A Serb nationalist political leader in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the support of a longtime hardline Bosnian Croat, is escalating separatist rhetoric, heightening concerns that his threatened actions to reject state institutions could renew violent conflict and unravel a long-touted U.S. diplomatic achievement, the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA). Yet, the United States and its European Union and NATO allies thus far have only issued tepid statements in response, with no deterrent effect.

Milorad Dodik, Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite Presidency, announced on Oct. 14 that he would initiate actions to dismantle state institutions, which he incorrectly asserts were simply imposed by the international High Representative. He has specifically cited the unified armed forces, police and intelligence agencies, state tax administration, state court, and numerous other bodies.

Since his rise to power in 2006 in the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska (RS), Dodik has characterized these institutions as the result of “legal violence” against the RS, which constitutes just under half of BiH. While the High Representative was instrumental in developing momentum for new state institutions, most were established through inter-entity agreement with the marginally larger Federation of BiH, and later voted upon in BiH’s state Parliamentary Assembly (including with votes from Dodik’s party). Action by one of those entities’ parliaments to revoke those decisions would thus be illegal and unconstitutional.

Further upping the ante, Dodik said that if NATO “intervened” in the RS against his actions, he would call upon his “friends” (implying Serbia and Russia) to assist. The phrasing implied that NATO didn’t have the right to be in the RS (and the rest of BiH), an authority that Dayton clearly outlines. Later in the day, he stated that, to deal with the (unified) BiH armed forces, he would surround barracks in the fashion that the Slovene Territorial Defense forces did with the Yugoslav People’s Army in 1991 – forcing them to withdraw unarmed.  However, he mistakenly gave the date as 1992 – the year the war in BiH was initiated.

Hard-Line Symbolism

The day he issued his threat to withdraw from the state, which he has long called for dissolving, was significant. It was the 30th anniversary of his predecessor Radovan Karadžić’s speech in the assembly of the Socialist Republic of BiH, in which he warned the country’s Bosniaks (then called Muslims) of potential extinction should they proceed with seeking independence from a disintegrating Yugoslavia – known as “the highway to hell” speech. Karadžić is now serving a life sentence in a British prison for genocide and a host of other war crimes, as a result of a trial by an international tribunal. Dodik named a school after him in Pale, Karadžić’s wartime “capital” near Sarajevo, and has brought convicted war criminals who completed their sentences onto his staff as advisors.

Dodik also has rejected the authority and appointment of the new international High Representative, German politician Christian Schmidt – a stance he shares with Russia. At the end of his tenure, the previous High Representative, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, imposed changes to the BiH criminal code to make genocide denial and glorification of war criminals illegal, a move that itself was prompted by the intensifying rhetoric of hate in recent years. As a reaction, the RS government, led by Dodik’s SNSD party, has rammed a law through the entity parliament that declares all High Representative actions null and void in the RS, in clear violation of the Dayton agreement, and makes it illegal to “disparage” the RS.

The anti-nationalist Croat member of the BiH Presidency, Željko Komšić, has stated that if international actors do not defend BiH territorial integrity and sovereignty, state institutions will. The RS is conducting police exercises today on Jahorina, a mountain immediately above Sarajevo (and from which the city was besieged during the war) and in the area of an RS town, Mrkonjić Grad. Komšić immediately – and correctly — called the exercises a “provocation.”

The potential for miscalculation is high. Any confrontation between RS and forces from the state or Federation would almost certainly be violent, even if not intended to lead to hostilities. Given the continuous inflammatory rhetoric is aimed at radicalizing populations, a random violent incident could be used as the “proof” needed that a formal armed response is warranted. This may well be the intent of the continuing escalation.

NATO and EU Security Responsibility

This never needed to happen. The first annex (1A) in the Dayton agreement gave NATO the responsibility to maintain a “safe and secure environment” throughout BiH; this Implementation Force (IFOR) initially comprised over 54,000 troops, one-third of whom were American. IFOR was succeeded by the Stabilization Force (SFOR) after President Bill Clinton admitted in December 1997 that a presence would need to be maintained without a scheduled exit date; he initially had promised that troops would depart in a year.

That same month, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the ad hoc international consortium established to oversee Dayton and to whom the civilian High Representative reports, articulated that the High Representative, with powers as “final authority in theater” to enforce the DPA as stipulated in Annex 10, included the power to impose laws, annul laws, and remove officials for violating the accord. Dodik (now) rejects all that followed. He campaigned in 2006 on a platform that included a referendum that he never specifically defined but suggested repeatedly would advance RS independence. At the time, it was the most divisive election since the war.

It’s been all downhill from there. Dodik claims he wants to return to the “original Dayton,” which would amount to completing the gutting of the connective tissue built since the war with the aim of making the state functional – including the State Court (for war crimes and organized crime/corruption), the Armed Forces, state police, and a host of other state bodies, including – in the midst of a pandemic that hit BiH hard – the State Agency for Medical Equipment and Drugs.  But he also has long argued for – and worked toward – independence. His prior challenges have been appeased since 2006, each time leaving him stronger – and U.S. and EU credibility weaker.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić claimed last Thursday that he was told by friends in the EU (an allusion to the autocratic leaders of Hungary and Slovenia) that the RS was in danger of abolition (a legal impossibility). He has since claimed he only wants agreement among BiH’s three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, though of course that leaves out all others). But Serbian government ministers openly advocate a “Serbian World” unifying Serbs throughout the region, which Vučić only last month grudgingly stated he had not personally advocated.

The EU, backed by NATO, took on SFOR’s mission and legal obligation in December 2004 as a showpiece for its Common Security and Defense Policy. The force was radically drawn down from its strength of about 7,000 to just over 2,000 in early 2007, allegedly because of an improved political situation in BiH, but really in order to shore up a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan — Dutch and British forces needed to redeploy there.


The force in Bosnia has shrunk further since. For over a decade, EUFOR has been below operational requirements. It is now roughly 700 troops – incapable of defending their base at Butmir and the nearby Sarajevo airport simultaneously, let alone their Liaison and Observation Teams (LOTs) dispersed throughout BiH. These non-combat units are effectively hostages-in-waiting. Three Deputy Supreme Allied Commanders in Europe (DSACEURs) in a row assessed that to fulfill Dayton’s deterrent mandate properly, they needed a brigade-strength force, approximately 5,000 troops. BiH is now experiencing a deterrence failure that has been evident for over a decade.  While a smaller contingent is necessary now – particularly in Brčko – to address the immediate challenge, the deterrent has long been recognized to be in deficit.

Politically, BiH has been on this downward trajectory for more than 15 years, and such a serious secessionist challenge has been in the offing for a more than a decade. Dodik has long subjected state institutions to assault. And he has been accommodated by an international community led by the European Union. The U.S. government has at least sanctioned Dodik for his anti-Dayton activity; the EU has not imposed such penalties– even now with this blatant assault on the Dayton constitutional order and potentially on peace itself. Since Oct. 14, all the EU and the United States have done is to issue boilerplate statements, without mentioning their own deterrent responsibility.

The rationale for this weak stance seems to be a continued fixation on electoral and “limited constitutional change” – ostensibly to improve the electoral process and respect several court judgments, including five European Court of Human Rights rulings. But in reality, as previously explained on these pages most recently by one of the plaintiffs, Azra Zornić, the international effort essentially caves to joint blackmail by Dodik and his longtime ally, Bosnian Croat nationalist party leader Dragan Čović. The two are threatening to impede Bosnia’s general elections in October 2022 unless Čović gets the changes he has long sought:  assurance that only he (or someone he designates) can possibly be elected to the Croat seat on the BiH Presidency.

U.S. Special Envoy Matt Palmer and U.S. Ambassador Eric Nelson have pressed this election-focused agenda hard, together with the EU and the U.K. This dangerous policy itself drives the country towards further ethnic and ethno-territorial division, and ultimate disintegration. But being wedded to the hope of achieving this goal also prevents the United States and the EU from forcefully pushing back against the threats emanating from Dodik (Čović‘s ally), which would previously have constituted absolute red lines.

U.N. Security Council Mandate Renewal Next Month

What’s worse, the very mandate for EUFOR and NATO’s Headquarters in Sarajevo is on the proverbial chopping block next month at the United Nations Security Council, at an annual session to consider renewal. The potential for a Russian veto of the mission has long been feared. After the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine that ignited a war that continues to this day, Russia kicked its spoiler role in the Western Balkans into gear with aggressive disruption, though making its point thus far by abstaining rather than vetoing EUFOR’s continuation. But in recent months, Russia and China (China is not on the PIC) have tried jointly to delegitimize High Representative Schmidt, arguing that he was not approved by the Security Council. That gambit failed 13-2. But next month, when EUFOR (and NATO HQ Sarajevo) come up for renewal of their Chapter 7 peace enforcement mandate, Moscow and Beijing could choose to step up their disruption.

Preparation for that eventuality is long overdue. But at best, there seems to remain a blithe assumption that NATO could just take on the mission with minimal change. This attitude was evident prior to Dodik’s escalation. EUFOR was preserved for years by British-led resistance to its closure, but there are EU and NATO members, such as France, who might be happy to let the Russians and Chinese take the rap for a mission they have wanted to end, if nothing else, to end the liability the mission confers (the obligation to ensure a safe and secure environment). Given the direct threat to peace now, such a stance is downright foolhardy. France holds the pen on the U.N. Security Council Resolution on EUFOR (and NATO HQ) next month.

Reinforcement of the current force with actual troops is essential, in the immediate term.  A contingent in Brčko, where the RS and Federation meet and which sits on a vital communications line from the RS capital Banja Luka to Bijeljina and Belgrade, would constitute a strong deterrent to Dodik or any other RS leader seeking independence.  It also would break Dodik’s back politically, damaging his credibility as he also is struggling against increasingly vocal public dissatisfaction over the RS entity’s deepening debt.

A NATO-EUFOR joint exercise with the BiH Armed Forces, Brzi Odgovor (“Rapid Response”), that ended just two weeks ago would have been the logical time to have reinforced the deterrent to higher credibility, including deploying in Brčko. The international community could have noted that Annex 1A of the Dayton Peace Agreement ensuring a “safe and secure environment” had no expiration date and that NATO would enforce it until it was replaced by a post-Dayton constitutional order with popular legitimacy, not just built around ethnic leaders who thrive on maintaining division and leveraging fear. That opportunity was squandered.

German Green MEP Urges Reinforcements

The EU believes its credibility rests in what it is, but for people in BiH and the Balkans, it is a deep-pockets donor and desirable address, not a potent political actor. However, several members of the European Parliament recognized this in statements yesterday, calling for strong EU-U.S. joint action against Dodik, including sanctions, with German Green MEP, Viola von Cramon, urging that EUFOR be reinforced. The United States maintains credibility, though recently dented, because of what it did in 1995, 1999, and can still do – project power.

So restoring deterrence and therefore popular confidence in peace requires direct American action through NATO, with a U.S. on-the-ground contribution in Brčko. This would pre-empt any potential Russian-Chinese veto by making it moot, demonstrating forcefully that the United States and the rest of NATO intend to enforce Annex 1A indefinitely. It would also sever the accelerating negative feedback loop of fear and polarization that keeps Dodik and the rest of BiH’s political class in business. This would create space for integrative and progressive alternatives to get traction, something that regular citizens throughout the country (including in the RS) clearly want, as recent protests and demonstrations attest.

There has never been such a clear and present danger to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s peace and cohesion since the Dayton Peace Agreement was forged 26 years ago next month, propelling America’s post-Cold War influence to its apex over the decade to follow. Dodik’s challenge not only must be met, but provides an opportune moment for a long-overdue course correction (undergirded by a long-needed security assessment) to a failing – and potentially dangerous — transatlantic policy in BiH and the wider Balkans.

Legislatures usually have to press executive branches out of inertial policy postures. During the war in Bosnia, the U.S. Congress consistently pressed the Bush and Clinton administrations for a more forceful, forward-leaning policy. One of those voices was then-Senator Joe Biden.

Now is the time to end Bosnia’s accelerating crisis. As their European Parliament counterparts did yesterday, U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee members need to press for such a shift on Oct. 28, when Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Gabriel Escobar testifies in a hearing before a panel subcommittee.

IMAGE: US government’s special envoy for Western Balkans Matthew Palmer (L) poses with members of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik (2nd L), Zeljko Komsic (2nd R) and Sefik Dzaferovic (R) in Sarajevo on July 5, 2021 as Palmer held several meetings with national political leaders in Bosnia as well as state officials. (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)