A serious crisis is unfolding in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik threatening to withdraw Republika Srpska from major state institutions, including the army. Do you think there is a real risk of the country breaking up?
Yes, 26 years after its Dayton peace accord, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is today facing a major risk of breaking down, which could happen if Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik delivers on his promise to push through his plan for the return to the “original Dayton.” Such unilateral move, attempted outside of state institutions and legal regulations, would effectively amount to a legal, if (still) not territorial secession of the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska from the rest of the country.
Any unilateral attempt of secession would mean the final collapse of the Dayton peace accord and could lead to a new ethnic conflict(s). Given the divergent, even conflicting stakes and positions of regional and global actors in Bosnia, new violence in Bosnia could in turn draw in the rest of the region – primarily Serbia and possibly also Croatia – and at some later stage also potentially some foreign actors, such as NATO, Russia, Turkey, and/or other Islamic countries.
This is why the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is by far the biggest and most serious crisis this country has witnessed since the end of its 1992-95 war, and should be observed as a potential threat for the security of the entire region, and even all of Europe.
Dodik claims he has Russia’s backing, Jansa and Orban met with the Bosnian Serb leader recently, showing support to Dodik, while Erdogan said Turkey will defend the “well-being” of Bosnia. What is the role of foreign powers in the current crisis in Bosnia?
The gradual disappearance of the EU enlargement perspective for the Balkans, as well as shifts in the US foreign policy vis-à-vis this region, have created a power vacuum in the past decade, which was used by other regional and global actors to establish or re-establish their influences here.
All of these external actors – from Belgrade and Zagreb, to the USA, the EU and all the way to Russia, Turkey, China and others – have their own stake in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Yet it also seems that none of them has true strategic interest, beyond the one to use Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans as a chip – or a trump card – in their internal or external politics.
In other words, some of these external actors want to see Bosnia and Balkans stable and quiet, so that they can go about their business elsewhere, while some others do not seem to mind stirring tensions and even possibly allowing limited conflicts, apparently hoping to benefit from it one way or the other. Some of these actors support Bosnian Serb nationalist and separatist ideas, others side with Bosnian Croat autonomist initiatives, or with Bosniak nationalist dreams of dominating other ethnic groups in the country.
Unfortunately, few external actors seem to really care what people of Bosnia and other Balkan countries really need, and that is long-term stability, which can be obtained only through some kind of internal compromise and relevant and concrete EU perspective.
North Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania – and of course Bosnia – are also witnessing significant political crises currently. Do you think the Western Balkans and Southeast Europe in general are heading towards a period of turmoil and destabilisation?
We are definitively witnessing a wave of political crisis flowing across South East Europe, but it is only a part of a global multidimensional crisis, which has been developing in recent years. A major part of the world today seems to be suffering from the pandemic of bad politics, which includes self-centred, autocratic, populist, nationalist and/or corrupt policies. These bad policies, in combination with the endless drive for profit have been causing worsening climate changes, deepening economic and social inequities as well as increased political, religious, racial and ethnic tensions across the globe.
The crisis in South East Europe can be properly understood only if we put it into a larger context of this global pandemic of backsliding democracy, because then we can understand that people in Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria or Poland do not opt for conservative, populist and/or autocratic politicians only because of their own retrograde views. They do it because they see the same trends in the nations once considered beacons of progressive ideas. Let’s recall the UK’s Brexit vote, which used data from social networks to manipulate voters, or the victory of Donald Trump in US presidential elections in 2016, which was based almost entirely on empty promises and populist rhetoric.
Most importantly, the crisis in South-eastern Europe is directly connected to the existential crisis in which the EU finds itself today. I believe that many people in the EU do not understand that Hungary and Poland’s disrespect towards key EU principles is not the cause but one of the first consequences of EU’s internal crisis. The fact is that all main EU member countries, from Germany to France and others, have pulled out almost all political power from EU institutions, reducing the EU to the position of a common market – something that is still crucially important for all of them. Yet EU member countries still seem to expect from EU institutions to carry through projects that require significant political power and authority, such as the enlargement process. This duplicity is undermining the very foundations of the EU, and is weakening its position in South-eastern Europe, as well as everywhere else.
After the turmoil in the north of Kosovo, Belgrade and Pristina do not show any sign of willingness to go back to the EU-facilitated dialogue in Brussels. Kurti lost local elections recently, Serbia is heading towards general elections next year. Is there any chance of a breakthrough in negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo in the near future?
Unfortunately, I see no chance for Belgrade-Pristina rapprochement for many years to come, and I do not understand why the US and EU still continue pushing Serbia and Kosovo into the dialogue, which neither side really wants. The breakup of the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, just like the institutional crisis in BiH, or recent religious, ethnic and political tensions in Montenegro, all have one common denominator, and that is the collapse of EU’s enlargement perspective for the Balkans.
Let me remind you: a decade ago Serbian and Kosovo leaders were promised EU membership – or at least its near proximity – in exchange for gradually restoring their relations. But then one day, it became clear that the bounty was not on the table anymore, yet the US and EU still expected Belgrade and Pristina to live up to their side of the bargain.
The same thing happened with Kosovo’s visa-free regime, or with Albania and North Macedonia’s start of accession process. EU set some very difficult criteria, but even after the European Commission officially confirmed these criteria met, EU member countries failed to deliver on their promise. Today, the EU is calling for some other difficult reforms, and is promising billions of euros in return, but Balkan leaders do not trust the EU anymore and are seeking alliances with other actors, be it the USA, or Russia, China or Turkey.
What kind of negative consequences the stalled EU integration process is having on the Balkans?
So far, the EU has been mainly observing this issue from its usual bureaucratic and technocratic perspective, warning that stalled integration process would lead to further economic and social inequity between the EU and Balkan countries. Unfortunately, the EU never established itself as a political actor, and never understood critically important political and security aspects of the enlargement. Namely, after the breakup of former Yugoslavia, many people across the region preferred to live within the same borders with their ethnic kin.
Only the EU was able to offer such broad borders that would have helped to put Balkan ethnic fears aside. But with the EU perspective all but gone, and with the escalation of regional and global tensions, some of the ethnic leaders in the Balkans once again promote unilateral separatist, secessionist or centralist ideas, similar to those that pushed the region into a series of bloody wars in 1990.
Unfortunately, both local and international actors in the Balkans seem to be forgetting their own mistakes and painful lessons from the recent past, and are slowly slipping back into 90’s.