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BANJA LUKA, Republika Srpska, 07/28/2014 © joyfull / Shutterstock

Will Bosnia and Herzegovina Ever Rise Above Its Ethnic Divisions?

A key flaw of the Dayton Accords and the subsequent political framework established in Bosnia and Herzegovina is that it overlooked the power of identity politics.

Once a year, the Day of Republika Srpska attracts international media attention, and abundant discussions over the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina persist for a short period. Happy festivities on January 9 honor the 1992 declaration of the creation of the Serb Republic within what was then Yugoslavia, but this date simultaneously notes the eruption of a merciless four-year civil war.

The divisions and political concerns apparent on that one day are only the peripheral point of reference in the labyrinthine domestic discord inherent in Bosnian politics. A flawed system of federalism that emerged from the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement and entrenched ethnic nationalism remain at the core of a stymied Bosnia and Herzegovina constantly on the brink of political impotence. Continuous threats of secession by Republika Srpska feed the generalized query of whether Bosnia and Herzegovina will remain intact under the original auspices agreed at Dayton.

In 1995, the Dayton Accords finalized a generalized framework to end the Bosnian War. The agreement is often upheld as “the most impressive example of conflict resolution,” but its complaisance in regard to the application of governance has been problematic. The federal republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is composed of regional bodies — Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srspka — formed along ethnic allegiances and has a rotating presidency to appease each entity; an electoral based on proportional representation further compounds a complicated government system.

Tribalism tends to foment political adherence to those representing regional agendas, and this undoubtedly causes stalemates in a country marked by strained internal histories, nationalism and ethnic divisions. This palpable disunion between the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srspka has only deepened over time.

Decentralization of power based upon ethnic lines does little to create a perception of a unified Bosnia. The autonomous entities within the Balkan state are largely based around ethnic loyalties rather than heterogeneous populations spread out across the entirely of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such demographics supported by proportional representation result in interest-based politics rather of unified efforts to promote the agenda of the state at large.

Voting patterns demonstrate a deadlock that is difficult to overcome. The main parties in the parliamentary assembly each carry respective patriotisms as part of their political platforms: the main Party of Democratic Action (SDA) represents Bosniak nationalism and Islamic democracy; the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) promotes Serbian nationalism; and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) clearly advocates for its specific ethnicity. Bosnian politics are tarnished by widespread corruption, and citizens are left to vote along ethnic lies rather than any vast vision of national unity.

Breath of Fresh Air

As a result of a decentralized and chaotic system of governance, the strongest personalities emerge in their quest to garner valuable political capital. The most obvious figure currently shaping Bosnian politics is Milorad Dodik. Prior to his election as the Serbian representative to the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he held the positions of prime minister and president of Republika Srpska. He was once memorably described as a “breath of fresh air” by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the days prior to the maturation of his nationalist rhetoric.

In the contemporary context, he has fallen out of favor with Western interests and had recently prompted the headline, “The President Who Wants to Break Up His Own Country.” A shift in ideological alliances demonstrates a crafty politician who pinpointed a source of discontent that can be utilized to extend political longevity as well as stimulate a path to more direct power.

Dodik’s nationalist views are commonly known to those with an interest in the Balkans. Statements such as that “the Serb Republic will not stay inside Bosnia unless it gets enough autonomy to live its life as a state” were typical during his leadership in the Serbian-majority region of Bosnia. Therefore, Dodik’s depiction of Bosnia and Herzegovina as “an impossible state” were predictable. The opportunity to sit at the head of the Bosnian presidency provided a wider, international audience to heed his future plans for Republika Srpska secession.

However, there is little political will in the global community to enter into yet another enduring Balkan stalemate and offer any real incentive to rein in Dodik’s perceived agenda. Sanctions by the US only highlight the myriad of allegations against him, such as a taste for authoritarianism, ties to organized crime and hate speech.

Nationalist Politics

Perhaps a key flaw of the Dayton Agreement and the subsequent political framework established in Bosnia and Herzegovina is that it overlooked the power of identity politics. A federation of autonomous entities loosely united by a central government offers a viable opportunity for a strong nationalist leader to argue for greater self-governance. It could have been assumed that Bosnian politicians were war-weary and would embrace the unifying influence of liberal democracy. With such a mindset, it seems unthinkable that ethno-nationalism could return as a feasible political force, and especially one that could potentially lead to the dissolution of the newly formed federation.

Commentators note the rise of nationalism within Bosnia as it seems to align with the populism on the rise in staunchly democratic nations. This position is erroneous given that the divisions in Bosnia predate the current populist upsurge across the globe. It is only in the current political climate that further attention is focused on this phenomenon. Discontent among the respective ethnic groups over a general distrust of government and contentious histories within the Bosnian state itself result in situations of historical negation that politicians can easily use to serve their own respective agendas. It seems as though reappraisal of past events will continue to stall the creation of a cohesive state.

For instance, the authorities in Republika Srspka made the controversial move to annul a report that implicated Bosnian Serb forces as the perpetrators of the July 1995 Srebrenica genocide. Subsequently, they appointed commissions to re-examine the internationally-condemned crimes of the Bosnian War as well as conduct an investigation focused on the suffering of Serbs in Sarajevo during the same period.

Such actions clearly trouble the families of victims in particular, and Bosniaks in general, who label the undertaking as “just another genocide denial.” The issue was once again brought to the spotlight when, on March 20, a UN court at The Hague re-upheld the 2016 conviction of former Republika Srspka leader Radovan Karadžić for war crimes committed during the Yugoslav War, including the massacre at Srebenica. While the appeals court increased his original sentence from 40 years to life in prison, Karadžić is still hailed as a Serb hero by many in the country.

Partisan issues and views such as these will remain and only grow stronger if politicians strategically utilize them to further entrench divisions that were apparent — as well as raw — at the birth of the present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Legal Challenges

Republika Srpska faces legal challenges in the country’s constitutional court that are based upon disagreements over ethnicity and the representation of the Bosnian Serb majority in the district. Divisions over Republika Srpska Day provide one strong example. In November 2015, Bosnia’s highest court ruled that the commemorative holiday on January 9 was unconstitutional. Besides its connotations of secessionism, the judiciary stated that the holiday discriminates against Muslim and Catholic minorities. The date is recognized as the slava, or the Orthodox Christian day of Saint Stephen — the patron of Republika Srpska.

Bosnian Serb leaders strongly expressed that “they would not stop celebrating the holiday” and in return questioned the integrity of the constitutional court. A referendum was held the following September in which residents of the Serb Republic voted stalwartly in favor of retaining their national day and, as a result, ignored the ruling of the court. This denotes the ineffectiveness of the constitutional court in regard to internal politics within the federal entities as well as the desire of Republika Srpska to go its own way.

Further, an issue over the naming of Republika Srpska is also set to be considered by the constitutional court. The main Bosniak party, the SDA, rehashed the argument of discrimination against Muslims and Croats by use of the name Republika Srpska — the Serb Republic. It is predictably similar to the accusations over Bosnian Serb celebrations that instigated animosities and led to dissention over the court’s ruling. Milorad Dodik quickly retorted that there would be no name change and disregarded any decision by the constitutional court prior to any official hearing.

The inefficacy of the highest court is evident and, concomitantly, this provides yet another opportunity for Bosnian Serb leadership to raise the question of succession. Dodik advantageously remarked that if Sarajevo wanted “throw us, Republika Srpska, out of Bosnia … then you are doing the best job possible.” The issue is then framed as an internal situation where one population faces biased pressure to assimilate, thus resulting in a reasonable move toward secession. It is a politically expedient move for all parties involved — if they can maximize their posturing to skeptical citizens.


The dismal reality is that the Bosnian project did not fulfill ambitions that it would develop into a vibrant liberal democracy capable of overcoming its many divisions.


Dodik pinpointed a purported Islamization of Bosnia and Herzegovina as yet another reason for Bosnian Serbs to seek greater autonomy. This language signifies a deep cultural divide that cannot be overcome by artificial constructs of governing bodies. He contends that plans were already in place to “Islamize” Bosnia for years, and this theory can be exploited based on recent financial investments in the country: Middle Eastern states like the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have steadily increased their assets and presence around Sarajevo.

Ventures like tourism and the subsequent construction of new shopping malls, hotels, resorts and real estate are important to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s meager economy. Nonetheless, when foreign states invest heavily in a small country suffering from corruption and instability, the opportunity for outside influence exponentially increases. It is plausible for Republika Srpska to question the direction of the federation and whether its status will be respected once stronger political stimuli and financial interests are at work.

However, this anxiety is not only felt by Bosnian Serbs. Bosnian Muslims also question the influence of outside states, such as Saudi Arabia, where the Wahhabist strict interpretation of Islam conflicts with their own moderate, Europeanized forms of practice. Some Bosnians Muslim prioritize the flow of money entering the country over any concerns of Islamic radicalism. Nevertheless, there is a simmering problem. Salafists are present in the country, and these enclaves saw hundreds of foreign fighters depart for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

The next logical question is how an influx of foreign funds and subsequent political influence will shift the balance, as well as what is currently taught in mosques, in villages and cities. This is an exploitable issue for any ethnic group seeking to lay groundwork for secession.

Geopolitics

Geopolitics muddies the waters of the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina too. Fault lines have been drawn according to ethno-nationalism and the powers that best represent the values espoused politically. Actors with history in the region, like Russia and Turkey, are actively involved in the politics of the small Balkan state. Bosnian Muslim authorities seek greater ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and this aligns with his aspirations of expanding Turkey’s influence. In a recent meeting with his Croatian counterpart, Erdoğan criticized the Dayton Agreement and made requests for its revision.

Banja Luka found an ally in Russia, and Dodik openly boasts of his relationship with President Vladimir Putin. Although the Serbian proverb instructs to seek help from “God in heaven, Russia on Earth,” Moscow voiced support for the Dayton Agreement and territorial integrity rather than secession. However, Russia openly supports the Serb Republic and engages in various levels of administration, policing and a common Orthodox religion.

This is a wise approach as it permits the Kremlin to continue broadening its influence in the region and on the border of the European Union where Western liberal philosophy is mainstay. Other examples of political messaging, such as a visit by the Orthodox Christian, nationalist, Kremlin-linked motorcycle club the Night Wolves to Banja Luka on January 9, demonstrate this too. One cannot blame Turkey or Russia for capitalizing on a void of Western leadership; however, it only deepens domestic divisions that are of little concern to major powers.

Throughout this duel between the major ethnic groups, Bosnian Croats are left watch and decipher the next steps. Protests erupted after the 2018 presidential elections, when moderate Željko Komšić defeated the incumbent candidate from the Croatian nationalist HDZ party. Voters argued that Komšić did not represent their issues and, as a moderate, did not effectively express Croatian positions within the complex Bosnian political system. As a moderate, Komšić could not truly represent his constituency, as votes from Muslim Bosnians were needed to push his victory over Dragan Čović. In each of these cases, the monopoly of ethnic nationalism is apparent in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s politics, prior to any concerns of such movements in Europe or abroad. Some voices are only louder than others when questions of independence arise.

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

Thoughts regarding secession of the Republika Srspka from Bosnia and Herzegovina have been common since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement. It is one of the key questions that enjoys enduring presence in discussions over Bosnia and the greater Balkans. However, departing a recognized state is a difficult endeavor under the current international order. Republika Srpska would undoubtedly become a pariah of the global community, sanctioned and labeled illegitimate. It would suffer economically, in drastic ways. Although the region is agriculturally developed, it struggles with a high unemployment rate and poverty. These concerns would only be augmented if the international community refuses to engage in economic partnerships.

But outright independence is not the ultimate goal of nationalists in Banja Luka. Rather, they seek to unite with Serbia. However, this is a problematic scenario as well. Republika Srpska and Serbia enjoy close relations, but Belgrade would face backlash if it were complicit in destabilization by way of a Bosnian schism. Strong penalties would await, dashing hopes of EU membership. These quandaries are generally understood.

Separatist sentiments and disregard for unfavorable rulings by the constitutional court are forms of political gesturing that do not necessarily mean Republika Srpska will leave Bosnia and Herzegovina. But the end goal of secession is appealing. Dodik has consolidated power around him and his inner circle in Banja Luka. As an independent enclave, Dodik would be unhindered by the courts that he currently pays little attention anyway. On the other hand, constant threats of secession and nationalist rhetoric act as a way of ensuring his political longevity.

Representation of the Serb Republic at the federal level and strategically working with allies such as Russia increase Dodik’s political capital. If Republika Srpska left the union, it would be faced with numerous obstacles and difficult questions of governance faced by a sovereign state. Arguments in favor of secession have been apparent since the Dayton Agreement provided a loose cohesion between the entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The strength of nationalist calls for further self-governance may gain strength, but it would be an extremely difficult endeavor after the euphoria fades.

Task of Peace

The Dayton Agreement fulfilled its preliminary task of peace and the creation of a federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina. Autonomy granted to the respective entities did little to create a unified sense of Bosnian identity. In the current arrangement, recurrent cases of political disputes are labeled unconstitutional and prejudiced, resulting in complicated stalemates. A cycle develops where unresolved tensions transfer from one political step to the next, never fully fading away. Bosnia and Herzegovina appears as an artificial construct created by an international agreement rather than an organic sovereign state.

Authorities in Republika Srpska and President Milorad Dodik will continue to keep questions of secession in the spotlight. These queries are part of the region’s past and will dictate its future. The issue offers political expediency to those best able to rouse support and demonstrate that the destiny of the Serb Republic rests outside the confines of proper Bosnian borders. However, it is a difficult path that offers more political capital for politicians rather than any real advantages to Republika Srpska. The complex environment of the Balkans, along with ongoing discussions in neighboring countries over territory, imparts this situation with catalysts it needs to propel it further.

It is difficult to predict whether Bosnia and Herzegovina retains its current territorial integrity. Occurrences of the consolidation of power and ongoing plans to militarize the police forces of Republika Srpska may only augment the constant departure threats by Dodik. On the other hand, they may be palpable preparations to separate under a suitable political climate. The dismal reality is that the Bosnian project did not fulfill ambitions that it would develop into a vibrant liberal democracy capable of overcoming its many divisions.

This situation could easily be explained away as a young state experiencing the tribulations of democratic development in the face of poor economic conditions, corruption and nationalist disunity. Lack of strong civil society initiatives and leadership focused on the country’s own objectives leaves the small state open to foreign influence. However, foreign interlopers will not have to manage the domestic fallout. If Bosnia and Herzegovina stands a chance of remaining united, it needs a political framework that will allow for sufficient autonomy and a merging of beliefs focused on prosperity for all groups. This is a difficult task.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.