A Peace, Or Just A Cease-Fire?
A Peace, Or Just A Cease-Fire?
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Report 28 / Europe & Central Asia

A Peace, Or Just A Cease-Fire?

Achieving the ambitious goals of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (DPA) -- forging a unified state out of the shaky Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and resistant and unstable Republika Srpska -- is a complex and difficult undertaking which has not been made easier by the quest for a so-called “exit strategy”. 

Executive Summary

Achieving the ambitious goals of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (DPA) -- forging a unified state out of the shaky Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and resistant and unstable Republika Srpska -- is a complex and difficult undertaking which has not been made easier by the quest for a so-called “exit strategy”.  Ultimately, success will be judged by the durability of the peace.  But as the pre-announced departure date for the NATO-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) approaches, it is clear that a self-sustaining peace is not yet in sight.

Analysts agree on two plausible scenarios in the event of a premature withdrawal of NATO’s stabilising presence.  One revolves around the possibility of a Bosniac attempt to take advantage of Republika Srpska’s geographic vulnerability, a scenario discussed extensively in the Bosniac media in the spring of 1997.  The other hinges on the virtual certainty that, in the absence of international peace-keepers, localised incidents of ethnic fighting would occur which would be likely to escalate.  Either scenario would generate further forced population movements and may trigger a chain reaction, with political instability expanding to other parts of the Balkans, proceeding to an unforeseen conclusion.

This paper concerns three military topics that are seldom raised in relation to one another but that cannot meaningfully be assessed in isolation.  Taken together, they are likely to have a decisive effect on the future of the DPA: the balance of military forces among the former combatants on a sub-regional level; the US-sponsored Train and Equip programme; and the NATO exit strategy.

The balance of military forces among the former combatants, including the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and Croatia, has been the focus of a sub-regional arms reduction process monitored by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).  Levels were set at a ratio of 5:2:2, based on the approximate size of the populations of FRY, Croatia and Bosnia, further divided on a 2:1 ratio between the Federation and Republika Srpska.  On 21 November 1997, the OSCE announced that all four parties had met their reduction liabilities by the 31 October deadline.  Republika Srpska and the FRY destroyed the most weapons but remained at or near the allowed ceilings, since they had by far the largest excess of weapons at the start of the process.  The Federation was only required to destroy artillery.

It must be assumed that there are weapons as yet undeclared on all sides, although over time these will deteriorate if they are not maintained and will diminish as a destabilising factor.  Assuming continued mutual monitoring under OSCE auspices, quantitative uncertainties will become less pressing and qualitative factors such as economic conditions, morale, strategic liabilities and political dynamics will assume more importance.

Early in the arms reduction process, Republika Srpska balked at complying.  This was in part the result of alarm about the US-sponsored “Train and Equip” programme of military support to the Federation.  The assistance, worth about $400 million to date, consists of military training, provided by a private US company -- Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), as well as deliveries of military equipment.  The US have adamantly backed “Train and Equip”, citing the fact that at the start of the war in Bosnia, the correlation of military forces overwhelmingly favoured the Serb beneficiaries of the JNA.  European governments, by contrast, have persistently questioned the wisdom of any military build-up so soon after the war.

Some journalistic portrayals of Train and Equip give the impression that MPRI is priming the Federation for an irredentist strike.  But interviews with MPRI officials suggest the programme is actually far more complex, focused primarily on one of the essentials of “state-building”, which is to create a coherent military establishment that has a monopoly on, and effective civilian control over, the use of military force.  While, equipment received to date is far better than that held by the Federation at the end of the war and superior in quality and condition to most of the Republika Srpska arsenal, it is also well below the Federation’s permitted arms control ceilings leaving Republika Srpska with numerical superiority in most categories of weapons.

In sum, the advantages of a judiciously managed and monitored Train and Equip programme outweigh its drawbacks.  In addition, if Train and Equip is extended to the Bosnian Serbs -- as has recently been proposed - it might lower tensions, increase transparency and over time build a military bridge between the Federation and Republika Srpska.  It would, however, be naive to expect a sudden convergence of interests and lapse of animosities.  To the extent that Europeans participate in the programme, it could serve as a mechanism to pull Bosnia closer to Europe. 

Politicians in all democratic countries have to answer to their electorates for the costs of overseas involvements.  The US Administration, in particular, feels under domestic political pressure to arrive at an “end-state” in which US combat troops, which make up the backbone of SFOR, are withdrawn from Bosnia.  However, this preoccupation with “exit strategies” sends a confusing and destabilising message to Bosnians, perpetuating uncertainties about investment, displaced persons’ returns and normalisation.  Worse still, the prospect of a NATO departure encourages hard-liners to sit tight and wait NATO out.

Instead of an “exit strategy”, it may be more constructive to develop “transition strategies” that alter the role and composition of the NATO force over time.  If the follow-on force is intended to provide security for minority returns, enable freedom of movement and install municipal administrations, much less arrest indicted war criminals, it is unlikely to be reduced much below its present strength and, at the same time, remain credible.  Perhaps over time, Europe can develop a common foreign policy and the Western European Union (NATO minus the US and Canada) could assume full responsibility for peace maintenance in the Balkans.  But the entire region -- not only Bosnia but FRY and Croatia, as well as Macedonia and Albania -- will need continuing attention for many years to come.  For the foreseeable future, that will involve a sizeable NATO force in Bosnia, US troops among them. Recent comments by NATO officials in this direction are encouraging.

Sarajevo, 15 December 1997

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.



Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.