NATO and Russia’s Balkan chess game
The US and NATO have been trying to get Bosnia-Herzegovina to join the alliance for over 15 years. The Serb minority of the Republika Srpska, backed by Serbia and Russia, are engaging in precarious brinkmanship to stop this.
The clock is ticking on the fate of the peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina that has held since the imposition of the Dayton Accords, officially known as the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Dayton Accords were named after the City of Dayton, Ohio, home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where, on 21 November 1995, the parties to the Bosnia conflict reached an agreement to end the bloody civil war that broke out in the aftermath of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The accords were formally signed in Paris, on 14 December 1995. Since that time, Bosnia has been governed by a tripartite presidency, with representatives from the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian territories that comprise the multi-ethnic population.
Since 1995, this coalition government has operated under the watchful eye of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) for Bosnia and Herzegovina, ostensibly instituted to protect Bosnian sovereignty and territorial integrity by performing oversight of the functions of government, such as the military, judiciary, tax and customs collection, and intelligence services, that are normally the sole purview of a sovereign state.
On October 29, 2021, this fragile coalition, and the peace it oversees, was shaken by an announcement by Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite presidency, that he intended to withdraw the Serbs from the joint Bosnian-Herzegovinian military, in effect recreating the Bosnian Serb Army – an institution that, in 2007, was found guilty by the International Court of Justice of committing acts of genocide during the civil war.
By the end of November, Dodik has pledged to implement more than 100 pieces of proposed legislation that would see the Republika Srpska – the Serbian entity within the overall Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation of which he is president – withdraw from Bosnia’s central government and form its own parallel institutions. If he were to act on his proposals, it would mean the end of the Dayton Accords.
While Dodik has threatened such actions before, this time the world is paying attention. While the reason he has cited for the current threat is a law promulgated by the OHR in July 2021 that bans genocidal denial, the real reasons rest in the larger geopolitical struggle between Russia and NATO, and is centered on Bosnia-Herzegovina’s application to join the trans-Atlantic alliance.
In 2006, Bosnia-Herzegovina joined Partnership for Peace program – the first phase of a multi-step process for eventual full membership of NATO. Four years later, NATO launched the Membership Action Plan (MAP) – the formal mechanism by which members review an application. The Bosnian-Herzegovinian MAP was contingent on having some 63 military installations in that nation’s territory turned over to full federal control. However, the Republika Srpska has, to date, refused to turn over 23 of the facilities on its territory. Despite Republika Srpska’s refusal to comply, NATO went ahead and approved the MAP. However, to date, Dodik has delayed its activation through the exercise of his veto. His threat to withdraw the Serbian forces from the federal military of Bosnia-Herzegovina is the latest ploy in preventing NATO membership from being granted.
Dodik is not some rogue party. Rather, his actions must be viewed as a larger policy supported by both Serbia and Russia, both of whom not only regard the Dayton Accords as an imposed peace and the OHR it created akin to a colonial overseer, but also the accession of Bosnia-Herzegovina into NATO as an unacceptable – and, in the case of Serbia, existential – threat to its national security.
In July, following the imposition of the aforementioned law banning genocidal denial, instigated by Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat who served as the OHR until his departure that same month, Russia, backed by China, sponsored a resolution before the UN Security Council to strip the OHR of its oversight powers. This effort was defeated. However, in early November, Russia and China were successful in having any mention of the OHR removed from a resolution that extended a peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the excision of any mention of the OHR from this resolution did not eliminate its authority, it did allow Russia the opportunity to label Christian Schmidt, the German diplomat who replaced Inzko, as a “private person” when referring to a report of the OHR on the situation in Bosnia that was circulated among the Security Council.
This denigration of the OHR furthers Dodik’s goal of rendering the institutions of the OHR irrelevant and removing the European judges who currently preside over Bosnia’s Constitutional Court. Dodik has made it clear that his endgame is not the resumption of civil war; his real goal, and that of both Russia and Serbia, is to block Bosnia’s absorption into NATO, thereby strengthening Russia and Serbia’s geopolitical profile in Europe at the expense of an agreement long seen as a landmark US diplomatic achievement.
To this end, Dodik has offered a compromise by which he will stop pushing for the implementation of the legislative actions he has threatened in exchange for either the outright repeal of what he calls the “Inzko Law” regarding genocide denial, or an amendment to the “Inzko Law” that would cover the murder of Serbs by pro-Nazi Bosnian-Croatian forces at the Jasenovac concentration camp during World War Two. If Dodik’s compromise is acted on, it would represent a further degradation of the status of the OHR, furthering the Russian/Serbian goal of eliminating that office altogether, and thereby empowering Dodik and the Serbs of Republika Srpska to permanently block Bosnia-Herzegovina’s application to join NATO.