Rise to Peace blog

Powder Keg of the Pandemic: Exploring the Ongoing Situation in Bosnia

Since the start of the pandemic there have been many worrying trends within global affairs. Among these have been the deteriorating relations between global powers and a stark contrast between the allocation of vaccines of affluent nations with that of the globe’s poorest nations. Additionally, there exists a dire crisis within the Balkans, which has been critically overlooked. Renewed ethnic tensions within Bosnia and Herzegovina are threatening the integrity of its governing institutions.

The Bosnian War has largely defined the small Balkan nation, which ravaged the country in the late 1990s. The conflict shaped the governance in the country, with the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords splitting the nation into ethnic divisions with the Serbs residing in Republika Srpska and the Muslim Bosniaks as well as Croats residing in the rest of the country.

As a result of the ethnic divisions which plagued the country, the government was organized into a tripartite presidency allowing a representative of each major ethnic group to have their voice heard in policy matters. This measure was intended to ease tensions between Bosnia’s ethnic groups, as they feared that an opposing group could marginalize them if given the sole monopoly on power.

The Current Crisis

The current crisis stems from Bosnian Serb politician Milorad Dodik espousing irredentist rhetoric about leaving key institutions. Among these talking points include withdrawing from the military of Bosnia, which reignited sore memories of atrocities committed by Serbian paramilitary groups during the Bosnian War. His actions were also emboldened by nefarious regional actors who simply seek to weaken the integrity of Bosnia’s institutions at the expense of the nation’s citizens. A renewed conflict along ethnic lines would lead to a loss of economic progress made since 1995 and a humanitarian crisis.

Mounting Tensions

Prior to the pandemic, there were clear signs of political gridlock in the country surrounding several key issues. One such issue, which has become emblematic of gridlock among the major ethnic groups, is that of NATO membership.

Russia has used the separatist aims of the minority Croat party (Croatian Democratic Union) and the Bosnian Serb party (Alliance of Independent Social-democrats) to influence the ascension of Bosnia to key continental institutions, which would weaken their foothold in the Balkans. Russia has long viewed itself as a brother-Slavic nation to Serbia and came to its defense in the First World War. It now capitalizes on this historical relationship to only further its political aims at the expense of smaller states. It has long been a sphere of influence in which it sees as vital to its security.

Policy Recommendations

To reduce the possibility of armed conflict between Bosnia’s major ethnic groups, the United States and Europe need to take action. The actions of Milorad Dodik have been caused by the reduction of credible deterrence and concrete assurances of bringing Bosnia into the fold of key European institutions. The scope of Operation Althea needs to be expanded with Bosnia to send a credible deterrence to nations seeking to interfere in the country’s internal affairs. Chief among the most salient atrocities of the Bosnian War is the Srebrenica massacre, which resulted in the deaths of 8,000 Bosniaks left behind by a United Nations force bereft of deterrence.

Second, the United States and European Union should introduce sanction regimes in concert on individuals who seek to engage in continued separatist rhetoric while in an official capacity of the Bosnian government.

Third, the European Union should reengage with Bosnia to encourage permanent reform within the governance of the country, to be more inclusive of the ethnic minorities within the nation, as well as provide tangible timeframes for Bosnia to join European institutions.

A Region to Be Heeded

Historically, the Balkans have long been a source of conflict, ranging from the Balkan Wars of the 1910s to the Yugoslav Wars of the late 1990s. With a region that has produced devastating crises to international security, it is important for the aforementioned policies to be implemented to avoid igniting the powder keg of Europe.

In present conditions, the presence of COVID-19 only serves to exacerbate a potential humanitarian disaster, should armed conflict arise. Such a disaster would also serve to impede a pandemic response with larger powers backing their preferred factions rather than coordinate global public health efforts such as COVAX.


Chris Ynclan, Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

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