Politicising future NATO membership

Despite an apparent consensus about Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future membership in NATO, the political dynamics of the Republika Srpska augurs both caution and reserve.

By Mirjana Kosic

During his farewell visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the outgoing NATO Secretary General, succeeded in achieving what only a short while ago was seen as almost inconceivable – he brought the representatives of the three respective political elites to an agreement that “BiH’s place and future is within NATO”. Until recently at loggerheads over the prospect of NATO membership, they have suddenly accepted that BiH’s future in NATO is both ‘inevitable’ and a ‘reality’, leaving the domestic public somewhat puzzled by this display of rare pragmatism. Whilst Scheffer may have departed with a sense of achievement, however, the political dynamics of the Republika Srpska augurs both caution and reserve.

When it concerns serious public debate on the future accession of BiH to NATO, there is very little to suggest that the citizens of BiH have been given sufficient, if any, explanation of the actual costs and benefits of putative NATO membership. The majority of citizens have neither a well-informed opinion on this issue, nor any confidence that domestic politicians have enough power to pursue decisions that would not necessarily be in-line with the demands of the international community. This is further aggravated by a still prevalent anti-NATO sentiment in the predominantely Serb entity, Republika Srpska, due to the legacy of NATO’s bombardment of Serb positions in 1995 and the aggressive military campaign against Serbia in 1999, and, on the other hand, the preoccupation of a vast majority in the Federation, particularly war veterans, with more pressing existential problems. As with Croatia, prior to its accession to NATO in April 2009, and currently Serbia, the issue of NATO integration has been primarily used by BiH’s political elites as a means of collecting more political points and securing the continued support of their respective electorates.

The latest statement of the RS Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, that “the RS will not in any way obstruct BiH’s accession to NATO” therefore not only shocked the public, but was also met with strong criticism and dissent by the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), in particular, and several NGOs in the RS; who have demanded an explanation for why the official stance on demilitarisation and military neutrality has changed and why Dodik has suddenly become an advocate of fast-track membership of NATO. Dodik’s reconciliatory statement “that accession to the NATO alliance is extremely important for the overall stability of BiH and the region… [enabling] BiH to take part in all the security-related activities of NATO, not only in this region, but even further afield”, stands in a stark contrast to his appeals to Serb members of the BiH Army to boycott joint military exercises in Georgia in May this year.

The SDS, reinforced by other opposition parties, and, as recent polls suggest, around 80% of the RS population, have demanded a referendum on BiH’s membership in NATO – as reiterated by former Serbian Prime Minister, Vojislav Kostunica, in a recent letter to Dodik – before any decision is passed to the RS National Assembly for further consideration. With a NATO military exercise, “Combined Endeavour 2009”, scheduled to take place in Banja Luka in September, already causing a stir within civil society in the RS, the issue of NATO membership is likely to impact the Entity’s assumed political equilibrium.

Even though the plan to advance NATO’s “open door” policy into a more expedient offer of full membership by the next summit towards the end of 2010 will help resolve part of the current conundrum regarding the future of the Office of High Representative and its successor, the Office of EU Special Representative, particularly with respect to the role of the United States in BiH, the international community must not disregard the internal discord within the Republika Srpska.

It would not be the first time that a consensus brokered with the guidance of the international community eventually translates into nothing more than an act of “good will”, with domestic politicians conveniently retreating to their opaque positions motivated by individual political interests. With parliamentary elections approaching in the autumn of 2010, domestic political elites will once again tune into the public mood of their respective electorates. Dodik is too aware that any referendum, something he has himself rhetorically considered deploying in relation to the question of the RS’s future status, would be politically costly by exposing the extent of public opposition to NATO.

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