by Daniele Scalea

While the eyes of the world are on Ukraine, there is another critical situation in Europe that nonetheless deserves attention. The reference is to Bosnia-Herzegovina which, in the words of its High Representative Christian Schmidt, has never been so close to collapse since the end of the civil war. Further proof of the critical moment is the choice of the USA to sanction none other than the Serbian member of the presidential triad, Milorad Dodik.

Let's try to understand what's going on by first taking a necessary step back.

What is Bosnia-Herzegovina

The country is often abbreviated as "BiH", from the initials of its name in the original language. Bosnia and Herzegovina are two historical regions, whose names mean respectively "Bosna River Valley" and "Duchy". Although they have known a season of political independence, these territories have always gravitated around (or under) major powers: in particular, for centuries they have been dominated by the Ottoman Empire. In that period a majority of the population converted from Christianity to Islam. In 1878, with the Congress of Berlin, Bosnia-Herzegovina passed under the Austro-Hungarian administration (the formal annexation took place in 1908), which sought to exalt the particular Bosnian identity, which inevitably coincided with the Muslim one, as opposed to the irredentism of the Croatian (Catholic) and Serbian (Orthodox) inhabitants. Today it is common to call Muslim Bosnians, in an ethnic sense, "Bosniaks".

After the disintegration of the Habsburg Empire, Bosnia-Herzegovina became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but it did not maintain a distinct administrative structure but was divided into various oblasts ("provinces") and then banates. Bosnia-Herzegovina as a unitary entity, even with the status of a federated republic, returned after the Second World War in the communist Yugoslavia of Tito, eager to dilute the Serb preponderance.

History of the ethnic conflict

It goes without saying that the coexistence between the three ethnic groups present in Bosnia-Herzegovina was often conflicting. During the Ottoman dominion, Muslims were favored over Christians and concentrated political power and land holdings in their hands. Austria-Hungary favored the Bosnian and Croatian components in an anti-Serbian function: this reached its climax during the Great War, when the ethnic conflict became armed. This violence reoccurred during the Second World War: the Nazi occupier handed over the region to the Croatia of the Ustaša, who co-opted the Bosniaks (Islam was recognized as the second official religion) and unleashed an authentic war of extermination against the Serbs.

The last chapter (to date) of the inter-ethnic violence dates, as known, to the early '90s, with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. When Slovenia and Croatia proclaimed independence, the Bosnians found themselves divided: Bosniaks and Croats wanted to follow their example, Serbs wanted to remain in Yugoslavia. Eventually both Serbs and Croats formed their own entities in the territories where they were in the majority: when the Bosniaks refused to secede, it was war. It lasted from 1992 to 1995, provoked widespread massacres of civilians and saw the decisive intervention, in support of Muslims, not only of foreign volunteers (not least veterans of the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan) sponsored by the Gulf States, but also of Western powers. The new reunited Germany, in view of regional hegemony, and the USA, for anti-Russian purposes, were the countries in the front line. Washington obtained that Croatians and Bosniaks ceased hostilities between them to unite in the fight against the Serbs, assisted by the NATO air force. Eventually the Serbs agreed to a negotiated peace with the Dayton Accords.

An international protectorate

In fact, BiH is neither a real state nor a federation. It is a fragile and sui generis structure that has crystallized a conflict situation and left it undefined. It is made up of a republic - the Republika Srpska of the Serbs - and a federation - the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which brings together the territories with a Bosniak and Croatian majority. Roughly speaking, each of them occupies half the surface of the country. Then there would be a third, small entity: the District of Brčko, which is disputed between the two major components and in fact self-administers. The two largest entities have their own presidents, governments, parliaments, police forces and a number of autonomous powers. However, they are subordinate to a central BiH power.

To understand the peculiarity of Bosnian structure, it is sufficient to mention that the highest institutional authority is actually a foreign governor: it is the so-called High Representative. He is not even chosen by Bosnian citizens, but imposed by foreign powers. Until 2020 his appointment was sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Now this is no longer the case: he is instead chosen by a "Peace Implementation Council" (PIC) that was never mentioned in the Dayton Agreements. It is made up of 55 states and international organizations, but only Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Great Britain, Italy, the USA, the EU Presidency, the EU Commission and the Organization of the Islamic Conference are members of its executive committee. The PIC is considered by Russia as a ploy to cut it off (along with China) from the choice of the High Representative. And also Republika Srpska refuses to recognize the last High Representative, elected on August 1, 2021 without going through the UN.

He is Christian Schmidt, a German CSU politician with double ministerial experience in his country. He is the ninth High Representative, a position that only Germany and Austria have held twice, clarifying which states have the greatest influence on BiH. The U.S. has never had a High Representative but has always expressed the deputy (the current one is diplomat Michael Scanlan).

The High Representative has almost absolute powers: he can take binding decisions and remove from office, with immediate effect and without right of appeal, any elected or non-elected official (to date hundreds of Bosnian officials have been removed from their role). According to PIC deliberations, the position of the High Representative will be abolished when a number of preconditions are met. Among those still unresolved are the resolution of state and military properties (i.e. deciding to which Bosnian subject each of them belongs) and the one on the disputed district of Brčko.

In terms of foreign influence on BiH, it is worth mentioning the continuing presence of military forces from other countries. Until 2004 it was represented by SFOR, a NATO military force; that year it was replaced by EUFOR's "Mission Althea", an EU-led joint force whose aim is to ensure the survival of Bosnia-Herzegovina as outlined in the peace treaties and to train the national armed forces. It consists of 600 men led by Austrian General Alexander Platzer. The last nine commanders (since 2009) are of Austrian nationality; previously Italy, with two commanders out of 5, was the most represented nation: a further proof of the growing Austro-Germanic influence on the country.

The institutional structure of Bosnia-Herzegovina

Below this superstructure of international protectorate, and above that of the autonomous entities, there exists a "national" level which, however, is strongly affected by cantonalization. The Presidency of the State, in fact, is assigned to a collegial body composed of a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak. In turn, with alternation every 8 months, one of these presides over the Presidency itself. There are no limits to the number of terms of office, but no more than two may be held consecutively. Currently the three members of the Presidency are the Serbian Milorad Dodik, the Bosniak Šefik Džaferović and the Croatian Željko Komšić. The latter is much disputed: he is in fact the exponent of a multi-ethnic party, elected as a Croatian member thanks to the decisive vote of the Bosniaks. It must be remembered that Croats and Bosniaks are united in a single entity and therefore vote together. The Presidency takes care of diplomatic relations and proposes the budget to the Parliament upon indication of the Council of Ministers.

Executive power is vested in the Council of Ministers, whose members are appointed by the President of the Council, who in turn is appointed by the Presidency and approved by the House of Representatives. The current President of the Council is Serbian Zoran Tegeltija, a member of Dodik's nationalist Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (AISD). He was the long-time Minister of Finance of the Srpska Republic (2010-2018). A 60-year-old economist and a member of AISD for more than two decades, he is considered very close to Dodik but with a more sober and cautious style. After the October 2018 general elections, more than a year passed before a new government headed by Tegeltija could be formed in December 2019. The current ministers are distributed as follows: 3 from AISD, 2 from HDZ (a conservative party twinned with its namesake in Croatia), 2 from the Democratic Action Party (Bosnian national-conservative), 1 from the Democratic Front (multi-ethnic left), 1 from the Democratic People's Alliance (right-wing Serbian party).

The legislative power is assigned to a bicameral parliament composed of the House of Peoples (upper chamber) and the House of Representatives (lower chamber). The members of the upper chamber are 15 and are elected for a two-year term by the parliaments of the entities, in the ratio of 5 Serbs, 5 Croats and 5 Bosniaks. The quorum is 9 delegates, with a minimum of 3 for each nationality (in this way it is guaranteed that only laws agreed upon by the three nationalities can be passed). The members of the lower house are 42 and are elected for a four-year term of office in direct elections with proportional distribution, in the ratio of 14 Serbs, 14 Croats and 14 Bosniaks. The current composition is determined by the 2018 general elections. There are 25 majority and 17 opposition representatives. The current majority is composed, in descending order of number of representatives, of the Democratic Party of Action, AISD, HDZ, Democratic Front and United Srpska - Socialist Party (Serbian nationalist coalition).

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The Srpska Republic in search of greater autonomy
carta bosnia erzegovina

Map of Bosnia and Herzegovina (source: Wikipedia)

The dominant party in the Srpska Republic has been until 2006 the Serbian Democratic Party (SDP), founded by Radovan Karadžić, protagonist of the war of the 90s. Since 2006 the presidency of the Republic is expressed by the aforementioned AISD. If originally the SDP represented the more nationalist and radical faction and the AISD the more moderate one, the situation has changed today. Currently, the SPD has more moderate center-right positions, while the AISD has a more markedly nationalist orientation and is socially conservative. In 2012 it was expelled from the Socialist International.

The Parliament of the Republika Srpska has approved a motion (non-binding) that invites the Government to recover some important prerogatives ceded to the central power: defense, justice and taxation. Milorad Dodik, for eight years president of the Republika Srpska and today Serbian member of the Presidency of BiH, has repeatedly ventilated the possibility of secession.

The situation was precipitated last July by the decision of the outgoing High Representative, Austrian Valentin Inzko, to impose a law that criminally punishes anyone who denies that the events in Srbrenica in 1995 were genocide. The decision was justified by the desire to bring Bosnian legislation in line with that of some European countries. However, it was perceived by the Serbs as yet another punitive measure against them, constantly pointed at as being responsible for the civil war and on the side of the "bad guys" (the International Tribunal of The Hague condemned the Serbian and Croatian leaderships of the time, while hitting the Bosniak leadership in a milder way). Inzko's decision has exacerbated a latent situation of tension, determined by the fact that the High Representatives have always tried to build a more centralized power in BiH, which the Serbs have opposed by referring to what was established in the peace agreements, which guarantee wide autonomy to the Republika Srpska.

Tensions between Croats and Bosniaks

The actions of the Serbs are more in the spotlight, because they are twice as large as the Croats (30% and 15% of the population respectively) and have their own republic covering 49% of the country's territory. Nevertheless, another disruptive factor in BiH is precisely the clash between Croats and Bosniaks within their federation. As already mentioned, during the selection of the members of the tripartite presidency, the Bosniaks have used their numerical weight to impose a Croat who, in reality, is not the favorite of the Croats themselves. This has generated strong tensions with the HDZ, the conservative party twinned with the party of the same name that currently expresses the Prime Minister in Croatia. A party founded by the father of Croatian independence, Franjo Tuđman, who at the time, not by chance, also tried to incorporate a portion of Bosnia-Herzegovina into the nascent state.

The clash between the HDZ and the Bosniaks is helping to stall negotiations on the launch of the 2022 budget, which is necessary, among other things, to hold elections scheduled for October. Dodik is trying to drive a wedge into this rift by calling for the creation of an autonomous Croatian entity. The issue has also prompted the intervention of the President of the Croatian Republic, Zoran Milanović, who is an opponent of the HDZ but has criticized the latter's government for being too compliant and not blocking the EU from taking anti-Republika Srpska positions. Milanović accused the Bosniaks of wanting to steal the next elections - precisely by choosing themselves ethnically Croatian representatives but submissive to Muslims - and praised Dodik as an interlocutor. The latter, therefore, receives another important support in Europe, besides the obvious ones from Belgrade and Moscow and that of Viktor Orban. Even the Hungarian Prime Minister, in fact, makes no secret of his sympathy for the Republika Srpska and, just in these days, has publicly raised doubts that it will ever be possible to integrate the two million Bosnian Muslims into the EU.

We cannot fail to mention the case of the "non paper", i.e. an unofficial and unsigned document, which circulated among European chancelleries last year and which many attributed to Janez Janša, Prime Minister of Slovenia. The document hypothesized solving the Bosnian stalemate by separating the country on an ethnic basis, so as to finally satisfy the Croats' and Serbs' desire to reunite with their motherlands, leaving a smaller Bosnia-Herzegovina ethnically and religiously homogeneous.

EU responsibilities

Bosnia-Herzegovina is, as narrated, a State imposed by force by external subjects against the will of two of the three national components. A quarter of a century later, the artificial character of the state has not disappeared, as demonstrated both by the persistent will of the Serbs to separate from the Bosniak-Croatian entity and by the internal tensions within the latter. The lapse of time that has passed has not yet erased the aftermath of the civil war, nor the deep-rooted ethno-linguistic-religious distinctions. The EU, which has progressively inherited the management of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the USA and has always expressed the High Representative, has tried to apply the same functionalist approach experimented on itself. In other words, it has relied on the fact that institutional articulation should be followed by a national identity. This approach, which privileges rules and institutions while neglecting the soul of peoples, history and culture, has failed in Europe as it is failing in BiH. In the latter, the result is a cantonization more similar to the unstable and conflictual model of Lebanon than to the stable and cooperative model of Switzerland.

The influence of BiH's receding European perspective should not be overlooked. In the country the possibility of one day joining the European Union is perceived as increasingly remote. This obviously decreases the incentives to follow the path laid out by Brussels (or Berlin...) and predisposes instead to follow other sirens: such as those that sing from Belgrade or Moscow.

The geopolitical "great game"

Although a quarter of a century has passed since those events of the early '90s, we realize that certain logics are still valid today. The opposition to a revision of the borders in the Western Balkans, on the part of Washington and many European capitals, derives - even more than from the fear of uncovering a Pandora's box - from the hypothesis that this could favour Russia. The Serbs are, for cultural, historical and opportunity reasons, tied to Moscow. This bond is only being tightened, however, by the very partisan attitude of others. Only the Trump Administration tried to rebalance the U.S. position in the Western Balkans: it demonstrated this when it brokered the agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, exerting equal pressure on the two subjects, rather than taking Pristina's side against Belgrade according to the old Washington custom. The impression is that Biden will not follow the path traced by Trump, thus returning to the old favoritism. In the name of hostility to Putin, our Atlantic camp will once again find itself frustrating the self-determination ambitions of Bosnian Croats and Serbs, in favor of Muslim hegemony in an artificial state that would not survive a minute without outside interference.

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Founder and President of Centro Studi Machiavelli. Graduated in Historical Sciences (University of Milan) and PhD in Political Studies (Sapienza University), he is professor of "History and doctrine of jihadism" and "Geopolitics of the Middle East" at Cusano University. From 2018 to 2019 he was Special Advisor on Immigration and Terrorism to the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Guglielmo Picchi. His latest book (as editor) is Topicality of sovereignism. Between pandemic and war.