Turkey is likely to increase its active diplomacy regarding the latest tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and may even take on a mediating role as unresolved rivalries among its three ethnic groups stoke fears of a new conflict, experts said.
Turkey is a friendly country that has been supporting Bosnia-Herzegovina's stability, sovereignty and territorial integrity since the 1990s up until today, professor Ali Hüseyinoğlu, deputy head of Trakya University's Balkan Research Institute, told Daily Sabah. “The messages delivered by the Turkish authorities from the highest level signal that Turkey will play a far more active and influential role in ebbing the tensions in the region and enhance consensus among the parties.”
Hüseyinoğlu highlighted that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased meetings with the country's political leaders recently and has been more involved in crafting a solution to the current crisis.
Similarly, a researcher at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), Mehmet Uğur Ekinci, said that as the crisis continues, “Turkey, an important regional actor, is expected to intensify its efforts to ensure stability." Ekinci notes that, "If all three sides in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Serbia and Croatia, agree on Turkey's mediation, Turkey can step in to facilitate political negotiations about the future of this country."
He explained that despite various stakeholders having sought Turkey's mediation for some years, Ankara has preferred to encourage dialogue and economic cooperation “instead of getting directly involved in the complex political affairs of this country,” a stance that might change in light of the recent developments.
Saying that all parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina acknowledge Turkey's balanced and constructive approach, Ekinci added that within the trilateral mechanisms established in 2009, Turkey has also been in constant consultations with Serbia and Croatia about the political situation in the Balkan country.
On Jan. 18, Erdoğan announced that he and his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic had agreed to broker crisis talks involving all parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Erdoğan urged the international community to act together while Vucic, for his part, underlined that Belgrade highly respects the territorial integrity of neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.
"We want to convene the three leaders – of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – and accomplish this. We agreed on this," Erdoğan said, adding the talks could be held in Istanbul or Belgrade.
Amid Bosnia-Herzegovina’s greatest political crisis since the end of its 1992-95 interethnic war, the country’s Serbs celebrated an outlawed holiday recently with a provocative parade showcasing armored vehicles, police helicopters and law enforcement officers with rifles, marching in lockstep and singing a nationalist song.
The Jan. 9 holiday commemorates the Bosnian Serbs’ unilateral declaration of independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, igniting the multiethnic country’s nearly four-year devastating war that became a byword for ethnic cleansing and genocide.
The holiday was banned in 2015 by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s top court ruling that the date, which falls on a Serb Christian Orthodox religious holiday, discriminates against other ethnic groups – Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats.
During the war that killed 100,000 people and turned half of the country’s population into refugees, Bosniaks and Croats were persecuted and almost completely expelled from the now Serb-administered half of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
After the war, under the terms of the United States-brokered Dayton peace agreement, Bosnia-Herzegovina was divided into two semi-autonomous governing entities – Republika Srpska and one dominated by Bosniaks and Croats.
Each part has its own government, parliament and police, but the two are linked by shared, state-wide institutions, including the judiciary, army, security agencies and tax administration. All actions at a national level require consensus from all three ethnic groups.
“The year 2021 has been marked by several crises in Bosnia-Herzegovina and 2022 similarly started in a critical manner,” Hüseyinoğlu said, pointing to the celebration of the Jan. 9 holiday and the Orthodox religious statements made during the Serb entity's parade this year further complicated an already complex situation.
Considering all these events plus the secessionist statements of Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik and the upcoming elections in October, Hüseyinoğlu said that 2022 will be much a much more difficult year than the last in terms of both rhetoric and actions.
Addressing several thousand spectators gathered in Banja Luka recently, the de-facto capital of the Serb-run part of the country, Dodik disparaged Washington's sanctions imposed over his alleged corrupt activities and threats to tear the country apart.
Dodik has for years been advocating the separation of the Bosnian Serb mini-state from the rest of the country and making it part of neighboring Serbia.
This winter, he intensified his secessionist campaign.
His separatist rhetoric has encouraged Serb nationalists who in recent weeks provoked incidents across Republika Srpska, firing in the air near mosques during prayers, publicly praising convicted war criminals and threatening their Muslim neighbors.
Turkey, which has deep-rooted historical ties with the Balkans, has criticized the move as "wrong, dangerous" and has offered to mediate in the crisis. Meanwhile, Dodik last week said that the fate of Bosnia-Herzegovina depends on discussions between local lawmakers with the support of Erdoğan and his Serbian and Croatian counterparts.
“What has been happening in Bosnia in recent months is another round of Milorad Dodik's political maneuvers,” Ekinci said, reiterating that the Serb leader had long been using inflammatory rhetoric and undermining the social and political harmony of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“What is new today is that he took it up a notch and the lower chamber of the parliament of the Republika Srpska (RS) passed a motion to establish parallel military, judiciary, and administrative institutions at the entity level,” he added, noting that what is more concerning is that these steps feed the ultra-nationalist and separatist atmosphere in Republika Srpska.
“Dodik seems to test the reactions of the international community to see how far he can go.”
When asked whether Dodik could muster any support for his secessionist goals, Hüseyinoğlu said that Serbian politicians have been supporting the separatist rhetoric of Bosnian Serbs and a possible “unification.”
“However, it is not a simple phenomenon that increasing secessionist discourse transforms into practice in the near future,” he said, stressing that the upcoming elections may trigger more secessionist rhetoric. Hüseyinoğlu predicted that the Bosnian Serbs will likely garner support from Serbia and Russia, though Hungary is also another possibility considering Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s recent visit to meet with Dodik.
Ekinci, on the other hand, said that “without strong external support to Bosnian Serbs,” it is unlikely that the tensions would escalate further.
“Today, although Dodik finds support from abroad, none of these supporters would like to see a conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina at a time when the world is full of crises and uncertainty,” he said but warned that the international community should continue to closely follow the developments.
In recent months, staunchly pro-Moscow Dodik has repeatedly voiced hope that the Serbs’ “true friends” – Russia, China and the champions of illiberal democracy within the European Union – will serve as his bulwark against the “tyranny” of Western democracies.