Possibility of conflict looms in Bosnia as Serb leaders threaten secession

Experts say Bosnia-Herzegovina is in the midst of its worst crisis in more than 25 years, after leaders of the country’s Serb ethnic enclave have threatened to effectively secede from the country.

Serb leaders resolve to withdraw from Bosnian institutions within 6 months

Members of the police forces of the Republic of Srpska march during a parade marking the 30th anniversary of the Republic of Srpska in Banja Luka, northern Bosnia, on Jan. 9, 2022. (Radivoje Pavicic/The Associated Press)

While all eyes are on a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine, another conflict is brewing in eastern Europe.

Experts say Bosnia-Herzegovina is in the midst of its worst crisis in more than 25 years, after leaders of the country's Serb ethnic enclave have threatened to effectively secede from the country.

"The old problems and the old conflicts are resurfacing again," said Aida Cerkez, a veteran Bosnian journalist who covered the bloody 1992-1995 war for The Associated Press.

"All I see among people is fear, on all sides."

Under the leadership of Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia's three-person presidency, politicians in the country's Serb ethnic enclave passed a series of resolutions in December that would see them break away from the multi-ethnic institutions created at the end of the last war.

In their place, it would re-establish a Serb army, court, intelligence service and customs system by June — and threaten the use of force against anyone who would stop them.

Aida Cerkez, a veteran Bosnian journalist who covered the bloody 1992-1995 war for The Associated Press, says the "old problems and the old conflicts are resurfacing again." (Morten Hvaal/Felix Features)

"It is effectively secession in all but name," said Jasmin Mujanović, a Bosnian political scientist and author. "If Mr. Dodik goes down that road … he will have to be stopped by force."

How did we get here?

Bosnia-Herzegovina's political system is governed by an intricate power-sharing arrangement established in the wake of the war, which claimed more than 100,000 lives and saw Europe's only internationally recognized genocide since the Second World War.

The constitution divides control of territory and institutions like the presidency, judiciary and army among the country's three main ethnic groups — Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks.

But in recent years, Dodik and his allies in the Republika Srpska, the country's Serb-controlled enclave, have pushed aggressively for independence from Bosnia's multi-ethnic institutions.

The trigger for the current crisis was a law outlawing genocide denial imposed in July by Bosnia's outgoing high representative — an internationally appointed official empowered to enact and veto laws to preserve the 1995 peace agreement.

Genocide denial, Mujanović said, has become "really rampant in the country" in recent years. Serb politicians, including Dodik himself, frequently deny that the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, which saw more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys killled by Serb paramilitaries, constituted a genocide.

Milorad Dodik, chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's tripartite presidency, addresses journalists after meeting with the Russian foreign minister in Sarajevo on Dec. 14, 2020. (Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images)

After the Republika Srpska awarded state honours in 2016 to three convicted war criminals who participated in the massacre, the high representative came under "tremendous pressure" from survivors to pass a law criminalizing genocide denial, Mujanović said.

In response, Dodik challenged the legitimacy of the high representative, suspended his party's participation in the Bosnian parliament and threatened the "dissolution" of the country.

While Dodik says he is resisting the high representative's law, experts like Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, see this latest threat as a continuation of Dodik's "decade-long salami slicing tactics," aimed at "picking the Bosnian central government apart."

Members of the police forces of the Republic of Srpska march during the parade in Banja Luka, northern Bosnia, on Jan. 9, 2022. (Radivoje Pavicic/The Associated Press)

Ruge said Dodik has long weakened the independent oversight of Bosnia's central state by threatening secession, then extracting concessions.

"The question, though, is, is [secession] what he's really after?"

Is conflict likely?

Ruge said it's unlikely the Republika Srpska could actually afford to fund the army, courts and border it's threatening to create.

But there are reasons other analysts say this time violent conflict could be more likely.

When Dodik celebrated the Republika Srpska's banned national holiday with a military parade on Jan. 9, he was joined by representatives from Russia, China and Serbia, whom he calls strong supporters of his push for secession.

"There's real genuine alarm and fear," said Mujanović. "He clearly enjoys very strong backing."

A person holds a banner showing Dodik that reads 'Never Again' during a protest against the government in Banja Luka, in the Serb-dominated part of Bosnia, on Oct. 2, 2021. (Radivoje Pavicic/The Associated Press)

Meanwhile, the coalition against Dodik's ethnonationalism has weakened. Experts say the past decade has seen the U.S. withdraw from the region. Canada's remaining mission, staffed by five soldiers, is focused solely on supporting Kosovo. 

The baton passed to the European Union, once able to wave the carrot of EU membership and the stick of heavy sanctions. But today, it is divided against itself.

Membership talks have stalled, and existing member states Hungary and Croatia, also helmed by right-wing nationalists, block any effort at sanctions and funnel tens of millions of euros to Dodik's cause.

"The forces that want to destroy Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state, that want to destroy everything that has been achieved since 1996, are [now] receiving support within the EU," said Adnan Ćerimagić, a senior analyst with the Berlin-based think-tank European Stability Initiative. "They see that their vision might be realized."

A Bosnian man passes by a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin plastered on bus station at the entrance to the town of Srebrenica 150 kilometres northeast of Sarajevo on June 28, 2015. (Amel Emric/The Associated Press)

"You have this narrative that is very, very painful for those in Bosnia, which recreates trauma," he said. "You have police forces that have been arming themselves for several years. You have Serbia that is investing in military buildup.

"All that shows that the situation is maturing toward a point where some kind of clashes … could not be excluded."

How can conflict be prevented?

Cerimagic and others say sanctions on Dodik and his allies are key to demonstrating there are consequences for talk of secession. So far, the United States has been the only country to impose them.

Global Affairs Canada told CBC in a statement that it is "concerned" by talk of secession and "continue[s] to monitor the situation," but would not say what would trigger sanctions.

But experts say it will take more than sanctions to prevent future conflict in the Balkans. Bosnia's constitution, an annex in the peace agreement, is in need of substantial constitutional reforms.

The existing constitution was "drafted to appease the warmongering forces in the country," said Gorona Mlinarević, a feminist activist and scholar in Sarajevo.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, reviews the honour guard with Zeljko Komsic, Croat member of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia, during a welcome ceremony in Sarajevo on Aug. 27, 2021. (Kemal Softic/The Associated Press)

As such, it recognizes only the three main ethnic groups, and bars others — Jews, Roma and the children of mixed marriage, for example — from political power. Ethnonationalists like Dodik are the main beneficiaries.

Forced into a rigid ethnic box, "citizens lose their belief in institutions and in politics," said Minel Abaz, a project officer with the Network for Building Peace, an NGO in Sarajevo. 

"For me personally… I just want to be a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina," he said.

That is only becoming harder. Hate speech is becoming more visible and more frequent, Abaz said, even among "ordinary people," who he says are either "afraid or scared or simply out of it."

"Every spoken word … has its effects on the ground," he said.

Still, Abaz said, "this is not … the majority." While political leaders may stoke ethnic conflict on the front pages of newspapers and in newscasts, message boards and comment sections are often filled with Bosnians ridiculing their warmongering. Even some veterans of the last war are circulating a petition asking politicians to tone down their rhetoric.

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, left, Bosnia-Herzegovina President Alija Izetbegovic, centre, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman sign the Dayton Agreement peace accord on Nov. 21, 1995. (Eric Miller/Reuters)

Among residents, Mlineravic describes the dominant feeling as one of chronic "fatigue".

"Some people [are] saying that they are worried about the situation," she said. "But many more are saying if the war breaks this time around, I will leave Bosnia."

Many are not waiting for war to break out. Experts say moderates and young people are being driven from the country in large numbers by a lack of opportunities and widespread corruption, inflating the power of politicians like Dodik.

"People [would] rather choose to leave than think that there is something for them in this political system," said Nela Porobic, an activist and researcher in Sarajevo.

Many hope the current crisis will finally force reforms to the constitution that would disempower leaders like Dodik by giving moderate and mixed Bosnians a stake in politics.

A woman takes a photo of graffiti in support of Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic written on a monument honouring Second World War partisan anti-Nazi fighters and Yugoslav-era national heroes at the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade, Serbia, on Nov. 29, 2021. (Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press)

For now, momentum appears to be moving in the opposite direction. With elections due to take place in the fall, Croatian politicians are now allying with Dodik to push to exclude the Bosniak majority from voting in elections for Serb and Croat seats.

With Dodik's allies paralyzing the institutions needed for reform, experts say it may take international intervention to bring them all to the table.

"The cost of not doing so is very very high," said Mujanović, the political scientist. "As long as Bosnia kind of remains on this perennial backburner … we're going to veer from one significant crisis to the next.

"Sooner or later, and I fear it's very much sooner, the dam will just necessarily break."


John Last


John Last is a freelance reporter and producer currently based in Padua, Italy. For the past four years, he covered Northern Canada and the Arctic for CBC North. His reporting work has taken him through Europe, the Middle East and the American South.