Understanding the real threats to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future stability


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Filip Sasic
Filip Sasic

Managing Director for Southeast Europe at Network 20/20

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

Political tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) are rising as Republika Srpska and its leader Milorad Dodik continue to pursue the destabilisation of political policies in a ploy to garner votes in the country’s upcoming elections in October. Rather than focusing on the possibilities of armed conflict, both local and international attention must shift in an effort to address the causes of the current political crisis.

The Dayton Agreement, which ended the immediate armed conflict in the 1990s, created a status quo that left BiH in an indeterminate state – politically, socially and economically – allowing for little socio-political and economic progress. The country remains driven by corruption and an overtly complex governance system. Immediate emphasis should concentrate on the underlying issues that create ethnic tensions and fuel nationalism.

On 10 December 2021, Republika Srpska’s National Assembly voted on non-binding proposals to allow the entity to withdraw from the Bosnian army, intelligence agencies, tax system and judiciary. The Assembly has set a timeline of six months to draft new laws that would undermine the Dayton Agreement, the foundation for Bosnia’s current governing system. Intended to further polarise ethnic sentiments and ignite nationalistic debates, this period aligns with the nation’s 2022 elections, thereby diverting voters’ attention away from the actual issues.

In a report to the United Nations Security Council in November 2021, Christian Schmidt, the High Representative for BiH, stated that if Republika Srpska realise their threat to create their own army, more international peacekeepers could be required to prevent armed conflict. Politicians in BiH who oppose Dodik are calling for an increase in troops from the European Union Force in BiH (EUFOR) as well as the deployment of NATO forces. According to Schmidt, the country is facing “the greatest existential threat of the post-war period”.

Bosnia still struggles with a weak social welfare system, poor infrastructure and large public sector

The status quo and current political crisis are fuelled by the following challenges: population loss, endemic corruption, poor economic conditions, environmental concerns and continued ethnic division.

BiH is among the top 10 nations in the world with severely decreasing populations, causing significant brain drain among talented, young people who face reduced job opportunities, an insecure financial future and distrust in the ruling politicians.

Endemic corruption prevents socio-political and economic development. BiH is ranked 110th out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. The nation’s complex governance system, encouraged by a lack of enforcement of the existing laws, exacerbates corruption and cronyism in both the public and private sectors to the benefit of those in the highest echelons of power. These are the same people who control the majority of publicly owned industries and enterprises, resulting in a lack of political will to implement effective, anti-corruption laws.

BiH is also one of the poorest countries in Europe. Despite the vast financial support and aid provided since the 1990s, Bosnia still struggles with a weak social welfare system, poor infrastructure and large public sector. The global community blames those in power for embezzling much of the funds.

EU membership and accession negotiations could address several issues that exist in BiH today

Sarajevo and nearby cities in BiH have among the highest levels of air pollution in the world. Industry, manufacturing and heating plants, which largely rely on wood and coal, as well as high-emission automobiles, cause the majority of the air pollution. According to the European Environmental Agency, BiH maintains one of the highest mortality rates from air pollution in the world.

While ethnic divisions, maintained by the Dayton Agreement, are most prevalent between the Serb majority living within Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat population in the Federation of BiH, an even more disturbing level of ethnic segregation lies within the Federation itself. Under the ‘two schools under one roof’ education system, Bosniaks and Croats attend the same school, but study different curricula in different languages. The ‘two schools’ rarely interact, further segregating and distancing the youth of BiH from one another.

These are the real challenges that BiH faces and greatest threats to its future stability. Robust democratic reforms, combined with strong public institutions and the development of the private sector, entrepreneurship and new progressive mindsets, would lessen ethnic divisions and open the way for a new generation of trusted and ethical leaders.

EU membership and accession negotiations could address several issues that exist in BiH today; however, it is clear that the country will not become a member anytime soon. In the meantime, the EU must continue to support the implementation of deep and often difficult reforms. This, in combination with critical diplomatic support from the United States, could avert a political crisis in the next six months and provide opportunity and hope for a peaceful future in the region.

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