„SUPPORTED BY THE ÚNKP-23-2-II. NEW NATIONAL EXCELLENCE PROGRAM OF THE MINISTRY FOR CULTURE AND INNOVATION FROM THE SOURCE OF THE NATIONAL RESEARCH, DEVELOPMENT AND INNOVATION FUND.”
The Western Balkans is often considered a troubled region with a lot of violent tension and a problematic past. While partly it can be true for historical reasons, war and violence are not endemic phenomena in the Western Balkans. However, this became a hot topic over the past few years since the Russo-Ukrainian war broke out in 2022. Especially regarding the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the current leader of Republika Srpska – one of the country’s constituent entities – has repeatedly claimed separatist visions, jeopardizing their European integration.
Another controversial actor in that regard is Serbia who refused to introduce EU sanctions against Russia when the war broke out. Serbia has been conducting a balancing policy in this matter where European integration is still one of the country’s key priorities, yet they will not turn their back on “fraternal” Russia.
The foreign policy of both actors is greatly influenced by the events of the 1990s, when Yugoslavia fell apart, and all its nations had been fighting for their independence. Serbia perceives the interactions of the international community as unjust, while the Bosnian Serbs also feel like the Dayton Peace Agreement has been pressured on them by greater powers. However, the Agreement allows the two entities of the country to create special parallel relations with the countries of the region – with respect to Annex IV. of the DPA, also serving as the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina – which has helped them to look for other alternatives in their search for identity.
The goal of this paper is to showcase the possibilities of the relations between the two foreign policy actors and how their history and background institutions form their current decisions and cooperation. Because of the significant number of NATO troops in both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, it is important to understand the international relations and structures of the countries in the region.
Most of the Western Balkan countries started their nation-building processes during and after the Yugoslav wars. For many centuries before they fell under the influence of great power competition, disallowing them to form their own independence. After the two world wars, with the formation of the Yugoslav Federation, these nations were deprived of their national interests and were integrated into an artificial state, mostly kept together by its powerful leader.
The Constitutional changes in 1974 allocated more freedom and power into the hands of the member states, which essentially lead to the decentralization of the central government. This led to economic problems throughout Yugoslavia, and with the fall of the bipolar world order, they were left with no creditors to help them out. The Serbs who have felt ostracized by previous laws, took this as an opportunity to create their unity. Thus, in 1992, war began in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as well, however, because of the nature of the war, conflicts spread across the whole territory of Yugoslavia.
The most intense period of the war happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where human rights were seriously violated by ethnic Serbs. By the end of 1995, only a number of 17,000 Muslims survived the ethnic cleansing happening in the country. The international community reacted scarcely and extremely late to the events in the Western Balkans, as they were hoping for a resolution within the countries. The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, creating two entities on its territory: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, in a 51:49 ratio. The Constitution constructed by the international community left the country with issues in legislation and institutionalized the roots of the conflict.
Another step of the international community took place in 1999, Kosovo. On the 24th of March, NATO begin the aerial bombing of Serbia to stop another attempt of ethnic cleansing in the region. However, the NATO operation did not fulfill its purpose of forcing out an armistice between the warring parties. Thus, the new political goals included punishment for human rights violations and the establishment of NATO forces in Kosovo.
These events shaped the Serbian perspective on the Western world, and a great percentage of the population is still sceptic about their intentions. In their eyes it’s the international community that does not respect the territorial integrity of their country and see Russia, and newly China as a helping hand, they can count on. On the other hand, European integration is also one of the strategic goals of both countries, as they consider themselves a legitimate member of the European community. The controversies of the war created a difficult setting for both the policymakers in the region and the international community. When their accession to EU is discussed, it is important to highlight that despite the developments they have achieved in the past decade, both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are still in the process of “creating” their sovereignty, making it harder to commit.
Republika Srpska’s separatist politics
Annex IV. of the DPA, which is also the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina determines the rights and obligations of both the central government and the entities of the country. In that regard, international policy is in the hands of the central government, however, Article III. also provides for the entities the right to form special parallel relations:
“The entities shall have the right to establish special parallel relationships with neighboring states consistent with the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
It also provides the possibility to form agreements with international organizations or states:
“Each entity may also enter into agreements with states and international organizations with the consent of the Parliamentary Assembly. The Parliamentary Assembly may provide by law that certain types of agreements do not require such consent.”
Since Republika Srpska’s separatist leader, Milorad Dodik entered his office, the entity continuously tries to interpret the DPA in their own favor. His separatist ideals began in 2008 after the question of Kosovo’s independence was raised in Serbia. After that he fought for Serbian unity, gaining popularity for both him and his party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD).
In 2021, he announced a list of steps he was willing to take in order to free Republika Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The list included taking over the military barracks in the territory of the Serb entity, but also delegitimizing all decisions taken by the High Representative. They also voted on leaving several central institutions, like the army or the judiciary and tax systems.
During the 2022 elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, several rallies were held by Milorad Dodik, after the Central Election Commission ordered the recount of ballots, because of several accusations of fraud. The rally was held under the slogan “The motherland is calling”.
Dodik greatly counts on Serbia as one of Republika Srpska’s biggest creditors and has mentioned the need of a united Serbian country with Serbia, Republika Srpska and even Montenegro. He praises President Aleksandar Vucic for bringing back the topic of Republika Srpska into the international community – however, their opinions differ on several matters. Republika Srpska’s leader is currently plead for “failure to comply with the decisions of the High Representative.”
Serbia’s “fraternal” figure
According to Article 13. of the Serbian Constitution:
“The Republic of Serbia shall protect the rights and interests of its citizens in abroad.
The Republic of Serbia shall develop and promote relations of Serbs living abroad with the kin state.”
This provides basis for several steps taken by the government of Serbia regarding the Serbs living in diaspora but also regarding the Serbs in the region. The National Security Strategy of Serbia also mentions the preservation of the Serbian nation and culture, no matter where they live. However, they never fail to highlight how much they respect the integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This can mainly be explained with Serbia’s stance on the Kosovo question. Serbia always advocates for territorial integrity, however when it came to the Russo-Ukrainian war, its refusal to introduce EU sanctions against Russia made the international community question the country’s commitment to its European path.
Regarding the issue of Republika Srpska, it is Serbia’s best interest to keep Republika Srpska together. When Dodik announced exiting central institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vucic made a political statement asking Dodik and all political forces in the Republika Srpska to participate in the work of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions to “protect the interests of the Serbian people.” He also added that he is not encouraging them to accept anything that they do not agree to, only to fight for the interests of the entities at a place where it can be executed.
On another note, Serbia always protects the decisions of the Republika Srpska. Vucic pledged to not turn his back on the entity, even if it becomes a “burden” on Serbia. This question was raised repeatedly in relation with the war in Ukraine or with the celebrations of Republika Srpska Day, which was proclaimed unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. December 9th marks the day when in 1992 Bosnian Serbs declared their own state within Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the goal of seceding from the country. On the celebrations of 2023, Vucic sent a congratulatory note to Dodik in an extremely nationalist tone:
“As we also celebrate St. Stephen’s Day, we are reminded that the power of a people is measured by the strength of its unity and steadfastness in preserving its spirituality, language, script, identity, historic and cultural heritage, and its greatness – by the nurturing of the highest ethical and human values and ideals, as well as by its readiness to share its good with others.”
He also encouraged Republika Srpska to remain a “pillar of stability” in the region.
Therefore, because of its Constitutional obligation, Serbia will always provide the necessary political, economic, and diplomatic help to Republika Srpska. The country’s approach towards Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entity is very careful at the same time, because of the Kosovo issue. Meaning, that it is not Serbia’s national interest to support Dodik’s separatist claims but believing in the Serb unity at the same time.
How far can this go?
The Western Balkans have always been a sensitive question between Russia and the West. Both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are candidates for EU membership and are working closely with NATO through its Partnership for Peace Program.
Serbia is engaged in political dialogue and cooperation with NATO regarding key topics that help the country with its EU accession. Despite these relations, Serbia does not seek to join the Alliance. On the other hand, Bosnia and Herzegovina aspires to join NATO and is working together with the Alliance since 1995, when IFOR was established.
Russia considered the 1999 NATO bombing as a sign of its decreasing influence. For the Russian leadership it meant that their interests were no longer considered in the international decision-making processes. NATO’s eastward expansion is one of Russia’s key problems with the West, especially in the Western Balkans. Their euro-atlantic integration would mean the loss of his allies and naval power in the Mediterranean. But can Russia’s aggression spill over to these countries?
Serbia and Republika Srpska have a Russia-friendly leadership, thus, they conduct a course of policies that are in alignment with Russian will. Republika Srpska even held celebrations of Russian Victory Day, and Dodik continuously praises Putin’s leadership in Russia. In 2022, such celebrations were also held in Serbia, to celebrate their common heroic history. Serbian officials also used this opportunity to stress their engagement towards the EU and the similarly glorious future, they aspire to build within the organization.
In both cases, these policies jeopardize their path to the European Union and their overall euro-atlantic integration. However, the prolonged accession process provides the possibility for both actors to seek other opportunities, which might lead to a shift in their political stance, despite it being a heavy decision economically, as the EU is their most important creditor.
All these statements and steps do not necessarily align with each other. Despite the good relations between the two actors, there are several key issues regarding their international policies that are different. First is the idea of Serb unity, which Serbia tries to realize on an ideal level, providing political, economic, and diplomatic help whenever necessary, while Republika Srpska imagines a greater, territorial unity of Serbs. The two international policy strategies do not fit well with each other, yet they both create the illusion of a strong tie. The other key difference in the international policies of the two actors is their stance towards the European Union. The National Security Strategy of Serbia specifically mentions the importance of the EU, and names the accession of the country as one of its strategic goals. Serbia’s balancing act between the EU and Russia, however, raises several questions, which are yet to be answered. On the other hand, the leaders of Republika Srpska constantly feel pressured by the West, turning towards a Russian or Chinese helping hand. The entity’s constant feeling of being oppressed in Bosnia and Herzegovina lead to the separatist actions of Dodik, and his populist politics strengthened euroscepticism in the Bosnian Serb population.
The question remains how long the international actors can keep their balancing policies and if this will lead to the destabilization of the region. The international community learned from its past mistakes, yet it cannot guarantee stability on all its borders, and the question of non-member states would rise again.