Bosnia Is a Test of Western Resolve
For Bosnians who lived through the war of the 1990s, “as long as there is not another war” is a refrain that echoes throughout the past two decades’ political crises. During his visit to Bosnia last week, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state Gabriel Escobar inadvertently echoed those words, stating, “The most important thing that we agreed with all of the interlocutors that we met with today is . . . that there will be no war.”
But for those who lived through the war, the virulent ethno-nationalism of the current moment, the prospect of a reconstituted Bosnian Serb military force, and a paralyzed European response are worryingly familiar. As the continued secessionist push by Milorad Dodik—the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency—grows louder and as Croatian nationalists seek opportunity, Bosnia slides into its greatest crisis since the end of the war.
What will the United States and its European partners do about it?
From Dayton to Today
The U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in Bosnia established a single sovereign state, Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter Bosnia), with two regional entities, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. A power-sharing agreement at the level of the central government links the two together. To safeguard the peace in Bosnia, the Dayton Accords established the Office of the High Representative (OHR) as a civilian oversight mechanism, granting the high representative wide-ranging executive powers to ensure the continued implementation of the peace agreement. The military aspects of the agreement are overseen by an EU peacekeeping force (European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina [EUFOR] Operation Althea).
Threats made last month by Milorad Dodik to withdraw the Republika Srpska from Bosnia’s central institutions, including its armed forces and judiciary, have sparked fresh fears that a new secessionist drive could lead to an outbreak of violence. In October, police units from Republika Srpska undertook “anti-terrorist” drills in Mount Jahorina, the same position from which the army of Republika Srpska shelled Sarajevo during its siege of the city from 1992 to 1996, in what was seen by many as a show of military strength.
Bosnia’s internal crisis is exacerbated by external forces seeking to eliminate the OHR, a move which would further facilitate the country’s fragmentation. Russia threatened to veto a UN Security Council resolution to renew the yearly mandate of EUFOR and the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo unless all references to the OHR were struck. Although in the end the vote to renew both mandates for another year was unanimous, success came at the cost of appeasing Russia: for the first time all references to the OHR were omitted from the resolution. And in another concession to Russia, High Representative Christian Schmidt, who warned recently that Dodik’s secessionist rhetoric presents an existential threat to the country, did not address the council ahead of the vote. While the resolution does not legally impact the powers of the OHR, it degrades and damages the institution’s credibility.
Policy Deadlock Has Serious Consequences
The United States’ policy toward Bosnia is (1) to preserve the country’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence as outlined in the Dayton agreement, and (2) to encourage its Euro-Atlantic integration. Stating the policy and moving the policy are two different activities. Over the past decade, Bosnia has suffered from a lack of U.S. policy focus, compounded by a stalled EU accession process. Nationalist leaders in the region have taken advantage of this lack of attention to expand their own patronage networks, stall needed reforms, and capture the very state institutions Western assistance helped establish.
In Bosnia, Dodik’s aim is to undermine the country’s ability to function and continue to drive Republika Srpska toward secession, all while solidifying his hold on state institutions for his own political and economic gain. Dismantling international oversight, beginning with the OHR, is the next step in removing what institutional guardrails remain.
Rather than respond with urgency, U.S. and EU officials continue to prioritize working with entrenched leaders for the supposed “stability” they provide. But by failing to impose real costs on nationalist politicians, these leaders are only emboldened (Dodik has been under U.S. sanctions since 2017 to little effect, and the European Union has yet to sanction him). Escobar’s visit this month followed this pattern: though he presented his meeting with Dodik as positive and tried to focus the conversation on economic growth, political tensions were not abated. In fact, Dodik contradicted the official U.S. account in a press conference after the meeting. The current policy solutions on offer risk aggravating the country’s problems. This was all too clear last month when U.S. special envoy for electoral reform Matthew Palmer, and Angelina Eichhorst, managing director for Europe at the EU’s External Action Service, traveled to Sarajevo to push a plan for electoral reform that would only further entrench the country’s ethno-territorial divisions.
A lack of real punishment for Dodik’s destabilizing actions will only further encourage nationalists who would see Bosnia’s post-Dayton constitution torn apart. Although a full-scale war is unlikely, smaller outbreaks of violence are possible, particularly if the Republika Srpska continues to orchestrate drills similar to those from October. Working in tandem with European partners, the United States must swiftly impose costs and consequences for Dodik’s actions—and those who aid and abet them. As other analysts have pointed out, further sanctions on Dodik and his inner circle, and reinforcements to EUFOR’s peacekeeping force are badly needed. On Tuesday, November 9, Escobar confirmed sanctions and other economic measures are on the table and may extend to companies closely associated with the Republika Srpska government. And U.S. secretary of state Anthony Blinken echoed this sentiment in a letter to members of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency this week, stating, “As a signing witness of the Dayton Peace Accords, the United States reiterates that moves to unilaterally withdraw from state-level institutions or otherwise destabilize the DPA will be met with appropriate action, including the consideration of sanctions.” The question is, when will they be implemented?
Earlier this year, the Biden administration made clear its intention to sanction actors who undermine democratic institutions and post-war peace agreements in the Western Balkans. The region has made its way back onto the agenda of several of the president’s meetings with European leaders, most recently with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. But an immediate transatlantic policy reboot for Bosnia and the entire Western Balkans is needed. Although the region’s Euro-Atlantic integration has clearly stalled, there has been no policy adjustment to address the implications of this fact. One need only look at the instability facing Zoran Zaev’s pro-EU and reformist government in North Macedonia to understand the consequences. In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic is testing boundaries as well, sending tanks and military jets to its border with Kosovo. Bosnia is the latest, and most perilous, test of Western resolve.
Dejana Saric is a research assistant with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program. Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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