Some of the elements in the Bosnia crisis mirror the frozen conflicts of the Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
When Bosnian Serb politicians announced their intent to block the functioning of state-level institutions last July, their decision plunged the country into a months-long crisis that is still ongoing. What began as essentially a boycott of state institutions turned into a far more serious assault on Bosnia's sovereignty. Bosnian Serb leader and member of the country's tripartite presidency Milorad Dodik made his statement of intent clear on multiple occasions: to withdraw from state-level institutions and establish parallel centres of power.
His recent visit to Russia and the much-anticipated meeting with President Vladimir Putin remains a mystery. While Dodik claims to have met with the Russian leader, there was no photo-op and many question whether the meeting even took place. Analysts who waited for clues were left wondering what the Bosnian Serb leader's future course of action would be.
Last Friday, a special session of the Republika Srpska assembly was held. The members ushered in a process of revoking the decisions of the Republika Srpska of 16 years ago to transfer powers to the state level in the areas of justice, defence and taxation. This means that Republika Srpska is directly challenging the state's powers in these fields and is essentially seeking to strip the state of its sovereignty. New legislation towards this end is to be prepared in the next six months for adoption. This six-month delayed effect tests the waters and takes the measure of Bosniak and international reactions. It also provides the Bosnian Serb leaders with bargaining leverage to potentially extract concessions in exchange for discontinuing the process of secession.
An interesting twist in the current crisis is that Dodik is announcing the steps but is handing over the formal decision-making to the Republika Srpska assembly and the entity-level government. A likely reason is that he wants to both have the pretense of a collective decision but also to transfer responsibility to a collective body and make the imposition of targeted and individualised US or European sanctions on him less likely.
Similarities with post-Soviet frozen conflict?
As the 26th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords approaches this December, Bosnia is now at a crossroads. Will Dodik proceed with secession as he all but essentially declared in September and October? Or is he going to continue the process of undermining the state-level institutions but stopping short of an outright secession? The answer lies in the weeks ahead now that the six-month countdown period has begun. Observers are pondering whether he will be making any decisions or proclamations in the lead up to or on January 9 – the 30th anniversary of the beginning of secession back in 1992.
While Dodik has worked to undermine Bosnia's state-level institutions for years and has now pledged to form his own, there is another scenario that is playing out: turning Bosnia into Europe's newest frozen conflict. In other words, even if he decides to put secession on the back burner for now and continue with hollowing out state institutions, his actions would still mean that Bosnia would be facing the prospect of a long-term stalemate. The post-Soviet space conflicts come to mind.
Though the situation in Bosnia and in the South Caucasus is different, there are still remarkable similarities when comparing frozen conflicts. A look at these conflicts in the post-Soviet space shows that the situation in Bosnia has some elements mirroring those conflicts.
First, just as in the Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, separatists in Bosnia had the support of external actors in the 1990s. Without this support, the separatist project could not have been undertaken or sustained. In much the same way that external actors support separatists in South Caucasus, a similar trend was and continues to be present in Bosnia.
Second, as in the frozen conflicts in South Caucasus, separatists in Bosnia established a political entity in the 1990s. However, this entity does not and never did have international recognition.
Third, prior to attempted secession in the 1990s, there were ethnic, religious and linguistic differences between separatists and the central governments. These differences became more pronounced after the end of the war. A similar pattern emerged in both the Balkans and South Caucasus.
Fourth, as in the South Caucasus, new elites have formed in Republika Srpska after the war. Politicians, tycoons, academics, and many others have vested interests tied to the perpetuation of the status quo.
Fifth, both separatists and the central governments have dug in their negotiating positions. Separatists in the South Caucasus are unwilling to reintegrate into their former homeland while the central governments do not recognise the separatists and are committed to reclaiming their country's territorial integrity. In Bosnia, the undermining of the state institutions by former separatists and their political heirs is the method of choice. To paraphrase von Clausewitz, politics is the continuation of war by other means.
Sixth, international institutions are increasingly incapable of dealing with the crisis in Bosnia. While the Office of the High Representative – the top international body tasked with implementing the civilian aspects of Dayton – was a consequential actor in Bosnia in the first post-war decade, the institution is now largely relegated to the margins of Bosnian politics. In the South Caucasus, international institutions have had no result in mediating the conflicts.
The similarities notwithstanding, there are two major differences between the situation in Bosnia and in the post-Soviet frozen conflicts.
First, a peace agreement was signed in 1995. A basic tenet of Realism 101 was at play: the military balance of power was translated into a political balance of power. The Dayton Peace Accords maintained Bosnia's territorial integrity but rewarded the war-time separatists with an administrative unit – Republika Srpska – with wide-ranging autonomy. Furthermore, Bosnian Serbs have veto power at the state level which means that essentially any decision can be blocked as has been the case since last summer. Unlike the case of Bosnia, no peace agreement was signed between the separatists and the central governments in any of the frozen conflicts in South Caucasus.
A second difference is that, unlike Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Republika Srpska did not have autonomy before the war. This autonomy was the result of war and was officialized in the Dayton Peace Accords.
NATO accession blocked?
Turning Bosnia into a frozen conflict would mean long-term instability. Most importantly, a full-fledged frozen conflict would hamper Bosnia's objective of joining NATO. Unlike a decade ago when Bosnian Serb officials supported the country's integration with NATO, Bosnian Serb leaders are now officially and publicly opposed to it.
While Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats have their respective kin-states, it is primarily Bosniaks who are at the forefront of preserving a unified Bosnia. Bosniaks are also the most ardent champions of the country's accession to NATO. Turning Bosnia into a frozen conflict not only undercuts support for NATO enlargement in Brussels but also leaves the Bosniak population in a limbo.
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