Bosnian flag at the Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration. Photo: the Advocacy Project on flickr/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article Bosnian flag at the Srebrenica Genocide Commemoration. Photo: the Advocacy Project on flickr/cropped from original/licensed under CC2.0, linked at bottom of article

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica explains the newest crisis in the Balkans

In recent days, Western media has been pumping a dramatic story. Bosnia is once again on the verge of war.

The small Balkan state is indeed in crisis. The country’s Serb representatives have announced that they will pull out of three key state institutions: the army, the highest level of the judiciary and the tax administration.

This is being presented as an existential threat to Bosnia, with many commentators calling for greater Western involvement to prevent the break-up of the state.

They underline that these moves follow the decision in July by the then international high representative, Valentin Inzko, to ban genocide denial and the glorification of convicted war criminals, a clear move aimed at Serb politicians above all others.

The logic is a simple one: Serb politicians deny that genocide took place in Bosnia in the 1990s and are prepared to start another war, hence their decision to set up their own army. The West intervened to stop genocide last time, so the West should intervene again to pre-empt more war crimes.

The problem with this narrative is that it rests on faulty assumptions. A major question not posed is why, a quarter of a century after the end of the Bosnian War (1992-1995), and a quarter of a century of Western presence, Bosnia is still in danger of breaking up.

To understand why this is the case, it is necessary to question why intervention occurred in the first place. To do so, we must return to the period just after the Cold War ended.

Bosnia and the origins of humanitarian intervention

After the end of the Cold War, US and NATO strategists had an existential conundrum: how to legitimise the continued existence of a massive military alliance conjured up to fight Russia?

The Bosnian War presented Western policy-makers with a solution: the doctrine of humanitarian intervention.

Bosnia was a multinational state that emerged in the early 1990s as Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s.

However, it was immediately gripped by a protracted civil war, with Bosnian Muslim, Serb and Croat forces fighting each other, and with Serbia and Croatia, as well as several world powers, involved.

The war was vicious, but Serb forces held an early advantage: the firepower of the former Yugoslav army ended up in their hands with tacit support from Serbia.

This meant that Serb forces committed the most visible atrocities, like the gruesome massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica.

This allowed for a narrative in the Western media that there was a straight battle between ‘good’ (Bosnia) and ‘evil’ (the Serbs), which suited NATO well.

NATO states secured a coalition between Bosnian Muslims and Croats, provided military aid and intervened from the air to reverse earlier Serb advances.

In the end, the West secured a peace deal: the Dayton Accords. Dayton effectively ethnically partitioned and federalised Bosnia in two parts: the Bosnian-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic.

The new peace was to be policed by international military forces and overseen by an externally appointed figure, the high representative, with the power to sack politicians and veto legislation.

Later, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ruled in 2004, and the International Court of Justice ruled in 2007, that genocide had been committed in Srebrenica.

The judgements, while legally controversial, belatedly created a legitimising framework to justify Western military intervention and presence in Bosnia.

All this had two important long-term consequences more broadly.

First, it allowed NATO a new lease of life and a progressive expansion eastwards from 1999, which Russia viewed with extreme suspicion and which has contributed to tensions with Russia ever since the Russian-Georgian War of 2008.

Second, it opened the way for a series of new military interventions led by the West. Humanitarian concerns became, to different degrees, a casus belli in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya…Most people now accept that many of these wars were a disaster.

Western failure in Bosnia and the ‘New Cold War’

But champions of military intervention are still keen to point to the Balkans as a place where humanitarian intervention supposedly worked. That is why the current events in Bosnia are so worrying to them. If Bosnia were to break up, that would be a blow to NATO and the definitive end of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, coming so soon, as it does, after the Afghan debacle.

The truth is that Western intervention has patently failed in Bosnia. It has failed to bring prosperity or reconciliation. Half the population in the country is deemed poor or vulnerable to poverty and more than half of Bosnians now live outside of Bosnia.

No wonder, then, that mass popular protests erupted after two decades of failed neoliberal policies in 2014, and no wonder that Inzko threatened to use EU troops against demonstrators back then.

Since then, the West has started to be even more worried that its failure in Bosnia could be used by Russia and China.

Russia has been able to project soft power in the Balkans because it is able to veto key UN resolutions. In 2015, for example, Russia vetoed a UN resolution condemning the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica as a ‘crime of genocide’.

But Russia has more limited economic and security options to counter the West. By contrast, the rise of China and its belt and road initiative has provided local politicians more room to play the West off against the East to gain advantage. The Serb Republic’s president, Milorad Dodik, has not shied away from deals with China in transport and energy infrastructures.

It is no surprise, then, that the West has been pushing for faster integration of Bosnia in NATO, an eventuality vocally opposed by Dodik. Dodik fears the West’s desire to centralise Bosnia. He looks to neighbouring Serbia, but also Russia and China for support. Russia has been open about its opposition to Bosnia’s NATO membership, and China’s inroads have caused worry in Western circles.

The election of Joe Biden, a hawk in the 1990s wars in the Balkans, has raised hopes in Sarajevo that the US and EU will face down Dodik’s secessionist threats.

Duly, Dodik’s recent announcements that the Serb Republic is withdrawing from many Bosnian institutions is clearly aimed at testing Western resolve. Inzko’s legislation against genocide denial and glorifying war criminals was seen as targeting Serb politicians and thereby providing a threat against those opposing the West’s agenda in Bosnia.

All this does make the situation in Bosnia deeply unstable. That the ruling parties in both federal units of Bosnia lost ground in municipal elections in 2020 underlines how unpopular the status quo has become in toto.

But, unfortunately, the left remains a minute force across Bosnia. Whether or not it can begin to emerge as a force in its own right depends in large part on its ability to find a way to effectively oppose both the local, nationalist ruling cliques and, critically, their outside backers as well.

While small, the left in neighbouring Croatia and Serbia could play a role in forging internationalist links that cut across borders. This must mean opposing integration in NATO but also refusing to accept that Russia and China are allies of ordinary people.

Defending the right of the peoples of Bosnia to decide on their own future free of outside interference is a fundamental democratic demand, and, as such, a stepping stone towards the historic idea of the left in the region: a Balkan Socialist Federation.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.