Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Bosnia-Hercegovina’s Serb entity – the Serb Republic or Republika Srpska (RS) – is openly pursuing a policy of secession. Dodik, who is currently running for president of the RS in an election due to take place on 3 October, recently stated that ‘Bosnia is an impossible country, many of you know that better than I do. It has no common history. It has a history of divisions’ – divisions, indeed, that Dodik’s regime is seeking to deepen. Parallel to this, across the border in Serbia, the Muslim/Bosniak-majority region of Sandzak is being described as the ‘Balkans’ latest hot spot.’ There, the more militant elements, led by the Sandzak Mufti Muamer Zukorlic, are demanding autonomy for the region. Serbia’s President Boris Tadic supports Dodik’s secessionist regime and his presidential bid; he recently attended an pre-election rally in the RS town of Doboj, where he described Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats as ‘friends who best lead the RS’. Yet if Dodik succeeds in his goal of breaking up Bosnia, which given Western complaisance and Bosniak passivity he may well do, there may be repercussions in Serbia and elsewhere that Tadic might not find so welcome.
During the wars in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s, supporters of the Great Serbian cause would frequently pose a specious rhetorical question: if Croatia and Bosnia (or ‘the Muslims’) were allowed to secede from Yugoslavia, why were the Serb populations of Croatia and Bosnia not similarly allowed to secede from them ? They would pose it as if it were a clinching argument for their case, then would be surprised by how easily it was answered: the Serb populations of Croatia and Bosnia were not equivalent to the Republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina; rather, it was the Republic of Serbia that was equivalent to the latter, and its right to self-determination was not contested. The Serb populations of Croatia and Bosnia were broadly equivalent to groups such as the Croat population of Bosnia, the Muslim/Bosniak and Hungarian populations of Serbia or the Albanian population of Macedonia, and none of these groups has had its right to secession recognised by the international community.
Indeed, the only such group that has been granted any degree of territorial autonomy under the existing order in the Balkans is the Bosnian Serbs, who possess their own entity, the ‘Republika Srpska’ or Serb Republic, enjoying most of the attributes of statehood. This contrasts with the treatment meted out to the Bosnian Croats, whose own para-state entity – the self-proclaimed ‘Croat Republic of Herceg-Bosna’ – was dismantled following the Washington Agreement of 1994 and the Dayton Agreement of 1995, to the intense annoyance of the Bosnian Croat nationalists. Despite the fact that Serb nationalists, alone of all the nationalists of the former Yugoslavia, have been allowed to carve out a wholly new autonomous entity on the territory of an existing state, the discourse of Serb victimhood continues to paint the Serbs as the perpetual victims of a global anti-Serb conspiracy.
Under Dodik’s leadership, Bosnian Serb nationalists are not resting content with having obtained an entity of their own encompassing a disproportionately large share of Bosnian territory (49% for a Serb nationality that made up 31% of Bosnia’s pre-1992 population), but are aiming at full independence. The ground for this may be prepared with a referendum, and Dodik recently stated that ‘I am convinced a day will come for the Serbian people to decide on their status in a referendum, the status of the RS within Bosnia.’ Yet Dodik is aware that a premature declaration of independence could provoke an international and Bosniak reaction that could prove his and the RS’s undoing. Serb nationalists have a long history of pursuing self-defeating strategies dictated by emotion and bloody-mindedness rather than cool calculation, but Dodik appears cleverer than most. While keeping the secessionist fire burning through his bellicose rhetoric, he is going about achieving his goal in a gradual, piecemeal manner. As he stated recently, ‘We are not adventurists; we shall move carefully.’
Thus, on 14 September, the RS parliament passed a law unilaterally transferring all pre-1992 Bosnian state property located on the territory of the RS to the ownership of the RS. The international community expressed only weak dissent at this act of plunder, with the Peace Implementation Council, the body charged with the overseeing of the international administration in Bosnia, merely stating that it would delay Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic integration – not a threat likely to impress the pro-Russian Dodik.
Then, on 17 September, Dodik’s government ordered a plan to be drawn up for the demarcation of the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) that separates the RS from Bosnia’s other entity, the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina. This threatens a serious violation of the Dayton Agreement, which stipulated that adjustments of the IEBL must be carried out with the agreement of both entities, under the supervision of the international military force. A unilateral assertion by the RS of its border vis-a-vis the Federation would be a significant further step toward an independent RS, as well as a potentially dangerous provocation to the Bosniaks and to neighbouring Croatia, whose previous president, Stjepan Mesic, threatened to intervene militarily to prevent the RS’s secession.
Dodik has justified his secessionist drive with reference to Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, and the ICJ’s ruling in July that the secession was not illegal. He commented at the time that the ICJ’s opinion could serve as a ‘guideline for our struggle for the status and the future’ of Republika Srpska; ‘For quite some time, we have not been happy to be a part of Bosnia-Herzegovina….we will not exclude the possibility of additional political struggle for status which, in line with this opinion, would not be in contradiction with international law.’ Such arguments are disingenuous; the Bosnian Serb nationalists seceded from Bosnia and declared their independence already in 1992, long before the West embraced Kosovo’s independence.
In fact, the Western recognition of Kosovo’s independence, however Dodik may use it as a pretext, represented merely the natural culmination of the established policy of the international community, which recognised the right to self-determination of all former members of the socialist federations of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Kosovo was a member of the former Yugoslav federation in its own right, and though it was also part of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, it had most of the attributes of a separate republic. By contrast, the West has not recognised the right to independence of the Albanian communities of Macedonia, Montenegro or Serbia proper. If Dodik does succeed in effecting the RS’s secession, this will bring the international community into uncharted waters.
This brings us back to the Sandzak, whose radical Mufti Muamer Zukorlic has stated that the region’s autonomy from Serbia is an ‘inevitable social process’. This does not represent a wise policy; Serbia is potentially a stable and prosperous state, and the Sandzak Bosniaks will be better off as an integral part of it than as some form of distinct entity. Nor will Serbia be likely to countenance Sandzak’s autonomy, given the justified suspicion that this will be merely a stepping stone toward full independence. Violence and repression will be the likely Serbian response to any autonomist move on the part of the Sandzak Bosniaks, who are likely to come out worst from the confrontation. Yet if Bosnia’s Serbs are permitted the right to secede, then there are no possible grounds for denying a similar right to Serbia’s Bosniaks. Even if the international community acquiesces in the Serbian double-standard, and denies the Sandzak Bosniaks a right that the Bosnian Serbs have acquired, this will have a radicalising effect on the Sandzak Bosniaks.
The current dividing line in Sandzak’s politics is between Zukorlic’s radicals, who look toward the Sarajevo and the Bosniaks of Bosnia, and the more moderate elements who favour integration in Serbia and look toward Belgrade. The break up of Bosnia would strengthen the hand of the former against the latter. Zukorlic has warned that the tensions in the Sandzak could erupt into violence, and there is no reason not to take him seriously. Nor would any such instability be confined to Serbia. The historical Sandzak region was partitioned at the end of World War II between Serbia and Montenegro, and a large Bosniak/Muslim population remains across the border in the Montenegrin part of Sandzak. This, too, is an area to which instability could spread. As Zukorlic has stated, ‘The Sandzak is divided between two states, and the concept of cross-border autonomy is something that should be a platform for negotiation. Certainly all specificities must be taken into consideration – Sandzakian, Serbian and Montenegrin.’
Should the RS’s secessionism trigger a counter-secessionism among the Sandzak Bosniaks, sparking a conflagration in Serbia that spreads to Montenegro, it could serve as a catalyst to a further counter-secessionist movement among the Albanian communities of south Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, not all of whom are by any means content with the existing territorial status quo. Not to mention encourage further Serbian efforts to redraw international borders – at the expense of Kosovo, and possibly of Montenegro and Macedonia as well.
Support for the right to self-determination does not imply support for each and every irredentist claim. Had Serbia’s leadership in the early 1990s, which claimed to champion the national rights of the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, been genuinely interested in the principle of self-determination, it would have recognised that this principle could not be practised through the redrawing of borders between the constituent Yugoslav republics. For all three of the principal states at the heart of the Yugoslav question – Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia – had multiethnic populations that could not be neatly divided along territorial lines into homogenous territories of Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, and any attempt to do so would simply create more problems than it solved. The borders were drawn where they were between these states by the post-war Yugoslav regime for a reason, and it is a great pity that certain fools in the West were hoodwinked by the Milosevic regime’s propaganda into believing that everything could be solved by certain ‘border corrections’ that just happened to hand over a much larger share of territory to that regime and its proxies. Today, with Dodik’s dangerous secessionist game, we are paying the price for acquiescing in Bosnian Serb irredentist claims, through Dayton back in 1995. It is time that we stopped acquiescing, before we allow yet another Balkan disaster to unfold.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
Hat tips: Sarah Correia, Andras Riedlmayer and one other friend who asked not to be named.
The Balkans are only a step away from normalisation, but it may be a step too far for Western policy-makers.
Normalisation for the Balkans would mean the region’s definite establishment as a set of functioning, democratic nation-states on the model of Western Europe; undivided by serious conflicts or live territorial disputes. The region’s national questions would be resolved, to the point that they would be as unlikely to spill over into large-scale bloodshed as the national questions of Belgium, Scotland or Catalonia. The Balkan states would all be integrated into the EU, and ideally NATO as well.
This is not an ambitious ideal, yet it is far from being realised. Regional progress is still being derailed by a series of conflicts of varying severity between the Balkan states. The Slovenian-Croatian border dispute for a while threatened to derail the entire region’s EU integration, though this appears to have been averted. Greek-Turkish rivalry over Cyprus, the Aegean Sea and other areas remains latent, something for which the anti-Turkish rhetoric on the part of candidates in the recent Greek parliamentary elections has served as a reminder. Both Turkey and Greece are problematic: the first is, under the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the process of developing a new regional role for itself, one that appears to be taking it closer to authoritarian and radical states like Russia, Iran and Syria; the second is pursuing a damaging regional policy, involving hostility to the fragile states of Macedonia and Kosovo. With its campaign against Macedonia, in particular, Greece is threatening the stability of a neighbouring state where relations between the majority Macedonians and minority Albanians are already dangerously unstable.
Meanwhile, the policies of Serbia and Serb nationalism remain the single greatest source of Balkan instability. Serbia is still failing to arrest war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, thereby obstructing its own EU integration. But more dangerously, it is pursuing a dog-in-the-manger policy vis-a-vis Kosovo, preventing the newly independent state from consolidating itself and integrating itself properly into the international community. The Serbia-Kosovo dispute poisons regional relations; Belgrade recently rebuked Skopje for the latter’s agreement with Pristina to resolve the Macedonia-Kosovo border dispute.
The most intractable regional problem of all, however, remains Bosnia-Hercegovina. The state is saddled with the unworkable constitutional order imposed upon it by the Dayton Accords of 1995, ensuring that the state cannot function and must remain in a state of permanent political crisis. Bosnia’s recent exclusion, along with Albania, from the EU’s grant of visa liberalisation to the western Balkans, that was applied to Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, has further entrenched divisions in the country and the wider region. Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Bosnia’s Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, is openly pursuing Bosnia’s full dismemberment; the aggressive and provocative nature of his policy was recently highlighted by the warm welcome he extended to the convicted war-criminal Biljana Plavsic, following her early release from prison in Sweden.
These home-grown Balkan problems are being exacerbated by the policies of outside powers. The revanchist, neo-Soviet regime in Russia is aggressively backing Serbia over Kosovo, preventing the dispute from being resolved. By doing so, Moscow is not merely undermining Kosovo, but is undermining also Serbia’s own complete transition into a post-nationalist liberal democratic state. Moscow aims to keep the Balkans divided to prevent their full integration into the Euro-Atlantic framework. Hence, Dodik was looking to Moscow when he unilaterally withdrew Bosnian Serb soldiers from participation in NATO exercises in Georgia.
The second major external source of Balkan instability is the weak and vacillating policy of the EU, dominated as the latter is by the Franco-German axis. Germany is pursuing a pro-Russian policy that is making the new East Central European members of NATO and the EU very uncomfortable, while France continues to seek a dissident role in the Western alliance vis-a-vis the Anglo-Saxon powers. Hence, the EU’s muted reaction to the Georgian war; the crushing of Washington’s Georgian ally was not allowed to get in the way of growing EU-Russian collaboration. The Georgian war was facilitated by the Franco-German blocking of the grant of NATO Membership Action Plans to Georgia, along with Ukraine, in the spring of 2008. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, pursuing his Gaullist policy of Mediterranean union, sees fit also to support Greece against Macedonia.
Such an attitude on the part of the EU also involves toleration of Serbian trouble-making vis-a-vis Kosovo and Bosnia. The Netherlands is essentially isolated in its continued insistence that Serbia’s progress on EU accession be linked to its arrest of war criminals. The EU, for its part, would like to see the Office of the High Representative (OHR) for Bosnia closed. Yet the OHR has been the principal integrating force in Bosnia since 1995. Take away the OHR, and Bosnia moves another step toward full partition.
The EU’s resolve over the Balkans is further weakened by the activities of dissident members. No unified EU policy exists over Kosovo on account of the refusal of five EU members to recognise the new state – all for nationalistic reasons. Romania and Slovakia perceive a ‘separatist’ parallel between the Kosovo Albanians and their own maltreated Hungarian minorities. Likewise, Spain is obsessed with ‘separatist’ parallels of its own vis-a-vis Catalonia and the Basque Country. Greece and Cyprus are traditional allies of Serbia; Cyprus also equates Kosovo with Turkish-occupied Cyprus. None of these states’ reasons for opposing Kosovo’s independence are very noble, yet the EU has no means of compelling them to keep ranks with the majority; the EU therefore pursues the policy of the lowest common denominator.
Although the EU has been as an instrument for bringing nations together, its recent policies in the Balkans are having the opposite effect. The veto that EU members enjoy in relation to membership bids by aspiring members places a weapon in the hands of trouble-makers lucky enough to already be in the club. The Slovenian-Croatian border dispute was exacerbated by Ljubljana’s use of its veto against Croatia. Although Ljubljana threatened to use its veto to keep Croatia out of NATO as well, Washington quickly put a stop to this mischief. Unfortunately, the EU states are much less ready than the US to put pressure on their partners to cease misbehaviour, and though Ljubljana did eventually lift its veto, this was not before it had won concessions over the border dispute at Zagreb’s expense.
Still more destructive has been the EU’s exacerbation of the Greek-Macedonian dispute. Despite the thoroughly pre-democratic and chauvinistic nature of Greece’s campaign against Macedonia, EU members have been wholly unwilling to put pressure on Athens to change it. So, rather than the whole club forcing a badly behaved member to behave better, the policy of the trouble-maker is imposed on the whole. The bad apple poisons the whole basket; the tail wags the dog.
The structural factors underlying the EU’s damaging policies vis-a-vis the Balkans are likely to become worse in the years to come. The accession of new members will give more states vetoes to use against aspiring members. After joining the EU, Croatia may use its veto against Serbia. If Macedonia does back down to Athens, Albania might be encouraged to use its veto to keep Macedonia out of NATO, to extract concessions regarding the Albanian minority in Macedonia. For while both Croatia and Albania have pursued responsible regional policies over the past ten years, the EU is sending out to them the wrong signals: that bad behaviour brings dividends.
Meanwhile, the EU’s growing energy dependency on Russia is likely further to dampen the EU’s resolve to resist the mischief of Moscow and Belgrade in the Balkans. Russian plans to build the ‘North Stream’ gas pipeline direct to Germany, bypassing the former-Communist states of East Central Europe, will allow it to exert leverage over its neighbours without simultaneously punishing its German ally.
As the EU moves increasingly to accommodate a dangerous and hostile power, so it is alienating an important power that has long assisted Balkan stability. Paris and Berlin have made it very clear they do not wish to allow Turkey to join the EU. This has had the predictable result that Turkey is losing is faith in the possibility of a European future, and is turning increasingly toward Russia, Iran, Syria and other radical and anti-Western states. Turkey has made huge strides this decade in improving its human rights record, as required by its bid for EU membership. For the same reason, it has facilitated a resolution of the Cyprus dispute through its support for the 2004 Annan Plan. As the prize of EU membership moves further from its grasp, Ankara may backslide over both human rights and Cyprus as well. There are worrying signs that the pace of democratisation in Turkey is indeed slowing -such as the record fine recently imposed on Dogan Yayin Holding AS – Turkey’s largest media group and critical of the AKP government.
A hardening of Turkey’s stance on Cyprus could lead to the collapse of the Greek-Turkish rapprochement, further damaging the prospects for the Balkans’ normalisation. For all its human rights abuses, Turkey has been playing a constructive role in the region, as the ally of the weak and vulnerable states of Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. We do not know what the full consequences would be if Turkey fully abandons its European moorings and goes off in a new direction. But at the very least, an authoritarian Turkey headed by an Islamic-populist regime on the border of the Balkans will not have a positive effect on the region.
Unfortunately, alongside Russia and the EU, there is a third external factor whose contribution to Balkan stability currently raises concerns: the Obama Administration in the US. The latter’s abandonment of the Bush Administration’s plans to base a missile-defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic, in order to appease Moscow in the hope of obtaining Russian support vis-a-vis Iran, is a worrying indication of US passivity vis-a-vis Europe and Russia. The capitulation amounts to a betrayal of the security of allies in order to appease a hostile power, with echoes of Cold-War-style sphere-of-influence politics. While it is too soon to press the panic button over Obama’s policy toward Eastern and South Eastern Europe, we should be very concerned if Obama goes any further down this path.
For all these internal and external problems facing the Balkans, the success stories and models for future success are close at hand. Romania and Bulgaria are far from model democracies, and have serious problems with corruption and organised crime. Yet neither has engaged in military aggression or seriously attempted territorial expansionism since joining the free world in 1989; both are members of the EU and NATO. Turkey and Greece, following their heavy military defeats in World War I and the Greco-Turkish War respectively, pursued an enlightened policy of rapprochement vis-a-vis one another, eschewing territorial expansionism. This rapprochement was only derailed by the outbreak of the Cyprus conflict from the 1950s, and later resumed: Greece today is a vocal champion of Turkey’s EU membership. Croatia, too, following its unsuccessful expansionist adventure in Bosnia in the first half of the 1990s has, since the death of Franjo Tudjman in 1999, abandoned expansionism to pursue a responsible regional policy and EU membership.
The key to turning aggressive, expansionist Balkan states into responsible members of the European family, therefore, is for the international community to shut off all avenues for their expansionism and keep them firmly confined within their own borders. With all due qualifications, this is the way it has been for Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece and Croatia. Where these states have been less than responsible – as, for example, in the case of Turkey vis-a-vis Cyprus or Greece vis-a-vis Macedonia – this has occurred when there have been insufficient limits placed on their ability to coerce neighbours.
The biggest source of instability in the Balkans remains the fact that, thanks to the weakness and vacillation of Western and above all EU policy, Serbia has not been firmly confined within its borders, despite its defeat in the wars of the 1990s. Instead, Belgrade continues to destabilise the neighbouring states of Kosovo and Bosnia. Its ability to do so means that Serbia – unlike Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Greece and to an extent Turkey – is unable to develop a post-expansionist state identity; one that does not revolve around territorial aspirations towards neighbouring states. This is bad above all for Serbia itself – the reason why it is still a long way from EU membership, despite being before the 1990s more prosperous, developed and liberal than either Romania or Bulgaria.
The problem is not, however, ultimately with Serbia itself. In parliamentary elections following Kosovo’s independence last year, the Serbian electorate handed victory to the pro-European rather than the hardline nationalist parties, revealing what little stomach it has for renewed confrontation over Kosovo. Belgrade has also played its trump card with its case against Kosovo’s independence before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), and there is every reason to believe that the Court will not rule in its favour, even leaving aside the strength of Kosovo’s case. The ICJ’s judges come from different countries and their verdict will likely represent some form of compromise rather than award outright victory to one side or the other. Anything less than a full victory for Belgrade will effectively be a defeat, ambiguity leaving the door open for more states to recognise Kosovo’s independence while plausibly claiming to do so legally. In other words, both in terms of its range of available strategies and in terms of the popular support it enjoys, Serbian expansionism vis-a-vis Kosovo is a broken reed. With the Kosovo Albanians enjoying a comfortable majority in their country, their ultimate ability to consolidate their state is assured.
The principal problem for the region is the Bosnian question, and the policy of the Western alliance toward it. Unlike for all the other Balkan regional problems, for Bosnia, stability will not come through persuading or coercing the states involved to accept reality or to reach a compromise. For Bosnia, it is the very legal status quo and ‘compromise’, born at Dayton in 1995, that is generating instability for the state and the region. The Dayton order provides a framework that is gradually enabling the Bosnian Serb separatists, currently headed by Dodik, to establish the Bosnian Serb entity as a de facto independent state while preparing the ground for formal secession. The Bosniaks will, however, go to war to prevent this happening. It is a moot point what the outcome of such a military confrontation would be, but it is not something to which we should look forward.
Bosnia remains, therefore, the weak foundation-stone of Balkan stability. Only the transformation of Bosnia into a functioning state, through the transfer of most state powers from the entities to the central government, will guarantee against the outbreak of a new Bosnian war, and provide a final and definite check to Serbia’s expansionism, forcing that state wholly onto the post-expansionist path and removing the principal obstacle to the region’s progress.
Unfortunately, with Western and particular EU policy being what it is at present, such a decisive step seems unlikely. The problems facing the Balkans are neither huge nor insurmountable, yet Western passivity and vacillation seem set to allow these small problems to turn into larger ones. The Balkans look set for a rocky road ahead.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society. A longer version was given as a presentation to the Sussex European Institute on 3 November, entitled ‘How far are the Balkans from normalisation ?’
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