There is a general recognition even in Brussels that the situation in Bosnia and Her- zegovina has turned so bad that some kind of policy adjustment will be required. Hopefully this recogni- tion can be a first step toward not just an adjustment but a full-blown course correction.

By: Toby Vogel

An extraordinary escalation has been playing out over the past several months in Bosnia and Herzegovina, culminating in the events surrounding the ‘Day of the Republika Srpska’ on 9th January. In the run-up to the holiday (which was declared unconstitutional in a 2015 ruling), widespread rioting struck fear into the hearts of returnee communities across the RS, including in Prijedor and Foča. A paramilitary parade in Banja Luka featured a special “anti-terrorist” unit of the RS police, specially-designed combat vehicles, and chants referring to the Serbs’ Christian heritage. (The RS Constitution defines the entity as “the state of Serb people and of all its citizens” and makes no reference to God or Christianity.) The parade was attended by Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia as well as Chinese diplomats, a convicted war criminal, and two far-right French Members of the European Parliament.

Facing the reality and changing the course

As extraordinary as these events were, the underlying dynamics were depressingly familiar. In fact, the most remarkable thing about the latest crisis is how unremarkable it is in many ways. Its main protagonist, Milorad Dodik, has done nothing that he hadn’t already done or threatened to do before, viz. paralyzing the country’s central institutions, preparing moves toward secession, and playing up the nationalist pageantry. Nor have Dodik’s domestic supporters and opponents reacted any differently than in similar earlier episodes. Likewise in keeping with past practice, the “international community” – the governments and organizations in charge of overseeing peace implementation – haven’t done anything to push back against Dodik’s threats and maneuvers. In fact, this crisis is very much of the West’s making: its persistent failure in the past to counter threats to the Dayton order has emboldened Dodik and his allies in Dragan Čović’s HDZ. Dodik and Čović are again blackmailing the United States and the European Union with a threat to disrupt elections called for October. And just as in the past, Washington and Brussels are caving in rather than risk instability.

The recent escalation follows the same playbook Dodik has used in earlier episodes. To name but one example from 2009: the EU compromised when Dodik demanded an end to the executive role of international prosecutors and judges on organized crime and corruption. Two years later, when he again challenged the power of the state-level judicial institutions with a secession threat, the EU’s foreign policy chief at the time, Cathy Ashton, made an unprecedented visit to Banja Luka to offer concessions in the form of a “structured dialogue” on the judiciary – thus lending credibility to Dodik’s claims about biased judges. Dodik has learned that escalation will be met by concessions, and as a result his escalations have become more extreme.

The latest crisis was triggered when Valentin Inzko, the outgoing High Representative of the international community, imposed a law banning genocide denial and the glorification of war crimes and those who committed them – behaviors which are endemic in today’s rules-free political climate, and which serve to mobilize ethnic communities against each other. Inzko’s move, in his last days in office, prompted Dodik to order Bosnian Serbs to walk out of central institutions, which under the current constitutional set-up serves to paralyze decision-making at the state level. But rather than blame Dodik, the EU bought into his narrative that Inzko was responsible for this latest escalation. This was made explicit in an internal note prepared by the EU Delegation (whose authenticity has not been disputed) following a visit to the country by Olivér Várhelyi, the EU’s enlargement commissioner: “Commissioner shared his frank assessment that… HR Inzko was to blame for the current political crisis in BiH as well as de-ligitimisation of the OHR. While the Inzko amendments could not be disputed from the point of view of law’s substance, the fact it was imposed on the last day of HR Inzko’s mandate had been problematic. Especially because it was an important decision, it should have been based on a thorough debate having everyone on board. The question was now how to correct this,” the note reads.

Várhelyi’s response to Dodik’s demands (shaped by his acceptance of Dodik’s point that the crisis was of Inzko’s making) was to add the genocide denial law to the other issues about which negotiations would commence: continuing EU/US-led talks to “reform” the country’s election laws (in ways that would ensure that the Croat seat on the three-member Presidency goes to the HDZ), and to open negotiations on the disposition of state property. Várhelyi made this linkage explicit, and public, following talks with the main ethnonationalist leaders, who seem to be the preferred interlocutors of EU officials in the country.

All of which points to a seemingly inescapable conclusion about international policy toward Bosnia and Herzegovina after some 15 years of accumulated evidence, ever since the EU took leadership of the “international community” on the ground. That international policy is shaped by an inability to learn – or, to put it crudely, by a refusal on the part of decision-makers in Washington, Berlin, London, Brussels, and Sarajevo to face reality and change course. Both the European Commission and the European External Action Service lack a culture of robust policy review. In its place we see improvisation, bureaucratic inertia, or indeed policy freelancing. Whenever a crisis emerges or is engineered by bad-faith actors á la Dodik, the EU reverts to a transactional mode that promises short-term gains by further empowering the troublemakers.

Right moment for a proper policy review

If the current moment – marked by the deepest crisis the country has seen since the end of the war a generation ago – is not the right moment for a proper policy review, it is hard to see when might be.

Any policy review will have to contend with powerful in-built biases and limitations, however. Two of these appear especially relevant when it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Balkans more generally. The first is the idea that since the populace in these countries express a will to join the EU, and their leaders profess to be working toward that goal, the prospect of EU membership would automatically drive reform. But Balkan elites have learned to game the enlargement process and play with the EU. They can smell policymakers’ fear of instability and see their failure to imagine alternatives, responses which have turned the EU and the US into agents of the status quo and the most powerful supporters of local strongmen such as President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia and Prime Minister Edi Rama of Albania. The authoritarian trajectory of Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbia, and the fact that he keeps getting rewarded by the EU for his actions, is ample evidence of this dynamic.

The second powerful bias is the EU’s distaste for executive powers, including its own – in other words, its avoidance of coercive measures. In 2011 the EU’s foreign ministers unanimously adopted a sanctions regime against Dodik and others, without publicly naming them. The sanctions instrument was structured in such a way that adding names to the list of sanctioned persons would only require a qualified majority – in other words, no member state would have a veto. (The sanctions instrument itself, however, requires annual renewal through unanimity; this renewal is coming up in the second half of March.) However, diplomatic consultations between the member states over the last few months have shown that there is little appetite among the proponents of sanctions (a group that includes Germany and the Netherlands) to push for the use of this qualified majority voting – which would allow them to outvote Hungary and others who oppose sanctions. Seeing the US adopt new sanctions against Dodik while the EU is busy with its internal procedures has highlighted the extent to which these bad-faith actors in the Balkans and elsewhere have little to fear from the Europeans.

The same bias is evident in the fact that the EU has allowed EUFOR, the UN-mandated peace mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to wither into irrelevance. For a full decade now its troop strength has been below operational requirements, and as a result it no longer functions as a deterrent. A succession of force commanders have told Bosnians and the EU that the country’s security situation remains unchanged. This is only true if one takes an extremely narrow view of security – i.e. people getting killed and troops amassing along borders. By any other measure, the security situation in Bosnia today is worse than at any point since the EU took over peacekeeping duties from NATO in 2004. Now would be an excellent moment to reinforce it.

The last area where the EU’s ideological aversion to political power is evident is the Office of the High Representative, and the High Representative’s Bonn powers. The EU has been undermining the OHR for as long as any of its remaining staff members can remember. Its very existence is a rebuttal of the idea that the prospect of EU integration would drive reform. More than ever the OHR, together with EUFOR, is needed as the last guardrail against out-of-control ethnonational mobilization.

The space for Bosnians and Herzegovinians

However, there is hope. There is a general recognition even in Brussels that the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has turned so bad that some kind of policy adjustment will be required. Hopefully this recognition can be a first step toward not just an adjustment but a full-blown course correction.

The first, immediate step must be for the EU and US to abandon the ill-fated negotiations on the electoral law. They have been unproductive and unnecessarily divisive, have put the negotiators on the side of the HDZ, and are now far too proximate to the October elections to be meaningful or indeed legitimate. The EU likewise has to drop the other core elements of the Várhelyi package: the talks on defanging the genocide denial law, and on the disposition of state property. The EU and the liberal West more generally simply must not take the side of those who want to glorify war crimes and deny genocide with impunity. That this needs saying is itself astounding. State property, meanwhile, is critical because giving the entities control could build Dodik’s capacity to absorb the costs of secession by selling off logging concessions for the RS’s extensive forests. Clearly this runs counter to the idea of stabilizing BiH and strengthening its statehood. The EU should not facilitate any negotiations that bypass the relevant institutions – above all parliament.

More generally, the EU has to decide what kind of organization it wants to be, and what kind of diplomacy it wants to pursue. It was a disastrous decision by incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to give in to Orbán’s lobbying and hand the enlargement portfolio to one of his closest associates. She now needs to correct this by reigning in the Hungarian commissioner and reminding him that he works for the European Union and its future member states, not for Viktor Orbán. If von der Leyen’s “geopolitical Commission” can’t act in the Balkans because it has been captured by the Union’s illiberal member states, it might as well give up. The same applies to the EEAS. A decade ago Anton La Guardia posed the question in The Economist: “If the EEAS cannot act in the Balkans, what is the point of having it?” Today the problem is that lack of interest on the part of the foreign policy chief and member states has opened the space for EEAS diplomats to pursue their own agendas. In the absence of a proper BiH policy and proper instructions, this only adds to the sense that stability is best restored by rewarding those who pose a threat – precisely what got us into the current situation.

Commissioner Várhelyi’s overreach appears to have finally stirred some Commission officials. In the European Parliament, meanwhile, the reaction has been much more fierce. In the latest cross-party statement published on 24 January, MEPs from the four main political groups urged the Commission and the EEAS “to finally abandon their long standing non-conclusive appeasement strategy towards Dodik.” There are increasing grumblings among MEPs of all groups about Johann Sattler, the head of the EU Delegation in Sarajevo, having dodged invitations to a hearing for a year. MEPs are keen to hear first-hand about the ongoing negotiations, and more generally about the EU’s ideas on the way ahead. As a result of the disregard shown to it by the Commission and EEAS, and under the weight of the accumulated evidence, the European Parliament has become much more active on the question of EU policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is no longer only the Greens and the occasional center-left MEP who are active on the issue; a fair number of parliamentary group members from the center-right European People’s Party have joined them in questioning the EU’s approach. This is significant because the EPP – until last year, the political home of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz – has in the past been reluctant to call out illiberal actors. In Parliament too there is a growing recognition of the harm that Commissioner Várhelyi does to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to the EU’s standing in the region.

Germany is a critical player, too. For years it has provided protection and respectability to Orbán and his vision of “illiberal democracy”, for example by opposing linking EU spending to the rule of law in member states, or in courting President Vučić of Serbia as a supposed factor of stability. Meanwhile the manner of Christian Schmidt’s appointment as High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina alienated allies and encouraged Russia and the Bosnian Serbs to question his legitimacy. This was compounded by Schmidt’s failure to properly prepare for the job. But the incoming post-Merkel government carries little of that baggage; even before its arrival in office German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for EU sanctions against Dodik, which his successor Annalena Baerbock reaffirmed in December.

Taken together these moves – dropping election law negotiations, reinforcing EUFOR, reigning in Várhelyi, and slapping sanctions on Dodik – could open the space for Bosnians and Herzegovinians to come together to strike a “social contract for the 21st century” in an inclusive, bottom-up process, as Baroness Helić described it to the House of Lords in December. This process would have to sideline the ethnonational power-brokers that have shaped the country’s destiny over the past two generations, ruling through fear and patronage. The EU and the US must stop supporting them against the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who deserve better.

About the author:

Toby Vogel is a foreign-affairs analyst based in Brussels, where he follows the EU’s relations with the Western Balkans and EU migration policy. He is a co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a think tank in Berlin. He was previously a political reporter with European Voice and an editor with Transitions Online in Sarajevo.