Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader, has essentially threatened secession with his statements on October 8th that the Serb Republic will remove itself from Bosnia and Herzegovina’s armed forces, top judiciary body, and tax administration. Dodik has also said that the Serb Republic will recreate its army in the process. Dodik’s announcements violate the U.S.-led Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War in 1995 and stipulated that the once warring groups would be one sovereign country.
Bosnia and Herzegovina has been politically unstable, though still a somewhat functional democracy since the Dayton Accords. This instability is partly due to the state’s tripartite political system, which consists of three different presidents representing the three major ethnoreligious groups in the country. The country consists of the Serb Republic, predominantly populated by Orthodox Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which houses Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. Bosnia and Herzegovina has applied for membership in the European Union (EU) multiple times; however, the EU has denied accession until key reforms relating to democracy and the rule of law, among others, are implemented.
If Dodik puts his announcements into action and the Serb Republic secedes from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the implications are far-reaching. On a national level, secession is highly likely to lead to conflict once again, this time with Dodik backed by Russia and Serbia. Serbian nationalist rhetoric surged in the Balkans as of late, which helps cause Bosnia and Herzegovina’s internal tensions.
The Balkans is becoming disillusioned with the EU, much to China and Russia’s benefit. Bosnia and Herzegovina has faced repeated denial of accession in the EU. The EU also failed to provide much-needed vaccines at the onset of the coronavirus in the region, and Russia and China asserted influence by supplying the vaccines instead. Russia’s support of Dodik and desire to undermine the Dayton Agreement is less to do with ethnic ties to Serbs and more to do with strategic interests in the region. China and Russia’s main benefit from supporting the Serbian secession is pulling Bosnia and Herzegovina further away from Western influence. Russia hopes to keep Slavic and Balkan nations out of the EU and NATO (1). China has developed strong economic relations with Balkans countries over the last few decades and wants to continue to assert influence. This desire is the main reason why Russia and China have refused to acknowledge the Deputy High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt. Schmidt represents the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the body responsible for implementing the Dayton Accords. Objecting to the deputy High Representative’s appointment is one way in which Dodik, Russia, and China are seeking to undermine the OHR and the Dayton Accords. Leaders in the United States and European Union have thus far taken a strategy of appeasement rather than directly condemning the illegal actions of Dodik and his supporters, which further undermines Western legitimacy and claims of democracy. These factors are making Eastern allyships more enticing to countries in the Balkans, especially in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The EU has failed to deliver on its promises again and again. Russia and China have strategically filled those gaps, and now their opinions hold more weight in the Balkans.
In summary, Bosnia and Herzegovina will, at worst, spiral into a conflict like what occurred in the breakup of Yugoslavia. At best, the Serb Republic will not secede, but Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fragile democratic setup, Serbian nationalist dialogue, and the EU’s slothful response will cause ethnoreligious tensions to continue. In both cases, Russia and China will continue to seek influence in the region as they attempt to make themselves indispensable actors in the Balkans and pull it away from its initial European aims.
The Balkans are moving further away from Europe, not only in attitudes but also in development. Increased Russian and Chinese influence in the on-the-fence Balkans region could prove catastrophic in the long term for the United States in terms of global democratization and NATO security agreements. The US and EU member states can aid Bosnia and Herzegovina in democratic development, but they have remained stalled in their motivation to do so. US diplomats have already criticized Dodik’s statements and actions, but neither the US nor the EU has taken enough steps to mediate tensions and resolve the problem. Addressing economic and developmental challenges will close the gap and allow the Balkans to feel more of a kinship with the EU, prevent China from further economic development in the region, and stall Russia’s anti-NATO and anti-EU agenda. There is no need for military intervention or strong language now. Instead, Western leaders could focus on careful diplomatic actions and relationships while avoiding appeasement to threats. The aim could lead Bosnia and Herzegovina toward EU membership sooner rather than later.