How can the West and Russia respond to the Bosnian crisis?

How might the West and Russia respond to the ongoing protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina? Nikita Bondarev, senior fellow for the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Research at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, tries to answer these questions.

A wave of popular protests broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina two weeks ago. The surge was sparked by problems at the local factory in Tuzla, where the workers had not been paid for three months, and they came to picket their directorate. The discontent began in Tuzla and then spread throughout Bosnia. The protests later evolved into violence, leading to serious clashes between protesters and the police that resulted in injuries on both sides. It is of note that the protests spread throughout the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia (FBiH), but not in the Republika Srpska, which is the country’s other half.

The FBiH Government was given an ultimatum, demanding the government resign before February 19. However, the issuing of the ultimatum poses its own questions: To what extent can those who presented it be considered a representative force – as really representing the interests of the protesters? The extent to which the government plans to meet the requirements of this ultimatum is also unclear.

The roots of the conflict

Bosnia is a unique state that consists of two halves – the Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Formally parts of the same state, these entities actually do not intersect with each other.

Trade between these two parts is minimal. RS has closer links to Serbia than the FBiH, while the FBiH has more commercial ties with Croatia. In essence, we have two states, weakly connected to each other, within one. Generally, in its present form, the formation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is not very viable.

Today, the situation in the country is aggravated by local tensions between Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, and Croats. This situation only worsened after the accession of Croatia to the EU – the nationalist sentiments of the Bosniaks are growing, along with an increasing self-consciousness, and the desire of the local Bosniak population to oust the Croats from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is becoming stronger.

The problem is that all Croats in Bosnia have Croatian passports, and following Croatia’s accession to the EU in July 2013, they now have EU passports as well. Roughly speaking, there now exists a territory to which they can be expelled where they would be legally resident. If such protests had erupted two to four years ago, the Croats of Bosnia would have had nowhere to retreat. There are no jobs for them in Croatia; those who could escape to Croatia did so in the 1990s. They now have the opportunity to go to Austria or Germany. The fact that a space to which the Croatian population of FBiH could be displaced has appeared has boosted anti-Croatian sentiments in the Federation.

Meanwhile, Washington is calling for a fight against nationalism, but a struggle against nationalism means a revision of the principles by which BiH exists today, entailing the liquidation of the RS, a revision of the internal dichotomy, redistributing cantons over the entire territory of BiH and, in general, rejection of the multinational status of BiH. In other words, rejection of nationalism in Bosnia, in the current situation means the rejection of Serbian and Croatian identity in Bosnia. In such a scenario there would officially be no Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, but only Orthodox Bosnians, Catholic Bosnians and Muslim Bosnians.

What are the interests of Russia and the West?

The West and Russia have different interests in Bosnia and Herzegovina; therefore, their approaches to the problem are also different.

The ultimate goal for the West is to solve the issue of Bosnia’s dual status, because in its current form it cannot be admitted to any international organizations, neither to the EU nor to NATO, it is a kind of quasi-state in terms of the principle of state structure, and if we want to do something with Bosnia we need to take action.

Republika Srpska is an irritant to the West, since it is a quasi-state that enjoys a degree of isolation and autonomy, and the influence of Western countries and the United States on its domestic and foreign policies is minimal.

Meanwhile, Russia believes that Bosnia should continue to exist precisely in its present form, born in battle and blood, recognized by the UN, despite the peculiarities of its organization. Any attempts to revise the principles by which the country currently exists will inevitably lead to a new round of violence and to the escalation of conflict, and we see that this is already happening.

This state may not be very viable, but at least this form of organization can guarantee certain, albeit relative, peace in the Balkans. If there is a new attempt to rebuild Bosnia, blood will be shed once again. Neither Russia nor the people of BiH want this to happen.

Many were puzzled by the words of the High Representative in BiH, Austrian Valentin Inzko, who spoke about the possibility of involving “EU forces” in the conflict if the situation worsens. If it comes to something like that, then Russia must insist on its involvement as well. That is, we should discuss the formation of an international contingent in which Russia would also participate. Moreover, we have the resources to do this.

There will not be any major changes in the status and state structure of BiH until this summer, but the conflicts and protests in the Muslim-Croat entity are bound to increase. In the future, the situation may result in a more profound upheaval in BiH as a state. Time will tell whether the events will develop into an “Orange Revolution” scenario or whether stability will return to the country.

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