Analysis Nationalist Tensions in the Balkans
Milorad Dodik (centre), Serbian President Alexander Vucić and the ghost of former Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosević.

The spectre of war looms over Bosnia again

Never since its creation in 1995 has Bosnia and Herzegovina been so close to breaking up, after the recent threat of secession made by Serb Milorad Dodik, the head of the rotating presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A strategy aimed at achieving the goals of Serb nationalists during the Bosnian war, warns Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić from Sarajevo.

Published on 30 November 2021 at 12:05
Corax  | Milorad Dodik (centre), Serbian President Alexander Vucić and the ghost of former Serbian nationalist leader Slobodan Milosević.

The current situation in Bosnia is reminiscent of the events of the early 1990s, just before the war. The parallels with that time of political turmoil, pseudo-politicians, collective fears and hopes are fully justified.

The Berlin Wall has been torn down, but its bricks have fallen on our backs. Yugoslavia disappeared in a bloody dismantling.

What is causing chaos today are the threats of secession by a part of Bosnia and Herzegovina called the Bosnian Serb Republic (RS). This entity, formally born with the Dayton Agreement of 1995, represented at the time the ethnically purified territory under the control of Serbian forces.

Archipelago Yugoslavia: our series of features on the 30th anniversary of the breakup of Yugoslavia

  1. The “Better life” that never was (Kosovo)
  2. Life in the crime scene (Serbia)
  3. The apocalyptic clock ticking inside me (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  4. In Slovenia, we dreamed of democracy and woke up under capitalism (Slovenia)
  5. I don’t write about war because I want to, but because I have no choice (Croatia)
  6. The ghost of “Brotherhood and unity” (Macedonia)

Radovan Karadžić, the leader of the insurgent entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war, had built his policy on islamophobia, and on the myth of the threat that Muslim Bosnians would pose to the Serbian people. The Serbs were about as threatened by Muslims as the Germans were by Jews in the 1930s. 

The current Bosnian Serb leader is doing no different, fulfilling Karadžić's war aims by political means. To top it all off, his Islamophobia ensures that he receives substantial support from European anti-liberal leaders and parties.

Indeed, few pay attention to Milorad Dodik's daily invective and the blatant lies he fills the media with. Some analysts try to justify this political crisis with the cliché that politicians use bellicose rhetoric for electoral purposes, in order to divert attention from their own misdeeds. But war propaganda is what it is, it has no hidden meaning.

Milorad Dodik really means what he says. His words are explosive, and his speeches have long since crossed the red line; people are used to his ultranationalist tirades.

We have still not recovered from the trauma of the last war, and we really don't need another conflict

And that is precisely what Dodik wants. He wants the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the pro-Bosnian parties to get tired of the whole circus, and reluctantly start accepting a new reality. In this new reality, the Bosnian Serb Republic would be attached to Serbia, which Milorad Dodik knows cannot be achieved by peaceful means.

This is why he adopts the tactic of the frog in the cauldron, the fable according to which if you plunge a frog into cold water and bring the temperature to a boil very gradually, the frog ends up boiled without realising it. We are the ones in the cauldron, we the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina itself.

If the National Assembly of the Bosnian Serb Republic votes to withdraw from the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the State Investigation and Protection Agency or the Indirect Tax Authority, it would formally mean the end of the rule of law in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the ensuing anarchy; the Bosnian Serb Republic would become an unrecognised political entity, like Transnistria or Abkhazia (an entity that would be recognised by the anti-liberal EU countries). For Bosnia-Herzegovina as such, this would be a real catastrophe: demographic, economic, cultural and moral. 

Then would come the armed conflicts. No one can predict how intense this new war would be, but its consequences would be devastating for all the inhabitants of this country, for the simple reason that we have still not recovered from the trauma of the last war, and we really don't need another conflict. Not to mention all the dead, all the wounded, all the displaced and missing people. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, 7,500 people are still missing from the last war.

The secessionist policy of Milorad Dodik and his party dates back to 2006, and since then he has not changed course. US sanctions have not affected him much, nor has the EU's lukewarm behaviour. A political bully of this ilk will only stop under duress.

Imagine for a moment that someone in Germany denies the Shoah, while at the same time holding the office of President of the Republic

Dodik and the Serb nationalists initiated the blocking of the country's common institutions, because the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (a figure foreseen by the Dayton Agreement) Valentin Inzko, at the very end of his mandate [in August 2021], introduced a "Law on the Prohibition of Denial of Genocide, Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Attested by Irrevocable Judgement of Local and Foreign Courts". What followed was a political chaos in which all Serbian politicians, including the most measured ones, condemned this law in unison, because for Serbian politicians it became almost normal, even prestigious, to deny the Srebrenica genocide [July 1995].

Imagine for a moment that someone in Germany denies the Shoah, while at the same time holding the office of President of the Republic. This is what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, because Milorad Dodik is a member of the rotating tripartite Presidency, which means that he is to hold the position of chair of the Presidency of the very state he so abhors.

The escalation of this separatist policy is part of a wider geopolitical strategy, carried out in collaboration with Serbia and, behind the scenes, with Russia in the role of the Big Brother. It is not Inzko's law that is at the root of the current crisis, but the desire of the Bosnian Serb leader for Bosnia and Herzegovina to disappear as a state, so that all Serbs can live in one country

Since the official end of the war (because the war was just interrupted, it is not over), there has never been such a psychosis, such a fear that a new war will start. People have already had this unnecessary experience, they don't want to repeat it. I don't believe in empty formulas that assure us that there will be no war. I hope, of course, that it will not happen, because that would be a destructive spiral, which could lead to the total disintegration of several states in the Balkans. I am thinking of the "fragile states", namely the multi-ethnic states. The redefinition of borders in the Balkans is likely to lead to more widespread chaos. 

Once the Pandora's box is opened, it is impossible to control what comes out. And that is what many hard-right activists and leaders in Europe are calling for.

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