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NATO, the EU and the Growing Instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Challenges and Risks

Jaroslav Cabuk

Ethnic and political tensions within Bosnia and Herzegovina represent potential roots for a more serious conflict in the Western Balkans. The ongoing crisis, if not solved, may erupt into a situation similar to the events in the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina is shaped by the fact that the country’s ethnic map is built by three ethnicities. While Serbs have their autonomous unit (Republika Srpska), Croats do not. Both ethnicities ask for much more autonomy – Serbs for almost complete independence. In contrast, Croats ask primarily for establishing their political unit (as they share one political unit with Bosniaks). Even though it may look like a simple issue of changing the current electoral system (in the case of Bosnian Croats), the crisis might erupt into a much larger and more complex cultural problem between Serbs and Bosniaks and between Croats and Bosniaks. Even though Serbs and Croats are known to have fought each other for centuries, Bosnian Croats found their ally in Bosnian Serbs (with conservative Croatians finding their partners in Serbia too). 

In 2008, after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence, many Bosnian Serbs demanded that Republika Srpska follows in its steps and called for Dodik to organise an independence referendum In 2008, after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence, many Bosnian Serbs demanded that Republika Srpska follows in its steps and called for Dodik to organise an independence referendum. Dodik stated that he would only do so if the autonomy of Republika Srpska was threatened. However, Dodik has lately radicalised his rhetoric. 

President of Croatia Zoran Milanović brought to light the issue of Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which the international community has ignored since the Dayton Agreement was signed. His threats to veto the accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO were based on claims that the political (and ethnic) question of Croats in Bosnia, and Herzegovina has not been solved yet, and NATO has been ignoring it.  In 2018, Zeljko Komsic was elected as the Croat member of Bosnia’s presidency. However, because the votes of the Bosnian Croats are not counted separately (as the Bosnian Croats are not living in their political entity – even though in some cantons they represent the majority), Komsic won by the simple fact that Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were voting for him. Paradoxically, Komsic, even though he is Croat, was not elected by Croatians.

The critical thing is to keep the military presence of the European Union in the region. However, because of the relatively poorly built common European defence and its strategic reliance on NATO, it is possible that such a task would require extra help from the Alliance as well.

The international peacekeeping presence within the country should be strengthened. In case the political discussion in the country fails, the international community should be prepared for the worst-case scenarios. That means that the European Union should enlarge its Althea mission. 

What the European Union lacks the most is a potential program for not just the construction of post-war Dayton-like Bosnia and Herzegovina but, more importantly, for the possible reconstruction of the country based on more recent political changes within the country. In short – it looks like the EU’s mentality towards Bosnia and Herzegovina is stuck in 1995. A dialogue with all three ethnicities is needed. Such discussion would lead to an equal balance of the political powers of ethnicities. The radicalisation of all three ethnicities is partially a result of the lack of the European Union’s positive and progressive approach toward Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russian and Chinese influence in the region was caused by the passive policy of the EU, which led to the rise of autocracy, thus automatically making the discontented population look for answers to their questions and demands elsewhere.

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“NATO, the EU and the Growing Instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Challenges and Risks” – Jaroslav Cabuk

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