Threats by the leader of the Serb-majority Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, to break his mini-state away from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country shakily balanced between Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs, is adding to growing regional and international dismay at unfolding developments in the Balkans.
Dodik’s threats combined with a major rearmament program by neighboring Serbia are fueling concerns the Balkans could be heading for conflict.
Serbia started negotiating last month with Israel about buying anti-tank missiles and some European Union officials suspect Belgrade may be in the process of reaching out to Ankara to discuss buying the type of Turkish-made armed drones used with devastating effect by Azerbaijan in its recent clash with Armenia.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic says his Balkan neighbors shouldn’t be alarmed about the rearming, which he casts as an updating of his country’s armed forces, and says Belgrade has no offensive intentions. Earlier this year, he said: “Everyone is rearming and we will also rearm. If everyone else, does it, we must too.”
But Serbia’s neighbors are unsettled by the rearmament program, which has seen Belgrade increase its defense spending by 70% since 2015, and by what they see as Vucic’s increasing nationalist rhetoric.
Belgrade has also provided strong political backing for Dodik.
Last week Christian Schmidt, the specially appointed High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, warned the U.N. Security Council that the war-scarred Balkans is facing its biggest threat since the ethnic cleansing and wars of the early 1990s. “The prospects of further division and conflict are very real,” he said.
And he urged the international community to curb any threatened separatist actions by Bosnian Serbs.
Alarm is also rising in Western European capitals, with officials noting that Vucic’s arms purchases have served to deepen Serbia’s relations with China and Russia, which is sympathetic to Dodik’s ambitions to separate his mini-state and have it join Serbia.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, has placed the Balkans on the agenda for next month’s meeting of NATO’s foreign ministers in Riga, according to British officials. Germany has been pressing fellow EU member states to prepare sanctions against Dodik. Heiko Maas, German foreign minister, said Saturday that Berlin wants to see “individual measures against those who question the territorial integrity” of Bosnia.
Maas added: “We will not be able to accept the continuation of this irresponsible policy without taking action.” He accused Republika Srpska of “actively working to destroy Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole state.”
A former British foreign minister, William Hague, warned Tuesday: “History has shown many times that we neglect the western Balkans at our peril.” He said: “For years, the leader of the Serb-majority Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, has been undermining the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina with active Russian and Serbian support,” he wrote in a commentary for The Times newspaper. “In recent weeks the situation has become grave. Dodik is coming close to secession from Bosnia,” he added.
He and others fear unresolved disputes from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s and simmering tensions between Croatia, which has also been rearming, and Serbia are jeopardizing stability in the Western Balkans. The Balkan disputes also include disagreements over the status of Kosovo, the former Serbian province, which declared independence in 2008 after a war that killed more than 13,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians.
EU-brokered talks aimed at normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo restarted recently but a cross-border dispute in September prompted by Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti decision not to recognize Serbian automobile license plates saw Belgrade deploy tanks to its border with Kosovo and Vucic announce economic and political sanctions against the former Serb province.
The Serb leader urged the international community to intervene and warned if it didn’t “we will know how to protect our country, there is no doubt about it.” Hundreds of Kosovo Serbs closed a key border road and Kosovo officials dispatched extra police units.
But it is Dodik’s secession talk that is of the most immediate worry for Western powers, say U.S. and European diplomats. They fear that if Dodik tries to tear Bosnia apart it would risk triggering a new Balkans conflict that could all too easily reignite disputes between Serbia and Croatia as well as between Serbia and Kosovo, plunging the Western Balkans into a replay of the vicious inter-ethnic wars that erupted on the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
The 1995 U.S.-brokered Dayton Accords set up the multi-ethnic state of Bosnia as an international protectorate with complex power-sharing constitutional arrangements among the three principal ethnic groups that make it up. It has two semi-autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska but Dodik has threatened to pull out of Bosnia’s state-level institutions, including the army and has been militarizing his police which could serve as a reconstituted ethnic Bosnian Serb armed force. He has also said he wants to set up a separate judiciary.
The 62-year-old Dodik last month warned he will speed up his secession plans, if Western sanctions are imposed on him, telling Gabriel Escobar, a U.S. envoy, “F*** the sanctions,” according to a leaked transcript of the meeting. “If you want to talk to me, then stop threatening me,” he told Escobar.
Dodik has warned that any NATO military intervention aimed at preventing him from breaking up Bosnia will be opposed by his “friends,” seen as a reference to the rearmed Serbia and Russia. Vucic appeared last month to rein in Dodik, saying, “It is important to preserve peace and show that Republika Srpska is not the source of the problem, but that we are all ready to talk in the region.”
But he added Serbia will not join in any sanctions against Republika Srpska.