Despite international pressures and the threat of sanctions against the Bosnian Serb political leadership, the Parliament of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, voted in favour of leaving key central institutions on December 10, a move strongly supported by Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik, and seen by Western powers as semi-secessionist. However, there are signs that the crisis could be defused in the following months.
The political turmoil in Bosnia began in the summer, when the outgoing High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR), Valentin Inzko, decided to introduce a law that made punishable the acts of publicly denying or justifying the genocide in Srebrenica and other war crimes committed in Bosnia. Dodik accused the OHR of marking the entire Serbian people as “genocidal.” As retaliation, the leadership of Republika Srpska (RS) firstly announced a boycott of the central institutions by Bosnian Serbs representatives. Immediately after, Dodik announced that the RS would introduce new regional laws for the withdrawal of the Bosnian Serbs representatives from the joint Indirect Tax Administration (ITA), the central High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJCP) and even from the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a multi-ethnic institution created in 2005.
At the beginning of December, the threats became even more concrete. In an extraordinary session of the Bosnian Serb Assembly, lawmakers approved a set of non-binding provisions that could pave the way for the regional government to opt-out from key central institutions and organizations, by approving new laws for this purpose. This could happen within six months.
With the opposition warning the move could lead Bosnia into a new conflict, MPs from the ruling coalition led by Dodik’s SNSD party voted to strip Bosnia and Herzegovina from powers in the field of defence, security, taxation and justice. Their decision could directly undermine the pillars of the central state built around the Constitution founded on the Dayton Peace Agreement.
Bosnian Serb authorities will have six months to draft new laws to implement the decisions and organize the withdrawal from the institution, including the Bosnian army. After the vote, Dodik, who has been threatening with secession for years, stated that the Bosnian Serb Parliament marked a “moment of conquest for freedom of Republika Srpska.”
The initiative is “a direct threat to peace”, and it would “lead Republika Srpska into the spiral of war,” said Mirko Sarovic, one of the leaders of opposition, which boycotted the vote. The opposition claimed that the vote was “hypocritical” and a “farce”, accusing Dodik of planning to provoke tensions to maintain his grasp to power because of the general election to be held in October 2022. “What does the RS army represent? Do we have money for tanks, aeroplanes?”, an opposition MP, Branislav Borenovic, asked Dodik. The words of Borenovic were a probable reference to the RS budget, laid out in December, which does not include any financial provision for supporting a Bosnian Serb army.
In the meantime, in Sarajevo, other Bosnian political leaders, including the Bosniak member and the Croatian member of the tripartite presidency, Sefik Dzaferovic and Zeljko Komsic, urged the international community to react against Dodik. The Peace Implementation Council (PIC), an institution monitoring the respect of the Dayton agreement, warned that a “unilateral withdrawal” is not possible. The PIC threatened “consequences” for any party violating the agreement, but Russia – part of the group – did not sign the statement. The so-called ‘Quint’, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy condemned the Bosnian Serb move as “a further escalatory step”.
However, the seriousness of Dodik’s threats is still to be demonstrated. Indeed, Dodik failed to convince the opposition to support his plans, although in the past he almost always managed to rally all Serb MPs to vote unanimously. Moreover, it is still unclear if Republika Srpska will continue pushing towards de-facto secession in the following months. Actually, according toan internal EU report published by the local media, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement, the Hungarian Oliver Varhelyi, might have received assurances from the RS leadership that a “moratorium to pass legislation on the unilateral withdrawal from State Institutions would be announced for 6 months.” Besides, the document suggests the existence of a deal to defuse the crisis and a way out of the current crisis. “A fragile political package agreement seemed to have been reached, which would not only halt the implementation of policies for the unilateral withdrawal of the RS from State Institutions, but also de-block BiH state-decision-making bodies in order to continue work on EU reforms,” the document reads.
According to the leaked text, leaders in Bosnia agreed to overcome the crisis by “solving State Property issues based on common criteria and in close co-operation with the US and the Office of the High Representative;” by “addressing the issue of former High Representative (Valentin) Inzko’s Criminal Code amendments through a law adopted by the BiH Parliamentary Assembly” and by focusing on the “Constitutional and Electoral Law Reform.”
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Journalist based in the Balkans since 2005, he covers Central- and Eastern Europe for a wide range of media outlets, including the Italian national news agency ANSA, and the dailies La Stampa and Il Piccolo.