Saturday

4th Feb 2023

Opinion

An EU-US deal for Bosnia and Herzegovina's disintegration

  • EU policy in effect would amount to colluding with the country's nationalist leaders in an accelerated path towards ethno-territorial disintegration of the state – which would not be peaceful (Photo: Wikimedia)
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The EU's policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina – indeed the wider Western Balkans – has been on a failing trajectory ever since it took the reins a decade and a half ago.

Now, in cooperation with the US and UK, it is seeking to camouflage that failure with appeasement of separatists in Bosnia, at the same time lending a geopolitical win to adversary Russia for free.

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  • Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik (left, with Vladimir Putin) (Photo: kremlin.ru)

This in effect would amount to colluding with the country's nationalist leaders in an accelerated path towards ethno-territorial disintegration of the state – which would not be peaceful.

Yet we already see that such a diplomatic coup would be marketed as an achievement, rather than an avoidable failure.

It is a time-honoured practice in diplomatic negotiations to squeeze the weaker side until a deal comes into sight.

This was the mission that brought Angelina Eichhorst, the managing director for Europe of the European Union's diplomatic service, to Sarajevo last week, infuriating BiH's pro-European and pro-American citizens and policymakers: to team up with US envoy Matthew Palmer and squeeze the main Bosniak party, as well as the non-nationalist opposition, into accepting a deal on so-called election law reform that would legally and institutionally deepen ethno-territorial division in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

All this is taking place against the country's worst crisis since the 1995 Dayton peace agreement. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, in cahoots with the HDZ and emboldened by Zagreb and Belgrade, has stepped up his decade and a half-long attack on the country's post-war constitutional order, announcing far-reaching steps by the Republika Srpska institutions toward secession of that BiH entity.

The latest escalation evolved over the last six months after EU and US diplomats on the ground in BiH, supported by middle rank officials in Washington and Brussels, engineered inter-party talks on electoral reforms and so-called "limited constitutional reform."

Those talks took the de facto form of collusion to satisfy political leaders' unfulfilled nationalist agendas, first and foremost that of Dragan Čović, head of HDZ BiH, the main Bosnian Croat party, which wants to safeguard its primacy among Bosnian Croat voters.

The then EU High Representative in BiH, Valentin Inzko, following on pressure by the EU and US to support the deal they were brokering, prompted him to impose a law against genocide denial and glorification of war crimes and criminals on his last day in office; an entirely personal and morally-understandable move, but one lacking any strategic framework or support.

The move triggered a walk-out by the Bosnian Serbs from central institutions. It also made life difficult for his successor, German Christian Schmidt.

Schmidt's ill-designed nomination by German chancellor Angela Merkel herself, without a clear strategic policy or plan, made escalation even easier. It prodded Dodik to question the very appointment of Schmidt and the existence of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) more broadly, supported by Russia, which has amplified its own anti-Western activities regarding BiH.

Russian veto at UN this week?

That move raised the risk of a Russian UN Security Council veto against the EU's peacekeeping force in BiH, EUFOR, whose mandate comes up for annual renewal this month, probably even this week.

Milorad Dodik came to power as leader of the Republika Srpska, the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 2006, at around the time the European Union took over leadership of the international community in the country.

Since then, things have been in a downward spiral. Dodik has tested the West's red lines roughly three dozen times by threatening to call various referenda or with outright secession; the West's weak responses helped undermine the integrity of the central government and roll back the very democratic and rule-of-law reforms purportedly required for the country to make progress needed for EU candidacy.

This time around, Dodik himself appeared surprised by the lack of push-back from the EU and the US, something that according to some reports made him escalate his threats beyond where he intended to go.

There would have been a straightforward move to stop Dodik's adventurism while also deterring a possible Russian veto against EUFOR. Sending reinforcements to EUFOR and deploying EUFOR and Nato troops to the strategic town of Brčko, an autonomous district that cuts the RS in half, would have demonstrated the EU's strategic will to prevent a serious challenge to the security and territorial integrity of the country.

Alas, that will does not exist – and nor does the strategy.

Instead, the void left by the lack of a strategic Western policy and political will has been filled by lower-level officials Eichhorst and Palmer – both of whom were also crucial players in the dangerous EU-US push towards an ethno-territorial land swap deal between Kosovo and Serbia in 2017-20.

'Appeasement'

And in Bosnia, they seem intent on appeasing both divisive nationalist agendas through a package deal: Dodik would get the substantial gift of assigning a core portion of state and defence property, of which the state of BiH is the legal proprietor, to the entities (or cantons), a key item on Dodik's wish list, in return for calling off the immediate secession steps; while the HDZ BiH would get its election law reform arrangement, ensuring it a seat on the country's three-member presidency through election engineering.

Such a deal would deepen the ethno-territorial division of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and put in place the outlines for a gradual dismemberment, aided, abetted, and legitimised by the EU and the US.

Declaring victory and claiming the country met the conditions to close the OHR ("solving" the state and defence property issue, long blocked by the RS's anti-constitutional actions, is at the core of 5+2 conditions for closure) would at the same time remove the last executive instrument of the international community to arrest the downward spiral, together with EUFOR.

France, the US, and the UK all seem on-track to telegraph a message of reduced support for the high representative to avert a Russian (and potentially Chinese) veto of EUFOR scheduled for Wednesday (3 November) at the UN Security Council.

Moscow and Beijing could not veto Schmidt's appointment; they can oppose EUFOR in the UNSC.

EU capitals, especially Berlin and Paris, must finally take an interest in the situation and confront the policy transactionalism of the European External Action Service, replacing it with a more strategic policy.

High Representative Borrell needs to start doing his job, as called for in a letter signed by MEPs from the four main political groups in the European Parliament on 21 October, and replace Eichhorst in her current role.

The OHR under Christian Schmidt has to take the defence of Bosnia and Herzegovina and of the Dayton peace accords seriously and push back against the dangerous deal-making impulse of the EU and the US.

EUFOR should be augmented in Brčko and the international community should abstain from a false urgency in reforming Bosnia's election law, instead focusing closely on improving election integrity. The time for comprehensive constitutional change is after the 2022 elections.

Author bio

Bodo Weber and Valery Perryare senior Democratization Policy Council associates based in Berlin and Sarajevo, respectively.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

'Ethno-nationalism' is not way forward for Bosnia-Herzegovina

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, tempted by the allure of a 'deliverable', the EU, US, and UK are supporting a political process that would enhance the power of ethno-nationalist leaders, cement ethnic partition, and quite possibly lead to violence.

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