SARAJEVO, Bosnia, and Herzegovina — A Serb strongman, who for years exploited ethnonationalism feelings to claim more power, publicly pledges to break his country apart, threatening to set off cascading conflict
The West, distracted by its own problems, barely notices.
No, that’s not Yugoslavia in 1991. It’s Bosnia and Herzegovina today. The country, whose complex constitutional order was painstakingly negotiated in the teeth of a bloody war and settled through the Dayton Accords, is on the brink of breaking up.
At the heart of the crisis is Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader and longtime separatist. In October, he announced plans to withdraw the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, one of the country’s two administrative entities, from major state institutions. In what effectively amounts to secession, he intends to set up a separate taxation office, army, and security forces. For a region with a recent history of ethnic violence and conflict, it’s a terrifying development.
Behind Mr. Dodik’s moves, 15 years in the making, lies the steady withdrawal from the region of the United States and the European Union. In their absence, competing foreign influences — Russia foremost among them — have stepped into the vacuum, emboldening autocratic leaders and destabilizing the region. To avoid the breakup of Bosnia, which could lead to a new war and all-out disaster, the West must reverse course immediately and set about repairing the damage.
In the 1990s, the West was slow to react to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. After much bloodshed, it eventually launched airstrikes against the Serb forces in Bosnia in 1995 and in Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 and deployed tens of thousands of NATO troops to oversee the truce and stabilize the region. In subsequent years, the United States and the European Union spent billions of dollars to help reconstruct the region. Though often justifiably criticized for focusing on short-term, slapdash solutions, their efforts were key to ensuring the safety and stability of the Balkans.
But their attention slipped away. The United States, more focused on its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, had withdrawn from hands-on engagement by 2010. It handed over the responsibility to the European Union, which was supposed to underwrite the region’s long-term stability by accepting its countries into the bloc. Yet by 2019, as the European Union struggled with its own problems and divisions, it became clear that the offer had been effectively taken off the table.
Robbed of their European dream and denied full access to the bloc’s common market, Balkan leaders reverted to the nationalism and populism of the past. The rule of law, human rights, and other key democratic principles fell by the wayside. In multiethnic countries with unfinished national projects, such as Bosnia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Kosovo, ethnopolitical divisions have festered.
Even so, the main responsibility lies with the countries themselves, especially political representatives and their affiliated media, who based their popularity on spreading animosity toward other ethnic groups. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnonationalism has taken center stage. Mr. Dodik is not alone in his radical ways: Muslim Bosniaks, the largest ethnic group, have agitated for a unitary state, and Bosnian Croats have demanded an autonomous Croat region.
Crucially, the abdication of the West not only allowed democratic backsliding but also opened the region to other outside forces. Russia has taken a pronounced interest, establishing a strong political influence in all Serb-populated parts of the region, while Turkey, the Gulf countries, and Iran have done the same in Muslim-populated areas. China, using its political pragmatism and ample economic resources, has become a major presence throughout the region. What’s more, Croatia and especially Serbia have started to interfere in the internal politics of neighboring countries, adding to regional tensions.
The recent escalation in Bosnia is a case in point. Mr. Dodik, once a United States-backed liberal who turned to nationalism in part out of disappointment with failed Western promises, made his separatist move only after receiving a green light from Russia. For their part, Muslim Bosniaks, feeling abandoned by Western powers, have turned for help to Turkey — while Bosnian Croats rely fully on Croatia, an E.U. member.
This is, to put it mildly, very dangerous. The situation in Bosnia, with its deepening ethnopolitical disputes and conflicting narratives, looks a lot like it did before the conflict broke out in 1992. If Mr. Dodik goes ahead with his plan, it would represent a clear violation of the country’s peace accord. In response, the Bosnian Croat leadership could look to reinstate their wartime autonomous region of Herzeg-Bosnia — and Muslim Bosniaks would look to defend Bosnia by any means, even taking up arms. With military resources supplied by international backers, war is all too easy to imagine.
The United States and the European Union seem to have lost their institutional memories of the price they paid — in the lives of their soldiers and billions of dollars from their taxpayers — for ending the Balkans’ bloody wars of the ’90s. But the worst can be averted if they fully re-engage, devoting resources and high-profile officials to the task.
They should revive their “carrot and stick” strategy — combining sanctions, concessions, and financial resources — they successfully wielded in the Balkans in the past. That way, Western officials can bring key local and regional leaders to the negotiating table where differences can be thrashed out, checking the pernicious influence of other countries in the process. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s leaders, of course, must rise to the challenge. But that may happen only once the West restores a long-term European perspective to the region.
The fuse on the Balkans’ powder keg has been lit. It must be stamped out before the region, and even Europe itself is engulfed in fire.