MS Risk Blog

Bosnia Teetering on the Precipice of War

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In 1992, war broke out in Bosnia. Muslim Bosniaks fought against Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. The fall of Yugoslavia left the region in turmoil with each party vying for power and their own plot of land, but Bosnia had a pretty even balance of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. In February 1992 the Serb majority in the country decided to boycott a referendum and reject its outcome and instead created their own constitution of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Following Bosnia’s declaration of independence that year, the Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadžić and supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milošević mobilised their forces inside Bosnia in order to secure their ethnic territory. In doing so they kicked off a war that would take hundreds of thousands of lives and be characterised by bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of towns and cities, war crimes and ethnic cleansing.

The scars of the war 30 years ago still run deep in the region today, but yet again teeters on the edge of a cliff that could see the Bosnia return to war. Milorad Dodik in the Serb Bosnian dominated Republika Srpska has been vying for more autonomy for his people for years. He wants to abandon Bosnia’s institutions, the security forces, the judiciary system and the tax system, in doing so he would be leaving the region on high alert. At the start of December he led a vote at the parliament for the Republika Srpska in which 48 out of a possible 83 seats in parliament voted to withdrawe from the institutions.

Dodik said that the vote was “the moment of conquering the freedom for Republika Srpska” and that “Bosnia is an experiment… I don’t believe it can survive because it does not have the internal capacity to survive.” Now the vote has been passed the regional government should now draft new laws on the military, judiciary system and tax system to replace state laws. Dodik also wants to roll back on all reforms made after the war and return to the 1995 constitution under which the state was represented by basic institutions only while all powers had belonged to the regions.

In a joint statement, the embassies of the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy as well as an EU delegation said that the parliamentary motion was a “Further escalation”. More recently the US has imposed sanctions on Dodik for corruption and threatening the stability and integrity of Bosnia.

However, the motion continues to threaten the region’s delicate peace. In the days around the Orthodox Christmas, nationalists, encouraged by their leader’s rhetoric, provoked Muslim neighbourhoods, shot guns near mosques during prayers and sang nationalist songs glorifying convicted war criminals during street parades. Some days later, Bosnian Serbs celebrated the day in 1992 when they declared their independence, triggering the Bosnian War, with a parade of armed police forces in direct defiance of a court ban and the US sanctions. Dodik has been using racial slurs against Muslim Bosniaks, degrading them to a religious group without ethnic identity and ascribing them the “colonial mentality”. All of which only adds fuel to an already deteriorating situation in the country as ethnic lines grow further apart once again.

Dodik has dismissed the threat of the EU and US sanctions claiming that he has spoken with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin who offers his help. With the EU sanctions, Dodik has suggested they only push him closer to  China and its investments claiming that, like Putin, China’s President Xi Jinping is all but happy to help. Dodik claims he was not elected “to be a coward” and with the backing of Russia and China, we could see him further stretch his secessionist motions. Along with close ties to Serbia itself, Dodik feels he has some powerful allies behind whom he can shelter against these sanctions and further his movements towards an independent Serb state in Bosnia.

If secession does happen, Dodik will have both Russia and Serbia to call in for immediate help. Serbia itself has very close ties with Russia and they continue to do arms deals with the most recent being a shipment of 9M133 Kornet anti-tank missiles with more to come later in the year. Last year in November Serbia procured 30 T-72MS tanks and 30 BRDM-2MS armoured personnel carriers. From 2018 to 2020, Russia donated four Mi-35M helicopters, six MiG-29 fighter jets, 10 BRDM-2 amphibious armoured scout cars, three Mi-17V-5 transport helicopters, and Pantsir-S1 air-defence missile-gun system to Serbia as military technical assistance.

Serbia has also been accused, on various occasions, of attempting to destabilise the region, especially with attempts towards neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Should war break out in Bosnia, Serbia, with the backing of Russia, would be perfectly placed to aid Dodik in securing Serb lands. The last thing the EU or the US wants is for there to be another blood-filled war in Europe, and so Dodik currently has a choice; continue with his secession attempts with the threat of war increasingly likely and intervention from the EU and US in which, like the first time, thousands might die, or attempt to work with the EU and the Bosnian government to find a peaceful resolution to the situation. Either way, Dodik has expressed his desire to show his strength, and with many remembering the violence of the first Bosnian War, tensions are as high as they have ever been.