For 23 years, peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina has been monitored by the United Nations, via a High Representative who embodies the international community’s desire to keep this multiethnic country from backsliding into violence.
But Valentin Inzko, the seventh person to hold the High Representative’s post, worries that the carefully constructed peace here is starting to unravel. He told The Globe and Mail that stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina is now on a “downward trajectory,” with the slide accelerating significantly over the past 12 months.
Part of Mr. Inzko’s concern is that institutions such as NATO and the European Union that were supposed to help guard the peace have shifted their focus to internal problems as well as to crises in Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere. Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey have significantly increased their involvement in this fragile country.
Mr. Inzko, whose post comes with viceroy powers that allow him to dismiss governments, puts most of the blame on Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republic of Srpska, a Bosnian Serb mini-state that sits awkwardly inside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Mr. Dodik − who has repeatedly hailed Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic as “heroes” despite their status as convicted war criminals − raised tensions earlier this year by buying 2,500 automatic rifles for his police force.
“They’re not even trying to hide it. President Dodik is openly speaking about an army for the Republic of Srpska,” Mr. Inzko said in an interview at the UN office in Sarajevo, a city where many buildings still bear the scars of the 44-month siege it endured as Bosnian Serb militias encircled the city and pounded it with artillery fire. “He wants to have 6,000 [automatic rifles] for his 6,000 policemen. To put that in context, Slovenia, a sovereign state, has only 5,000 soldiers.”
Mr. Dodik has also promised to hold a referendum on independence for the Republic of Srpska, which would be particularly provocative since it was a 1992 declaration of “independence” by the Republic of Srpska’s first president, Mr. Karadzic, that set in motion almost four years of multisided fighting that left some 100,000 people dead and introduced the term “ethnic cleansing” to the international vocabulary.
Mr. Karadzic is now serving a life sentence in The Hague after being convicted as a war criminal for his role in the violence that followed, including the massacre of more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica.
The Republic of Srpska, one of two entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina − the other is a federation of the country’s Muslims and Croats − has existed since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, a ceasefire accord drawn up under U.S. pressure and sponsorship.
Two political entities make up Bosnia-
Herzegovina: the Federation of Bosnia and
Herzegovina, a federation of the country’s
Muslims and Croats; the Republic of Srpska,
a Bosnian Serb mini-state. Brcko is a self-
governing administrative unit.
BOSNIA – HERZEGOVINA
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;
OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU
Two political entities make up Bosnia-Herzegovina:
the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a federation of
the country’s Muslims and Croats; the Republic of Srpska,
a Bosnian Serb mini-state. Brcko is a self-governing
BOSNIA – HERZEGOVINA
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN;
OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU
Two political entities make up Bosnia-Herzegovina: the Federation of Bosnia and
Herzegovina, a federation of the country’s Muslims and Croats; the Republic of Srpska,
a Bosnian Serb mini-state. Brcko is a self-governing administrative unit.
BOSNIA – HERZEGOVINA
THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: TILEZEN; OPENSTREETMAP CONTRIBUTORS; HIU
In an interview with The Globe, Mr. Dodik scoffed at the idea that 2,500 automatic rifles − which he purchased from neighbouring Serbia − were any kind of threat to the country’s stability. He accused Mr. Inzko, whose 2009 appointment was approved by the UN Security Council, of demonizing Bosnian Serbs in order to keep his post and his six-figure salary.
At one point, Mr. Dodik said he would only continue the interview if The Globe agreed to record that he called the UN High Representative “a jerk” who “advocates for Muslim interests.”
Mr. Dodik did not set out a precise timeline for holding a referendum. But he boasted of his close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said that he believes Bosnian Serbs have a window of opportunity − one that may only last a few years − to pursue their ambitions of independence while the international agenda is being set by Mr. Putin and another world leader he openly admires: U.S. President Donald Trump.
“Trump is excellent and so is Putin. … I think that if they have freedom to organize the world, it would be in the service of stability,” Mr. Dodik said, speaking in a meeting room inside the granite-walled presidential palace in Banja Luka, the tidy capital of the Republic of Srpska.
“I’m not in favour of any sort of violence, but I’m sure that Bosnia-Herzegovina will persist only until the moment that it breaks down by itself,” he said. “The only thing that can function alone in Bosnia-Herzegovina is the Republic of Srpska.”
Mr. Dodik said the Dayton Agreement was an imposed settlement, and one that can’t last.
“This is an artificial situation that we’re in,” said Mr. Dodik, adding that he would soon travel to St. Petersburg to meet Mr. Putin for a seventh time in less than three years. “Most people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, most Serbs and Croats are not in favour of this Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
The return of Russian − and Turkish − influence is the most significant change in the Balkans since Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.
Peace in the region has been maintained since then by the carrot of possible membership in the European Union, and the stick of U.S. military might.
With the EU struggling to deal with Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the union − as well as the internal divisions caused by the influx of more than 1.5 million refugees and migrants from the Middle East and beyond − it’s no longer clear whether the carrot is still on offer. At a May 18 summit between EU and Balkan leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered the message that the EU needed to focus on deepening ties between its 27 post-Brexit members before it could consider further expansion.
Meanwhile, Mr. Trump has said almost nothing about the Balkans since coming to office, leading some to conclude that stick may have disappeared at the same time as the carrot. Into that void have stepped two strongmen hoping to regain their countries’ historic spheres of influence: Mr. Putin, who seeks to capitalize on the centuries-old friendship between Russia and Serbia, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who wants Bosnians to recall that their country was once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Personally, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan have oscillated between warm friendship and heated rivalry over the 15 years the two men have held power in Moscow and Ankara. What they now share is resentment of the West − Mr. Putin’s Kremlin is locked in a sanctions war with the United States and the EU, while Mr. Erdogan believes some Western leaders supported a 2016 coup plot against him − as well as a desire to redraw the international order.
“Erdogan and Putin recognize the Balkans as a very easy and a very cheap place to screw around with,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, a fellow at the EastWest Institute, a New York-based international affairs think tank.
“You can go in and create all sorts of problems, you can promote these village goons to warlords, and create these crises that the U.S. and the EU will be forced to solve. What we all need to remember is that playing with fire gets out of hand − particularly in Bosnia.”
Turning to the Turks
While Mr. Dodik was making plans to visit St. Petersburg this week, Bakir Izetbegovic, who currently holds the rotating presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, was welcoming his own foreign patron to Sarajevo.
As Mr. Dodik has turned toward Russia and Mr. Putin, Mr. Izetbegovic, the leader of Bosnia’s Muslims − known as Bosniaks − has turned toward Turkey and Mr. Erdogan.
The scale of Turkey’s influence over the Bosniak community, already evident in the numerous Turkish-built mosques that stretch over Sarajevo and other cities, was thrust onto European television screens on Sunday. Fifteen thousand people cheered a campaign-style speech by the Turkish leader and rhythmically chanted “Re-cep Tay-yip Er-do-gan” in an arena that was used to host the hockey and figure-skating events of the 1984 Winter Olympics.
“There is a leader here, and he has been sent by God. His name is Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” Mr. Izetbegovic told the crowd in welcoming the Turkish President to the stage.
Mr. Erdogan is almost as unpopular in Western Europe as Mr. Putin. Though Turkey is a NATO member, the country finds itself increasingly at odds with the rest of the alliance over both the war in Syria and Mr. Erdogan’s warm relationship with Mr. Putin. Turkey under Mr. Erdogan’s rule has not only become an authoritarian state that tolerates little dissent; many in Europe now view it as a threat to Europe’s values and security through the sway Mr. Erdogan holds over a vast Turkish diaspora that lives inside the EU.
In a rebuff seen as directed at Mr. Erdogan personally, Turkish politicians were banned from rallying in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands − the three EU states with the largest Turkish diasporas − ahead of a June 24 election in Turkey. And so Mr. Erdogan, who is expected to be re-elected to another five-year term and given even wider presidential powers, descended with his followers on Sarajevo.
Most concerning, for some, was the lack of respect that Mr. Erdogan and his entourage displayed for the fragile state institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Security and accreditation for the event were handled by the Turkish side, rather than the Bosnian one. Several sources in Sarajevo told The Globe that the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina was only made aware of Mr. Erdogan’s planned visit after it was announced by Ankara.
“Bosnia-Herzegovina is like a duty-free shop − anyone can enter it,” said Vehid Sehic, a veteran human-rights activist. In addition to rallying Europe’s Turks, Mr. Erdogan had lent improper support, Mr. Sehic said, to Mr. Izetbegovic ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s own elections, which are scheduled for October.
Speaking to The Globe just before Mr. Erdogan’s rally, Mr. Dodik said he wasn’t bothered by the Turkish President’s visit. With a smile, he suggested that he might soon invite Mr. Putin or Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic to hold a mass rally in Banja Luka.
Mr. Dodik has already received controversial foreign guests this year in the form of the Night Wolves, a Russian biker gang headed by a close friend of Mr. Putin’s. The leader of the Night Wolves was put on Canadian and American sanctions lists after members of the group were alleged to have been involved in Russia’s 2014 seizure and annexation of Crimea. Their visit to Banja Luka − supposedly intended to build bonds with their fellow Orthodox Christians − was widely viewed as a symbol of the Kremlin’s growing interest in the Republic of Srpska.
The potential for more tit-for-tat escalation worries many in the Balkans.
In an interview, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Foreign Minister Igor Crnadak said he had “unofficial information” suggesting that Mr. Dodik’s purchase of automatic rifles had led to “requests for the purchase of a significant number of guns” by local police forces in other parts of the country.
“I do not think that this will escalate to a security problem where these guns are used to again shoot at people here. But psychologically, politically, we need to move to a time when we don’t talk about guns, let alone buy them,” said Mr. Crnadak, who is a political rival of Mr. Dodik’s.
Bogic Bogicevic was Bosnia-Herzegovina’s representative on the eight-member presidency of Yugoslavia as the multinational socialist state violently disintegrated in 1992. He sees some disturbing parallels between now and then, particularly the sharp rise in nationalist rhetoric by local politicians, and the growing interference of outside powers.
“For citizens of the region and particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina, the situation is very dangerous. We have a saying: ‘Where the big guys play, the little people are the casualties.’”
The lines that divide Bosnia-Herzegovina are almost invisible. One moment, the banners alongside the highway are the blue-and-gold national flag. A short drive later, the only colours on display are the red-blue-and-white flags associated with both the Republic of Srpska and neighbouring Serbia.
Local residents don’t need the flags to tell them where the lines are. Of the slightly more than one million citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina who identify themselves as ethnic Serbs, almost 95 per cent live in the Republic of Srpska. Outside the Republic of Srpska, the country’s Bosniaks and Croats also largely keep to themselves, living most of their lives in homogeneous enclaves − nearly all Muslim in one town, nearly all Catholic and Croat in the next.
The European Union was supposed to be the solution. The chance to join the bloc was supposed to convince Bosnia’s ex-antagonists to get along, and nudge neighbouring Serbia to eventually recognize the independence of Kosovo, which Belgrade still regards as a renegade province. Once all the countries of the former Yugoslavia were inside the EU, it wouldn’t matter so much where Serbia ended and Bosnia or Kosovo began.
But after Brexit − and the divisions in Europe revealed by the refugee/migrant crisis − many in the Balkans feel EU membership is farther away than ever. Slovenia was accepted in 2004, as was Croatia nine years later, but the other six ex-Yugoslav states are on the outside looking in for the foreseeable future.
“Realistically, joining the EU is not even close to possible,” said Milan Culibrk, editor-in-chief of NIN, a prominent weekly magazine in Serbia. “The EU doesn’t need new problems − they have enough problems of their own without the Western Balkans.”
It’s also unclear whether the security guarantees that NATO once provided still apply in 2018. Following the signing of the Dayton Agreement, 60,000 NATO troops − including 1,500 Canadians − were deployed to Bosnia to enforce the peace.
The Balkans were knocked off the top of the security agenda by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. In the aftermath, the United States shifted its focus to the Middle East and informally left the Balkans in the care of the EU. The NATO mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina ended in 2004.
While the EU has done an admirable job helping to rebuild infrastructure, it doesn’t have a discernible security policy for the region, and no apparent plan to counter the growing Russian and Turkish influence.
Russia, in particular, has been accused of supporting and training nationalist Serb paramilitary groups made up of veterans of the 1990s wars.
Branislav Okuka, the leader of a Serb nationalist formation called Fatherland and Honour, said that his group brought together 17,000 former Yugoslav police officers, all of them ethnic Serbs. The burly and nearly bald policeman said the group’s aim was to “preserve the Republic of Srpska” from those who want to create a unitary Bosnia-Herzegovina. When the moment is right, he said, the Republic of Srpska should declare independence, since no Serb could ever live under Muslim rule.
But Mr. Okuka said that neither Fatherhood and Honour, nor its sister organization Serbian Honour, had weapons. He said it was natural that Serbian nationalists received support from Russia, since the West supports Serbia’s opponents in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Mr. Okuka insisted that if conflict did come back to the Balkans, it wouldn’t be the Serbs who started it. “All wars in the Balkans are created by someone somewhere else. Almost always, the main aim is to change the ethnic and cultural structure of the region.”
Aleksandr Radic, a military analyst based in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, called groups such as Fatherland and Honour part of a “Russian special operation” that he sees unfolding in the Balkans.
Mr. Radic said that while Russia currently wields wide influence over both Serbia and the Republic of Srpska, that clout would diminish if Serbia and Kosovo were to come to a peaceful settlement, or Bosnian Serbs were to grow comfortable with their place inside Bosnia-Herzegovina. “ For Russia, it is maybe the last chance for them to hit the stability of the EU. This is the game. Russia has a window of time to prepare their operation,” he said.
Dusan Janjic, the president of the Forum for Ethnic Relations, a non-government organization based in Belgrade, said a war like the one that tore Bosnia-Herzegovina apart in the 1990s was no longer possible, largely because the various sides didn’t have access to the kind of weaponry that they did when Yugoslavia − and the Yugoslav People’s Army − fell apart.
But Mr. Janjic said both Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina were at risk of being dragged into the kind of conflict Ukraine has seen since 2014, when armed pro-Russian fighters − after the annexation of Crimea − began seizing swaths of territory in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbass region and declaring independent “people’s republics.” More than 10,000 people have since died in four years of low-level fighting.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Serb fighters have fought on the pro-Russian side in that conflict, creating worries that they might try to import those tactics to Serb-dominated northern Kosovo or the Republic of Srpska. “Donbass is the model,” Mr. Janjic said.
‘Pravda’ and protest
Dayton delivered a respite from war for the past 23 years, but the jobs and development required to cement the peace never followed.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is plagued by a staggering 39-per-cent unemployment rate, a number that’s said to be near 60 per cent among young people. In the Republic of Srpska, the economy is even worse.
An entire generation has grown up after the war, and while these youths are unburdened by the traumatic memories that haunt their parents and grandparents, they nonetheless feel the old pull of their ethnic and religious communities.
“You see the divisions from the lowest level to the highest level. You see coffee shops that are divided. One counter for one community, the other for the other. You know which one to go to,” said Vahida Martinovic, a 26-year-old teacher from Stolac, a town in the country’s south that is deeply divided between its Bosniak and Croat communities.
Ms. Martinovic said she has struggled to find a teaching job because she, as a Bosniak, has refused to join Mr. Izetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action.
History, she said, is taught different ways to the different communities, with Muslims, Croats and Serbs all teaching their children their own versions of what happened in the 1990s. Each side is taught that the other groups were the aggressors. None hear about the violence committed by their own side.
The systemic barriers have driven waves of talented Bosnian youths of all ethnicities to leave the country and pursue their careers elsewhere.
There are nonetheless signs that Bosnia-Herzegovina’s new generation may be ready to take change into its own hands.
Every night since March, hundreds, sometimes thousands, of residents − most of them young − gather on Banja Luka’s main square for an hour and a half to raise their fists and chant for “pravda.” Justice.
The crowds, originally, were only seeking the truth about the March 18 death of David Dragicevic, a 21-year-old who police say accidentally drowned that night. Photographs of Mr. Dragicevic’s bruise-covered face convinced many in Banja Luka that the young man died after some kind of altercation involving either the police, or someone with connections to Mr. Dodik’s regime.
The nightly “pravda” rallies − which are remarkable for focusing on issues of governance and civil society, rather than ethnic grievance − have touched a nerve with other youths in the region. The protests recently spread to Sarajevo, where they have been led by the friends and family of Dzenan Memic, a Bosniak who died under comparable circumstances in 2016.
“It’s still about David’s case, but what we’re trying to stop − it’s larger than him,” said 20-year-old Emilija Zebic, who described herself as David’s best friend. “People woke up after 20-plus years to realize what the regime is doing to us.”
What happens next
Mr. Dodik says he considers the “pravda” protests taking part in his capital city to be a plot against his rule, another sign that foreign powers are dead set against him and his mini-state. He claims that George Soros, the billionaire American financier and philanthropist who has become the bogeyman of authoritarian rulers everywhere − including Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan − is financing the nightly protests in Banja Luka.
The West, and specifically NATO, is intent on destroying the Republic of Srpska, Mr. Dodik said, and taking away the police force he has built to protect his people. Part of the plot, he said, involved the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was based in The Hague and which convicted leading Serbs − including Mr. Karadzic and General Mladic − of war crimes, but acquitted some of the most prominent Bosniaks and Croats who were brought before it.
The Hague tribunal “wasn’t proved to be objective,” Mr. Dodik said in the interview. In public statements, he has hailed Mr. Karadzic as the founder of the mini-state he now leads and for which he seeks independence. “The Serbs will never, ever accept − and please don’t expect it − the collective guilt put on us,” he told The Globe.
Such talk only amplifies the worries of the UN High Representative. Mr. Inzko says he has seen a disconcerting rise in the “glorification” of Bosnian Serb war criminals.
Two years ago, Mr. Dodik applauded as a student dormitory in a Serb-dominated suburb of Sarajevo was named after Mr. Karadzic. Last year, Mr. Dodik banned textbooks that taught about the siege of Sarajevo and Srebrenica. “It’s not true and it will not be studied here,” he told local media.
Mr. Inzko hopes Mr. Dodik’s provocative moves will raise alarm in the international community and remind the world what’s at stake in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“If the Republic of Srpska were to become an independent state, it would mean that ethnic killing and genocide pays. It would be a big reward for Karadzic and Mladic in The Hague, for them to know that their project worked.