On February 16, the New York Times published a profile piece by Barbara Surk on the Republika Srpska’s President, Milorad Dodik. Entitled “Milorad Dodik Wants to Carve Up Bosnia. Peacefully, if Possible,” it provided a useful profile of the man – but seemed to sidestep the overarching potential for major violence foreshadowed in the title. This was a disservice to Times readers attempting to understand the risk – and how it might be possible to reduce it.
Dodik has been in power for 12 years. In that time, he has pressed consistently and ever more aggressively toward his stated goal of Republika Srpska independence. He has untrammeled control of institutions at the entity-level and has – in active collaboration with his Bosnian Croat political ally Dragan Čović – helped immobilized governance at the state-level and in the other entity, the Federation. His direct challenges to the Dayton Peace Accords and rule of law have been indulged – and thereby encouraged – by a European Union which has proven unwilling to confront him. This has attracted the political support of Moscow, which has encouraged his separatism and which will train his reinforced police.
As the large arms purchase mentioned in the article implies, violence is a real possibility. A play for independence would make it an absolute certainty, even if done as part of an elite-agreed carve up. Democratization Policy Council has twice (in 2011 and again in 2015) painstakingly investigated the conflict potential in Bosnia in comprehensive security risk assessments and found all the ingredients for organized interethnic violence are present. The situation has only deteriorated since then, across the board. While bottom-up popular will for conflict is still, thankfully, lacking, this was not the conflict driver in 1992 either. The political will to employ and catalyze violence to entrench power was a key factor then – and it remains so. Recent statements by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić made to a Croatian weekly indicate that he sees war as a real possibility in BiH and is attempting to ally with not only the RS, but Croatia.
The potentially good news is that such an eventuality is easily preventable. The West, through the Dayton-required and UN Security Council-mandated deterrent force now operated by the EU, EUFOR Althea, but for which NATO shares a mandate, has a legal obligation to maintain a “safe and secure environment in Bosnia.” It is clearly incapable of protecting itself, let alone acting as a deterrent. Remediating this factor is essential, not only for the country’s future, but also to prevent a much larger crisis for which Europe is evidently unprepared.
The maintenance and upgrading of UK-EU security links was promoted by Prime Minister Theresa May in her Munich Security Conference speech. She should offer to place Britain’s “over the horizon” reserve battalion on the ground in the strategic hinge of Brčko, which divides Republika Srpska at the Sava River. This would serve as both a demonstration of London’s resolve to support EU security and as a challenge to other EU and Western powers to develop a militarily credibly deterrent to violence and threats to the country’s territorial integrity. Doing so would put paid to Dodik’s pretentions to independence, while also deterring Moscow from any temptation to create “facts on the ground” on the EU’s and NATO’s doorstep.