Europe braces for the next Ukraine

If both the European Union and the United States—increasingly dominated by far-right politicians—allow Bosnia to fall apart, that will send a strong signal to Russia about the likely fate of Ukraine.

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SOURCEForeign Policy in Focus
Image Credit: Edda

If Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential election in November, all sorts of hell will break loose. Mexico will face a huge border crisis. China will be hit with a new wave of tariffs. Ukraine will begin preparing itself for abandonment.

And Milorad Dodik will tear apart Bosnia.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Milorad Dodik. He is the leader of Republika Srpska, the predominantly ethnic Serbian entity inside Bosnia. For years, he has threatened to declare his enclave an independent state. In December, in an interview to a Serbian TV station, he said that he’d intended to make this move when Donald Trump took office in 2016 but “got scared and didn’t do it.”

Should Trump get re-elected, he promises, finally, to take the leap.

If I had a blowhard troublemaker living in my house and he declared that he was moving out, I’d be overjoyed to get rid of the jerk. Dodik has been nothing but an obstructionist who has almost single-handedly prevented Bosnia from functioning as an effective state. So, good riddance.

But geopolitics doesn’t work that way. The Balkans remain a volatile region, and Russian interference has only made matters worse. The break-up of Yugoslavia was a disaster. The break-up of Bosnia could be a tragic sequel.

With Ukraine, Europe is already struggling to deal with a major war on its borders. Can it handle two?

Who is Dodik?

In the 1990s, Milorad Dodik cast himself as a reformer who could provide level-headed leadership in Republika Srpska. This was in contrast to the ultranationalism of Radovan Karadzic, who led the enclave from 1992 to 1996 but then went into hiding with a war criminal’s bounty on his head. Backed by the West, which surrounded administrative buildings in the capital of Banja Luka to counter forces loyal to Karadzic, Dodik took over as regional prime minister in 1998.

It didn’t take long for Dodik to pull an Orbán.

Like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Dodik saw opportunity on the right-wing side of the political spectrum and slid right over. Also like Orbán, it was a political loss that made him wake up and smell the nationalism. In 2000, Dodik was crushed in his bid to become president of Republika Srpska, capturing only 25 percent of the vote against the nationalist candidate. Soon Dodik was gravitating to where most voters congregated.

By the early 2000s, Dodik was rallying audiences with his promises to snatch Bosnia from the clutches of international authorities and Republika Srpska from the clutches of Bosnia. He adopted the same illiberal playbook as Orbán and Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Yet the United States was still supporting Dodik in the early 2000s as a force for stability even as it was preparing to get out of Bosnia so that the European Union could take the driver’s seat.

As European liberals spoke of Bosnian accession to the EU, Dodik was heading in the other direction by indulging the Euroskepticism of his audiences. Many Serbs—in Serbia and in Republika Srpska—felt betrayed by Europe, since European countries by and large supported Croatia and Bosnia during the Yugoslav wars. Serbia remains outside the EU and outside of NATO as well, so Dodik could easily capitalize on the politics of resentment.

By 2019, Dodik had descended into the ranks of genocide deniers when he called the Srebrenica massacre a “fabricated myth.” And like other illiberal leaders, he was amassing quite a fortune through brazen acts of corruption, which brought him into conflict with the legal system. Using a tactic made famous by Donald Trump, Dodik has denied any wrongdoing and has accused his accusers of engaging in a witch hunt.

Republika Srpska is not unified behind Dodik. In the last election in October 2022, he squeaked by with 47 percent of the vote over the liberal, anti-corruption candidate Jelena Trivić, who received nearly 43 percent. Given the charges of electoral fraud, it’s even possible that Dodik lost the race. In any case, the Trump of the Balkans is back in power and eager to do his part to destroy Bosnia, the rule of law, and, with allies Putin and Trump, the international community.

The future of Bosnia

Dodik is not the only reason that Bosnia is teetering on the brink. Fragility has been practically baked into the country’s DNA, thanks to the provisions of the Dayton Accords of 1995.

According to the constitution that grew out of the Dayton process, Bosnia is one country with two constituent parts (Republika Srpska and the Federation of primarily Bosniaks and Croats) and three presidents (a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb). This structure has ensured that Bosnian politics is dominated by ethnic rivalry, and the Federation has also complicated matters by focusing on its own parochial interests.

To complicate matters, a foreigner oversees this entire structure—the High Representative—who has wide-ranging powers, including the ability to implement legislation. Recently, for instance, High Representative Christian Schmidt imposed a new election law to usher in electronic vote-counting and ban convicted war criminals from standing for office. This was Schmidt’s tenth such intervention into Bosnian affairs.

That, in itself, is not a good sign. Nearly 30 years after the Dayton Accords, a foreigner is still imposing changes that the country’s elected representatives can’t muster sufficient consensus to pass. Banning convicted war criminals from running for office? Surely this qualifies as low-hanging fruit…

Two years ago, I wrote:

Bosnia has applied for membership in the European Union, which is one of the few things that most citizens of the benighted state support. Despite this support, the divided political institutions can’t agree on the constitutional, judicial, economic, and other steps necessary to qualify for EU membership. Corruption is rampant, the per-capita GDP of roughly $6,000 puts it at least $3,000 behind the EU’s poorest country, Bulgaria, and nearly half of all young Bosnians want to leave because their future inside the country looks bleak.

Not much has changed in the interim. Bosnia now has candidate membership in the EU, but only 18 percent of the residents of Republika Srpska actually support full accession (though 60 percent admit that they don’t actually know what benefits EU membership confers). Corruption is still rampant, the per-capita GDP has jumped by a couple thousand dollars but the gap with Bulgaria has more than doubled to $8,000, and so many young people are leaving Bosnia that it’s at the top of the list of European countries most susceptible to brain drain.

The war in Ukraine has helped Bosnia move closer to both NATO and the EU. But Dodik is determined to reverse all that.

Consequences of secession

When James Ker-Lindsay deemed Dodik’s threats of secession to be “hollow” in an important brief back in 2015, a major contributing factor was Russia’s reluctance to support Dodik’s extremism as well as the considerable backing for a unified Bosnia coming from both the European Union and the United States.

A decade later, Russia now seems willing to support any move that discomfits the West and rewards its European allies (like Serbia and Republika Srpska). As for the European Union, the Parliament elections next month will likely usher in many far-right politicians who sympathize with Serbian nationalists like the current leader in Belgrade, Aleksandar Vučić.

And, of course, if Donald Trump wins in November, the far right will once again have an ally in Washington. No wonder that Dodik is waiting for the results of the U.S. presidential election before making his move.

Of course, Dodik sees secession as a process, not just an event. Writes Srećko Latal in BalkanInsight:

Since last summer Dodik has escalated his separatist drive, initiating a number of controversial laws, which were than adopted by the RS National Assembly, undermining the OHR and Bosnia’s Constitutional Court. Many pundits warn that these laws have created two parallel, divergent legal systems in the country, effectively representing the beginning of a breakup. Different legal environments have also created a possibility for incidents between the state police and RS police, following different legal instructions.

Like Putin’s “Russian World,” Dodik and other Serbian nationalists have been formulating a “Serbian World” where all Serbs can live together regardless of current borders. You can find similar rhetoric around a “greater Albania” from Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti. These contesting visions, if given free rein, will tear apart not only Bosnia but Macedonia and Montenegro as well.

For the moment, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić has not explicitly backed Dodik’s plans for secession. But if tides change and Serbia’s own bid to join the EU sours, Vučić could throw his lot in completely with Putin to the east and Dodik to the west. An anti-liberal axis could replay World War I by fighting over the fate of Bosnia and the rest of the Balkans.

The Kremlin is watching all this very carefully. Its fall-back plan, if Russia can’t reduce its neighbor to the status of a puppet state, will be to turn Ukraine into a kind of Bosnia: divided, weak, and politically incoherent. The Kremlin will use the Donbas much as some Serbian nationalists use Republika Srpska today as a tool to keep Bosnia from being a powerful neighbor.

And if both the European Union and the United States—increasingly dominated by far-right politicians—allow Bosnia to fall apart, that will send a strong signal to Russia about the likely fate of Ukraine.

If bullies like Dodik go unchallenged, Europe will indeed face another potential war on its borders.

FALL FUNDRAISER

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