The trial of Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik is moving towards a conclusion that some say could trigger the collapse of Bosnia.
Experts have told Brussels Signal that the European Union’s disengagement from Bosnia has let nationalists “pull the country apart”.
Dodik, under US sanctions and seen as increasingly close to Russia, is in his second term as President of the Republika Srpska – Bosnia’s Serb-majority entity.
He frequently threatens to secede from Bosnia and has called High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Christian Schmidt “an unelected foreigner”, despite the fact that the Dayton Agreement – ending the 1992-95 Bosnian War – gives Schmidt the authority to cancel laws and dismiss officials deemed to be “threatening the peace”.
Adnan Ćerimagić, a Western Balkans analyst at the European Stability Initiative, told Brussels Signal: “The EU has kept Bosnia and Herzegovina outside its accession process” and “the vacuum of a credible EU future is now filled by a return to the nationalist agendas of the past”.
Ćerimagić added that while the Bosnian courts are weighing the case against Dodik, the Bosnian-Serb leader appears to be trying to turn his trial into a campaign against Schmidt, the judiciary and Dayton.
By drawing out his trial, Ćerimagić said, Dodik hopes to “use the process as a platform for questioning High Representative Christian Schmidt’s legitimacy and his power to impose laws and stop legislative procedures in Republika Srpska”.
The 1995 Dayton settlement gives the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, who has always been from an EU country, powers within Bosnian politics that have been compared by some to those of a viceroy – a colonial official who rules as the representative of his or her king and who is empowered to act in the sovereign’s name.
On July 1, 2023, Schmidt used his extra so-called “Bonn Powers”, added in 1997, to change Bosnia’s criminal code. That meant any official failing to implement his decisions would face a prison sentence of between six months and five years and a ban on holding public office.
Six days later, Dodik said he would refuse to sign into law Schmidt’s proposed changes. On August 22, prosecutors indicted Dodik for not implementing Schmidt’s decisions.
Any court judgment against Dodik will likely come with a prison sentence and therefore force him to choose between acceptance and open defiance of the Dayton system.
Dodik said in December that if he was found guilty, he would “champion a break-up of Bosnia and Herzegovina”, and push for an independent Republika Srpska.
Such a break-up would also likely be the end of Bosnia-Herzegovina, say observers.
Nadina Ronc, a London-based political analyst who writes frequently on Bosnia, said: “If a break-up happens, Croats would want Herzegovina to separate, too – and Bosnia would be left as a tiny Muslim state with no powers.”
Whether Dodik is sincere about his intentions to break up Bosnia may be another matter.
“This is Dodik flexing his muscles to see how much the international community will give him,” argued Ronc. Dodik is “all talk and no action”, she said.
Appeasement brings other potential problems.
“The more you allow Dodik, the more instability in the region you get,” said Ronc.
Dayton was created “in a way to make Bosnia unstable for all eternity” and “if Bosnia erupts, the whole region will too”, she added.
“Without any move by the EU and NATO to extend Bosnia membership sooner rather than later, or even NATO to deploy troops to Brcko [city in Northern Bosnia]”, Europe would be allowing a vacuum for separatists such as Dodik to chart a different course for the region, she said.
Dodik has “demonstrated that he can openly defy a Dayton-mandated office–the Office of the High Representative–without sufficiently painful consequences,” said Kurt Bassuener, a Bosnia specialist and former strategist for then-High Representative Paddy Ashdown.
This is “partly also the reduction of military deterrent force on the ground under the other international executive instrument mandated by Dayton–EUFOR (a role mandated to NATO and handed over to the EU at the end of 2004),” he adds.