ethnic conflict, further divisions are hardly the answer.

With tensions high on the Belarus-Poland border and a humanitarian crisis unfolding among the illegal immigrants, Europe can ill afford another ethnic turmoil or civil war. The United Nations' top envoy to the country, Christian Schmidt, has far-reaching powers vested in him. He has the authority "to dismiss elected officials if they take dangerous action." Secession along ethnic lines, in a country that has witnessed genocide in recent history, does count as "dangerous action."

Despite the intervening years, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains an ethnically divided society administered by radical politicians and nationalists. The current political climate is a warning to the international community. The U.S. administration should show leadership and resolve in diffusing the situation. Failure to do so would be another heavy blow to President Biden's already teetering foreign policy legacy. The U.S. along with the UN and the EU must act promptly and decisively to prevent another atrocious ethnic cleansing.


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