A little over two years ago, the people of Bosnia celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the gruesome bloodshed of the Bosnian War. Originally seen as a precarious pathway to peace, rigidly bifurcating the country into two ethnic corridors while discouraging intergroup power-sharing, the deal has brought stability to the Balkans and incorporation into the larger European community. The creation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (a Croat and Muslim, colloquially known as Bosniak, federation) and Republika Srpska (the Serb enclave) were touted as the pinnacle achievements of the peace agreement and helped end the worst conflict in Europe since the Second World War. Additionally, the region’s Serb, Croat, and Muslim communities have grown to support the U.S.-brokered compromise and recognize the importance of inclusivity in power-sharing arrangements. However, recent political crises and the revival of nationalism across Europe threaten to shatter the settlement and destabilize the war-weary nation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that Serbia’s tighter border controls responding to the influx of migrants foster a climate of mistrust, triggering backlash that could devolve into military confrontation. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, stoked these nativist flames further by proposing a referendum on reclaiming autonomy via the complete dismantling of the Dayton confederation structure. Even Bosniaks, who have embraced neighborly relations with their wartime foes have incited tensions by reviving the criminal case against the Serb perpetrators of the 1995 Srebrenica Massacre, a move that Serbian Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic publicly decried. These actions are a reminder that the future for peace, and the Bosnian state in general, remain inextricably tied to its harrowing past. Yet the way citizens respond to the divisive rhetoric and tribalistic policy employed by opportunistic populists will determine whether coexistence can last.
Economic stagnation and a dearth of opportunities have played a major role in the insidious rise of Islamic fundamentalism among the Bosniak population, as fiscal crisis has seemingly unearthed the dormant fanaticism which marked the sectarian warfare of recent memory Despite newfound trade routes with the nations of the European Union, wages have stagnated over the past two decades while youth employment rates hover among the highest on the continent. With nearly 57.5 percent of young persons out of work, there is a growing unease among Bosnia’s political elites that these persons are increasingly susceptible to radicalization by Islamist extremists. Recent legislation has aimed to crackdown on jihadist activity, making the recruitment of foreign fighters and abetting of terrorist organizations via financial donations a punishable offense with a minimum of a decade in prison. Moreover, reports claim that a sizeable contingent of Bosnians have fled economic uncertainty to join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) since 2012, with nearly 300 individuals fighting on the front lines in 2015 alone.
Yet the most striking reminder of extremism’s potency occurred in that same year, when a gunman fired upon a police station in Zvornik, a city straddling the border with Serbia, and killed one officer at their post. The incident upended civil discourse on pluralism across the country, as the claim that disaffected citizens would easily be swayed by Islamic militancy quickly soured Serb perceptions of their Muslim neighbors. President Dodik pounced on these fears, citing that glaring security oversights coupled with stunted economic growth have made the state-building project unviable and only underline the need for separation. Without mobilizing political will to support at-risk communities and launching concerted efforts to reinvigorate national industries, the welfare of vulnerable populations will be treated as nothing more than a politicized prop.
Another worrisome trend that undermines the prospects for peace in the Balkans is the re-emerging Russian presence in Bosnian political affairs. Historically, Russia has viewed Serbia and the greater region as an integral facet of its sphere of influence, a notion that was essentially undercut with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. As U.S. and European actors filled the regional power vacuum, mediating peace efforts and rebuilding infrastructure during the war’s final months, Moscow fumed and regarded Western policies as alienating Bosnian Serbs. Yet with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s accession to power during the turn of the millennium, strengthening ties with Slavic allies became a larger “reclamation project” to reassert their influence in the area. A prime example of this refocusing came in 2011, when an enraged Dodik voiced complaints that the federal judiciary, which aims to uphold civil rights within the diverse nation, had overextended its reach. Rebelliously, he aspired to hold a referendum on abandoning the “unconstitutional” system entirely. In response to this potentially disastrous situation, the Kremlin broke from established international protocol and framed it as an “internal issue” that did not warrant denunciation.
However, Russia’s display of soft power and crafty politicking did not end there. Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov publically denounced talk of NATO expansion into the country as a “provocation”, framing the military alliance’s as an antiquated vestige of a different era that disregards Bosnian sovereignty. By facilitating a climate of instability through their vocal support of Dodik, Russia’s plan to reimpose hegemony at the expense of ethnic reconciliation may soon come to fruition. If American foreign policy follows an isolationist route and a fractured European Union is tasked with upholding order, wresting power from the faltering faction may mean more than just harsh rhetoric. With the right opening, an opportunistic Russia could use Dodik’s ethno-nationalist agenda to reignite violence in the country and instigate a proxy war to ultimately cement their grip over Southeast Europe. Though this scenario is relatively remote, Russian meddling to bolster their profile and placate Dodik’s populist backers has put the territorial integrity of Bosnia at severe risk.
Above all, the most pressing problem that will derail plans for a unified state if left unaddressed is corruption, as bribery and embezzlement have permeated the shared democratic institutions meant to encourage cross-cultural contact. Prominent offices like the Constitutional Court and the Central Bank were formed following the Dayton agreement as a means of promoting inter-ethnic integration while ensure all aspects of governance are open and equitable. However, the intricate structure of the federal government has lent itself to the creation of a labyrinthine bureaucracy solely tasked with meeting the stipulations of the peace deal. Three parliaments with rivaling representatives from various ethnic parties, a bloated executive branch and administrations consisting of functionaries who seized posts via personal connections have complicated matters considerably. U.S. Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi, co-chair of the American led Helsinki Commission for European security, notably raised these concerns in a revelatory report, claiming that widespread graft has swayed the decisions of high-ranking officials in Sarajevo that fundamentally “subvert the rule of law”. Moreover, Senator Wicker is not alone in his objections that politicians’ negligence to put civic duty above private interest.
The European Commission, the lawmaking body of the European Union which manages the bloc’s enlargement process, noted that unchecked cronyism and the stalled rollout of anti-corruption measures have not only hampered post-war recovery, but also affect the status of their membership candidacy. The group poses that power-brokers have used their privilege to support their client bases (mainly their respective ethnic faction) while exploiting state resources devoted to the long-term project of stability. Without a concerted push for reforming governing bodies and local leadership in punishing culprits of fraud, diplomatic efforts to extend the E.U.’s benefits into the Balkans will fall by the wayside and international support for intergroup cooperation will be severely curbed. Denis Zvizdić, chairman of the Council of Ministers and (effectively) the head of the government, has tried to assuage these harsh condemnations and insisted that the goal of transparency is still in sight. Oversight groups to monitor monetary transactions were established, increased spending on security was passed and laws to shrink the size of the civil service sector came into effect to combat the notion of rampant misconduct. Zvizdić’s endeavors may have reduced E.U. pressure temporarily, but the structural changes needed to tackle malfeasance at its source cannot be enacted overnight.
The challenges Bosnians from all walks of life face, from political instability to foreign gamesmanship, are daunting and still reflect the sense of stagnation that has gripped the country since the volatile 1990s. Given the sluggish pace of the rebuilding process and the wave of Euroscepticism sweeping across the continent, it seems reasonable to assume that dissatisfied citizens would abandon the movement to unite with Western Europe and show receptiveness to the jingoistic pandering of politicians to put them back on the march to war. However, recent polling tells a different, more optimistic story.
Approximately 50% of Bosnians would exhaust all peaceful means before engaging in a conflict that would threaten their homeland. Nearly 66% of citizens believe that joining the E.U. would be in the best interests of the country, arguing it would provide greater access to jobs and bolster industrial development. Most strikingly, a staggering 93% believe that the economy will play a central role in improving inter-ethnic relations, a viewpoint that clashes with the message peddled by nationalists like Dodik. These numbers show that Dayton’s vision, for all its complications, remains the solid foundation for a Bosnian society that has weathered the storm of sectarianism before. The resilient people of Bosnia recognize the accord’s potential to help develop the country into the thriving democracy many hope it will become. It is up to the political elites, Croat, Bosniak, and Serb, to make that plan a reality.