U.S. State Department official Matthew Palmer and his European Union counterpart Angelina Eichhorst are due to return to Bosnia and Herzegovina next week in another effort to stave off a political meltdown that threatens to spark renewed violent conflict. Yet they apparently are continuing to pursue a retrograde formula of an electoral law and “limited constitutional reform” that would further entrench the country’s ethnoterritorial oligarchy and impede internal pressure from citizens for real progress.
The visit will be their first since the Biden administration imposed additional U.S. sanctions against Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik and his associates for dangerous and destabilizing actions and for corruption. Apparently undeterred, he in the interim oversaw a Jan. 9 parade of his paramilitary forces, with convicted war criminals in attendance, on the occasion of an illegal holiday marking the independence declaration of Bosnian Serbs that fueled the start of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. EU parliamentarians and some EU member states have expressed support for sanctions similar to the U.S. actions, but have thus far been unable to persuade enough of their cohorts to proceed with such a move.
That ambivalence tracks with the joint EU-U.S. pursuit of a political deal that would reward Dodik via a prize for his Bosnian Croat nationalist ally, Dragan Čović. It essentially would result in a de facto third Croat entity in a Bosnia already divided by the Dayton Agreement between a larger Bosniak (Muslim)-Croat entity called the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the majority-Serb Republika Srpska where Dodik now reigns.
European Commissioner for Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi – a close confidante of Hungary’s illiberal prime minister, Viktor Orbán – announced in November that he had made headway with “stakeholders” toward such a package deal. Alarmingly, that package also signals a possible retreat from criminalizing genocide denial and war crimes glorification. The current crisis – the latest incident on a long downward trajectory – was touched off by Dodik after High Representative Valentin Inzko, on his last day in office last August, outlawed genocide denial and the glorification of war crimes and war criminals – both of which are endemic in Bosnia’s rules-free domestic political environment. Várhelyi, according to an internal EU report of his read-out of his November trip obtained by a Bosnian outlet, blamed the latest crisis on Inzko, rather than on Dodik’s reaction, and gave in to Dodik’s demands to include the genocide denial law. The package of concessions also would reward him with authority on disposition of state property, a particularly confounding step considering the opening it creates for corruption after the United States just added corruption to its sanctions allegations against Dodik.
Potential State Property Giveaway
Indeed, with all eyes on Dodik’s secessionist moves – still largely described as “rhetoric” by Western diplomats despite the actions he and his associates in office have taken to make it concrete – the seemingly obscure issue of state property might be far more momentous than other concessions the international community has suggested in recent years: it would provide him with the material basis from which to pursue independence and a potential conjoining with neighboring Serbia. In fact, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, whom the United States and the EU inexplicably are looking to as a stabilizing factor in the Western Balkans and supposedly a restraining influence on Dodik, in October announced a goal of overriding a BiH Constitutional Court ruling on state property to accomplish what Dodik wants.
The issue of apportioning state property between the state and other levels of government has long been contentious. Along with the subset of defense property, it encompasses two of the “5+2” objectives and conditions set by the international council established in the Dayton Peace Accords to oversee the Office of the High Representative (OHR) that would have to be met for that office to be dissolved as no longer necessary. (And obstructionists Russia and China agitate regularly for the office to be shut down.) The 5+2 formula, by any intellectually honest measure, is nowhere near completed. Yet achieving the 5+2 objectives and conditions is apparently seen as a proximate medium-term target for Western diplomats, despite the unremitting deterioration of the security, political, and social situation in BiH since these conditions were promulgated nearly 14 years ago.
As Vučić himself articulated on Dodik’s behalf in October, most of state property constitutes forests, rivers, and agricultural land; a massive 54 percent of BiH’s territory is state-owned, 71 percent of which is forests. Illegal commercial activity on this land such as logging by politically connected figures has long been reported and documented. Given the scale of this illicit activity already, it is impossible to have any faith that opening this territory to entities, cantons, and municipalities would be anything more than an accelerant to the looting and destruction of BiH’s common natural heritage and wealth.
The less-developed and less-populated Republika Srpska has a disproportionate amount of state property. It is no coincidence that Dodik wants legal license to break this natural piggy bank now. Commercial debt taken on by his entity government, with which he has fed his patronage machine, will come due soon. To roll them over, he needs collateral. BiH’s forests, rivers, and other land offer precisely such an opportunity.
So while Várhelyi attempted to sugarcoat his package last month by noting that it would facilitate BiH’s tapping into EU development funds, the sums available pale in comparison to the value of the public assets that would be given away to Dodik, his partner Čović, their Bosniak nationalist foil and partner Bakir Izetbegović, and other “made men” in a political system that would become even more feudal and unaccountable under the “reforms” being sought. Essentially, the EU and the United States are trying to bribe BiH’s ethnocrats with the Bosnian people’s own natural patrimony. All in the name of a politically easier path to “de-escalation” (however illusory) than confronting a protracted policy failure and remediating it.
Alternatives to a Bad Deal
This U.S.-backed Várhelyi Package essentially would appease those who threaten the peace and do nothing to curb their warmongering. Instead, the Biden administration should listen to BiH citizens and European Union and British parliamentarians who have called for a course correction. This means restoring credible deterrence on the ground with NATO troops (including Americans), to demonstrate that the Republika Srpska will not be allowed to pursue independence and that any form of violence will be prevented. It also means ceasing pursuit of electoral “reforms” that would insulate leaders even more from political and legal accountability, making the system yet more impervious to civic initiative.
Furthermore, not only would the Várhelyi Package run counter to the most vaunted U.S. and EU policy goals (fighting illiberalism, corruption, and climate change, as well as resisting geopolitical adversaries), it also would benefit Russia. It would reward Putin’s most troublemaking – and therefore most valuable – ally in the region, Dodik, at the very moment when the Kremlin is threatening to escalate its eight-year war in Ukraine and demanding sovereignty be curtailed for a host of NATO and EU members (now including Sweden). For this and all the other reasons enumerated above, the Várhelyi Package would be for the United States and the EU nothing short of an own goal.
The West has the ability to correct its course, if it has the will. The United States, the EU, the U.K., and other allies have more structural ability to prevent violence and limit the ability of BiH’s nationalist leaders to do permanent damage than they possess anywhere else on earth. Baroness Arminka Helić, for instance, proposed in the U.K. House of Lords a month ago that the United States, the EU, the U.K., and other democracies should pursue a “social contract for the 21st Century” with BiH’s long-suffering citizens without the participation of Bosnia’s ethnocrats, which in her words would open “space for an inclusive, bottom-up political process.”
If the Biden administration, for its part, is sincere about its desire to counter threats to Bosnia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, to promote functional and accountable governance so that BiH citizens can build a future, and to send a message that the United States will resist intimidation by retrograde nationalists, America’s current policy needs a radical rethink. The focal points for U.S. policy should be demonstrating solidarity to restore deterrence, punishing Dodik’s escalation collectively (as the U.S. has begun to do with the recent sanctions), and creating the conditions for durable — rather than superficial — progress.