It’s High Time to Pay Attention to Sarajevo
French President Emmanuel Macron has described Bosnia-Herzegovina as a “ticking time-bomb” and a grave concern for Europe because of jihadists returning from Syria. He is tapping into the anti-Bosniak stereotypes propounded by former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević during the wars in the 1990s. In reality, the threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina and the broader region does not stem from religious extremism but in the country’s internal ethnic divisions and the destabilizing role of outside powers.
Macron recently blocked Western Balkan countries, including those with sizeable Muslim populations, from entering the European Union. In practice, his obstruction of EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia will contribute to endangering regional security more than any returning jihadists. Evidence indicates that jihadism is more serious in France than anywhere in the Balkans, particularly regarding the number of terrorist incidents. Moreover, over 1,900 French citizens flocked to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq as compared to about 300 Bosnian citizens.
The fundamental problem for Bosnia-Herzegovina is that successive Serbian and Croatian governments have not fully accepted the country as a legitimate and sovereign multi-ethnic state. The degree of pressure applied against Bosnia depends on the extent of nationalist fervor within the governments in Belgrade and Zagreb as well as on favorable international conditions, including the ignorance or naïveté of some West European leaders.
While Serbia hides behind Russia to challenge Bosnia’s integrity, Croatia conceals itself behind its membership in the EU. Macron’s controversial statement parrots remarks attributed to Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović that Bosnia is a security threat that is harboring terrorists. Although she subsequently denied making these comments, the controversy led to condemnations by the Bosnian government and ratcheted up tensions between Bosniaks and Croats.
For Belgrade, Moscow plays a useful role by defending Bosnia’s quasi-separatist Serbian entity (Republika Srpska – RS) in the international arena and indicating that it could support secession. Russia uses the Balkans as a strategic asset, not simply to disrupt the region’s inclusion in the transatlantic security sphere, but to undermine Western cohesion. The Kremlin prefers that countries not join the Alliance as this enhances Washington’s role in defending Europe. Nonetheless, Moscow is also intensifying efforts to undermine the EU and NATO from within, as its growing influence in Croatia, Hungary, and Bulgaria demonstrates. Joining NATO helps strengthen state security but does not ensure immunity from foreign subversion, especially if local leaders calculate that they can profit politically or personally from Moscow.
Croatia is now a primary Kremlin target to curtail the development of energy projects that would challenge Russia’s monopolistic ambitions toward regional gas supplies. Zagreb is also useful for Russia in keeping Bosnia off balance. Nationalists in the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in both Croatia and Bosnia view Russia’s presence as an opportunity to buttress their claims to a third Croatian entity in Bosnia. Indeed, Serb and Croat leaders collaborate in weakening the central government in Sarajevo. Trapped in the middle, the Bosniak population could also radicalize, not in religious militancy but through secular nationalism to resist Serbian and Croatian irredentism.
The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the EU and the retirement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel can also undercut support for an integrated Bosnian state, particularly if Macron pursues his acquiescent approach toward President Vladimir Putin. Given the negative role of neighbors and growing perceptions of EU neglect, durable Bosnian stability depends primarily on the United States. Washington and those NATO Allies that are determined to resist Russia’s destabilizing inroads need to take the leading role in integrating Bosnia internally and internationally.
After the appointment of a U.S. special envoy in October 2019 to focus on normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosova, a special representative should also be selected to deal with Bosnia’s precarious stalemate. No status quo is durable and the ingredients for a new conflagration are present, including economic stagnation, nationalist radicalization, blockage to international institutions, and the unsettling involvement of outside powers.
A special representative will need to focus on three priorities to reinforce the Bosnian state. First, in constructing a modern state the election law needs to be reformed to EU standards, where ethnic identity does not override civic citizenship in competing for office. Second, in building legitimate institutions, the rule of law must ensure that the justice system is separated from political interests so that judges and prosecutors become independent actors.
And third, steps toward NATO membership have to be consolidated. The Reform Program recently signed by the three-person Bosnian Presidency is in effect the first Annual National Program (ANP) that places Bosnia on the road toward accession. The new U.S. envoy would need to concentrate on its implementation. Qualifying for NATO will underscore that the security of the Bosnian state guarantees the security of all ethnic groups and reduces the prospect of external conflict. At the same time, Washington must convince Zagreb that enabling Russia’s penetration weakens host governments, inflames regional tensions, and undermines NATO cohesion.