Super Election Year May Hold Key to Bosnia’s Fate

Milorad Dodik has threatened to go for Bosnian Serb independence for years – but with Western political elites distracted by serial elections in 2024, the fears is that he’s about to get serious.
On Thursday, Bosnia and Herzegovina received long-awaited good news, as EU leaders finally approved the opening of accession negotiations.

But Bosnia may already find itself in a new and dangerous crisis if the Office of the High Representative, OHR,imposes expected changes to the country’s election law.

Pressed by the US, the OHR was planning to impose this law by the end of the last year, but the president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, RS, and leader of its ruling SNSD party,Milorad Dodik, warned that in that case RS would adopt its own election law.

The EU pressed the OHR to at least postpone this intervention until after March 21, to give Bosnia a chance to open negotiations with the EU.

According to legal and election experts, an RS election law would collide with state-level election legislation, which would delay or even block the holding of upcoming local or other future elections.

This may be what Dodik wants, since in that situation he would be able to organise separate local elections in October only for Republika Srpska.

Holding separate, illegal elections in only one part of the country would effectively mean a political, legal and administrative breakup of the country, which could then lead to new ethnic violence

Bosnian Serbs are not the only ones to blame

Dodik has been threatening the RS’s independence since 2006, when he came back to power in the RS, and he has been preparing political and legal ground for this for years.

But Dodik is not the only culprit for the gradual dissolution of Bosnia and its 1995 Dayton peace accord in the past 15 to 20 years. Consciously or not, Bosniak and Bosnian Croat politicians also contributed to this process by focusing on their own personal or political party interests, and by pursuing myopic, corrupt, populist and/or nationalist policies.

The OHR, the EU, the US and other international actors and organisations bear their part of responsibility too.

NATO helped Dodik, then a young and moderate politician, to come to power in early 1997. US officials blocked corruption charges against him in 2005, and then denied support to High Representative Christian Schwartz-Schilling when he prepared to remove Dodik from politics, when he started to use nationalist and separatist rhetoric in his pre-election campaign in 2006.

Despite clear signals that Bosnia’s post-war reforms were slowing down and that some of its politicians were reverting back to nationalism and populism, the US abandoned its hands-on approach and left it to the EU to deal with many unresolved Balkan issues through its enlargement process.

The EU, however, fumbled the accession process, which gradually lost popular support in EU member states after the 2009 global recession, the UK’s BREXIT referendum, the start of the migrant crisis in 2016, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

A weakened US presence and the failure of EU enlargement in the Balkans enabled Russia, China, Turkey and other external actors to establish new, or revive old partnerships with different ethnic groups in the region.

These foreign influences infused growing geopolitical quarrels into already tense local and regional politics, exacerbating parallel crises in the Balkans.

West fails key test in 2016

Dodik understood early on that the West was backing away from its obligations to defend the Dayton peace accord, by force, if necessary.

The key test was the illegal referendum Dodik organised in September 2016 against the ruling of Bosnia’s Constitutional Court and strong Western objections, establishing January 9 as the National Day of Republika Srpska.

In recent years, he went further and started ignoring, mocking or challenging OHR decisions, as well as US and EU requests.

Emboldened by the absence of concrete US and EU reactions, Dodik challenged the legality of Bosnia’s new High Representative, Christian Schmidt, who took office in August 2021, claiming that Schmidt was appointed illegally since he was not approved by the UN Security Council like most other High Representatives, due to Russian objections.

Dodik ignored the fact that Security Council endorsement is not required for the appointment of High Representatives and that Schwarz-Schilling was also not endorsed when he was appointed in 2005. Back then, the Security Council simply forgot to vote on his appointment.

Since last summer Dodik has escalated his separatist drive, initiating a number of controversial laws, which were than adopted by the RS National Assembly, undermining the OHR and Bosnia’s Constitutional Court.

Many pundits warn that these laws have created two parallel, divergent legal systems in the country, effectively representing the beginning of a breakup. Different legal environments have also created a possibility for incidents between the state police and RS police, following different legal instructions.

Response to Dodik: too little, too late?

The OHR ignored Dodik’s challenges and imposed a few more decisions, which were also mostly disregarded by the RS, thus deepening legal and political chaos.

Meanwhile, the US stepped up political pressure as well as travel and economic sanctions that were eventually joined by the EU. In recent weeks it became obvious that these sanctions have indeed inflicted economic damage on Dodik and the RS.

On March 16, Dodik announced he was closing all of his accounts in RS banks to save them from potential Western sanctions. He called upon other sanctioned RS officials to do the same.

In the meantime, the EU finally intensified its enlargement efforts. It approved Bosnia’s candidate status in December 2022 and awarded Kosovo a visa-free regime as of January 2024 – eight years after Kosovo fulfilled all conditions required for that.

The EU also put together a new, more concrete incentive, the so-called “Growth package” that would offer Balkan countries over 6 billion euro in grants and loans, possibly as of this summer.

It has also worked closely with Bosnia’s state governments and its weak, divided but still operational ruling coalition, helping it to adopt a few reform laws.

The US, however, became increasingly opposed to these watered-down reforms, deepening divisions between the US and EU officials.

This has undermined the bloc of Bosniak parties in the ruling coalition, which have continued negotiating with Dodik despite his continued separatist narratives.

Regardless of possible new EU funds, or US and EU sanctions, Dodik seems determined to press on with his separatist politics. Several senior RS officials have said Dodik is ready to finalize the push for Republika Srpska’s independence by the end of 2024 or early 2025.

Adoption of a RS election law could be a key stepping-stone in the implementation of Dodik’s years-long plan. Having in mind that the RS is unable to service its external debt and domestic obligations and is inching closer to a default, secession may also be Dodik’s short-term fallback option, or exit strategy.

Turmoil across Balkans not limited to Bosnia

RS sources say Dodik would still prefer to wait for the end of this year, or early next year, to see the outcome of the European Parliament and US Presidential elections. He seems to be hoping that the expected victories of conservative forces will create a new political environment in the West that would be more open to unilateral, non-democratic solutions to Bosnia’s and Balkan unresolved issues.

This geopolitical shift would also likely affect the rest of the Balkans, which has been sinking deeper into ethno-political turmoil over the years.

For the past few years, both the Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaderships have been building a notion of a “Serbian world” – a new name for the old idea of “Greater Serbia” – which would enable all Serbs to live within the same borders.

Meanwhile Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, seems to be trying to match the Serb nationalist drive and create an “Albanian world,” which would unite all ethnic Albanians in the region within the same borders.

As of recently, Kurti has expanded his political clout to Albania as well as to ethnic Albanian communities in North Macedonia and is openly clashing with Albania’s PM Edi Rama for the position of the all-Albanian leader.

Squeezed between Albanian, Croatian and Serbian nation states and their renewed nationalist drives, the Balkans’ three remaining multi-ethnic countries – Bosnia, Montenegro and North Macedonia – all face new-old internal ethno-political divisions and are struggling to survive in an increasingly mono-ethnic region.

These troubles could be exacerbated in the course of the super-election year of 2024. In addition to the European Parliament and US presidential elections, the region is bracing for presidential, parliamentarian and/or local elections in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Crunch time is approaching fast

In this situation, the OHR, the US and EU seem poised to continue their “business-as-usual” approach to Bosnia’s troubles.

The OHR appears focused on imposing new decisions which the RS will ignore. The US will likely continue increasing political and financial pressure on Dodik, which he will probably challenge.

The EU seems determined to push on with its reinvigorated enlargement process, probably hoping that new “carrots” and endless technical negotiations will preoccupy Dodik and other Bosnian politicians enough to get through at least this year.

An alternative option, which could probably calm down the situation in Bosnia, at least temporarily, would be if US political pressure on Serbian President Vucic finally bore some fruit and Vucic somehow persuaded Dodik to voluntarily withdraw from the political scene.

But that scenario sounds more like a fairytale, while adoption of a new RS election law – as a likely reaction to the expected OHR intervention – seems a more realistic scenario.

Adoption of this law would certainly force the OHR to ponder further use of its executive powers, maybe even including dismissing the RS President from office. However, Dodik has already warned that he would ignore that decision and that Bosnia’s High Representative or someone else would have to come and personally remove him from behind his desk.

In this situation, Schmidt would have little other option but to call on NATO to ensure implementation of his decisions.

However, most Western diplomats privately agree that in their capitals there is no interest in any new military intervention in Bosnia, especially in this super election year.

Yet if NATO fails to respond to possible OHR calls for assistance, that would undoubtfuly confirm that the Dayton peace accord and its support structure has collapsed.

NATO’s reluctance to ensure implementation of OHR’s decisions would also render any further OHR decisions – or even the OHR’s continued existence – pointless.

Therefore, 26 years after it was signed, the Dayton peace agreement seems to be on the verge of final collapse. This scenario, paired with another possible attempt of a breakup of Bosnia and Herzegovina would increase local and regional ethnic and political tensions and could potentially lead to renewed ethnic violence, as in the 1990s.

While local politicians may bear most of the blame for this situation, this crisis cannot be resolved internally, since divergent regional and geopolitical developments keep pushing it towards a new escalation.

Since NATO, the US and the EU are still the official witnesses and protectors of the Dayton peace accord, it is up to them to finally state whether they are still up to the job or not.

After 26 years of failed experiments and crushed hopes, some Bosnians go as far as to say that if the West is unable or unwilling to do its job, it would be fairer and maybe even better if they publicly renounced their guardianship and let locals play out their games anyway they can.

Some hope the local politicians would then have to become more accountable, if there are no more external actors to hide behind, or play with. Others fear that, without NATO, the US and EU, Bosnia could eventually slide towards another conflict.

One way or the other, it seems that Bosnia’s fate will finally be revealed in the super election year.

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