There are three primary objectives that pro-BiH forces must pursue at this time to ensure the immediate survival of the state and its territorial integrity and sovereignty – but also to create the conditions for a more strategically advantageous position in the years to come, assuming the current crisis is resolved or at least passes in a more or less peaceful fashion.

By: Jasmin Mujanović, PhD

Understanding the Problem

The reasons for this lack of a coherent response are myriad but also familiar. First and foremost is the fact that for much of the post-war period BiH’s party system has primarily served to advance narrow, partisan, and especially patrimonial interests. This has been an intrinsic part of the country’s criminally-dominated post-war political economy, and it has resulted in a severe degree of disillusionment on the part of BiH citizens and voters with the collective party establishment. That, in turn, has resulted in a compounding inability (and unwillingness) by the parties to recruit capable and principled candidates. Instead they have largely opted to promote candidates from within their own patrimonial networks, whose primary quality is their fealty to the respective leadership cadres. As noted, the consequence of that policy has been the emergence of a political culture among pro-BiH parties that is remarkably provincial and self-serving.

Moreover, the “capture” of many key judicial and law enforcement institutions has also meant that even when criminal affairs have been discovered – as in the case of Milorad Dodik’s personal advisor Milan Tegeltija – police and prosecutors have been slow or entirely unwilling to react. Thus individuals are exposed in the media as being obviously compromised and perhaps involved in criminal dealings or organised crime – but they suffer no legal sanction or consequence. This naturally further increases feelings of disenchantment and alienation among citizens, who conclude that BiH is fatally compromised by corruption and that the avenues for institutional reform are limited if not entirely absent.

The latter point reflects, not entirely inaccurately, the structural realities of the Dayton constitutional regime. The control of key state offices by SNSD and HDZ officials – a necessary feature of the country’s ethnic power-sharing system – has allowed these malign actors to significantly undermine effective governance mechanisms. At the legislative level the House of Peoples is a veritable graveyard for reform-oriented legislation where, at least in theory, as few as 20% of the delegates (3 out of 15) can stonewall the passage of bills. Even more corrosive has been the policy of parties like the HDZ to completely obstruct government whenever they consider their interests not to have been fully prioritised. For instance the party has successfully blockaded government formation in the FBiH entity since 2018, despite winning only 9% of the national vote and just under 15% of the vote in the FBiH. After 2010, when a reform-oriented coalition led by the SDP attempted to fill ethnic Croat slots in the government with non-HDZ candidates – an entirely legal and constitutional practice – the party likewise obstructed government formation at the state level for nearly two years. The extraordinary powers afforded by BiH’s existing constitution to what would be minor political actors in most democratic parliamentary regimes has greatly undermined the possibilities for rational governance. This is further exacerbated by the fact that – as in the case of the HDZ’s obstructionist tactics – many un- or anti-constitutional activities are allowed to persist because the institutions responsible are unable to respond to these breaches in the rule of law and democratic norms.

This structural irrationality, combined with tendencies towards provincialism and patrimonialism among the pro-BiH political class, has ultimately hollowed out large portions of the BiH state apparatus. Across nearly every segment of the country’s administration – including at ministerial level – one finds personnel who are incompetent, criminal, or opposed to basic democratic values or indeed the existence of the state. It is an extraordinary combination of factors which at times might suggest the primary analytical lens for understanding the nature of contemporary BiH politics is not as a “post-conflict” polity or “divided society”, but rather as one under a form of quasi-occupation.

This last point is contentious but needs sober consideration given that not only have the SNSD and HDZ made their respective loyalty to Belgrade and Zagreb an obvious part of their official programs (and that in the case of the SNSD the party is at present clearly pursuing an explicit secessionist agenda). But also because Belgrade and Zagreb have, in turn, taken on a foreign policy posture that is defined by a remarkable degree of interference in the domestic and sovereign affairs of BiH. At least in a political and diplomatic sense, the current situation bears more resemblance to the period of the 1990s than a region with a clearly established post-war state system and permanent conditions for peace. Nor has such malign interference been limited to BiH’s neighbours, even if it is most common and apparent in these cases. Far greater powers – above all Russia, but increasingly China too – have lent their weight to this “anti-BiH” axis. The recent decision by the government of Hungary to shield the secessionist Milorad Dodik from EU sanctions, and offer financial lifelines to his government, suggests this bloc has a still wider roster – including within the EU and NATO.

So it is an obvious point but one too often neglected: the prospects for any kind of rational governance are limited when large segments of BiH’s political establishment reject both the existence of the state and/or the idea of any kind of governance not solely concerned with the acquisition and distribution of ministerial seats. The additional involvement of far more powerful external actors in the country’s internal affairs also puts integrationist and pro-state forces at a massive disadvantage. Such an imbalance of power typically does only exist in polities occupied by hostile powers. The parallels with contemporary Ukraine, for instance, are apt. Although perhaps even more plausible would be comparison with 18th-20th century Poland, say – that is, a case of one comparatively small polity consistently sabotaged and eventually partitioned by its larger neighbours, whose own regional aspirations are decidedly expansionist or irredentist.

Tellingly however, Poland’s repeated erasure from Europe’s cartography never lasted. Poland regained its full and complete sovereignty by the end of the 20th century, even as Moscow remained a persistently imperial power with designs on much of Eastern Europe. How did the Polish people and their leaders accomplish this? Because throughout those decades of occupation and domination they maintained a commitment to their own identity and autonomy, and took the necessary steps to turn those commitments into institutional capacities. Thus even when the Polish nation lacked a sovereign state, it did not lack the organisational and political characteristics to eventually realise that goal.
Pro-BiH actors would do well to reflect on this history (and indeed their own recent history). After all, BiH was already victimised once in recent memory by the wholesale collapse of international engagement during the aggressive war against BiH from 1992 to 1995. And while BiH benefited subsequently from a comparative excess of international and European attention (at least between c.1995 and 2006), that period has overly determined the self-perceptions and opinions of pro-BiH leaders and policymakers. In an era of renewed Great Power competition it is simply unreasonable to expect BiH to enjoy that degree of international attention, given the shape of contemporary world affairs. The ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, the humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan – each of these situations is consuming infinitely more diplomatic resources and attention than BiH. One might even venture that at times the impasse between Kosovo and Serbia is a more significant feature of Atlanticist thinking vis-a-vis the Western Balkans than the current affairs of BiH. 

Pro-BiH actors may have all manner of opinions about these issues. They may consider this lack of international attention foolish or unfair but, in the final analysis, these are the facts. The question then becomes: what can and must be done to alter these attitudes and, relatedly, what can pro-BiH actors do if a significant change in international posture is not forthcoming? In short, what can pro-BiH forces do to take their destiny into their own hands and determine, to the greatest extent possible, the shape of local politics through their own volition and actions?

There are three primary objectives that pro-BiH forces must pursue at this time to ensure the immediate survival of the state and its territorial integrity and sovereignty – but also to create the conditions for a more strategically advantageous position in the years to come, assuming the current crisis is resolved or at least passes in a more or less peaceful fashion.

Establishing a Firm Chain of Command and Security Preparedness 

The first and most vital priority at this time is ensuring that all security organs in BiH (including the Armed Forces but also the state police (SIPA), border police, and the police forces in the Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica, and Una-Sana cantons) are in a state of optimal readiness to deal with any potential security incidents in the coming months and beyond, since the separatist tendencies of Serb nationalism will not significantly abate in the years to come. These preparations should involve establishing a firm chain of command, as well as contingencies in the likely event of notable defections from within the Armed Forces if there is a credible secession attempt by the authorities in Banja Luka.

In such a scenario confusion will be the greatest adversary of integrationist actors, and it is imperative that BiH’s security agencies maintain a realistic and crisis-oriented sense of their capacities. Such preparations should involve, as much as possible, a ‘whole government’ approach, and steps should be taken for state, entity, and cantonal security officials to have the most extensive communication possible. Members of the respective legislatures and assemblies should likewise demand comprehensive and regular status reports from the relevant officials – both to maintain civilian oversight but also to ensure that the respective agencies and their leaders understand that this is a genuine priority. Attempts by Serb and Croat nationalist actors to impede such activities must be anticipated, as well as their certain efforts to paint these necessary precautions as “warmongering” or “acts of aggression” in themselves.

It is for this reason that all these activities should be pursued, wherever possible, in conjunction with NATO officials and the respective NATO capitals. At the very least the Alliance should be kept abreast of all preparatory activities by BiH security agencies so as to avoid the appearance of unilateralism by the legitimate government authorities of BiH. Any gaps or major issues in the overall state of preparedness on the part of the BiH agencies should be addressed in tandem with NATO officials, and their assistance sought in addressing these specific concerns. For instance, if there are worries about the ability of BiH security forces to control the airspace over BiH (which is likely), or to rapidly project forces into particular “corridors” vital to maintaining the territorial integrity of the state (Sarajevo-Gorazde, Tuzla-Brcko, Jajce-Sanski Most etc.) then these should be addressed with concrete requests for better equipment, logistical support, or training from NATO. 

These preparations should involve a sober assessment of the likelihood and capacities for malign foreign interference in the event of any kind of significant security crisis in BiH, both in the form of uniformed and hybrid/clandestine/proxy forces acting on behalf of Serbia, Russia, and other relevant actors (i.e. paramilitary formations even from within the bloc of EU countries). This information should likewise be communicated clearly to NATO officials, especially those most willing and capable of providing credible assistance (e.g., the U.S. and UK, but also potentially the Netherlands). BiH officials should also be sensitive to local political sensibilities and explore the possibilities for alternative arrangements where obvious or overt security cooperation is not possible. That is to say, where it is not possible for certain NATO governments to support the activities and preparations of local security agencies, the possibilities for intelligence sharing and support should be explored -especially because maintaining maximum situational awareness will be critical in any genuine security crisis. 

In this context, BiH security officials should also deepen and broaden their interactions with the EUFOR mission in Sarajevo and explore possibilities for joint exercises and preparedness operations. While the existing EUFOR posture in BiH is sub-optimal – something that should continue to be raised with NATO partners – better coordination with EUFOR can nevertheless provide important advantages. During a fast-moving security crisis, the deployment of EUFOR to strategically vital locales within BiH may prove decisive in stabilising the overall situation. Here again, the strategically vital Tuzla-Brcko corridor is of special concern, and all efforts should be made to ensure that the Brcko District remains firmly in the control of BiH government forces. By ensuring the RS entity remains territorially separated – and specifically that the western half of the region, where the entirety of the political, administrative, and security apparatus is effectively located, remains cut off from the border with Serbia – BiH security organs will maintain an existential advantage against any secession attempt.

Modernising BiH Foreign Policy

Beyond ensuring the immediate security and territorial integrity of the state, pro-BiH actors need to reimagine the shape and scope of the country’s foreign policy apparatus. While BiH obviously has a Ministry of Foreign Affairs, its staffing and operation is subject to the usual partisan and sectarian limitations. The office should of course be made use of to the maximum degree possible; the promotion of young, professional, capable diplomats is also of the utmost importance for BiH’s long-term standing in the international community. But the nature of the political system must be taken into account. By 2023 the position of Foreign Ministry will likely shift to the SNSD-aligned HDZ; that will, once again, limit possibilities for the institutional promotion of BiH’s interests in the international arena for at least the next electoral cycle.

As such it is imperative that pro-BiH actors establish a permanent apparatus for the promotion of its political and democratic interests, especially in key capitals (above all Washington and London, but also Berlin, Brussels and elsewhere, resources permitting). Unfortunately Bosnians and Herzegovinians have wasted decades operating under the assumption that the degree of goodwill which the country gained during the war years would permanently shape the perspective on BiH affairs in the political West. That was always a foolish belief, but its disastrous consequences should be readily apparent when we consider the muted Western response (barring a few notable exceptions) to the current secession crisis. Quite simply, in the actually existing world one must expend resources to win and maintain support in key capitals. These resources are of various kinds, and they all matter.
First and foremost, money must be spent on professional representation and lobbying on both sides of the Atlantic. To date pro-BiH actors, and certainly the BiH state itself, appear to have spent zero dollars on such efforts while anti-BiH actors from within the country have spent millions. This is an extraordinary and unacceptable lapse in judgement from anyone purporting to be an advocate for the best interests of BiH. Professional lobbying services are a non-negotiable feature of contemporary world affairs, and both government and private sector actors in BiH must immediately allocate funds to establishing a permanent pro-BiH representation in those key capitals. For the relatively modest sum of 5-10 million USD (money which can be patched together from a variety of public and private sources within BiH and among the diaspora to avoid familiar obstruction tactics by anti-state actors) a competent, professional presence can be established in Washington, London and Brussels at least. This will not immediately pay dividends, but it will ensure an evolving understanding and appreciation of BiH’s interests in these capitals in the years to come, so that in future crises international reactions will be more favourable to pro-state interests.

This same consortium of government and private actors should devote funds to deepening commercial and political links between the BiH diaspora and the state, especially in terms of facilitating greater political involvement by the BiH diaspora in the local affairs of their respective home countries. Such organising is a well-established practice among certain “old” communities in the U.S. (the Armenian-American community for instance), but it is exceptionally underdeveloped among the BiH diaspora. A careful study of ‘Birthright Israel’ and similar Jewish diaspora organisations should be undertaken to evaluate best practises to adopt. Indeed, a comprehensive assessment and appreciation of Israeli state-building efforts would serve pro-BiH actors well, especially because in the long-run a Bosnian version of the ‘aliyah’ – the institutionalised and ritualised return to the homeland – will likely have to be part of the strategy for addressing long-term emigration trends. It is almost certainly the case that even among second and third generation Bosnian diaspora there are individuals who would be interested in returning to the country, even to regions like the RS entity, provided a modicum of institutional and political support for such processes was available. Until efforts are undertaken to promote cultural exchanges and educational programs with those communities, however, it is unlikely that such human and economic capital can be tapped into.

In short, a major reimagining of what constitutes “foreign policy” by pro-BiH actors is necessary if they want to create the conditions for winning greater support among the international community toward the objective of creating a rational, liberal-democratic polity in BiH.

Identifying Allies

A final priority for pro-BiH actors in attempting to shore up the long-term interests of the state concerns identifying and maintaining close links with potential allies. This is less a case of “modernising” the country’s foreign policy as focusing on a traditional foreign policy objective – building alliances – while recognizing that BiH has traditionally fared remarkably poorly at this. For instance, while the U.S. is the architect of BiH’s constitution and doubtless the country’s most important partner, the general level of knowledge among U.S. policymakers about BiH and its interests is low. Similarly, over the course of 2021 the UK has emerged as a leading backer of pro-state forces in BiH, but that has largely been the result of an essentially private initiative on the part of a handful of individuals, the majority of whom have no formal links to the BiH state or any political constellation therein. The fact that this has transpired then is, in essence, a matter of dumb luck rather than any meaningful engagement by the necessary actors in BiH.
That is not a sustainable strategy for defending the country’s interests, especially since – to make the point again – renewed great power competition means that isolated states are in the greatest danger of becoming either victims or at least theatres for the interests of more powerful actors. Moreover, given that membership in NATO is arguably the most pressing long-term interest of BiH foreign policy, it is imperative that Sarajevo demonstrates its value to the Atlantic community before it ever joins the bloc. That must necessarily be done in advance so that when BiH nears formal accession there will be minimal diplomatic hurdles to clear. And here the point must be, indeed, to demonstrate BiH’s value to the Alliance and the Allies, rather than merely asking for protection and aegis.

BiH does have a great deal to offer to NATO and to individual NATO states: it has a professional intelligence and security apparatus in a geopolitically complex region, capable of acquiring and analysing sensitive data and information; it has a populace that is decidedly pro-Western in its orientation; it has a successful and well-integrated diaspora across much of the West; and it represents an important cultural and geographic bridge between several key global regions, a position which is only likely to grow in significance in the years to come. These are all facts, or at the very least persuasive arguments, that can and must be disseminated in key capitals. By cementing such narratives and perspectives in the minds of Western policymakers, pro-BiH actors can more effectively plead for sustained engagement and assistance on the part of these same polities.
All of this is not merely a matter of responding to contemporary great power realities. BiH’s own history is illustrative of what can happen to a country when it has no genuine allies. None of the states or organisations that could previously or currently be construed as assisting BiH’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the 1990s or during its post-war development did so without significant reservations. The U.S. may have led the charge to deliver a final peace deal to halt the aggression against BiH between 1992 and 1995, but the Clinton administration also refused to lift the crippling arms embargo on BiH government forces, despite significant pressures to that end from the U.S. Congress. Croatia may have ultimately assisted BiH government forces in the closing months of the war, but it had previously orchestrated a de facto invasion too. Turkey, which claims close cultural and historical links with BiH, invests more in Serbia than in BiH. One could proceed in this fashion, but the point would be the same: BiH has no true-blue allies, and it must remedy that. Doing so will involve many of the steps identified in the preceding section; but establishing immutable political and security relationships with key capitals should nevertheless be recognized as a standalone objective – aside from the myriad other positive outcomes that follow from having a robust two-way diplomatic presence in the international community.


In lieu of a formal conclusion, an observation in keeping with the spirit of this essay: BiH’s problems are easily identified, even if they are not necessarily “well known” in the international community. The task of pro-BiH actors is not merely to explain these problems but to offer and create avenues for resolving these issues. For a small country with a difficult history, Bosnians and Herzegovinians have done a remarkably good job of telling their story to the world. What remains is to channel those stories into effective policy action, at both the local and international level. The hope is that this text can help animate those efforts.

About the author:

Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist (PhD, York University) specializing in the politics of post-authoritarian and post-conflict democratization. His first book Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans (Hurst Publishers & Oxford University Press, 2018) examines the persistence of authoritarian and illiberal forms of governance in the Western Balkans since the end of the Yugoslav Wars. His publications also include peer-reviewed articles in leading academic journals, chapters in numerous edited volumes, policy reports for Freedom House, the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, as well as popular analyses in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and a host of other media. He has a prominent social media presence and has made appearances for international television and radio programs on NPR, BBC Radio, CBC News, Voice of America, Al Jazeera, as well as numerous Balkan media outlets. Formerly an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Policy Studies at Elon University, he is presently an Advisory Board Member of the Kulin Initiative.