(CNN) The Balkan state of Bosnia and Herzegovina is on the brink of what analysts say is its most serious crisis since the end of the Bosnian war in 1995during which thousands of people were killed and horrific acts of ethnic cleansing were committed.
The High Representative of the international community in Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, warned earlier this week that the U.S.-brokered peace deal at the end of the war risks collapsing if steps are not taken to prevent Serbian separatists from pushing toward secession.
Milorad Dodik, the Serbian leader of the three-year presidency of Bosnia, has, over time, on several occasions threatened to separate from the rest of the country, which since the war has been composed of two autonomous regions linked by a central government. This time, however, he is putting some flesh on the bones by introducing legislation that would separate the Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic) from common state institutions like the armed forces and judicial bodies.
“This amounts to secession without proclaiming it,” Schmidt told the U.N. Security Council, which met this week to reauthorize the long-standing mission of the Union-led peacekeeping force European Union, EUFOR.
In a country where ethnic divisions between Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats have led to war crimes committed in recent history, this level of tension makes observers very nervous.
“There is no doubt that this is by far the most dangerous crisis since 1995 and could lead to another war,” said Ismail Cidic, president of the Bosnian Advocacy Center, an independent NGO that campaigns in favor of a free, sovereign, democratic and secular Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Why is this happening now?
Sectarian tensions between the communities have persisted since the end of the war and the signing of the Dayton Accord negotiated by the United States.
The treaty ended the three-and-a-half-year war by dividing the state along ethnic lines, between the Serbian Republic and the Federation, shared by Bosniaks and Croats. The two regions are linked by a three-person presidency, international envoys and a central government.
No peace treaty can erase the murders, systemic rapes and other horrors experienced during the war, but one incident remains more etched in memory than others: the Srebrenica massacre which took place between July 11 and 22, 1995.
Thousands of Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces. Their leaders were later convicted of war crimes and the massacre was recognized as genocide by the international community. However, not all Serbs are willing to accept it.
One such person is Dodik, who was particularly upset by the recent introduction of a law by the High Commissioner’s office that could impose prison sentences on anyone who denies the commission of genocide.
Earlier this year, he said of the law: “This is the nail in the coffin of Bosnia… Republika Srpska has no choice but to begin… the dissolution.”
How much worse could things get?
Observers fear that even if Dodik does not move toward secession, his actions could be seriously destabilizing and cause violence, forced migration and abject misery for ordinary people.
“Citizens across Bosnia and Herzegovina – including in Republika Srpska – fear violence,” said Arminka Helić, a politician of Bosnian origin, now a member of the British House of Lords and former special adviser to the British Foreign Secretary. . “A further move towards secession would likely lead to a backlash. It is impossible that the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be done peacefully.”
Heather Staff, an advisor to the RAMP Project, an organization specializing in migration policy, warns that “violent conflict will lead to a refugee and displaced crisis. In the 1990s and 2000s, we saw people flee Bosnia to the neighboring countries like Montenegro.”
She says it is a region “where there has sometimes been harsh rhetoric regarding the treatment of asylum seekers… how would those who flee be treated in neighboring countries?”
The impact would of course be felt beyond the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Jasmin Mujanović, author of the book “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans,” said it would be a “catastrophe for the European Union and the Atlantic community in general, because it would be a new security crisis in an already extremely unstable context in the south-east of Europe. ” He stressed that with the already existing security crises in Ukraine, Belarus, Syria and Afghanistan, “a significant deterioration of security and stability in Bosnia is something neither the EU nor the US cannot afford.”
As is so often the case in geopolitics, a poke in the West’s eye provides an opportunity for rivals like Russia and China. A senior EU official expressed concerns to CNN about how the situation could be exploited.
“We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The international community cannot give the impression of victimizing the Serbs, because it is pushing them and Serbia into the arms of Russia. But the Balkans are at the gates “Increased Russian influence in the region gives them another point of support and another platform of influence, if they want to further destabilize the situation.”
Who is to blame?
Many in the West privately admit that they have so far failed to take the lead and that it may now be too late. Numerous sources within the EU, NATO and the wider European diplomatic community have expressed regret at the historic failure of the West to impose sanctions or otherwise act against those who stir up violence. flames in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“Dodik and his clique of secessionists and genocide deniers have been constantly appeased for 15 years by the international community. He has been talking about — and moving toward — secession since 2006,” Helic said.
Mujanović said that although neighboring Serbia and Russia are the “main architects of this crisis”, he believes that “the refusal of the international community – particularly NATO states – to act decisively to quell “this crisis in the bud years ago” has emboldened Dodik and his supporters. Mujanović specifically pointed the finger at the EU, which he said has been “extremely disappointing” due to its own internal discord, making bloc “at this point, in many ways, a non-factor.”
What can be done?
“The international community has a clear mandate to protect peace in Bosnia,” Cidic said. “Any escalation of violence in Bosnia could harm them enormously, as they cannot afford a Russian-backed conflict, mixed with Chinese and other interests, on NATO borders.”
But will the West do anything? A NATO official told CNN: “We urge Russia to play a constructive role in the Western Balkans. We regularly see Russia doing the opposite. NATO works to promote stability, security and cooperation in the region. Any external interference in national democratic processes is unacceptable. “.
Clearly, NATO could only act on orders from its member states, and there is no indication that anything other than tough words will happen anytime soon.
The top EU official said there is political will to do something more substantial among some EU member states, but acknowledges it will be very difficult to get all 27 on board without some major concessions to bloc countries on other issues.
The UN Security Council cannot act without Russia, which this week voted in favor of maintaining peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina after the name of the High Representative was removed from the text of the the resolution, which undermines the credibility of this office.
There are, however, reasons to hope. Mujanović says EU member states could “adopt unilateral sanctions against” Dodik and his cronies, which he believes would have some impact.
But diplomacy did not work in the 1990s, and Cidic does not believe it will work today. “This failed diplomatic approach has resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and more than 1.1 million refugees,” he said.
This tougher approach could consist of sanctions, combined with treating secessionist movements as a European “security challenge,” Helic said. “We need to go back. The sooner we do it, the better and it will be easier. We don’t want to wait for years like we did in the 1990s.”
It is difficult to imagine that the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina will improve any time soon. However, with enough political will, powerful actors could prevent the country from falling back into violence.
The question is whether powerful Western nations are too distracted to pay enough attention to a state that is not currently at the top of their priority list – and even if they are ready to act, whether they might realize that they are too much. late.