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A Resurgence of Ethno-Nationalism and Its Implications for the Future Integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina

CSIS Briefs


The Western Balkans have seen positive developments since the war of the 1990s, including European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) accession for some countries. Yet instability continues to affect some nations, particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina. This instability is partly due to the governing structure that emerged from the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords and has led to complete political gridlock, but increasingly stems from a resurgence in ethno-nationalist sentiment across the region. Some neighboring countries (Croatia, Serbia) and more distant ones (Turkey) are directly interfering in Bosnia’s domestic affairs in pursuit of their own ethnic and political interests. Unless domestic actors can stop this negative spiral, the three ethnic communities of Bosnia will increasingly be drawn to the ethnic divisions of the past for support and inspiration and lose hope in a positive future.

 The rise of nationalism can be politically destabilizing for any country, advanced or developing, and can quickly have spill-over effects into neighboring countries. Ethno-nationalism—nationalism which defines the nation in terms of ethnicity— has always been a latent force in the Western Balkans, but it is now fully and cynically exploited and fueled by politicians and political forces in the region. Although the Western Balkans have yet to fully emerge and stabilize from a deadly outbreak of ethnic conflict two decades ago, ethno-nationalism threatens internal cohesion and increasingly ineffective governing structures, particularly for a country like Bosnia-Herzegovina, the only former Yugoslav republic not to have a dominant majority and which suffered a conflict that ended in the deaths of more than 100,000, the outward migration of nearly 1.2 million, and the internal displacement of 1.3 million. We increasingly see blinking red lights on Bosnia’s stability dashboard, both internally and externally, as Russia, Croatia, and Turkey contribute to the acceleration of ethno-nationalism within Bosnia and reap domestic political benefits for doing so.



The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the conflict in Bosnia, split the country along ethnic lines that the 1992 ethnic cleansing largely defined. The settlement resulted in the formulation of “one country, two entities, three constituencies,” referring to a single country consisting of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), which is mostly inhabited by Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats, and the Republika Srpska (RS), which is majority Serb. The creation of Republika Srpska itself was viewed by many at the time to be “a bitter pill to  swallow.”  But the Dayton Accords were designed to bring the conflict in Bosnia to an end; they were not designed to be a blueprint to successfully govern a multi-ethnic society. If anything, the Dayton settlement may have created the basis for potential future ethnic conflict along the 1992 fault lines.

A unique feature of the Dayton Accords was the country’s collective tripartite presidency—in  which each constituency (Bosniak, Croat and Serb) maintains  a representative through a rotational process—which  has now become an impediment to the functioning of the government and country. Since the October 2018 elections, the Serb member of the tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, representing Republika Srpska, has blocked the formation of a central government and effectively paralyzed the country over Bosnia’s desire to seek eventual membership in NATO. Dodik had already prevented Bosnia from submitting its national defense plans, a pre-condition to be formally accepted in NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) process. But on August 5, 2019, a compromise was finally reached to form a new central government. This compromise allows Bosnia to “promote relations with NATO without prejudicing a future decision about the membership of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” but needs to be implemented within 30 days to avoid more gridlock caused by Dodik, who has already achieved an early victory by watering down Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic path. It certainly represents a small victory for the Kremlin as well, and the agreement might be difficult to implement as the three presidents already appear to interpret the NATO language differently (and according to their own wishes).

Milorad Dodik’s ultimate political objective is the full independence of RS, which reinforces not only the “bitter pill” sentiment but also the real danger that the Dayton construct now poses. In January 2018, Dodik asserted that Bosnia is a “useless state” and a “failed international project” and thus, it is in the best interest of Bosnia’s Serb population to declare independence, noting “our goal is the highest possible independence for the RS. We are moving in that direction and that is a legitimate political goal.” He also made clear that “my first priority will be the position of the Serb people and of the Republika Srpska.” Dodik has put his words into action by supporting a controversial referendum to make January 9 “Republika Srpska Day”—a date which marks the independence of Bosnia in 1992 and was a major factor contributing to the outbreak of war. Prior to his inauguration, Dodik controversially displayed the flag of Republika Srpska outside his office in the presidency building.

But the Dayton Accords were designed to bring the conflict in Bosnia to an end; they were not designed to be a blueprint to successfully govern a multi-ethnic society.

While the tripartite presidency structure was designed for each constituency to advance their priorities, it was done so in order to advance the work of the country. But by preventing the government from functioning at all, Dodik is creating a “useless state” to justify the independence of RS. One example of his “efforts” is his refusal to hold presidency sessions if the RS flag was not displayed. He  has also put forward controversial plans  to increase RS powers, including establishing its own intelligence service to work with a growing RS police force. There were reports in December 2018 that an RS paramilitary group known as Serbian Honour was trained in a Russian-funded center (suspected of being a Russian intelligence center and unofficial military base) in Nis, Serbia, to support Dodik’s vision of separatism and create “a problem” for those opposed to his plans. The group controversially marched in full combat gear in Banja Luka, the capital of RS, during a military parade on January 9 of  this year (marking RS’s  “national” holiday) in defiance of Bosnia’s Constitutional Court. To many, the paramilitary force invoked memories of similar groups that committed horrendous acts of violence and fueled Bosnia’s ethnic war from 1992 to 1995.

Since the October 2018 elections, Milorad Dodik has blocked the formation of a central government and effectively paralyzed the country over Bosnia’s desire to seek eventual membership in NATO.

By strengthening RS’s paramilitary forces, Dodik is eroding Bosnia’s nascent armed forces, which were hailed as one of the greatest achievements of the Dayton Peace Accords, where Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats serve side by side. During a ceremony in May marking the Day of the RS Army and the Day of the Third Infantry Regiment, Dodik proposed that in 2020 one infantry regiment of Bosnia’s armed forces wear the now-defunct RS wartime uniforms. This announcement caused an immediate and strong backlash from politicians and members of the military who warned that efforts to stoke nationalist sentiment within the military were extremely dangerous and could ultimately trigger greater unrest. Dodik backed down but immediately sought to create a gendarmerie unit to basically perform the same function. RS and Serb units in Bosnia’s armed forces have conducted exercises with this new gendarmerie, a worrying development.

Dodik’s rise to the tripartite presidency and his attempts to create a separate state for Bosnian Serbs was due in part to the tangible support that was offered by neighboring Serbia. However, Milorad Dodik’s extensive ties to Moscow allow him to directly engage with the Kremlin, which reduces his need for Belgrade’s economic support—though he will gladly accept it. Taking advantage of Bosnia’s political and economic stagnation, the Kremlin can exploit these governance failures. Tragically, the Dayton institutions and the European Union are too weak to stop Dodik’s growing relationship with Moscow or his overt use of ethno-nationalism.




Mr. Dodik is not the only one who views Bosnia as a “failed state” or uses ethno-nationalism to challenge Bosnia’s institutions. Neighboring Croatia has also played an unhelpful role. In 2016, Zoran Milanović, former Croatian prime minister (2011-2016) and former chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Croatia (SDP), was secretly recorded describing neighboring Bosnia as a failed state and further warned that Croatia might “act to protect Croats” if RS seceded from the federation.

In fact, Croatia actively promotes ethno-nationalist policies in Bosnia, namely via the Bosnian branch of the nationalistic Croatian HDZ party, HDZ BiH, through its leader, Dragan Covic. Prior to the October 2018 elections in Bosnia, the Croatian HDZ party pushed heavy nationalist messaging into Bosnian media markets, offered financial support and allegedly leveraged the party’s political connections to support Covic’s candidacy to the tripartite presidency. The Croatian HDZ party attempted to mobilize increased voter turnout for Covic by encouraging Croatians to exercise their voting rights in Bosnia in support of Covic.

Zagreb’s efforts to elevate Covic failed as he lost to moderate candidate Zeljko Komsic. After the loss, Croatia’s HDZ questioned the legitimacy of the election result, arguing that Komsic is “not Croat enough,” and that he was heavily supported by votes from Bosniaks who outnumber Croats in FBiH. This led HDZ representatives to claim that presidency members should only be elected by their “own people,” referring to Croats in Bosnia. The election result intensified Croatia’s lobbying efforts in the European Union and NATO to force Bosnia to reform its electoral law and constitution.

Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (2ndL) meets with members of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency (fromL) Bakir Izetbegovic, Dragan Covic, and Mladen Ivanic in Sarajevo. Source: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Croatian ethno-nationalism has also targeted the local level. For example, representatives in the town of Tomislavgrad adopted a declaration in February 2018 that criticized convictions of Bosnian Croat leaders at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague and called for a third Croat entity in the country. Bakir Izetbegovic, the previous Bosniak member of the tripartite presidency, quickly warned that such a development would be impossible “without a war,” and recalled concentration camps run by Bosnian Croats where Bosniaks were held during the war. According to recent reports, Croatia’s government is also planning to fund cultural, educational, and other programs among the Bosnian Croat community, including funding for a controversial Croat radio-television outlet named Herzeg Bosnia after the unrecognized wartime statelet.

Increasingly, Croatian ethno-nationalism is being directed against Bosniaks through blame for Bosnia’s failure as a state. On July 31 while in Israel, Croatian President Grabar-Kitarovic publicly characterized the border between Croatia and Bosnia as unstable and reportedly stated that Bosnia “is now controlled by militant Islam, which is dominant in setting the agenda.” While she denied making this statement, the news prompted a rebuke from Bosnian presidents Zelijko Komsic (Bosnian Croat) and Sefik Dzaferovic (Bosniak) who described the reported statements as “the aggressive and xenophobic policy of official Zagreb towards Bosnia and Herzegovina and Bosniaks, which has all the elements of fascism.” Questioning the security of the Federation and implying that Bosniak officials are the cause of such insecurity deepens the narrative that there is a growing need to create a separate Croat entity in Bosnia.

Increasingly, Croatian ethno-nationalism is being directed against Bosniaks through blame for Bosnia’s failure as a state.

Croatian ethno-nationalism also creates a negative feedback loop whereby Croatia’s nationalistic rhetoric towards Bosnia reflects and propels stronger nationalistic behavior within Croatia. One such example is the dedication of a statue of ultranationalist independence fighter Miro Baresic in the village of Drage in 2016. Baresic was a supporter of the Ustasha, the Croatian Nazi puppet regime, which fought for Croatian independence from Yugoslavia. While the statue invokes patriotism among Croats and symbolizes an unwavering commitment to Croatian independence, Serbian politicians consider Baresic a terrorist and see such idolization as a means of inflaming ethnic tensions.

Finally, European leaders have become an unwitting audience to Croatian ethno-nationalism. In May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a guest at a Croatian Democratic Union rally prior to the European Parliament election where a band played the song “How Beautiful You Are.” The song glorifies the unrecognized wartime entity of Herzeg-Bosna, which was created on Bosnian territory and backed by Croatia. Six of its leaders were ultimately convicted of wartime crimes by the ICTY. The unrecognized entity is considered the foundation for a future separate Croat entity in Bosnia. After a wave of negative criticism following the rally, the German Chancellor’s office asserted that it did not have knowledge of the song’s meaning or that it would be played at the rally.


While Dodik fights for Bosnian Serb independence and Croatia’s current political leadership forms a nascent narrative to support the creation of a separate Croat entity, Turkey continues to rally support for the Bosniak population as a core tenant of its policy of strengthening relations with Muslims across the Western Balkans, Eurasia, and the Middle East. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a strong ethno-nationalist himself and an increasingly authoritarian leader, is viewed as a particularly influential leader in Bosnia; Erdogan’s popularity among Bosniak Muslims potentially surpasses his popularity in Turkey.

Turkey continues to rally support for the Bosniak population as a core tenant of its policy of strengthening relations with Muslims across the Western Balkans, Eurasia, and the Middle East.

Turkey’s influence in Bosnia is concentrated in its significant business and cultural ties. Turkey has contributed to the rebuilding and construction of local mosques and the opening of Turkish-run universities. The most notable of these is the reconstruction of the sixteenth century Aladza Mosque, a prominent symbol Ottoman architecture in the region before it was destroyed during the Bosnian war. In May the two countries signed a revised free trade agreement and a memorandum of understanding on the construction of the Sarajevo-Belgrade Highway project, which could increase bilateral trade to $1 billion.

President Erdogan also reinforces his personal influence in Bosnia by appealing directly to Bosniak politicians. He did so recently on July 8 and 9 when he visited Sarajevo  to attend the South East European Countries Cooperation Process (SEECP) Summit and met with Bosnian politicians, including Bakir Izetbegović, head of the main Bosniak Party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), and other SDA leaders. The two maintain close ties dating  back to Bakir’s father, Alija Izetbegović, the country’s first president and former leader of SDA. It has been reported that prior to his death, Alija Izetbegović recognized Erdogan as “a future strong leader, and bequeathed him with caring for Bosnia-Herzegovina.” In the re-telling of  his father’s “bequest,” Bakir Izetbegovic remarked that he believed “Erdogan has been carrying out that bequest very well. Just look at this new action of his, to build a road between Belgrade and Sarajevo."

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) shakes hands with Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency Milorad Dodik (L) and Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency Sefik Dzaferovic (R) at Presidential Complex in Ankara. Source: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

SDA will hold party leadership elections in September and President Erdogan has reportedly assured Bakir Izetbegović that Turkey will increase investments in and economic relations with Bosnia. President Erdogan has also strengthened ties with Bakir’s party rival, Denis Zvizdic, despite his frustration with Bosnia’s failure to crack down on suspected members and supporters of  the Gulen movement (an opposition movement which Erdogan views as a terrorist organization) following the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

President Erdogan also receives domestic benefit for his role in Bosnia, which reaffirms the feedback loop of ethno-nationalism at home and across the region. In May 2018, and just prior to the Turkish presidential elections, Erdogan held a rally in Sarajevo that drew a crowd of nearly 12,000 people. The event served two purposes: solidifying Erdogan’s ambition to play a larger role in the Balkans and rallying domestic support for his election. Some European governments have attempted to curtail Erdogan’s efforts to rally ethnic Turks in Europe in support of his domestic agenda, but it remains a powerful tool to remind foreign citizens that their allegiance and interests lie with Turkey and not their home country. As President Erdogan noted at a rally held in Germany in 2015, "the stronger our cohesion in the world, the stronger we all are."


Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political and institutional stagnation is not new, but the political use of ethno-nationalism fills societal voids and provides compelling narratives for ethnic division rather than multi-ethnic unity. The recycling of historical grievances and animosities receives encouragement from outside powers which seek to boost domestic support and revive their regional presence. Unless Bosnia’s three constituencies can demonstrate positive results for all citizens or if a new generation of Bosnian leaders can take power and work towards a positive vision of the future, the three communities will increasingly be drawn to the ethnic divisions of the past for support and inspiration. The idea of ethnic separatism is unfortunately gaining traction in the region as land swaps are contemplated and ethnic divisions are viewed as acceptable diplomatic solutions rather than clear warning signs. As ethno-nationalism is cynically deployed in Bosnia, the red lights are blinking brighter.

Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Matthew Melino is an associate fellow with the CSIS Europe Program.

This research is made possible by the generous support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

CSIS Briefs are produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Heather A. Conley

Matthew Melino