The Death of the Bosnian State

Mourn for the dream of a multi-ethnic Bosnia.

The Dayton Accords left Bosnia a divided ethnic quasi state, and their implementation has not much changed that fact. The decisive event solidifying the ethnic divide was the failure to stop the exodus of several hundred thousand Serbs from Sarajevo to the Serb entity in Bosnia—Republika Srpska (RS)—or Serbia itself. The multiethnic Sarajevo is history. The present major feature in Bosnia is a hardening ethnic divide. The RS basically seeks independence or, at a minimum, a great deal of autonomy. Bosnia’s Croats—still in a diminishing federation with the Bosniaks—have Croatian passports and many are leaving for Croatia or elsewhere, a trend stoked by the new, less restrained Croatian government. Only the Bosniaks seem determined to keep the state going. Bosnia has made some economic progress, not surprising given billions of dollars in foreign aid; a continuation of 15 years of marginal prosperity precludes large-scale violence. But if the RS were to leave Bosnia, widespread violence would likely follow.

All ethnic parties—some more than others—have contributed to the impasse that has left Bosnia with no central government ten months after elections. The Office of the High Representative (OHR), once the Western oversight mechanism to prevent ethnic backsliding and hopefully reduce Dayton’s structural separatism, is widely perceived to have frittered away its influence. It has become a relic, and yet the United States seeks to continue its existence, supposedly to preserve Dayton’s provisions. On the other hand, the EU wants replace OHR with a “robust” EU mission in the belief that its sizeable aid and its effective management, coupled with the promise of EU accession, (even if distant), will ultimately get the ethnic parties to join together in a workable central state.

The EU has become the top player in Bosnia and indeed the whole Balkans (replacing the Americans everywhere except for Kosovo) and provides most of the ever-diminishing peacekeeping forces. That division makes sense so long as membership in the EU remains the end goal for all Balkan countries. Whether dangling the accession carrot before the Bosnians will do the trick of uniting the country remains to be seen, especially when many European voices want to end EU enlargement after Croatia’s accession.

The major determinant of Bosnia’s future—a view many will contest—is likely to be what happens in Serbia and Kosovo. Serbian support is critical to maintaining the RS’s desire to become independent from Bosnia. Serbian President Boris Tadic has thus far cooperated with RS Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, but has not publicly endorsed his pronouncements on RS’s necessary separation. Nationalists in Serbia, moreover, have increasingly given attention to the RS becoming part of Serbia as the attachment to Kosovo weakens. As for Kosovo, Belgrade’s territorial agenda has shrunk to achieve legal ownership of the Serb-inhabited north, which it hopes to get in the current negotiations with Kosovo run by the EU. That is not acceptable to Kosovo, nor thus far to Brussels or Washington. Getting Kosovo’s north would obviously sharply open the question in Serbia of where the RS belongs. Not much will likely change in Bosnia until the Kosovo issue is settled.

Instead of pressing Tadic on both the RS and Kosovo, the EU apparently believes that its strong support for the more Westward-looking Serb politician, the beginning of Serbia’s accession talks this year, and continuing Kosovo-Serbia negotiations will not only preserve Tadic’s political standing in next year’s Serbian elections, but also alter his policies on Bosnia and Kosovo. Indeed, because of the EU’s internal division on the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, it has been reluctant to convey categorically to Belgrade that Serbia cannot enter the EU without first resolving its differences over Kosovo’s sovereignty. It is not surprising that Bosnia’s Croats are looking more to Croatia.

The EU deserves the chance to help make Bosnia a real country. But that will depend less on persuasion and the promise of EU membership than on fortitude in controlling Bosnia’s ethnic tensions, determined management of Serbia’s EU membership process (once they grant Belgrade accession status in the near future) and avoidance of land mines in the continuing Serbia-Kosovo negotiations that have borne a few modest administrative agreements. As Bosnia apparently settles into frozen conflict status, one should not be too optimistic that deferential EU diplomacy will prove transformative.