Bosnia’s relevance 30 years after war

Bosnia’s relevance 30 years after war

The evolving crisis in Ukraine forces us to rethink the Bosnia-Herzegovina war, which led to redrawing of maps and untold misery on people

It was another grey day; heavy artillery had been pounding unarmed and hungry people. The cities were besieged and genocides were being furtively underway. Ethnic militia had a free hand to kill, rape and terrorise as they pleased. A nation was being torn into ethnic identities. As maps were being redrawn, the neighboring countries filled the gaps by providing arms, tanks and artillery, circumventing all sanctions. Meanwhile, the international community, including the UN, just watched. All promises were broken, lawlessness prevailed and perhaps humanity inched a little closer to evil. Surprisingly, this is not Ukraine but Bosnia-Herzegovina about 30 years ago, and yet our world has not learnt its lesson.

The Ukraine-Russia conflict has many of us glued to the news. And amidst this high-energy buzz, the 30th anniversary of Bosnian independence vote goes unnoticed. Let’s rewind time to go to the frontier regions of Europe bordering the Adriatic Sea. There exists a diverse land, which has been the melting pot for cultures. Illyrian to Celtic tribes, Romans or later-day ‘Vlach’, Serbs and Ottomans, they have all lived here. This area is known as the Balkan region, and came to the centre-stage of modern politics after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. WWI was triggered as a result. Between the World Wars, this space was organised as Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In the beginning, it was Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians — other nations were neglected. Until the end of WWII, this region saw the rise of tendentious forces advocating for ethnic superiority and land grab. Serbs and Croats were the biggest contenders. As a result, the inter-war year flavoured with ethnic cleansing against each other and the Muslim “Bosniaks” of the region.

But the tumultuous phase ended with the rise of Joseph Broz Tito, the leader of socialist Yugoslavia and a charismatic friend of India. He had parted ways with Stalin and played a pivotal non-aligned role. Modern independent States of Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia all were constituents of the Yugoslavian Federation. Under Tito’s reign, this was a peaceful country but with his death, ethnic tensions flared up again.

Between 1988 and 1995, Serbian politicians took control of the ex-Yugoslavian Army and resources, an armed insurgency began in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina started by hostile Serbs when these federal republics demanded independence. Secret plans to crave up Bosnian lands were hatched between Croats and Serbs. The goal was creation of ‘Greater Serbia’ and ‘Greater Croatia’. But Serbian ambitions trumped all alliances and boycotted the independence vote.

Soon after, armed insurgency began in Croatia and Bosnia. Bloodshed, violence and the brutal rape of Bosnia followed. The genocide of Srebrenica, where countless Muslims were killed by Serbian forces under the command of Gen Ratko Mladic, backed by Radovan Karadžic, Serbian politician and former President of Republika Srpska and Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia. Two international court verdicts give detailed evidence against these crimes. After years of fighting, the US stepped in and with the Dayton Agreement 1995, a consensus was reached which divided the country on ethnic lines. It also birthed a tripartite political system where national presidency rated between a Serb, Croat and Bosniak, successively. A new Serbian-dominated sub-nation (Republika Srpska, within Bosnia-Herzegovina) was also born. Demographically, Bosniak (Muslims) are 50.1 per cent, Serbs 30.8 per cent and Croats 15.4 per cent.

But why do we need to see Bosnia in light of the Ukraine crisis? One, the UNSC vote in November on the annual extension of 600 EU peacekeeping forces in Bosnia. Security experts are already worried about vetoes transforming into bargaining chips, especially as Bosnia is in line to join Nato and, eventually, the EU. Bosnia could once again be a confrontation point in the great power politics.

The second major threat after the Ukraine crisis comes from Serbian revivalists and ultra-nationalists, who have been aggressively challenging the integrity of the Bosnian State. In January 2022, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who aims to take the Serb Republic out of Bosnia’s armed forces, was sanctioned by the US Government. He was found guilty on two counts: Destabilising territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and graft. Over 100,000 people died and two million rendered homeless in the Bosnian conflict, and yet Dodik wanted to separate the military and judiciary for the Republic Srpska. Christian Schmidt, Bosnia’s international peace envoy (position envisioned by Dayton Peace Agreement, 1995), even called it “unacceptable to undo achievements of the past 26 years”. Any unilateral undoing of State institutions would be a “very serious setback” for Bosnia, Schmidt stated. The UN also warns conflict could erupt again, if consensus is not reached. With the Ukraine crisis evolving, chances to strengthen stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina are very slim as Dodik has constant support from Russia and from Hungary.

Given the lethargy of UN and Nato in solving the Ukraine crisis, many experts believe that recalcitrant elements within Republic Srpska may try to secede and open the Pandora’s box once again.

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