Bosnia's future depends on leaders showing restraint
Bosnia's future depends on leaders showing restraint
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia's future depends on leaders showing restraint

Bosnia's elections are over but its war of words is escalating. Bosnia's election commission was still counting ballots when on 12 October the Times quoted Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Zlatko Lagumdzija threatening "physical force" to prevent Serb secession and warned a new war could result.

Lagumdzija's party is civic-oriented, multiethnic but in effect supported mainly by Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) who gave it the largest number of their votes after their campaign focused on economic progress and downplayed nationalism.

For these reasons Lagumdzija's words have provided a jolt. In part, they respond to pre-election rhetoric from Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik – ironically, also a social democrat – who provoked Bosniaks by minimising Serb wartime atrocities and predicting Bosnia's "peaceful disintegration".

During recent years, Serb delegates have been routinely voting down needed state-level reforms, only to enact the same measures on their own turf. Meanwhile Croats, the smallest section of Bosnia's peoples, complain of marginalisation and their leaders demand an entity of their own, prompting further Bosniak fears of breakup, as they feel their country is slipping away from them, with Serbs and Croats heading for the exits.

Bosniak candidates who in the past rose to Dodik's bait and called for the abolition of Republika Srpska, the entity he controls within Bosnia, lost badly. This shows Bosniak voters are ready for compromise and dialogue. But then Lagumdzija rattled the political scene being the first one to threaten force in many years. He risks triggering a new round of radicalisation.

The war of words comes at a dangerous time. For the past 15 years the international community protected Bosnia's territorial and constitutional integrity with a Nato-led peacekeeping force and the civilian high representative, who enjoyed broad governing powers. Yet international powers have atrophied and Dodik has successfully defied them. The international community is too divided now to reassert its powers.

Continued political radicalisation combined with international powerlessness is a dangerous combination. At best this will bring about a new economic and social downturn. At worst it could lead to violent incidents, and even a resumption of war, if politicians lose control over the ethnic tensions their ill-chosen words provoke.

Although the Bosniak voters signalled their openness towards a compromise, SDP's steadfast positions and harsh statements go in quite the opposite direction. What Bosnia and Herzegovina needs instead is a coolheaded approach from its new-old leaders and quick formation of new governing coalitions. Bosnia also needs clarity from the international community, which should renew its commitment to protect against dissolution but otherwise stop imposing political decisions on it. The European Union should shepherd Bosnia through the reforms it needs to become a member state, and should facilitate co-operation between Bosnia's conflicted leaders.

Yet the fate of Bosnia ultimately rests with its leaders. It is up to you, Mr Dodik, and your willingness to collaborate on building a common, loosely federal state. Or have you determined to give no ground, hoping the Bosniaks will eventually sicken of the frustration and let Republika Srpska go? I fear that if you go for the latter option, Bosnia will sink under the weight of Serb obstruction but it will certainly take Srpska with it.

It is also up to you, Mr Lagumdzija. You claim to represent all Bosnia's peoples, yet you seem to ignore the difficult position of Croats and you warn of using force against a Serb threat you know has not materialised. This erodes what little affection Serbs and Croats feel for Sarajevo and gives Dodik a fine excuse to remain obstructive.

Much depends on whether these two gentlemen will end the war of words. If they do, they may just find enough common ground to give the voters what they want: a European Bosnia. If they don't, Bosnia and Herzegovina faces a bleak future.

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.



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For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

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