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Europe must act to save the peace settlement in Bosnia

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo

On January 9, a huge parade was held in the northwestern Bosnian city of Banja Luka. Police and gendarmerie braved the cold to show off their latest equipment. The VIP lodge included a diverse group of international guests. Top politicians from neighbouring Serbia were in attendance. Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia, a Chinese embassy official and two rightwing French members of the European Parliament were there. Vinko Pandurevic, convicted for crimes against humanity by a UN-established tribunal, was given a prominent seat.

But the spotlight was captured by Milorad Dodik. The 62-year-old Bosnian Serb leader and member of the country’s tripartite presidency has dominated political life for the past 15 years in this part of Bosnia known as Republika Srpska. Now, he is at the centre of the worst security crisis in the country since the war ended in 1995.

Last July, the outgoing High Representative — the top international official overseeing the civilian aspects of the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war — imposed a genocide denial ban. Bosnian Serb officials led by Dodik began a boycott of state-level institutions rendering them dysfunctional. Last December, Republika Srpska’s assembly convened a special session that paved the way for the establishment of parallel institutions in defence, security, taxation and judiciary. This amounts to a direct challenge to Bosnia’s national institutions and the country’s sovereignty.

As Bosnian Serb politicians undertake steps towards secession, Bosniak officials have vowed to protect the country’s sovereignty with all available means. Not since 1995 has there been this level of uncertainty about Bosnia’s future.

The international response has been slow. Six months into the crisis, the Biden administration finally decided to act. In early January, the US imposed sanctions on Dodik for undermining the Dayton accords.

A few days later, Dodik held the Banja Luka parade in a show of force and defiance. This marked the 30th anniversary of the founding of Republika Srpska and Dodik did not miss the opportunity to snub both the Americans and Bosnia’s top court, which had ruled the occasion unconstitutional.

More US sanctions are expected in the weeks and months ahead. However, they will only be effective against Dodik if accompanying European sanctions are imposed as well. Europe’s response so far has consisted largely of bland statements. Meanwhile, Dodik has made common cause with illiberal central European hardliners, including Slovenia’s Janez Janša and Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Hungarian officials have pledged to block any EU sanctions on Dodik.

This means that major European powers — primarily the UK and Germany since the EU does not speak with one voice on Bosnia — should lead the way. Global Britain’s strategic objectives and Germany’s geoeconomic power should be harnessed to respond to the deteriorating situation.

Sanctions should be imposed on Dodik, his top advisers and the leadership of the Republika Srpska assembly that held the controversial special session last December. Business entities linked to Dodik and his regime should also be put under sanctions in an attempt to cut off the financial lifeline that sustains separatist politics.

For sanctions to have an impact, five steps should be undertaken.

First, the UK and Germany should lead the way in freezing any assets held by Dodik and his closest circle of associates in those countries.

Second, travel bans should be imposed on separatist politicians and the business elite linked to and supporting their policies.

Third, the UK and Germany should also impose these sanctions on a dozen or so politicians from all ethnic groups who engage in corrupt practices.

Fourth, the British and German aid agencies should make it clear that they would put on hold any development assistance projects in Republika Srpska until there is a change in behaviour.

Fifth, the major European powers should convey a direct message to Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic — whose influence over Dodik is considerable — that secession in Bosnia will not be tolerated.

If applied in tandem with US sanctions, European measures would impose a higher cost on separatist politicians, altering their calculations. British and German leadership would be likely to be followed by other European countries. Peace in Bosnia now rests on the willingness of American and European officials to work together to safeguard postwar state-building in the Balkans.


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