Bosnia and Herzegovina gets a lifeline: but will it seize it?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

In the spring of 1992, after two of the three main ethnic communities in the then-constituent republic of Yugoslavia refused to recognise the result of a referendum to separate from Belgrade and declare independence, war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

Both Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats rejected the notion of rule by the Bosnian Muslim majority and took up arms to carve out separatist entities for themselves within the new Bosnian state. Many separatist politicians and military commanders openly advocated for reunification with the Serb and Croat motherlands next door, consequently putting the survival of both BiH and its Bosnian Muslim community at stake. In pushing for independence from the old Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, the Bosnian Muslims had counted on international support that was not immediately forthcoming. How legitimate can self-determination or the forced annexation of foreign territory be if they are rejected by sizeable elements of the local population?

As gruesome reports of civilian massacres and ethnic cleansing in the three-way war reached the media, there was some belated action in the United Nations Security Council. The international envoys negotiated nearly 40 ceasefires, none of which held for more than a few days. They came up with schemes to divide BiH along ethnic lines that unacceptably rewarded ethnic cleansing and were so complicated as to be totally unworkable. A UN peacekeeping force (UNPROFOR) was dispatched to the country, but its mandate was more to observe the war and report back to New York rather than to intervene. Humanitarian aid convoys were misused to feed belligerent militaries rather than to rescue civilian populations besieged in towns and cities across BiH. The UN Security Council passed multiple resolutions full of noble intentions but lacked the resources to implement them.

The most egregious example was a UN resolution in 1993 to establish six safe areas in BiH for isolated Bosnian Muslim communities cut off by surrounding Bosnian Serb forces. In advocating the safe areas, the then-UN secretary general, Boutros Ghali, called for 36,000 UN blue helmets to protect the safe areas. Eventually, he received around 3,000. This failure to provide adequate protection encouraged the Bosnian Serb commanders to attack the safe areas and complete the ethnic cleansing of the eastern portion of BiH under their military control. The nadir was reached in July 1995 when the Serb generals, Mladić and Kristić, overran the town of Srebrenica and massacred over 8,300 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. NATO countries observed it all happening from the air but did not intervene.

The conflict became the object lesson of how not to conduct crisis management and humanitarian interventions

The alliance was split between the United States, which wanted to bomb the Bosnian Serb forces from the air but not put a single American soldier on the ground, and the European allies, who had sent thousands of their troops to the UNPROFOR mission and followed the principles of neutrality and non-use of force embedded in classical UN peacekeeping. The latter worried that if the US started bombing, their own troops would immediately be the targets of Bosnian Serb or Bosnian Croat revenge attacks. NATO did eventually muster itself into action. In the spring of 1993, it offered to use its aircraft to protect the UN Blue Helmets on the ground, a form of protection that the alliance called ‘close air support’. But the key to initiate NATO air strikes was in the hands of UN civilian envoys and UNPROFOR commanders who were extremely reluctant to turn it.

For two years, the alliance found itself flying its fighter jets over Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Tuzla, Žepa and Goražde, making a lot of noise but hardly ever engaging beyond symbolic, minimalist strikes. Dismissed as a ‘paper tiger’ by the international media, NATO’s credibility as a serious military player united behind a clear political strategy ebbed with every passing week and month. The alliance’s inability to have any lasting impact on the Bosnian War in its first two years was summed up caustically by The New York Times columnist, William Safire, when he wrote: “Bosnia alive or NATO dead”.

For me, as for other observers, the conflict became the object lesson of how not to conduct crisis management and humanitarian interventions. The need for early warning and better crisis anticipation, limited empty threats,  as well as complementary mandates and aligned policies between Americans and Europeans, are key takeaways.

In the late summer of 1995, NATO finally got its act together. The Clinton administration changed course and agreed to put US troops on the ground in BiH to back up a more robust French and British-led UN force with heavier and better military equipment and willing to shoot back against attacks on civilians. In early September, NATO began an air campaign against the Bosnian Serb army, which was rapidly pushed back and agreed to peace negotiations in Dayton, Ohio. By Christmas, the Dayton Peace Agreement had ended the war and 60,000 NATO troops poured into BiH to create a security environment in which the three Bosnian armies could be demobilised and the various undertakings of the peace agreement implemented.

The transformation would not be easy, as the dislocations of war came on top of a failed, sclerotic Yugoslav communist economy

The city was badly damaged by artillery shelling. Many public and residential buildings had been destroyed. A makeshift cemetery of 10,000 crosses stretched up the hill next to the old Olympic stadium. Enormous metal plates or trams had been piled on top of each other and placed between buildings to function as sniper shields. Mines were everywhere. The folly of war in terms of mindless destruction and inflicting untold misery on innocent civilians was clear to see. Yet there was a mood of euphoria. Having made a mess of the humanitarian intervention in BiH, we all had a chance to put things right and help put the country back together as a multi-ethnic European-style market democracy.

Alongside NATO troops, officials and civilian experts from the UN, the OSCE, the International War Crimes Tribunal and many Western governments set up shop in Sarajevo to begin work on the resettlement of refugees and displaced persons, institution building, election organisation, media reform, war crimes indictments and the rebuilding of national infrastructure. The transformation would not be easy, as the dislocations of war came on top of a failed, sclerotic Yugoslav communist economy with its legacy of dilapidated factories and under-investment in human capital. Nonetheless, the presence of so many international organisations in Sarajevo seemed a promise that all the multiple problems of BiH would be solved eventually.

The years went by and much was indeed achieved. Elections were held, war criminals rounded up and transferred to The Hague, and refugees returned, although often not to their former homes in a now more ethnically separated BiH. NATO booked an early success by merging the three wartime Bosnian armies into a single national force under the control of a general staff and national ministry of defence. Yet, it soon became clear that peace is far more than the absence of war. The divisions and hatreds of the war endured.

This became manifest in national elections, where largely mono-ethnic parties campaigned on platforms of protecting their ethnic group against all the others. Journalists continued to be killed for revealing corruption in politics or business. The different ethnic groups kept alive the parallel structures and criminal networks that they had set up during the war to bypass the authority of the central government and reward their supporters through a system of patronage and black-market transactions. The lack of serious economic reform and effective state institutions meant that taxes and customs duties were not collected, education was sub-standard and social services inadequate. The longest queues in Sarajevo were in front of the Western embassies in the city, as youth sought visas to emigrate to escape chronic unemployment at home. The situation was pointedly summed up by the UN representative, Jacques Klein, when he lamented that Sarajevo was the only capital city in Europe without a McDonalds, a business known to prosper in even the most inhospitable economic environments, including the Soviet Union in its twilight years.

Hatreds ran deep and reconciliation efforts were half-hearted, when pursued at all

Admittedly, the Dayton Peace Agreement had stopped the war, but at the price of complicating the country’s future. Alongside a tri-presidency with a leader from each of the three principal ethnic groups, the agreement created multiple levels of decentralised political government, resulting in far too many politicians and an outsized public administration for a country with barely four million inhabitants. Although probably inevitable, this decentralisation gridlocked subsequent constitutional change towards a more centralised and efficient government. The multi-layered bureaucracy and red tape hardly encouraged foreign direct investment in BiH, which found it easier to go to other post-communist countries of central and eastern Europe that were more in line with EU standards or within the bloc’s single market.

Dayton also put BiH under the supervision of an International High Representative with executive powers to intervene in national and local Bosnian politics and even sack politicians if he believed that the Dayton provisions had been violated. This authority provided an essential safeguard and warning mechanism against a relapse into conflict, but it also allowed the Bosnian politicians to make a scapegoat of the international community for everything that was wrong with the country and to avoid taking responsibility for their own obsession with ethnic politics. Above all, Dayton created a Serb entity in BiH on 49% of its territory, the Republika Srpska. Under the seemingly permanent leadership of the fiery Serb nationalist, Milorad Dodik, this entity has blocked constitutional reform and periodically threatened to leave BiH altogether and declare full independence or to opt to unite with neighbouring Serbia.

The existence of Republika Srpska has also become a convenient pretext for Belgrade and Moscow to interfere in Bosnian internal affairs, exacerbate divisions inside the country and frustrate the will of the central government to move closer to the EU and NATO. Russia has given the Serb entity military-grade equipment far in excess of the needs of the small police force that it is permitted under Dayton, soft loans and energy deals, while Russian diplomats, members of the Russian Orthodox Church and biker gangs are frequent visitors to Banja Luka.

After a promising start in the mid to late 1990s, the reform and reconstruction process started to grind to a halt. BiH stagnated while its Balkan neighbours put the Yugoslav Wars behind them and moved towards NATO and the EU, even if somewhat haphazardly. True, the country did not relapse into mass violence or even civil war as has happened elsewhere following Western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, for instance. But hatreds ran deep and reconciliation efforts were half-hearted, when pursued at all. War criminals continued to be treated as war heroes in their ethnic communities and their photos adorned many a bar, shop and public building. Faced with the stagnation and brain drain, the NATO allies did their best to engage and produce a new momentum. The US State Department tried hard on constitutional reform and Germany launched a Berlin Process to try to build more confidence among the three presidents and their political factions through informal dialogue and agreements on common goals.

Moscow has even threatened repeatedly to cancel the UN mandate of the international stabilisation force

Meanwhile, the EU and NATO decided on a policy of standards before status. Strict conditionality would be imposed on BiH so that rewards, such as trade facilitation, grants, scientific and technical cooperation or the first rungs on the ladder towards EU and NATO membership, would be conditional on meeting concrete reform targets, particularly the passing of legislation in the federal assembly in Sarajevo. In theory, strict conditionality made eminent sense to incentivise the political factions to come together in the national interest. In reality, conditionality made it easy for the anti-NATO and anti-EU nationalist forces to hold up legislation and reform, blocking any progress in the direction of Euro-Atlantic integration.  In this context, NATO focused on getting the regional Bosnian entities to hand over military bases and properties back to the central government as a condition for the country’s admission into the alliance’s Membership Action Plan, the roadmap towards NATO membership. The Republika Srpska blocked the state registration process of defence properties for years in order to enhance its own military status and to keep BiH away from NATO. The allies reacted to this inflexibility by digging in, fearing that they would lose credibility if they abandoned conditionality too easily.

With intransigence on both sides, more years of inertia and stagnation went by, and BiH continued to remain the problem child of the Western Balkans. Back in the mid-1990s, Russia was cooperating with the West, the international Peace Implementation Council for Bosnia could come together to put united pressure on the factions. But as Russia’s relations with the West have become increasingly confrontational, its willingness to cooperate on BiH has faded. Russia tried recently to stop the current High Representative for Bosnia, Christian Schmidt of Germany, from delivering his annual report on Dayton implementation to the UN Security Council. Moscow has even threatened repeatedly to cancel the UN mandate of the international stabilisation force, now operated by the EU. With Russian backing, Serbia has also become a notorious fence sitter, refusing to impose sanctions against Moscow after its invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, other powers, such as China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have been extending their influence in the Western Balkans. These moves have punctured the former complacency of Western diplomats that the region had nowhere else to go except towards Brussels and would therefore have no choice but to align with EU and NATO standards sooner or later.

So just as NATO earlier relaxed its conditionality to enable BiH to finally engage in all the capacity-building and training activities in the Membership Action Plan, the European Commission last week recommended that the country be given official candidate status. Rather like the same perspective recently granted to Ukraine and Moldova, this is a long-term enterprise, which does not lessen the many reforms that the candidate countries need to carry out. It does not bring the actual moment of EU membership any closer. Still, by opening the doors of Brussels, candidate status can enhance the influence of the pro-EU forces in these countries. It offers a goal for reforms while also placing more onus on the EU institutions to revitalise their engagement with BiH. The fact that the Biden administration is also re-engaging by appointing a special envoy to the Western Balkans and some of its best ambassadors to Belgrade, Sarajevo and Pristina gives the EU important support.

The time to re-engage may well be now. Two weeks ago, BiH held its national elections. Although, predictably, Dodik won the Serb seat on the tri-presidency, the candidates of the Bosnian Croat nationalist Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) and Bosnian Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) saw their traditional monopoly of power weakened as opposition candidates emerged in first place according to the initial exit polls. We are still awaiting the official results, but there may be a political opening here that the international community can exploit. A Russian defeat in Ukraine would also hopefully reduce Moscow’s influence in the region and persuade Belgrade to align itself with EU policies and strategic goals.

We must not forget Bosnia and Herzegovina

So, what can the EU usefully do?

First and foremost, the EU must support a crackdown on corruption in BiH. Brussels can improve the quality of the police investigation units and the courts that deal with financial crime and political corruption. As in Ukraine, BiH could be well served by a special anti-corruption court and a professional, well-staffed prosecutor’s office.

Second, the EU should help BiH improve its creaky rail and road infrastructure. After the fiasco of Montenegro’s massive indebtedness to China for Chinese Belt and Road credits to build a motorway across the country, the EU and its investment bank can help BiH roll out projects that are more commercially viable and financially sustainable.

Third, BiH should be included in the EU’s energy strategies to diversify supply of gas and oil away from Russia. The EU can help BiH develop its hydro-electric power capacity and convert its industries to green technologies and renewable fuels.

Fourth, the EU can also help the country improve the quality of its education system at both high school and university levels. The reskilling of the workforce is essential if foreign high-tech companies are to invest in the country. The EU’s Erasmus programme could bring hundreds of Bosnian students to study for postgraduate degrees at the best EU universities. The EU can also support the Ministry of Education in Sarajevo improve the training of teachers and define standards for monitoring higher education output according to the EU’s Pisa criteria for assessment.

Fifth, a special effort is needed to counter disinformation fostered by Russia and Serbia in Republika Srpska and elsewhere in the country. Journalism needs to become more professional but journalists that expose malpractice and corruption need better protection from the law and the police. The EU can help the free and independent media upgrade its technology and equipment. But Brussels and its spokespersons need to be more visible in the local media too, combatting disinformation but also defending EU and Western values.

Getting out of immobility is never easy, as trust on both sides has been corroded. But as we celebrate the success stories of North Macedonia finally solving its name dispute with Greece and joining NATO, as well as Montenegro joining the alliance while Albania and North Macedonia have received the green light to begin EU accession negotiations, we must not forget Bosnia and Herzegovina. So far, its leaders have emulated faithfully what used to be said about the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, that “he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. But opportunities do not need to be passed up forever. Time to give BiH another chance- and another try.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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