30 years on from war, Bosnia needs cool heads

Sheila Osmanovic fears there is a real danger of a future conflict in Bosnia

Bosnia is frequently mentioned in conjunction with the Ukraine-Russia war. The Balkan country’s troubles featured in a recent Sky News piece as a potential future conflict bearing Russian interest. It was portrayed in a similar fashion in several publications dealing with Russian foreign policy analysis. The fact is that Russian foreign policy has had little or no interest in Bosnia’s affairs – at least not until around 2008, as the Russian energy lobby and the strategic port of Brčko in semi-autonomous Republika Srpska rose to prominence. Even though Brčko is in theory a district governed by a separate jurisdiction, it falls de facto under the orbit of Republika Srpska. Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s longstanding president, was only too keen to host and entertain various Russian oligarchs who found a fine welcome amongst emerging local tycoons with strong political ties.

Profitable Russo-Serb business relationships became politically threatened as Western interests, led by the UK special envoy to the Western Balkans, Mr Stuart Peach, heightened. An army veteran, Peach was dispatched to mend the broken relationship between Serbs and Bosniaks, but more importantly to curb Russian influence across Republica Srpska. In his omnipotent style, Dodik dismissed the British messenger, only to, alas, find himself facing sanctions – most notably, a ban on trade on the lucrative London stock markets. The British government reinforced their punitive intentions in a series of visits by various high-ranking politicians. Liz Truss visited Sarajevo on 26th May and made a special address to the Bosnian military, announcing a plan to “deepen strategic military partnership”. What does this mean, and why now?

It is bemusing that the alleged support comes from the same Tory government that 30 years ago turned a blind eye to the massacres, aggression, rapes and ultimately genocide that ravaged Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. The population of Sarajevo, where Truss came to urge support, was left with no food, water, gas or electricity for over three years as it suffered the most atrocious siege and information blockade of the 20th century. Major, Carrington, Owen and co – one after the other were signing hollow peace settlements that served to inflame rather than stop the war. Not a single viable peace solution was proposed, and the war was allowed to bloom. Under the pretext of keeping the peace talks going, the Tories maintained a tight arms embargo. It was under the very eyes of Truss’s Tory predecessors that over one million people fled their homes, more than 50,000 women and girls were raped, and the number of concentration camps, whose only purpose was to torture and terrorise, mushroomed. The final horror was the genocide during which over 8,000 men were killed in mass graves in less than three days. 

The three-year-long bloody war finally ended with the US-led Dayton Agreement signed in 1995. However, it enabled all three sides in Bosnia – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks – to continue war in peace. The Dayton Agreement set up Bosnia as an “international protectorate”; it installed a High Representative with overall powers to make political decisions, and established the rule that only a foreign citizen can become a governor of its central bank. It was a first-of-a-kind state-building experiment. 

Naturally, Bosnia made very little progress, stalled by the crippled state mechanisms. In addition, it was ravaged by constant divisive Serb rhetoric threatening the secession of Republica Srpska. The international governing elite conveniently ignored the multi-layered corruption (on all sides), even allowing Dodik to enjoy access to the UK bond and securities markets. The shambles of the state-building in Bosnia dissipated under various self-interests until Dodik vetoed sanctions against Russia and potential NATO membership, much to British dislike.

Tory policies echo those from 30 years ago. They threaten conflict in Bosnia yet again. The British are fast-tracking Bosnia into NATO, a proposal that was universally ridiculed just a year ago. Bosnian talks for EU accession have been a carrot since the end of the war in 1995, but always ended in hollow promises and endless demands for improvement. It was a well-known joke on the streets of Sarajevo that Bosnia will join when the EU is no more.

The problem with NATO membership is that all the Serb population in Bosnia, which is around half of the country, is against. The Serbs disagree with imposing any sanctions on Russia. Any unilateral decision in Bosnia is politically hazardous and is guaranteed to upset the Serbs, who are already blocking progress and threatening secession. Should Bosniaks – and Croat politicians, to an extent – ignore the political stance of the Serbs, the dispute could escalate and conflict become inevitable. The Tories are offering military help this time. It is untimely and, frankly, the last thing that this impoverished country needs. The defence industry in Bosnia is flourishing – the only sector that can boast success. Those channels are already well established and don’t require NATO input. Tiny Bosnia is selling artillery and specially designed military components to over 55 countries, generating in excess of £100m annual turnover.

The rumours of potential Russian destabilisation of the country seem to be rigged by external self-interests rather than the product of the domestic political misfits. The future stability of Bosnia lies not in following those who have already failed them. Future peace in Bosnia lies in finding a solution based on cooperation to overcome the short-sightedness of nationalisms at home. The question is whether the politicians of the Bosniak-Croat Federation are independent enough to adopt that approach.

This piece was edited on 6/9/22 to correct a subbing error suggesting that Milorad Dodik was the president of Serbia, not Republika Srpska.

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