ANALYSIS - Notorious non-paper’s implications on Bosnia
The looming conflict between the powers with global reach and ability to project power – cold or by proxy – may rekindle the violence in the Balkans much the same way once again
The author is the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center. A part-time lecturer at the International Relations Department of the International University of Sarajevo (IUS), Dr. Suljagić is also the author of two books: “Ethnic Cleansing: Politics, Policy, Violence - Serb Ethnic Cleansing Campaign in former Yugoslavia” and “Postcards from the Grave”
Three nationalist projects seem to be aligned in what looks like a determined effort to force a new reality in the Balkans. A new territorial arrangement would allow Greater Albania, Greater Croatia, and Greater Serbia to right-size and “right-people” their respective states all at the same time. The two most obvious targets are North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). One could add Montenegro to that list, but that ship seems to have sailed and the country is now ever more firmly under Serbia's sway.
A non-paper “Western Balkans – a way forward”, proposing to carve up the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, harkens back to the darkest days of the wars of dissolution of Yugoslavia. According to the paper, Bosnia and Herzegovina cease to exist and is to be divided between Croatia and Serbia, with a small Bosniak enclave in Central and part of Western Bosnia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the document has been associated with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, himself allied with the European far-right, with likely contributors from Zagreb and Belgrade, but also farther afield, from Budapest and Moscow. The prime minister of Albania, Edi Rama, also claimed to have been consulted or at the very least asked about the non-paper.
Right about the same time, the irredentist Serb and Croat politicians – most notably Milorad Dodik, a member of the Presidency of BiH, and Dragan Covic, the leader of the hardline nationalist Croatian Democratic Union – embarked on a PR campaign promoting “peaceful partition” of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both Serb and Croat nationalists argue that Bosnia, and more specifically Bosniaks, cannot defend their physical existence and that the (false) dilemma is the one between peace at any cost and unity of both country and state.
Here is why such ideas and narratives are deeply troubling.
There is a direct, causal link between Serb and Croatian irredentism in Bosnia and Herzegovina and mass and organized violence, primarily against its Bosniak, Muslim population. In fact, such kind of violence is at the heart of these irredentist projects, and they would undoubtedly be met with violent opposition.
Secondly, a peaceful partition of Bosnia and Herzegovina is impossible. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia dissolved not because of peripheral nationalisms that took root in Slovenia and Croatia in the early 1990s, but because Serbia wanted to leave Yugoslavia. The Serbian political leadership felt aggrieved by the Yugoslav Constitution of 1974 and pursued the strategy of “amputation” of territories of other Yugoslav republics it claimed on “historical” or ethnic grounds. In other words, it was the Serbs who wanted to leave Yugoslavia, and the actual end of Yugoslavia as a legal entity came about in May 1991, after which the international community could only acknowledge the reality that the state had stopped effectively functioning.
By contrast, there is no nationalist or separatist movement of any kind in the core nationality in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosniak political class has no aspirations or plans to leave the country.
Furthermore, such proposals and narratives are not necessarily aimed at the Bosnian public, but rather at ordinary Serbs and Croats who still remember the 1990s and the international isolation, sanctions and poverty and normalizing the idea with this key constituency that supported both Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudman three decades ago. The message is that what could not have been done violently back then can be implemented peacefully now, but only because Bosnia cannot defend itself. By the time the dogs of war are unleashed it will be too late to go back and Europe will end up with a violent conflict on its borders.
Additionally, these ideas are being floated at a time when the old order in the Balkans is clearly on the wane. Any single party to any peace settlement is bound to it as long as the costs outweigh the benefits of undermining or unraveling it. The calculus has been changing in the former Yugoslavia for a decade and a half now. What helped prolong the Bosnian conflict in the 1990s to almost four years was, in the words of James Gow, “Bad timing, bad judgment, an absence of unity… and the lack of political will” on the part of the international community. Bosnian carnage was to a great extent the “triumph of the lack of will” on the part of leading European states and the US.
What changed in 1995 was the will – primarily of the US – to enforce a peace deal and use serious military muscle to undergird a regional political and territorial arrangement. Now both the will and the muscle seem to be absent, and the dynamic is completely in the hands of the local actors propped up by malign actors, such as Russia, which is seeking new battlegrounds to test the Western security architecture.
The international context seems to echo the 90s, once again. The end of the Cold War facilitated the dissolution of what is today former Yugoslavia. The looming conflict between the powers with global reach and the ability to project power – cold or by proxy – may rekindle the violence in much the same way once again.
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