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Separatists In Bosnia and Herzegovina

Written by Hayley Hunter


Bosnian Separatist Threats

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is currently facing its worst crisis since the Bosnian War ended 26 years ago. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian-Serb President of BiH’s tripartite presidency, has long been a supporter of separatist policies for Republika Srpska (RS), the Bosnian-Serb entity of the country. Dodik has been threatening to remove RS from key state institutions and recently, government officials in RS voted on a non-binding agreement to start pulling the RS out of Bosnia's armed forces, judiciary, and tax system. These actions undermine the 1995 U.S.- sponsored Dayton Peace Accords, which says that “the signatories shall refrain from any action, by threatening or using force or otherwise, against the territorial integrity or political independence of BiH.” While Dodik has said that he is “not ready to sacrifice peace for a fight for Republika Srpska,” many inside and outside the country are still worried that his separatist rhetoric could spark a new conflict especially since elections are to take place this October.


Bosnian War

Around 100,000 people were killed in the Bosnian War between 1992-1995. The Srebrenica Massacre, or genocide, occurred in July 1995 when 7,000 men and boys were murdered. The U.S. helped broker peace with the Dayton Peace Accords. The agreement created the elaborate and dysfunctional political structure that is still in place today and is the cause of many frustrations.


Milorad Dodik

Dodik was once described by those in the U.S. as an anti-nationalist “breath of fresh air.” A lot has changed since the 1990s. 1n 1998, Dodik became prime minister of Republika Srpska after NATO-led peacekeepers helped ensure that Dodik could take control by surrounding key buildings held by police loyal to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who was later convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity. When Dodik lost a presidential election in 2001, he quickly changed paths, becoming a nationalist and successionist. Since 2001, Dodik has curbed media independence and spewed “vile rhetoric” against political opponents from all ethnic backgrounds.


Republika Srpska Day

In early January, residents of Republika Srpska participated in the banned holiday, Republika Srpska Day. The holiday was declared unconstitutional by the country’s top court 2015. It celebrates the day in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared their state, which led to the start of the Bosnian War. The U.S. has called on officials in BiH to investigate the ceremonies held. A State Department spokesperson said that the U.S. is “deeply concerned over reports of hate speech, glorification of war criminals, and provocative incidents targeting returnees in the Republika Srpska entity” during the ceremonies.


The Problem with No Involvement

Some people are calling for the West to allow BiH to break apart “peacefully.” However, letting Dodik move forward without intervention would allow for more segregation, fragmentation, and decentralization in a country that is already largely decentralized. Further, if the Bosnians do not have backing from the West, some within the country may feel the need to take matters into their own hands, which should be avoided. It is unlikely that Bosnia would break apart peacefully without any violence, especially since many Bosnian Serbs continue to deny the genocide in the 90s. Dodik himself regularly denies the scale and nature of the Srebrenica Genocide and has called Ratko Mladic, a convicted war criminal, a “legend.” In July 2021, a law was put in place by Valentin Inzko, the outgoing head of Bosnia’s office of the high representative (OHR), that outlawed the denial of the Srebrenica Genocide. This law is what catapulted Dodik’s secessionist policies.


U.S. Stance

The U.S. has a history of involvement in BiH. Currently, the United States is taking a diplomatic approach to BiH. The U.S. has deployed several Special Envoys to the country urging Bosnian-Serb nationalists to seek a compromise. Following the vote in the RS parliament to begin working on removing RS from shared state institutions, the U.S. Department of State released a statement saying that this is a “further escalatory step” and that those in RS must realize that this decision is damaging to the economic prospects of the region. The statement further emphasized that the RS should return fully to state institutions to work towards a solution beneficial for citizens in all of BiH and focus on EU accession. The U.S. and EU response to the crisis so far, or lack thereof, has been criticized by those in BiH and scholars of the region, claiming that they should be doing more to combat Dodik.


U.S. Sanctions

In January, the U.S. further sanctioned Dodik and associated media platform

Alternativna Televizijafor, “significant corruption and destabilizing activities.” A press release from the Department of the Treasury says that “cumulatively, these actions threaten the stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of BiH and undermine the Dayton Peace Accords, thereby risking wider regional instability.” These sanctions are more comprehensive than those imposed by the U.S. in 2017, which banned Dodik from traveling to the U.S. or accessing assets under its jurisdiction. Now, sanctions include criminalizing financial donations to Dodik and banning Dodik’s advisor, Milan Tegeltija, from entering the U.S. Dodik has not paid much attention to the sanctions, saying “if they think that they will discipline me like this, they are grossly mistaken.” The effects of the new sanctions are limited due to Dodik’s limited financial holdings in the U.S., but this still proves as a setback for him, according to Daniel Serwer, a former US special envoy to Bosnia. For more effective consequences, the U.S. needs the EU to sanction Dodik as well. This could prove difficult due to nations such as Hungary and Slovenia which are opposed to EU sanctions. Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, has said that Hungary will block any EU moves to sanction Dodik. Hungary provides 100 million Euros to the RS intended to fund small and medium-sized businesses in the region, but some worry that the money will help further Dodik’s political aims. Dodik has said that the RS could rely on Chinese and Russian support if the EU were to cut off its financial assistance.

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