Bosnia is on the Brink of Political Disintegration

Bosnia is facing its deepest political crisis since the civil war in the 1990s.

In 1995, the United States helped broker an agreement between the waring parties known as the Dayton Accords. This agreement created a new political order in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has been an uneasy agreement, certainly tenuous at times, but it has held.

Now, the agreement is unraveling — and very quickly.

On the line to explain why and how Bosnia is on the verge of potential political disintegration is Jasmin Mujanovic, a political scientist and analyst of southeast European and international affairs.

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Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

How Does the Current Crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina Relate to its History of Conflict?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:03:31] Let me just quickly sort of address what I wanted to say right off the bat, because I think it is important actually, and I’m not just being pedantic. So first of all, the war in Bosnia Herzegovina was not a civil war. Just like the war in Ukraine today is not a civil war, right? The war in Bosnia Herzegovina certainly featured aspects of what we would, in the academic literature, refer to as a civil war or civil conflict. But Bosnia Herzegovina was invaded by the then government of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic and for a brief period also de facto by the government of Croatia under Franco Tudjam, right? Just like today, Ukraine is under occupation by the Russian Federation. That’s number one. Number two is that Bosnia Herzegovina was not created at the Dayton Peace Accords. Bosnia-Herzegovina joined the United Nations in 1992 as a sovereign and independent state. What the Dayton Accords did very significantly was that they helped usher in peace, and they reformulated Bosnia’s existing constitution. And you’re absolutely right, though, that this current moment that we find ourselves in is arguably the most significant structural, political, and ultimately also constitutional crisis, that the country finds itself in. These are the most credible threats of secession and disintegration that the country has faced since 1995. And also, I think what’s very, very alarming is that there is a kind of geopolitical component to everything that the Serb nationalist leadership in the RS entity is presently engaging in again, backed by the government of Serbia, but also increasingly Russia, and also even to some extent, elements within the Euro-Atlantic community like Hungary.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:05] So let’s dive right into it and thank you for your more accurate representation of my introduction. I do appreciate it. So, this crisis has been sparked by recent separatist moves, by that RS entity, Republika Srpska. You know, I take it there has been this undercurrent of separatism and Serb nationalism in Republika Srpska for a long time. Why is this accelerating right now? What’s happening?

Who is leading the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:05:37] So I think it’s a good question. And there’s the official line by which I mean the reasoning that the leadership in the RS, primarily Mr. Dodik, have offered.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:47] And Dodik is the head of Republika Srpska, who serves as one of those three head entities in BiH.

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:05:54] Right, so he’s technically right now a member of the tripartite state presidency. He’s the ethnic Serb member of the presidency who is elected from the territory of the RS. Technically speaking, he actually functionally doesn’t have a position in the Republika Srpska right now because he has over the span of six years, basically turned that entity into a private fiefdom. You know, that’s a completely kind of symbolic reality, right? Just like when, for instance, Mr. Medvedev was nominally the president of the Russian Federation it was widely understood that Mr. Putin ran the whole country just like he had before. So, it’s the same thing with Dodik. He doesn’t technically have a function in the Republika Srpska entity right now, but he is the guy in charge. So the official reasoning for this current secession crisis is that over the summer the outgoing High Representative, as you explained, the highest representatives, theoretically speaking, of the international community in Bosnia Herzegovina, an Austrian by the name of Valentin Inzko, imposed a so-called anti-genocide denial law which criminalizes not just negating the facts of the genocide in Bosnia Herzegovina, but also more broadly any internationally recognized war crimes or crimes against humanity, including things like the Holocaust. The Bosnian parliament had attempted to pass this law itself for many, many years, but it was systematically obstructed above all by Mr. Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party in the Bosnian parliament, and also frequently these obstruction activities were backed by their close coalition partners and the Croat nationalist HDZ party. So Mr. Inzko felt that because genocide denial had become really systemic, vulgar, gratuitous—the government of the RS was literally spending hundreds of thousands of dollars every year peddling and promoting genocide denial, negationism, revisionism, including these kind of bogus supposed international committees—as his outgoing act, he imposed this anti-genocide law and said as his successor, the German Christian Schmidt, has said, you know, this should actually be an incentive to the Bosnian parliament to create their own law. Well, Mr. Dodik said, basically, he doesn’t want to go through the institutions of the Bosnian parliament. He doesn’t want to pass this law in any capacity, so he has begun creating parallel institutions. Now what’s important to understand is that although it is certainly the case that genocide denial and genocide glorification is a very, very important feature of the kind of ideological posture and activities of Mr. Dodik’s regime, the kind of structural long-term goal, though, is the breakup of Bosnia Herzegovina. And so ultimately, Mr. Dodik has only used this anti-genocide denial law to initiate what he has been preparing the ground for, arguably since 2006, but very, very earnestly since 2014, in and around the invasion of Ukraine, actually by Russia. Which is to say, again, initiating formal secession procedures in Bosnia Herzegovina to attempt to take the RS entity out of the country.

Why is there conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:12] So it was this genocide law that was like the proximate spark, but this had been brewing for a long time, right? I mean, are there broader geopolitical forces that are enabling this move to happen now, whereas it couldn’t have happened, say, a few years ago over like another made up proximate cause?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:09:36] So it’s certainly the case that Mr. Dodik presently enjoys a tremendous amount of international backing from a kind of configuration, an axis of […], of certain international, authoritarian, and illiberal states. His most important benefactors are the government of Aleksander Vucic in Serbia and, of course, the regime of the Kremlin. Those are his two most significant backers. Increasingly, however, as I mentioned a couple of minutes ago, he has begun receiving a very significant degree of at least diplomatic, and it appears now potentially also financial, support from governments like Hungary. He has also made deep inroads with the government of China in this scheme to bring the Chinese on board with his secessionist activities. And also, he has made surprising overtures surprising perhaps to people who have not followed the Balkans for maybe since the wars of the ’90s, but unfortunately less so for those of us who keep abreast of local events, but he has made actually pretty strong overtures to the government in Zagreb and in Croatia. And that’s a pretty complicated dynamic to explain but suffice it to say that the very close relationship that he has with Croat nationalist actors in Bosnia Herzegovina is one that he has also begun essentially replicating at the international stage, which is to say, enjoying a certain kind of political, at least, protection or plausible deniability from certain elements of both the president of Croatia and to some extent, also the government of Croatia, headed by  Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:17] So is it the ultimate goal of Dodik to have Republika Srpska join Serbia? And does the Serbian government even want that headache or what that would cause internationally?

What is Republika Srpska and what are their goals?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:11:31] So it is the case that Mr. Dodik has a long-term vision, and the vision is essentially what people in the ’90s would have referred to as the idea of a Greater Serbia. The government in Serbia has a different name for this project. The term that Mr. Aleksander Vulin, who is the current minister of the interior but up until very recently was the minister of defense and is one of the closest people to Aleksander Vulcic—one of his closest associates—he refers to this as the idea of the Serbian world, which is a concept that they’re directly borrowing it from the Russians, the Russkiy Mir, the “Russian World.” It’s also, again, as I said, liberally borrowing from Slobodan Milosevic’s Greater Serbia concept, right? So, it’s this idea that the future of the Western Balkans will see the creation of a much greater and greatly expanded Serbian state, which will see the so-called unification of all ethnic Serbs in the Western Balkans. That primarily means the annexation and occupation of Eastern Bosnia Herzegovina, which is to say, the RS entity. These people also believe that they will eventually bring Montenegro back into some kind of union with Serbia. It also means that they believe that they will take over, if not the entirety of the sovereign state of Kosovo, then certainly those ethnic Serb majority areas north of the Ibar River and around Mitrovica, that they will bring those into Serbia proper and in the most extremist versions of this fantasy there’s also sometimes speculation about potentially taking parts of North Macedonia and even Croatia. So, it’s a fantastical ultranationalist.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:20] Well, you know, I was alive in the ’90s. I remember that movie, did not end well.

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:13:24] Yeah, yeah. Nobody was hoping for a sequel but here we are.

Could Republika Srpska successfully secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:29] So what would be like the mechanism by which Republika Srpska actually starts its process of removing itself, disintegrating, separating itself from Bosnia and Herzegovina? I know, as you said earlier, they’re creating some like separate state structures but is there like a potential Declaration of Independence, followed by potential fighting? I guess my first question is what would be the steps that one might expect should Dodik act on these statements that Republika Srpska will indeed declare independence and separate itself, followed by like, you know, what is the potential that armed conflict may result from it?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:14:19] So as you noted, they’ve already begun the kind of quasi-legal (I mean, they use the term legal very loosely in the sense that all of this is obviously unconstitutional and illegal) but they’re trying to create the legal veneer of a process for creating a parallel legal infrastructure or structure, I should say, before declaring independence somewhere down the road and they have these kind of somewhat fluid timelines. They’re always, kind of, doing these resolutions that they say they will then enact six months later. So, we’re in the midst of one of these kinds of moments right now, and we’re unclear what’s going to happen in about five months from now.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:56] What is an example of a parallel structure?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:14:59] So for instance, the first structure that they went about creating was a drug—which sounds very sort of banal and blasé and not particularly dangerous—but the first thing that they did was that they created a drug acquisition agency, like a government agency for the creation of drugs and medical supplies. The issue is that there already is such an agency at the Bosnian state level and so they, the government of the RS, created a law that said that they were going to initiate the creation of their own agency without actually going through the necessary legal process at the Bosnian state level and through the Bosnian Parliament to spin this body off, right? You can’t just create a parallel institution, you know, this is basic constitutional procedure, but this is the thing that they’re trying to do, right? So, they’re trying to basically say all of these things that exist at the state level, we are, as they put it, quote unquote pulling out of, which is not actually a legal thing that exists, and we are then going to create our own essentially shadow institutions. So they’ve said they’re going to pull out of the tax authority, they’re going to pull out of the armed forces, the Border Police, the Constitutional Court, and all kinds of other institutions, and that they’re going to create their own institutions that do the same thing at the entity level, which is not how the world works, but that is the project, which is why myself and others have referred to this as a process of secession in all but name, which is to say they are now a little bit careful to not say secession, but it’s very clear that this is kind of the institutional mechanism with which you would go about seceding.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:41] What about security forces? Are they in the process, or has Republika Srpska started to, you know, disassociate itself with any common security arrangements or security forces?

What security forces does Republika Srpska have to support their secessionist movement?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:16:52] Right. So, at this point, I would just remind all of the listeners that you also have to appreciate the Bosnia Herzegovina is arguably already the most decentralized state in the world, right? So, you have to understand that what we’re saying, that they’re creating parallel institutions, it really beggars belief because it’s difficult to imagine that Bosnia could be any more decentralized than it is while still remaining a single sovereign state and that’s exactly what Dodik is trying to get at, right? He’s trying to push it to the next sort of mile as it were, and that mile functionally means the dissolution of the country. Now, as far as security arrangements are concerned, Mr. Dodik has said that he does want to pull out of the armed forces, the Unified Armed Forces of Bosnia Herzegovina, but the RS entity does already have its own police and over the last 10 years or so, but very aggressively over the last six or seven years, the RS police has undergone a very, very significant what I would call para-militarization, which is to say they look less and less like a civilian police force and more and more like an armed militia. So, for those who, for instance, saw some of the scenes out of the regional capital—it’s actually not the regional capital, I should say but whatever—Banja Luka, they had this unconstitutional ceremony marking the attempted secession of the territory in 1992 under the leadership of Radovan Karadzic. They had this big parade, and they had all these people out and you saw these cordons of anti-terrorism police. When you saw those police, it’s very, very clear that they looked like a military rather than a police, and so this is the fear that they already in some ways have at least some of the, shall we say, practical capacities to, at the very least, create some very serious security incidents in Bosnia.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:44] So it also seems that in addition to this like kind of creating these parallel bureaucratic structures, there has been this sharp increase in nationalist racist rhetoric as well. As you just alluded to, there was this incident just a few days ago in which there was a celebration that was apparently banned that many people who are not Serb nationalists found to be particularly disturbing because it harkened back to like the worst of the early 1990s. Can you just maybe briefly explain or describe the tenor right now in Republika Srpska coming from those separatist leaders?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:19:26] So I think, and I will be so bold as to say, that this is a kind of, shall we say, cross-ethnic phenomenon in Bosnia Herzegovina. I think all decent people in Bosnia Herzegovina, and I would say even the region, are really horrified by the events of the weekend and this includes people in Serbia, in Montenegro, in Croatia, everyone who saw this—what was going on during this weekend—because this really is the kind of most sinister, horrifying cosplay of the lead up to the war in the 1990s and the genocide. You know, the significance of the January 9th date is that it really marks the formal institutional onset of the Bosnian Genocide and the creation of these parallel breakaway structures by the then regime of Radovan Karadzic and his underlings Ratko Mladic and others and backed by Slobodan Milosevic. So, there’s no way to separate January 9th from the Bosnian Genocide and, you know, I’ve got into much more detail on my Twitter so people can go there if they’re interested in that, and a number of people have really written beautiful, powerful writing on a really horrible event. It’s just to say that, you know, it’s difficult, it’s really difficult, on a deeply personal and emotional level to explain the horror of seeing people celebrate and sing and set off fireworks and parade and march and bring their children to attend an event that commemorates, or not commemorates, but celebrates the onset of a genocide. You know, on my Twitter, I compared it essentially to, you know, lynching postcards from the American South during the worst of the Jim Crow and post-Civil War era. But it’s that on a kind of mass government sponsored level. So, the sheer horror and the terror of it, I think is very difficult to perhaps convey to people who did not live through those experiences or don’t have those experiences in their family narratives, but I would hope that on a basic moral and ethical level, people would realize why this is so upsetting and why it’s so frightening to not just people in Bosnia, but throughout the region.

Could there be increased violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:51] It sort of speaks again to why I sort of frame this as just being a very perilous moment. I mean, you have, you know, inflamed nationalist sentiments combined with a leader who has long wanted to separate Republika Srpska from the rest of Bosnia, combined by a more favorable geopolitical environment right now that could, you know, enable this to actually happen. So, to what extent are you concerned that this moment might lead to some sort of armed conflict, albeit maybe not on the scale of the 1990s, but some sort of, you know, guns firing?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:22:34] So I think what keeps me up at night is the fact that I think it’s more likely today than it has been at any point since the end of the war. Now, I don’t want to put numbers, you know, percentages as to how likely I think it is, but the room for miscalculation has become enormous. And while I don’t think that Mr. Dodik is a stupid man, and I don’t think he is irrational as it were. I do think that the ideas that he subscribes to and the kind of power that he has is a certain kind of narcotic and a certain kind of toxin. I do think that there is the possibility that he has so convinced himself and is so surrounded by true believers—and it does genuinely appear that he is—that he believes that he could concoct some kind of security incident and that he would expect that his friends in Belgrade and Moscow and perhaps other places would come to his aid because he knows also that any kind of serious security crisis that would stay genuinely within the parameters of the Bosnian state and would not see any kind of meaningful outside interference that, shall we say, skirmish, that clash, would not go well for Mr. Dodik, because as fragmented as the Bosnian security apparatus is, it does have enough residual force to deal with somebody like Mr. Dodik and his breakaway leadership as it were. The fear is that it would not remain contained within Bosnia, that you would see some kind of hybrid or clandestine interference on the part of the government of Serbia, on the part of the Russian Federation, and perhaps still other actors. And at that point, we would have not just a fundamental breakdown, obviously of the Dayton Peace Accords, we would have another very, very serious security crisis in Europe, in addition to everything that’s already going on in Ukraine. And I genuinely don’t know that, you know, whatever remains of the legitimacy or the credibility in particular of the European Union could sustain such another blow.

What is the European Union doing to support peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:24:56] So given how perilous and precarious the situation is right now, what are you seeing on the international level diplomatically from the European Union, which, as you just said, is directly threatened by the potential disintegration of Bosnia? Like what is the EU doing right now to potentially de-escalate this situation?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:25:18] I think unfortunately, the EU as a body is not doing very much at all, if anything. That is a, shall we say, institutional reality. The EU is a fundamentally consensus-based decision-making body, and when you have people like Viktor Orban and Janez Jansa essentially determining the sway of regional foreign policy, it’s very difficult to imagine that there’s going to be any kind of meaningful response to the situation in Bosnia. It should also be said, unfortunately, that people like Dodik and people like Orban and Janez Jansa and others, in other illiberal elements in the EU have done a tremendous job of corroding and corrupting the internal operations of the European Union. I mean, as a colleague or rather as an MEP in Brussels, put it to me a couple of weeks ago, you know, we’re seeing elements of state capture within the European Union. And so, you know, one of the hopes, obviously, for instance, was that we would see sanctions on the part of the European Union against Mr. Dodik and his government. That obviously will not happen. And so now the hope is that individual European Union capitals, in particular places like Berlin, the government of the Netherlands, and perhaps still others would be willing to impose unilateral sanctions like the United States has done just a few days ago, or rather imposed expanded sanctions on Mr. Dodik and some of his associates. We’re still waiting, unfortunately, on that. I believe and I’m very hopeful that the United Kingdom will come through. The UK has emerged as really one of the most constructive and important backers of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia Herzegovina so it would be tremendous if we could see a very significant and sustained kind of Anglo-American engagement in Bosnia Herzegovina come out of this situation but ideally, we would also see some of our European friends, shall we say, actually put their money where their mouth is.

Could United States sanctions help stop the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:16] And how relevant is the United States as a player able to make diplomatic waves in this region? I did see that the Treasury Department did slap some sanctions on Dodik last week or earlier this week even. What role is the United States playing?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:27:32] Well, look, I mean, the United States was, you know, the architect of the Dayton Peace Accords. It is in that sense, kind of, the primary legal and international guarantor of the country’s constitutional order and thus the country’s peace and security. There was a lot of hope, I think, by a lot of Bosnians and Herzegovinians about the Biden administration because President Biden is a, you know, an old Bosnia hand. He was really very much on the right side of history during the Bosnian War and the Bosnian Genocide. He was very critical of the Clinton administration’s slow walking—its involvement in the Bosnian conflict. The reality is this administration has also been faced by a tremendous number of other crises that it’s been dealing with. So, I think to date that hope about the level and the quality, shall we say, of American engagement in Bosnia has not really been borne out, in reality, the sanctions that were imposed a couple of days ago are really, really very important and are commendable. It’s going to be very important that those sanctions be expanded to other members of Mr. Dodik’s regime, and it’s also going to be very, very important that the United States uses its leverage and its power to work with its other Atlantic allies to broaden the depth and the scope of this regime because unfortunately, I think if it remains isolated to the United States, the impact won’t be as great unless the United States is willing to take an additional step, which is to say to really radically deepen the tenure of the sanctions, basically modeling them on something like the Iran sanctions that would then effectively tie the hands of European financial institutions and companies and governments in terms of any kind of financial or economic dealings with the regime in Banja Luka. But I think that is unlikely at this juncture.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:28] Lastly, in the coming days or weeks or even months, are there any inflection points or key decisions that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you how this situation will unfold?

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:29:41] So I think the next big marker to watch out for is whether or not Mr. Dodik and Mr. Jandrokovic, who’s the leader of the Croat nationalist HDZ party that I was mentioning earlier, whether they’re going to try to make a serious play at basically scuttling the holding of the next general elections in Bosnia Herzegovina, which are slated for October. They effectively already did this once, sort of semi-successfully, so during the last so-called municipal or local elections in 2018, they managed to delay those elections by about a month and a half, two months by holding the funding hostage. Both Mr. Jandrokovic to Mr. Dodik have made all kinds of threats and dropped all kinds of hints that they’re going to do this. I think if they do this and if they make a hard play at it, it would be a very, very dangerous situation and it would also be again, another very, very serious test of the credibility, in particular of the European Union, and individual European Union governments as to their commitments to peace and security, not just in Bosnia, but the whole of the Western Balkans. I think a lot of attention in particular at this moment needs to fall on Berlin and to see whether the new government in Germany is willing to take a more constructive approach to Bosnia, then unfortunately, the previous government did or rather did not.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:00] Well, Jasmin, thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful.

Jasmin Mujanovic [00:31:04] For sure. Thank you for the platform.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:09] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Jasmin Mujanovic for speaking with me. We had about 650 people listening live. I think about a few thousand people kind of came and went, but about six hundred and fifty people stuck through the whole thing and after I finished chatting with Jasmin, he graciously stuck around to take questions from the audience. As always, just follow me on Twitter @MarkLGoldberg to be alerted of when these conversations go live. All right, thanks so much. We’ll see you next time, bye!