Task Forces

28.11.2021.

Sir Ivor Roberts: Is this the end of the peace pact holding Bosnia together?

By Sir Ivor Roberts, former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy, former president of Trinity College, Oxford. EWB Board of Governors member. Published by Politico

The EU is sleepwalking into losing the Western Balkans — and can’t afford to.

The international community — or, more precisely, the European Union and the United States — has been in a long-standing predicament over the past 26 years, since the Dayton Agreement brought an end to the bloody civil war in Bosnia. Dayton was supposed to be the superglue that created a new unitary state from previously warring ethnic shards. But every couple years, we are reminded that the glue isn’t holding.

Once again, we are in just such a crisis right now, as membership talks regarding Western Balkans countries stall and Milorad Dodik, the political leader of the Bosnian Serbs, threatens to withdraw from shared state institutions — including the army — and de facto secede from the Bosnian state. But this time, we might just be looking at the end of Dayton, and ignoring the main cause.

 

Upon Dodik’s announcement, it did not take long for Christian Schmidt, the most recently appointed High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina — a U.N. post conferred with surprisingly strong gubernatorial powers to oversee the implementation of the Dayton Agreement — to lay the blame squarely at Dodik’s feet.

In his report to the U.N. Security Council, Schmidt observed that Bosnia faces its biggest “existential threat of the post-war period,” if the international community does not curb separatist actions by Bosnian Serbs. He also called for (and received) an extension on the small EU military force in the region.

However, it is important not to overlook that Dodik’s threats also came as a direct response to a decision made by Schmidt’s outgoing predecessor, Valentin Inzko. Inzko decided, in the last days of his 13-year term, to impose a law that made it a crime punishable by up to five years in prison to deny that the massacre at Srebrenica was a genocide.

Let’s pause here for a moment to be quite clear: The massacre of July 1995 has been rightly confirmed by the International Court of Justice and the U.N. as genocide. Nothing can or should diminish the gravity of the crime.

But in the wake of his decision, Inzko said two interesting things. First, he said he knew what the consequences of his decision would be — that is, how Dodik would react. And second, he said his decision to make genocide denial a crime simply brought Bosnia and Herzegovina in line with European norms.

On the first point, Inzko is essentially saying that in his view, it was worth triggering Bosnia’s biggest conflict since the war in order to get this law passed — which, as someone who was witness to the brutal war in Bosnia and a participant in the negotiations which led to Dayton, I find it hard to agree with.

 

On the second point — that is all well and good. It makes sense for the country to get in line with EU norms because it will imminently become a member of the EU — except that it won’t.

This year’s Western Balkans summit, held at the charming Slovenian estate of Brdo pri Kranju, effectively ended the hopes of West Balkans countries joining the EU any time soon. The EU sugared the pill with blandly encouraging statements and a generous €9 billion economic and investment plan. But the region’s leaders, and their peoples, recognize a door slamming in their face when they see one.

Brdo effectively ended the hopes of a whole generation, hopes that had initially been raised at another summit in Thessaloniki in 2003 — that’s eighteen years ago — when the official declaration stated, “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” And it is the boldness of the EU’s 2003 offer that enabled regional politicians to provide their people with a point on the horizon for which to aim.

Most importantly, for a region that had seen ethnic groups only recently divided by new borders, it promised a return to a time when those borders had little significance, becoming marks of distinction not division. This vision enabled politicians to leverage certain behaviors from otherwise grumpy and volatile electorates. Robbed of the EU membership narrative after eighteen years of anticipation, these politicians don’t have much left to promise.

For Bosnia and Herzegovina, the prospect of EU membership promised to defuse the ethnic standoff that has continued since Dayton was signed. And on that level, Dayton has been a huge success: It has kept the peace, an achievement that many thought would be impossible. Beyond this, the country has also succeeded in reaffirming a Bosnian identity that most are proud of.

Yet realists have always recognized that Dayton was a good way to end the war but a bad way to build a state. There are many reasons why it has not succeeded, but an important one is that Dayton, unlike earlier peace deals that proposed a multiethnic cantonal structure, actually enshrined the division of Bosnia in two ethnic blocs with a high degree of autonomy in a decentralized shared state.

 

High Representatives, most notably the late Lord Ashdown, have tried to revise Dayton over the years by creating a stronger center, and over the years, the Bosnian Serbs have resisted on the basis that that is not what they signed up for. Thus, there has been, and is, permanent conflict between the centralizing urges of the High Representative and the Bosnian Serbs’ insistence on decentralization.

In the eighteen years since Thessaloniki, Bosnia and Herzegovina has gone along, putting up with friction between ethnic groups in the expectation that EU membership was in the post. But the EU can’t have it both ways. It can’t bossily impose European norms through an unelected governor, if those European norms don’t lead anywhere.

In contrast, U.S. President Joe Biden sees Bosnia and Kosovo as unfinished business and has already signaled that the U.S. is ready to get involved in resolving these long-standing crises.  He has a formidably experienced team of Balkan experts in the State Department and already sent one of them, the smart and affable Gabe Escobar, to Bosnia to put out the fire, swiftly removing the leadership role from the Europeans’ limp grasp.

It is extraordinary that it falls to the U.S. to defuse a crisis within Europe itself. This episode has been hugely damaging to the prestige and authority of the EU, and the U.S. is not the only global power that will step into that vacuum.

If the EU cares as much as it says it does about peace and stability in Bosnia, it should stop railing against the symptoms of the problem and address the cause, providing Bosnia and other countries in the region with a clear road map that will reward difficult choices with membership.

Perhaps one day we will then find the glue has set.