As the international community focuses its attention and resources on Ukraine, the chances of the conflict escalating elsewhere have grown. Bosnia-Herzegovina now faces the consequences of the lack of strategic foresight behind the Dayton Accords, the agreement which formed the country’s tripartite presidency between Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats. The agreement was crafted by Western powers in Dayton, Ohio, in response to the Yugoslav wars (1992-95) that saw a yearslong siege on the capital Sarajevo, culminating in the killing of over 8,000 Bosniaks at Srebrenica. Due to the short-term incentives behind the signing of Dayton and the lack of political motivation of the United States, the European Union and NATO to consider long-term implications of the agreement, the country is now at risk of disintegration and inter-ethnic tension similar to the catalyst of the genocide and wars of the 1990s. The 1992 referendum, which led to Bosnian Serbs declaring independence, catalyzing the Yugoslav wars, is frighteningly similar to current events that could potentially reignite the flames of ethnic strife.
The Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) within Bosnia-Herzegovina is now undertaking secessionist moves and fueling nationalist hatred, the likes of which make one fear the repetition of history. The Republika Srpska voted in December to withdraw itself from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s tax system, judiciary, and most concerningly, the armed forces. Just over two weeks ago, Republika Srpska also approved a draft resolution to follow the move through. Even more concerning is the rising nationalist sentiment among Serbs and sentiments as extreme as genocide denial, expressed through political statements and mass public demonstrations.
Fueling this fire is the virulent nationalist attitude of the Bosnian Serbs that caused the Yugoslav wars in 1992 and subsequent ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The hatred of some Bosnian Serbs toward the Bosniaks stems from the time of Ottoman-ruled Bosnia when many Serbs converted to Islam while the majority of Christians retained their freedom of worship under Muslim law. As such, Bosniaks are viewed as traitors and Ottoman co-conspirators, instilling in the hearts of many Serbs a desire for revenge that was openly expressed by the perpetrators of the 1995 genocide, centuries later.
Concerningly, in addition to political moves toward secession, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has empowered such virulent and hateful forms of Serbian nationalist rhetoric. Dodik has recently also repealed laws that banned genocide denial as well as the praising of the perpetrators, such as Ratko Mladic who has continued to gain superhero status among Serbs from his prison cell. Disturbing scenes have been witnessed in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, of Bosnian Serb paramilitaries on parade as well as the celebration of those like Mladic and others responsible for ethnic cleansings. While Bosniaks are unable to forget the painful memories from its recent past, secessionist Serbs persistently deny the genocides and resentment of the fact they could not gain full independence. With Bosnian Serb paramilitary forces openly parading in the streets and the open shameless expressions of racism reaching an all-time high since the genocide itself, one should fear for the Bosniaks minority living in the republic given the chances of escalation.
The reality is that the current tension in Bosnia-Herzegovina was completely foreseeable at the time of the signing of the Dayton Accords due to its inherent lack of foresight. The agreement’s essential flaw is that it neglected to ameliorate the underlying grievances behind the conflict. In order to halt the violence that had peaked with the Srebrenica genocide, the Dayton Accords split Bosnia-Herzegovina into three separate sub-states for Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, respectively, with a joint presidency with respective representatives. As experts know, peace agreements like the Dayton Accords where the primary sole outcome is to stop physical violence are a Band-Aid and only the first step to solving a conflict. If grievances are not addressed, tension will continue to be bridled, and we see the manifestation of this in increased Bosnian Serb nationalist activity.
The agreement was signed in 1995 as former U.S. President Bill Clinton was approaching the end of his second term, lacking the political incentive to craft an agreement that yielded more than short-term results. Clinton was under pressure as the lack of credibility he exuded catalyzed the genocide at Srebrenica. A similar failure on Clinton’s part that he later admitted led to the genocide of up to 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in Rwanda, a catastrophe he similarly failed to halt despite being informed of it in advance. Despite repeated threats from NATO of aerial bombing should the Serb soldiers breach the city limits, the Serbs called the bluff and moved in – the U.S. and others knew of their intention to commit genocide in Srebrenica. Mladic strolled in with no resistance and said on record, “We give this town to the Serb nation ...The time has come to take revenge on the Muslims.” It then took five consecutive days and over 8,000 Muslim men killed and hundreds of women raped for the West to step in and help put together a cease-fire, and later set up the Yugoslavia Criminal Tribunal (YTC) in order to try and imprison the perpetrators of the ethnic cleansing.
Calls by the international community urging Republika Srpska to cease their secessionist activity and abide by the Dayton Agreement fall on deaf ears and show little sincerity. The fact that concerns about the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina were barely raised until a potential reengagement in conflict indicates the lackadaisical attitude of the West toward the country. This attitude and lack of sincere effort to attack the root causes of conflict in the country is as mentioned embodied in the core of the Dayton Agreement. By institutionalizing ethnic differences into the tripartite state, Dayton practically set the stage for nationalists to incite separatist violence once again.
The fact that Dayton was paraded by the U.S. as a major breakthrough while its long-term consequences were neglected indicates Western insincerity about upholding its human rights norms and more widely its global institution regime. This insincerity can be observed in other matters, such as the gradual disintegration of NATO’s credibility, which likely contributed to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the aforementioned genocide in Rwanda that the U.S. had sufficient knowledge of to prevent. The Western approach to Bosnia-Herzegovina is part of a wider trend of events that has denigrated Western credibility beyond recognition. The lack of costly signaling from the West when it comes to upholding the rules-based international order indicates a disinterest in upholding the values that the West holds as inviolable, except in situations where there are financial or military incentives. This raises the question of whether Western powers truly believe in these values or whether these values are merely a means to exert influence and secure interests while appearing concerned for the wellbeing of people.
One naturally, therefore, questions whether the U.S. and the EU can still be relied on to act as a credible mediator in situations where there is a risk of humanitarian catastrophes. The effort by the West, the U.S. in particılar, to play global policeman is coming to a clear end with the failure to deter Russia from invading a sovereign state.
The fact that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has drawn only limited and measured responses from the West exacerbates the risk of conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Not only do the responses of the West pale in comparison to the costliness of Russian actions, but it took over a month of Russia staring down the barrel for the West to get its act together and show some kind of unity. Such a slow response from the West makes it less likely that the Bosnian Serbs would fear a response from the West should they return to the persecution of the Bosniaks within the Republika Srpska.
Due to the preoccupation of the Western world with Ukraine, added to their general lack of willingness to take matters seriously, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has recently signaled Turkey’s willingness and capability to mediate the deteriorating situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This would be a step in the right direction because it would give the Bosniaks equal footing with the Bosnian Serbs, who are implicitly backed by Russia. Erdoğan is also a statesperson that has shown far greater sincerity and willingness to sacrifice his personal political interests for the sake of humanitarian outcomes. His intake of Syrian refugees into Turkey is a major indicator of his willingness to do whatever is within his capacity for humanitarian reasons and not mere interests. He is a credible actor because he has on several occasions shown himself as willing to deploy troops in order to protect the security interests of the Turkish people. The history and connection that Turkey has with Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottoman past is also another factor that increases Erdoğan’s credibility as a mediator, as it indicates a willingness to pay whatever cost is necessary for the security of Bosnia-Herzegovina.