Could unlikely alliances between Serb and Croatian hardliners threaten the country’s unity?
On January 12, a procedure was launched to dismiss the Croatian Ambassador Ivan Del Vechio from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The move came after Del Vechio attended a controversial commemoration in Banja Luka, the administrative centre of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity.
The commemoration of ‘Republika Srpska statehood day’ was held on January 9 to mark the 27th anniversary of the creation of the Serb-dominated entity in 1992. The secessionist movement by the country’s Serbs is widely seen as a precursor to the bloody four-year war that pitted Bosnian ethnic Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats against each other, and resulted in more than 100,000 deaths.
The first president of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadzic - often referred to as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’ in the media - sought the entity’s unification with Serbia. He is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence after he was found guilty of the genocide in Srebrenica, war crimes and crimes against humanity by The Hague tribunal.
The controversial ‘statehood day’ holiday was also ruled unconstitutional by Bosnia’s state-level constitutional court in 2015 because it was judged to be discriminatory against non-Serbs in the entity.
When asked about the Croatian ambassador’s diplomatic faux pas, the Croatian president declared she wasn’t aware of his presence at the event. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs published an official statement declaring they “were not informed about Del Vechio’s visit to Banja Luka”.
While Del Vechio’s dismissal is expected to diffuse some immediate tension between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the roots of the friction between the neighbouring countries run much deeper.
“The relations between Sarajevo and Zagreb are at their lowest point since the 90s,” stated Jasmin Mujanovic, political scientist, university professor and author of Hunger & Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans.
Undermining Bosnia’s unity
Diplomatic relations have deteriorated following the Bosnian general election in October 2018. The Bosnian political system is based on the Dayton peace agreement from 1995 that put an end to the bloody conflict in the country, but also froze its ethnic divisions into the political system.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is today comprised of two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (predominantly Bosniak and Croat) and Republika Srpska (predominantly Serb), held together by a national parliament and a tripartite presidency, with a seat for a candidate from each of the three main ethnicities (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs).
In the last election, it was Zeljko Komsic of the Democratic Front (DF) - a moderate candidate advocating a stronger unity of Bosnia – who was elected for the Croat presidency, over Dragan Covic of the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ BiH), who has been supportive of a greater autonomy for Croats in Bosnia. Covic’s party is the Bosnian branch of the right-wing party in power in Croatia (HDZ), so it doesn’t come as a surprise that Komsic’s victory drew criticism from Croatian officials.
Both the prime minister and president of Croatia have openly criticised the election of Komsic saying it will not be good for Bosnian Croats. European Parliament members from Croatia have expressed "deep concern" over the election process in Bosnia and Herzegovina in a letter addressed to top EU officials, claiming “Bosniak voters had elected the Bosnian Croat member of the presidency”.
A couple of days after the election in Bosnia, the Croats of Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia ethnically divided between Croats and Bosniaks, marched through the city centre protesting Komsic’s victory, holding banners stating: "Not my president."
In December, the Croatian parliament went as far as adopting a bill about the position of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The bill calls for an amendment to Bosnia’s constitution and election legislation in order to enable the Croats, the least numerous ethnicity, to be equal to the two others.
For Mujanovic, such a bill is a blunt interference in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s domestic affairs. “If this would happen between two European countries, this would be a huge scandal,” he said. The political scientist added that it is a clear continuation of Covic’s politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “His party has been very radical for years,” he said.
Even though Covic lost the elections, he continued to campaign against Komsic. In December 2018, he made an official visit to the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – it is unclear in which capacity. He is said to have informed the leader of the conservative Fidesz party about the general internal political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the situation of the Croatian community in Bosnia.
On January 9, he also attended the celebrations in Republika Srpska. Following the event, his party issued a statement blaming the media from Sarajevo for spreading ‘fake news’ about the event with the purpose of “settling a score with the Croats in the country,” according to reports on Bosnian news site Klix.ba.
It is not just the Bosnian media warning about the links between Covic and Milorad Dodik, a longstanding leader of Republika Srpska and current Serb member of the tripartite presidency. In November 2018, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, former high representative in Bosnia (the foreign official designated by the international community to oversee the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement) said in an interview that a Dodik-Covic alliance is the end of Bosnia.
The core of Dodik’s politics over the past decade has been to advocate for the secession of the Republika Srpska entity. After winning the Serbian seat of Bosnia's presidency, he announced he would move his office from the Bosnian Presidency in Sarajevo to another residence in Serb-run East Sarajevo.
Absence of the international community
Dodik’s secessionist aspirations have been emboldened by his close ties to Russia.
“Dodik doesn’t need Russia to run a de facto an autocratic regime. But after 2014, when the Russian annexation of Crimea resulted in such a weak international response, Dodik couldn’t but feel encouraged in his politics,” said Mujanovic.
“Then, in 2016 Brexit took place, Trump came to power, and we have arrived to an unprecedented moment in the history, where consensuses, agreements and treaties don’t seem to work anymore. Dodik, who has always been a radical, has become further radicalised after 2014,” he added.
Dodik is well known for his staunchly pro-Russian views. Straight after his victory in the 2018 elections, he declared that one of his first moves would be to launch an initiative to recognise Crimea as part of Russia at state level in Bosnia. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself had reportedly wished Dodik success in elections, and the Russian ambassador to Bosnia was also present in Banja Luka on January 9.
For Mujanovic, Russia’s objective is to keep Bosnia out of the EU and NATO, which is much easier to achieve if the country stays as ethnically fragmented as possible.
So far, Dodik’s ties to Putin’s Russia and active obstruction of the Dayton Peace Agreement implementation haven’t triggered a strong response from the international community.
The EU and the US both opposed the referendum on celebrating ‘The Day of Republika Srpska’ on January 9 back in 2016, but Dodik was only sanctioned by the US, which blocked him from entering the country and prevented him accessing any of his properties and assets under US jurisdiction
“That referendum was, in my view, a crucial moment in Bosnia’s history. It was yet another proof for Dodik that there are no rules, no consequences, no adequate response from Brussels...Maybe somebody will send you a severe tweet, but that’s all,” said Mujanovic.
It is a very dangerous precedent to set.
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