For years, the President of Republika Srpska (RS), Milorad Dodik, has been stoking ethnic tensions and promoting his secessionist agenda. Recent legislation passed in RS in late June 2023 constitutes one of the most serious violations yet of the Dayton Peace Agreement and Bosnia and Herzegovina's constitution since 1995. Upon Dodik's instigation, the National Assembly of RS decided not to recognize the decisions of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Constitutional Court and to circumvent the directives of the High Representative (HR) for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt. Crucially, Schmidt can use his Bonn powers to overturn decisions that threaten the constitutional order of the country, and has already done so by declaring the decisions of the National Assembly of RS invalid and threatening penalties. Dodik, on his part, dismissed the HR's decisions as unlawful, posing a serious problem for the EU.
RS is one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a majority Bosnian Serb population and ruled by Dodik. In his quest for reunification with Serbia, he often steps on the Serbian government’s toes, especially now that Serbia is aiming to present itself as a constructive player in the dialogue with Kosovo.
Dodik’s attempts to seek ways to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina are nothing new. Since July 2021, RS representatives have boycotted the work of Bosnia and Herzegovina's institutions after former HR Valentin Inzko pushed through legislative changes sanctioning genocide denial. In late 2021, Dodik announced RS's withdrawal from Bosnia and Herzegovina's joint army, supreme judiciary, and tax administration. The implementation of these plans was then put on hold in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to avoid "further complicating Republika Srpska's geopolitical position in complex geopolitical circumstances."
The circumstances under which Dodik made his latest decisions differ from those of previous crises. The EU should therefore take the current crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina more seriously, even if it may only appear to be a continuation of RS's years of separatist efforts. So, what is different this time?
First and foremost, the course and consequences of Russia’s war against Ukraine have already influenced certain decisions made in RS. Dodik himself has already drawn parallels between the war in relation to RS’s complex geopolitical position. The longer the war in Ukraine continues and the further Russia advances, the more intensively Dodik will try to test the limits of the West vis-à-vis his separatist policy. Methods such as the Bonn powers or U.S. sanctions against Dodik for undermining Bosnia and Herzegovina's constitutional order have so far proved ineffective. With his recent decisions, Dodik has de facto expelled the HR from RS. Since the police are subordinate to the two aforementioned entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the HR has no way of enforcing his decisions in the RS. The European Parliament recently called on the Council to impose sanctions on Dodik. If administered, these could be more effective than the U.S. equivalents, since Bosnia and Herzegovina has much stronger political, security and economic ties with the EU than it does with the U.S. However, the decisive factor here will be how effectively the West can oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine. If the EU in particular can prove itself capable of making unified, coordinated and, above all, swift security policy decisions, then Dodik will be more afraid of possible consequences than he is currently. How the territorial issues in Ukraine are resolved after the war will also be pivotal.
Second, regional security dynamics, particularly the unrest in northern Kosovo that culminated in violent clashes in May 2023, are also pertinent. The current situation in northern Kosovo demonstrates the EU's lack of assertiveness in brokering an effective solution between Belgrade and Pristina, which could further embolden Dodik. The fact that the EU has been engaged in crisis management in the region for years and is still unable to convince Belgrade and Pristina of the benefits of a peaceful solution, suggests Dodik will most likely perceive its powers to be somewhat insignificant. This means that as long as the conflict in northern Kosovo remains unresolved, the danger of it spreading to Bosnia and Herzegovina will persist, if not increase.
Dodik is also aggravating the current situation because his position of power in RS is under threat. To date, crises have been a proven means of increasing his popularity. He only narrowly won the most recent elections in RS against an opposition candidate allegedly supported by Belgrade. For some time, there have been suspicions in the political debates in the Western Balkans that Serbia's President Aleksandar Vučić is unhappy with Dodik, even though he publicly supports him. RS’s separatist policy does not benefit Serbia precisely because Serbia itself is under pressure from the West to move closer to the EU in terms of foreign and security policy, and to finally resolve issues with Kosovo. These matters have become a greater priority for the EU since February 2022, given the transformed geopolitical environment.
It is therefore crucial that the EU finally unfurls its "hard power" in RS and against Dodik. HR decisions that cannot be enforced in RS remain a dead letter. Even if joint EU sanctions fail in the Council because of Hungary’s veto – since Hungary maintains good relations with Dodik –, bilateral sanctions should still be imposed with a clear strategic communication about why and how these actions affect RS. Of course, a confrontational EU policy toward Dodik risks further exacerbating the situation and encouraging Dodik to act even more erratically. As all other attempts have thus far failed, a change of tact is required. At the same time, the EU must mediate more effectively in the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and seek de-escalation of the situation in northern Kosovo and full implementation of the normalization agreement reached in February and March 2023. It should be made clear that separatism in the Balkans has no future.
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