The crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina continued to unfold in December. How do you assess the current situation in the country? Is Bosnia heading towards a further escalation after the recent moves observed in the RS Parliament?
Bosnia-Herzegovina is in its most serious crisis since at least 1999, with two serious threats – the Republika Srpska move toward separation and the threat of a Croat and Serb boycott of the 2022 elections. In a way, it is like the boy that cried wolf: Bosnia has had so many crises that we have got used to the idea they are not serious and eventually pass, but I think this one has the potential to do real, perhaps irreparable damage. Underneath the two main threats there’s a more basic problem, there is not only no common vision of the country’s future, but worse, there are two opposites, competing and roughly equally powerful visions. One side, centred in Sarajevo, wants to strengthen the state while the other, based in Banja Luka and Mostar, wants to weaken it and instead build up its regions. There is very little trust between leaders and not a lot of interest in compromise. So, we are looking at a situation where the usual recipe of papering over the disputes and going back to business as usual does not seem realistic any more. Even if that happens, and it might, the basic conflict will persist and keep generating new crises until it is resolved somehow.
Do you think there is a concrete risk of a breakup of the country in the next months? And do you think Western powers, the EU in particular, are capable and willing to intervene politically to avoid a more serious crisis in 2022?
The Serb leadership has opted for secession in extreme slow motion. Nothing much should happen in the next few months. The time scale is one to two years, I think. The RS Assembly resolution gives the government six months to draft laws on pulling out of several key institutions including the army, which takes us to June 2022. Then there is some debate in parliament which can take as long as they want and will certainly be done in a fresh storm of international pressure. Once the laws pass, there will likely be a challenge in the RS Council of Peoples, which will go to the entity’s constitutional court – another delay. Once the laws are formally adopted, they will be challenged and almost certainly struck down by the BiH constitutional court. It’s possible the RS leaders are planning on that, with the intent of rejecting the court’s rulings and using that step to mark their further separation from Sarajevo. By that time the elections will be on the agenda, and we will know who will participate. The worst scenario is a complete breakdown in relations between leaders by summer 2022, leading to both Croats and Serbs boycotting the October national election and perhaps trying (at least in RS, which could more realistically do this) to hold their own. The result then could be not only the RS laws coming into effect but also a dispute about who was legitimately in power.
On the other hand, there seems to be very little interest in fighting. I think some of the warnings, mostly coming out of Sarajevo, about war breaking out again may be sincere, but there’s also a current of trying to arouse international interest and sympathy. The fact is there are no signs of serious preparation for armed conflict, and no clear goals, on any side, for the use of force. So, I think we can be glad about at least that. This is still mostly a political rather than a military dispute. But it’s easy to imagine small scale fighting breaking out without leaders necessarily wanting it, and possibly escalating from there. It’s a good thing there is still a UN Chapter 7 mandate in effect.
The international community, by which I mean the states that are engaged in Bosnia and the Balkans, should do all it can to avoid the worst-case scenario and help the country make it through the October elections in one piece. That means deploying a good mix of carrots and sticks to persuade the Serbs to at least slow down their march to the exit until after the election, and to find at least a temporary agreement on election rules that both Bosniaks and Croats can live with. It should also signal a willingness to participate in a search for a long-term solution in the coming years, with the leaders elected in October. It’s true that past efforts at constitutional reform all failed, though some came close. So why try again? Because there may be no viable alternative, it looks like Bosnians either find a way to improve on Dayton or see their country fall apart sooner or later. Putting new talks on the country’s future on the agenda now should also help persuade everyone to slow down and refrain from unilateral acts.
Are you expecting any breakthrough in the Serbia-Kosovo dialogues in the next months? Do you still think Belgrade and Pristina are capable and willing to reach a final agreement?
The probability of a breakthrough in Serbia-Kosovo relations over the next year or two is near zero. It’s so low there is no point pushing for it. Instead, it’s better to look for ways Belgrade and Pristina can agree to disagree, can live with the dispute as well as possible.
Serbia has been open to the idea of a comprehensive agreement with the Kosovo government at least since the Tadic administration; Kosovo’s position is that there is already an agreement, the Ahtisaari plan, which it has implemented and Belgrade has not. In Pristina, there’s very little willingness even to start a negotiation for an agreement that departs significantly from Ahtisaari’s framework. Up until recently the political scene was also too fragmented to grapple effectively with extremely controversial issues like the relationship with Belgrade; now, with the Kurti administration, it is more united but also more focused on internal policy than talks with Serbia.
Both sides should be encouraged to look for ways to build trust. Being respectful and generous to each other’s minorities – to Serbia’s Albanians and Kosovo’s Serbs – is a great way to start. Pristina should not have to be pressured to honour its own court’s rulings in favour of Serbs. Belgrade should prioritize and not obstruct cultural and educational links between its Albanian-majority Presevo valley and Kosovo.
What about EU enlargement in general? Do you think the process will remain stalled also next year? If yes, what kind of consequences can we expect in the Balkans?
The Balkans are coming around to the view that EU enlargement is not going to happen. They might be right. It would be good if everyone involved stopped treating enlargement as inevitable. It would be very good, certainly for the people of the region, if it happened but it’s not the most important thing for them. Better to have good government and good relations with neighbours and be outside the EU, than to be inside it with a corrupt leadership and persistent tensions – though best of all, obviously, to have both.
I think we need to see a shift in priorities, away from EU issues, toward resolving the unfinished business from the wars of the 1990s – mainly the Kosovo-Serbia dispute and the internal problems of Bosnia-Herzegovina – and toward building good governance and economic prosperity. Those things benefit people directly, but they are also preconditions for a serious effort to join the EU. The idea used to be, and to some extent still is, that the EU accession process was so comprehensive that it would sweep up all these other issues and either resolve them or at least facilitate their solution. That approach is failing. There’s no alternative that I can see to doing the hard work of finding actual, durable solutions to Balkan problems.