Political and economic counter-developments in the European Union over the last decade have negatively affected the stability of the Western Balkan countries. The euro-optimism that once prevailed in the public sphere until 2010 has weakened and given way to euroscepticism. This same euroscepticism developed into the radical nationalism that led to the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
Today, this is best demonstrated in Serb-Albanian relations in the conflict over Kosovo. The radical nationalist regime led by President Aleksandar Vucic, with the assistance of Russia and China, has persistently sought to revise Kosovo’s state independence in international U.N. and EU bodies. The current Serbian regime, just as Slobodan Milosevic's regime did in the 1990s, is uncompromisingly forcing the idea of a “peaceful” partition of Kosovo along with ethnic principles that would include the Serb enclaves in northern Kosovo as part of Serbia.
The solution to the so-called “Serbian question” in Serbian society today means the same thing that it did in the 1990s – all Serbs in one state. This would again encompass changing the internationally recognized borders in the Western Balkans and seceding parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, northern Kosovo, northern Montenegro and parts of North Macedonia to Serbia.
The ideology and politics of ethnonational exclusivity and national homogenization in the Western Balkan countries is so dangerous that it can threaten peace and stability in this part of the European continent. Even Serbia itself, which is the birthplace of the current wave of ethnonational exclusivism in the region, would not survive within its existing borders if this political principle were applied to its territory. Some 300,000 Hungarians and 200,000 Romanians in Vojvodina could, on that principle, seek secession to Hungary and Romania, and 250,000 Bosniaks in the Sandžak could seek secession to Bosnia.
Such ideas have always produced wars in the Balkans. And the wars in the Balkans have never been just Balkan wars. Throughout history, the destabilization of the region has always brought destabilization to the European continent and the aggressive entrance of major Asian powers into the heart of Europe.
However, the most vulnerable country in the Western Balkans is Bosnia-Herzegovina. A sui generis state with two entities and three constituent peoples, constitutionally governed by the Dayton Peace Treaty, Bosnia-Herzegovina is damned to be dysfunctional. Its dysfunction makes it an easy target for its neighbors and the aggressive breakthrough of Russian power from the East. The only effective protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity would be membership in NATO.
In such a landscape, Bosnia-Herzegovina is doomed to lose the only effective protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that of the EU and the European continent in general, to the presence of the Russian threat in Europe. To cut this Gordian knot in Bosnia requires new leadership and a long-term vision for collective security in the European continent. The post-Brexit United Kingdom has the opportunity to take a step in this direction.
For the U.K., a new foreign policy formulation in the Balkans is necessary; and in the world of post-Brexit Europe, Bosnia-Herzegovina serves this role perfectly for two reasons. First, the U.K. has a solid justification for further advancing its position as other global actors, namely the U.S. and the EU, shift their focus. Second, its goals align most closely with Bosnia; countering the breakthrough of Russian interests and interference in the country, and consequently the European Union and the U.K.
Coined in the 1990s, the history between the United Kingdom and Bosnia-Herzegovina is perplexing. One of the U.K.’s first defense operations in the former Yugoslavia, known as Operation Grapple, was launched in support of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country. However, while present on the scene through the U.N. Protection Force, or UNPROFOR’s troops, the British establishment rarely saw a need for deeper engagement in Bosnia either before or during the war.
Rooted deeply in conservative philosophical realism, this foreign policy approach in Bosnia, known as “conservative realism,” was thoroughly analyzed after the war. The British unwillingness to engage in Bosnia revealed all shortcomings in understanding the strategic importance of peace in the Balkans. It is the same approach that failed to understand how Bosnia carried a much greater national interest in Britain than the establishment realized. Almost 30 years later, the chance for correcting this approach is on the rise.
With a new prime minister in Britain, the Balkans (and Bosnia as its weakest link) will move to the end of the list of priorities. But that should not be the case.
The British imperialist politics has historical constants in the Balkans. They are identified through the legacy of two very important goals in the region: limiting the breakthrough of Russian influence toward the warm seas, and limiting and controlling German power in the Balkans. These will remain important goals whether the U.K. stays a member of the European Union or leaves it.
In accordance, retaining its favored status in the U.N. Security Council as well as maintaining a leading role in the European wing of NATO have always been in the interest of the U.K. In Eastern Europe, a region of particular importance for the battle between NATO and Russian expansion, Bosnia-Herzegovina could be key to keeping those interests intact and safeguarding a clear EU and NATO future for the country.
The fact is, though, it will be progressively harder for Britain to maintain an effective role in promoting EU enlargement for Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Balkans, while at the same time leaving the union. It is a position that, if continued, would only lead to the further erosion of any security or political leverage the U.K. might have in defending the Balkans from Russian aggression.
For that, the “conservative realism” that characterized British policy toward Bosnia in the 1990s cannot be the way the U.K. conducts foreign policy today or in the future. In this landscape, skepticism toward the feasibility of these policies should be set aside. The focus ought to be on content, and not on mere international unity regarding policy toward Bosnia. In that sense, the British conundrum is not a matter of what Britain could do, but also the question of what it should do in Bosnia to stop the collapse of Balkan security and the troublesome events of the 1990s from reemerging.
Global competition for the region
Throughout the last decade, the role of the United States in Bosnia-Herzegovina has gradually diminished, mostly because the Bosnian issue was no longer in focus. Mired by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. administration had bigger problems, and the April 2006 package was supposed to be the U.S.’ handoff of Bosnia to the EU.
Being in its backyard, the European Union, with Germany at the helm, saw Bosnia and the Balkans as a natural part of the European family. It was confident in its ability to integrate Bosnia in the new post-Office of the High Representative (OHR) phase through the instruments of the enlargement process and its “soft power” as a tool to transform the country’s poor governance and implement the required political reforms. But it failed – and the problems revealed issues much deeper than anything the April package could have ever solved.
Current times have shown an increased global showdown in the Balkan peninsula. In the search for their own opportunities, various different actors have managed to fill the power vacuum created in the Balkans.
Aside from the well-established Turkish and Middle Eastern presence, the increased Chinese foreign engagement through the Belt and Road initiative, coupled with the backing of pro-Russian actors in Bosnia by the Kremlin, should sound alarms all over Whitehall. For a country like Britain to keep its interest and influence protected, strong alliances are required. More often than before, these alliances do not encompass huge structural blocs such as the EU, but can rather be found in smaller countries with potential for a strategic partnership. Such could be the case with Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Amidst the Brexit chaos that the U.K. will undergo, a unique opportunity is opening up for both sides. The region has been alienated by the Euro family. The times when candidate status equaled EU membership are long gone. But the complete lack of a European perspective for the Balkan countries, with Bosnia at the end of the queue, means leaving the region susceptible to a steep decline in political and economic reforms.
The drift of Bosnia showcases the falsehood of all the presumptions held in 2005, on both sides of the Atlantic, about the unjustified belief that the march of deepening democracy in the Western Balkans would occur on its own – a common fallacy regarding transitional countries. To evolve society in Bosnia to the point of actual progressive change requires patience, social force and assistance of a kind that would actively engage citizens in freeing the state from endemic corruption and establishing the rule of law. The West’s present bureaucratic autopilot is not the answer.
Yet there are ways to change this. The U.K. may not compensate directly for alienating EU allies by ramping up its engagement in the Balkans. But it can demonstrate leadership – if it can bring others along with it – in confronting the security challenges which the Western Balkans face. A show of such determination in the Balkans would keep the U.K. relevant in Europe, especially in its contribution to the continent’s defense and security. Furthermore, in the wake of the EU’s enlargement crisis, the U.K. can establish itself in the Balkans as an independent power, one that would politically balance the EU frontrunners in the region, France and Germany.
These challenges, all of which are domestic in origin in Bosnia, are solvable. Russia has increased its activity, and its traction is exacerbated by the fact that the region as a whole is poorly governed, often lacking the institutional capacity to fight off these problems. By acting as a counterweight, the U.K.’s involvement in Bosnia, where the Russians have most play compared to the rest of the region, and a different foreign policy approach could produce a solution.
More so, countries as small as Bosnia-Herzegovina usually have an easier path toward cooperation. The country desperately needs to build its credibility in the international community, and a strategic partnership with the United Kingdom through trade, security, military and diplomatic initiatives and strategies offers one potential avenue.
The ongoing meltdown in Bosnia
In the meantime, the scenery in the Balkans has changed. After the failure of the coup in Montenegro and the attempt to pry North Macedonia away from NATO accession – both planned and executed by Russia – the focus now shifts entirely to Bosnia-Herzegovina and its smaller entity Republika Srpska.
There lies the final frontier of the Russian stronghold in the Balkans, reflected in the figure of Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency. As a long-time Kremlin ally, Dodik has aligned himself with Moscow circles, both through energy connections and by pushing Russia’s political agenda.
In itself, the Republika Srpska is also the last project standing of the greater Serbian ideology, the same ideology that was responsible for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Muslims in Bosnia during the war. Calling actively for secession from the Bosnian state, the nationalist regime, backed by the Kremlin, therefore sees NATO and the Euro-Atlantic integration of Bosnia as a threat to their goal of a unified Serbian state.
Through its continued support as a patron, Russia’s interest lies in keeping the country ethnically divided, projecting an image of an unsustainable community of two entities and three nations. These conflicts are here to stay. They are the strategic objective of Russian activity in Bosnia: Support all actors, politicians or organizations that are loyal to Moscow, and that will help stop EU and NATO expansion in the region. Such continuous pressure from Moscow and Republika Srpska is a focal point of the destabilization of the country, and therefore the whole Balkan region.
Dodik’s regime has taken several steps to achieve these goals. Over the years, it has successfully built up a network of unconstitutional parallel structures, including a paramilitary force trained in Russia, “Serbian honor.” It has also managed to create an auxiliary police unit, although this has now been rebranded as a gendarmerie unit.
Furthermore, external factors have played into his hands. The recent EU Commission’s opinion has put a halt on the EU enlargement process. This leaves Bosnia undefended in the face of growing threats to the country. Therefore, in the light of its anarchic legal constitutional order, the question is how Britain, in alliance with the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, can resist Russian support for Republika Srpska when the entity can impede state policy from within state institutions.
Toward a new partnership?
For starters, Britain cannot do this alone – but it can set a tone that the rest can follow. The primary goal would be to support Bosnia politically on international forums in all initiatives that can build the self-sustainability of the state structure. The aim is to abolish, or at least reduce, the power of entity voting, and this can only be ensured through strong political and financial pressure, i.e. sanctions, on political actors in Bosnia. Additionally, for the preservation of European security in a post-Brexit climate, and in order to fend off Russian ambitions in the country, the U.K. commitment to Bosnia in terms of diplomatic, commercial, security and military cooperation can, and should, be much greater.
In a military sense, the establishment in London could start off by rethinking its strategy of “reserve status” in the EUFOR Althea peacekeeping mission, and instead, send long-term U.K. troops to a fixed site in Bosnia. Moreover, a new U.K. military base would carry great weight, especially if located in the city of Brčko, a district that divides the two territories of Republika Sprska. The goal of the newly assigned contingent could encompass a detailed plan of rebuilding infrastructure and modernizing defense.
In terms of development, London could offer Sarajevo a structure for a civil and military relationship upgrade, making it a strategic partnership from the start. A “Bosnia 2030” project could contain a developmental and commercial package at various levels, focused on infrastructure, state-building and expanding bilateral trade, as well as adopting technology, specifically digital technology. In doing so, setting up a U.K.-Bosnian business development council would help link up firms and identify business opportunities in both countries.
For a country that will eventually, whether in the near or farther future, become part of the EU, U.K. access to the Western Balkans market, a still-developing region, may be an attractive feature. While small in numbers population-wise, and even smaller in trade value compared to the rest of European countries, the region is a potential investment market for the U.K. Bosnia-Herzegovina is no exception. Rich in natural resources, ores and mining, energy and tourism, as well as a solid IT industry, the prospects are there. Establishing bigger and broader economic interests in Bosnia, preferably through a free-trade agreement, would be one way to reflect British strategic needs after Brexit. Advancing economic prosperity is an effective way of promoting political stability.
In the diplomatic field, a specially appointed envoy would serve in the interest of both the U.K. and Bosnia's bilateral goals and could work in various global centers to build continuous support for Bosnian statehood and stability, while the country engages in structural reforms on its Euro-Atlantic path.
Such commitment would produce a geopolitically stable Balkans in which Britain is established as a global power in Bosnia. Furthermore, U.K. cooperation with the Bosnian Armed Forces (AFBiH) would prepare and further advance the country’s readiness for NATO integration. More importantly, it would send a message of unwavering support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In times when neighboring countries are massively building up their arsenal of weapons, deterrence works only when the cost of engaging in conflict is higher than staying put.
These strategic objectives should also be accompanied by the U.K. spreading, and deepening, its soft power in Bosnia. In the experience of bilateral relations so far between civil society institutions, the academic community and prominent civilian elites from all three national corps have not sufficiently helped in promoting the idea of the civic state and building its institutions. In addition to the national political elites participating in the government in Bosnia, there are other civic elites who are not represented enough, and their initiatives to change internal political relations are hardly present in the public eye.
Furthermore, besides the active Chevening program, which has produced an incredibly diverse profile of experts, the British establishment should identify, take under its wings, and train young potential leaders in Bosnia the British arts of diplomacy, soft power and state leadership.
Such actions would align the interests of both the domestic actors and London, in order to serve the goals of achieving liberal democratic values, a strong rule of law, military readiness, progressive standards in society, and a reliable strategic partner who could be a bulwark in battling Russian activity in the Balkans.
*Cančar holds an MA in International Political Economy from King's College London, where he studied under the Chevening scholarship program awarded by the United Kingdom