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5th Dec 2021

Bosnia break-up threatens Western Balkans peace, envoy warns

  • Bosnia: Serb separatists staged provocative 'counter-terrorist' drills last month (Photo: Clark & Kim Kays)
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Mounting Serbian separatism in Bosnia risks aggravating other old conflicts in the Western Balkans, an international peace envoy has warned.

"The unrest in this region will also affect the question of the difficult relationship between Serbia and Kosovo in the same or similar way," Christian Schmidt, a 'high representative' to Bosnia appointed by a 55-country 'Peace Implementation Council' and a German former minister, told Reuters on Saturday (6 November).

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He spoke out amid preparations by the Bosnian Serb leader, Mirolad Dodik, to withdraw Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity in the Bosnian federation, from the country's joint army, intelligence, judicial, and taxation structures via a vote in the Republika Srpska parliament before the end of the year.

"If the degradation of the Dayton treaty continues ... there is a risk that the country will break apart," Schmidt said, referring to a 1995 international accord, which created the Bosnian federation after three and a half years of bloody ethnic warfare between Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks, and Roman Catholic Croats.

"If this proves to be true ... then we in the international community will have to think very, very, very seriously about how we can move forward," Schmidt added.

His public warning came after he recently made similar comments in a leaked report to the UN.

"This is tantamount to secession without proclaiming it," Schmidt told the UN after Bosnian Serb police carried out solo "counter-terrorist" drills in October on the symbolic Mount Jahorina, from which Serb forces shelled Sarajevo in the war.

"The prospects for further division and conflict are very real," Schmidt wrote.

"Should the armed force of BiH [Bosnia and Herzegovina] splinter into two or more armies, the level of international military presence would require reassessment," he added.

The EU currently has about 700 soldiers in Bosnia in its 'Eufor-Althea' operation, which took over peacekeeping duties from Nato in 2004.

Eufor's mandate was renewed by the UN Security Council for another year on 3 November.

But for its part, Russia, which has close ties with Dodik and with his regional sponsor, Serb president Aleksandar Vučić, used its UN veto to weaken Western authority in Sarajevo by stripping out any reference to Schmidt's role in the country from the mandate-renewal resolution.

"This amounts to an abject humiliation for the West," Kurt Bassuener from the Democratisation Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank, said.

Ethnic violence also flared in Kosovo in September, when Vučić sent soldiers to the border to "protect" Serbs in north Kosovo following a dispute about national insignia on car number plates.

"The rapidness of the onset of tensions was a little bit surprising," Gabriel Escobar, a senior US official dealing with the Western Balkans, said at the time.

And for some EU diplomats, it remained to be seen if Europe was ready to use military force to stabilise the region if need be.

"We've forgotten about the Western Balkans, which are still a powder keg. There's a risk that we will need to help stabilise the region using a security-based approach," an EU diplomat told EUobserver.

Meanwhile, Schmidt, in his Reuters interview, said Vučić ought to play a more constructive role if he ever wanted to see Serbia join the EU.

"Serbia should have an interest in Bosnia-Herzegovina staying together," Schmidt said.

But the EU's soft power in the region has also waned following a series of vetoes on enlargement progress by Bulgaria, Denmark, France, and the Netherlands for the sake of domestic politics.

"On paper, the enlargement policy remains active. In practice, however, there is a growing disappointment among the citizens of the region with the EU perspective," Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia said in a joint declaration last week.

"The weakened prospect of European integration threatens to leave us more disintegrated than ever. The sentiment is shared along the region", they said.

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