Eastern Reflections: Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Ukraine war

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A sign on the exit out of Sarajevo. Photo: Frederick Lindsay

The war in Ukraine has brought to centre stage the current state of both the European and global political landscape.

A dynamic not seen since the Cold War, alliances have been brought to light. The reach of Russian influence throughout Europe is well-known – from ethnic ties to Slavs throughout Eastern Europe to the historical legacy of the Iron Curtain. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is no stranger to this influence, however the ethnic divisions between Bosniacs, Croats and Serbs and the still-fresh wounds from the war in the 1990s have left it in a unique situation which has only strengthened the deadlock set in place by those in power.

On April 6, 1992 Serb forces besieged the city of Sarajevo following Bosnia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia in early March. This, along with other events, ignited the war in Bosnia which lasted until 1995. During the three years, Sarajevo had continued to be under siege, with a bloody conflict raging throughout the country between the three ethnic forces leaving behind numerous committed war crimes. The most known to the public, the genocide in Srebrenica, saw over 8000 unarmed Bosniac men and boys killed by Serb combatants.

In 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement marked the end of the conflict, resulting in the model upon which Bosnia and Herzegovina would be built. It saw the restructuring of the country into two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, mainly consisting of Bosniacs and Croats; and Republika Srpska, mainly consisting of Serbs. For comparative purposes, an entity roughly equates to a German or Australian state in powers and responsibilities. The state level of government (highest, not to be confused with the entity level) most notably includes a three-member presidency consisting of a Bosniac, Serb and Croat mandate. The Federation is further divided into cantons, with each having a number of municipalities, while Republika Srpska is divided further only into municipalities.

Almost all the mentioned jurisdictions of government include a vast array of parliaments, assemblies, courts, and executives, often leading a bewilderingly decentralised Bosnia into political deadlock. This structure has been the breeding ground for populism, corruption, nepotism and abuse of power since its creation, with slim chances for development under the current conditions. Many have abused these powers for their own gain, and in the past few years seldom has anyone topped the headlines as much as Milorad Dodik, the current Serb member of the presidency.

Milorad Dodik has been notably active in the political sphere since 1998, which marked the start of his first term as Prime Minister of Republika Srpska. Since then, he has served multiple terms as both Prime Minister and President of the RS. He is now nearing the end of his first term as Serb member of the Presidency of BiH, with elections to be held in October this year. Over the years, Dodik has pushed a very pro-Russia agenda, using their backing as bargaining power in domestic gains, including against what he sees as the meddling of European powers in the politics of BiH.

The war in Ukraine initially served to further tension within BiH, and while the West came together in answering with sanctions against Russia, Dodik opted against sanctioning Russia, arguing “neutrality”. However, the West’s unified stance against Russia, as well as the drawn-out nature of their aggression on Ukraine, left much uncertainty as to the stability of Dodik’s political backing.

The war in Ukraine brought the stability of BiH into question after the failure of international forces to stop many atrocities throughout the war in the 1990s. With tensions still lively, the possible outbreak of war is still on the minds of many in the country. Dodik’s tendency to claim the sovereignty of the RS and threatening secession, coupled with recent international developments, has left many uneasy. However, EUFOR (the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina), wishing to prevent further tension or possible conflict due to the war in Ukraine, deployed 500 extra troops to BiH. While Dodik would use this to gain political points, arguing that the international community is only making things worse, the move ultimately put the stability of his position into question.

Christian Schmidt is the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which represents the wider international community in BiH set up in the Dayton Peace Agreement. He recently used his Bonn Powers, a very strong and rarely utilised mechanism that allows him to overrule decisions made by government bodies, as well as impeach incumbents. The Bonn Powers were used to annul a decision made in the National Assembly of Republika Srpska to allow the transfer of state property into the hands of the RS. For context, the Constitutional Court of BiH ruled in 2012 that the state government in BiH is the sole proprietor of state property. Schmidt’s veto of the law passed by the RS National Assembly proved a blow to its secessionist policy.

But the overturned decision of the assembly is only one of many acts that have been a thorn in the side of Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the previous High Representative Valentin Inzko departed in 2021, his final decision enacted a law that ruled genocide denial illegal in BiH. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia officially deemed the atrocities in Srebrenica acts of genocide, a ruling later confirmed by the International Court of Justice decision to enact a law against genocide denial. Many Serb officials have boycotted state institutions, slowing their work and strengthening the deadlock which BiH is facing.

The developments in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the last several months have been very mixed. The war in Ukraine has brought the true nature of allies to the forefront on the global stage. With Russia having an ally in the Republika Srpska with its de facto leader Milorad Dodik, divisive sentiments in Bosnia have seen a stark increase. However, with any doubts as to the allegiances of different actors now thrown out the window, those who seek to keep a state of peace in Bosnia, including the international community, have stood their ground.

Frederick Lindsay is an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney, currently studying a Bachelor of Arts with a major in International Relations. E-mail: flin0392@uni.sydney.edu.au