What are the causes of the ongoing protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina and their consequences for Russia and the world – and are they related to the Ukrainian crisis?

Long-simmering frustrations with the government have erupted in Bosnia / Source: Reuters

In early February unprecedented anti-government protests gripped the areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina inhabited predominantly by Bosniak Muslims, the majority ethnic group in the country. Street fighting broke out in some of Bosnia’s larger cities. What are the causes and implications of the new Bosnian crisis for Russia and the global community?

Bosnia and Herzegovina: What is behind the protests?

What has brought about these protests and why is this happening now? The causes lie in the divisions between the country’s elites, as well as a number of external factors. With radical Islamism being the most dangerous of them, there is a significant risk of ethnic and sectarian conflicts breaking out. At the moment the demands of the protestors are predominantly socio-economic and are based on issues such as unemployment and corruption, as well as calls for higher wages and the dismissal of unpopular officials - including the resignation of the government and the heads of local authorities.

However, given the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, these protests could evolve into political, ethnic or religious demands. And certain external agents will doubtlessly take advantage of these events to stir up a conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as in the Balkans in general.

The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been simmering for a number of years, but the ruling parties of the country’s twin administrative entities have managed to keep a lid on it until now. In the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity, this is the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, led by Milorad Dodik. In the Muslim-Croatian Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other entity, these are moderate Muslim nationalists led by Bakir Izetbegovic.

However, the social-economic crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina has undermined the position of the social democrats and moderate Muslim leaders. As a result, the political sphere is now threatened by the more radical representatives of the Serbian, Muslim and Croatian groups respectively.

The protests are therefore likely to continue despite the concessions made by the authorities by dismissing the heads of a few cantons, such as Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica. The protests are likely to evolve in various directions and the situation may reach a point where the current model of Bosnia and Herzegovina (based on the Dayton Peace Agreement signed in 1995, which defined the country’s present territorial and administrative system) might be dismantled to create a more centralized country by de facto abolishing the Republika Srpska.

However, the situation also has the potential to lead the country on a path towards disintegration, which could result in an even more amorphous confederal structure for Bosnia and Herzegovina - which might even cease to exist as an independent state.

Bosnia and Herzegovina in a global context: Missed opportunities

The EU, NATO and other Western structures had a chance to “reshape” Bosnia and Herzegovina in a way that would be of benefit to them. However, a preoccupation with their own internal issues and external threats meant that this was never realized. It seems to me that the EU leadership, currently focused on Ukraine and Russia, was caught unawares by the escalation of violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The nervous reaction of the High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, testifies to that. Viennese daily Kurier quoted him as saying: “If the situation further deteriorates we might consider sending in EU troops - not at the moment though.” So, the question might be not so much about the centralization of Bosnia and Herzegovina but rather about rescuing it from final collapse.

It should be borne in mind that following the Dayton accords in 1995 the international community had every chance to turn Bosnia and Herzegovina into an economically viable, developing state.

However, the opportunity was lost. The rotating High Representatives focused their efforts mostly on fighting “Serbian nationalism” and abolishing various laws. But they failed to build a tangible economic, social and political space within the borders of the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Instead of creating a functioning economic and political system, the international community concentrated on extinguishing the conflicts between moderate and radical Islamists, between Bosnian Croat separatists and federalists. The 15 years after Dayton were essentially wasted. No wonder that no viable government was formed as a result of the latest elections in 2010, despite pressure from the international community.

Nevertheless, the current events might also be used as an excuse to push through the European integration of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to the detriment of the Bosnian Serbs’ interests. UK Foreign Minister William Hague has already called on his colleagues in the EU and NATO “to make more effort to help Bosnia and Herzegovina to make progress towards joining the EU and NATO.”

Euromaidan: Domino effect?

The protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina reveal parallels with the political crisis in Ukraine, which indicates the counterproductiveness of EU policies toward both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ukraine.

Back in 2008 Bosnia and Herzegovina signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and Interim Agreement with the EU – documents similar to the one Brussels offered to Ukraine in November 2013. As a result, even the industries which survived the civil war of 1992-1995 are falling apart. The National Agency of Statistics reports unemployment at 44 percent, with one in five citizens in the country living below the poverty line.

However, the EU has no intention of using its anti-crisis funds to help the country, which is not even an official candidate for EU membership. There are grounds to suggest that Ukraine would have faced similar prospects, should Kiev have signed the Agreement of Association with the EU in November 2013 at the summit of the Eastern Partnership initiative in Vilnius.

Islamists in Europe

At present the protests are being driven by “networked” young people. But the radical Islamists will step into the foreground at the next stage of the “Bosnian Spring”, because in the case of the collapse of Bosnia and Herzegovina there is a danger that its constituent parts may seek to join neighbouring countries. For instance, many Bosnian Croats have made no secret of their desire to live in Croatia, especially now that the country has joined the EU.

The Bosnian Serbs, meanwhile, are closer to their historic motherland – Serbia. The Bosniak core territory, with its centre in Sarajevo, would become a Muslim quasi-state similar to the existing self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo, but even more dangerous for stability and security in Europe.

Radical Islamists would seize power there, financed by Islamic states from all around the world. These states would provide even more active support to Bosnia and Herzegovina than they do to Kosovo.

Russia’s position in the region

Russia cannot take an official stance on this issue at this stage of the protests since they are part of the internal affairs of the Bosnian authorities. But Moscow should monitor any attempts to use the protests to dilute the principles of the Bosnia and Herzegovina design forged in Dayton and reshape the country in a way that compromises the current balance between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

To what degree does the current state of affairs pose a threat to Russia’s strategic interests in the region? This is a possibility if the EU and NATO begin to push Bosnia and Herzegovina into the Euro-Atlantic structures. This would entail demands to Sarajevo and Banja Luka to review the present agreements on cooperation with Russia in the energy sector, among others. Besides, it would be of no benefit to Russia if the Republika Srpska were to be stripped of its Dayton credentials, including its right to sign bilateral agreements with Serbia. Finally, Moscow should resist any attempts to nullify its veto in international structures on control over the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina via the invocation of the Bonn Powers.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.