The dangerous politics of leverage – Republika Srpska

Dodik’s decision to postpone a controversial entity-wide referendum on the decisions of the international high representative will likely amount to yet another postponement of the much needed critical reexamination of the politics of the region and the political institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

By Ariel Zellman

On May 12th, Republika Srpska president, Milorad Dodik, announced that he would postpone a controversial entity-wide referendum on the decisions of the international high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH).

The decision comes after a tense stand-off between Valentin Inzko, the current High Representative, and Dodik in which Inzko threatened to remove Dodik from office and Serb representatives in the BiH federal government threatened mass resignation. While Inzko has claimed that the referendum would undermine the Dayton Accords and perhaps be a first step toward dissolution of the country, Serb voices have insisted that a referendum is needed to check what they see as the creeping power of Sarajevo and the arbitrary authority of the High Representative.

It would appear in this battle of political brinksmanship that Inzko has “won.” Dodik has backed down, the referendum has been put off, and the authority of the political center remains formally intact. This image is somewhat misleading. Dodik has indicated that the postponement is a “sign of goodwill” to open a dialogue on the issues that the RS has raised with this referendum. He hopes that now the Serb entity would be in a better place to engage in discussions with the EU and United States about the future of the legal system and political architecture of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This may be seen as a mere face-saving measure for a defeated politician, yet the opposite may be true. By pushing Bosnian national institutions and the international representative to the brink, Dodik may have succeeded in forcing a meaningful domestic and international discussion about the quality and character of governance of the country. Although there can be little doubt that Dodik and many Serbs in Republika Srpska today do not see a real future in a united Bosnia, this remains a better solution than a return to ethnic violence. Dodik, despite his undisguised national sympathies, acknowledges this. Rather than split up the country, it is his agenda to ensure that the autonomy his entity currently enjoys is preserved and that international authority not be exercised to further empower the center.

Whatever one’s opinions on Dodik personally, he cannot be faulted for his desire to alter the institutional status quo. Close observers of contemporary politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina are keenly aware that the system there is fractured, if not already broken. While social relations between Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks are at least mutually tolerant, political relations are a mess. Republika Srpska has jealously guarded its autonomy while Sarajevo has attempted to centralize its authority. Proposals in recent years to dissolve BiH’s two federal entities into smaller non-ethnic provinces have been met with vehement opposition and have lead many Serbs to believe that Sarajevo and the international community want to “destroy” Republika Srpska. This, in turn, has propelled Banja Luka to demand more autonomy from Sarajevo and to weaken the role of the International High Representative in Bosnian politics and jurisprudence.

Meanwhile political relations between Bosnian Croats and Muslims in their shared Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are increasingly fractious. The former have expressed considerable frustration with their minority status in both the Federation and Republic at times demanding their own separate federal entity. The latter have been seen as using their near-majority status to demand a more unified country presumably in service of European democratic values at the expense of both Serbs and Croats. Highlighting the Bosniak-Croat split, even as the Federation condemned Republika Srpska’s decision to hold a referendum, major representatives of the Croat parties were not in attendance. It has also been the Bosniak parties which have pushed hardest at the state level to block this referendum.

In light of these centrifugal forces, the postponement of the referendum may be seen as a coup for Balkan stability. Unfortunately, it seems more likely that this postponement may amount to yet another postponement of the much needed critical reexamination of the politics of the region and political institutions of BiH. Rather than break down the ethnic barriers and disempower the nationalists who rose to power during the 1990s, many observers agree that the institutions of reconstituted Bosnia and Herzegovina have reinforced them. In particular, the institution of the International High Representative, which was meant to provide a safety lever in the worst-case scenario that nationalism did rise again, has become a lightening rod for nationalist mobilization.

While it was certainly a worthy goal of those who crafted the Dayton Accords in 1995 to decapitate the virulent nationalisms which had overrun the Balkans, over 15 years later it may be time to acknowledge certain realities. If Serb, Croat, and Bosniak ultra-nationalism is going to dissipate in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it will not be through imposition from the top-down, particularly under the current structures of state. The image of a multiethnic Bosnia which is devoid of particularistic institutions and without conflicting nationalist interests is unachievable without meaningful domestic reconciliation.

So long as the demographic balance in the country holds, and there is no reason to expect that it will not, decisions by the high representative to centralize authority in Sarajevo will be seen as in service of the Bosniaks at the expense of Serbs and Croats. So too, so long as the grievances of Serbs (and Croats) are treated as challenges to the unity of the country rather than as legitimate concerns of equal citizens or constituent peoples, nationalists will enjoy more than enough popular support to threaten state dissolution.

There is certainly still a place for international monitoring and oversight, but the exercise of arbitrary ultimate authority by an appointed external authority is conducive neither to the development of democracy nor to reconciliation. If (it is felt that) the political representatives of constituent peoples can turn to an international supreme authority to impose their will on the country or to block the grievances and concerns of other constituent peoples, initiatives which presumably challenge the very institutions of the BiH state will remain the norm.

Clearly there is no simple solution to taming the centrifugal forces of Bosnian politics. Yet as the drama of the past month has demonstrated so clearly, threats to forcibly shut down the debate from within or without merely fan the flames. Let us hope that this brief reprieve will finally be taken as an opportunity to initiate meaningful discussion not just reflecting on Bosnia’s painful past but towards a better, more open future.

Ariel Zellman is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University. His research explores how territorial claims that emphasize historic attachments are constructed, how their pursuit affects conflict resolution, and especially, how and why they seem to suddenly appear or undergo transformation. You can read more of Ariel’s analysis by visiting his blog.

Ariel is currently conducting focus groups in Belgrade on Serbian culture and identity in the Balkans. If you are interested in participating, please click here for further information.

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0 Response

  1. Arthur

    Smart article. This guy knows his stuff. Republika Srpska should be given its autonomy so the region can move on. It appears the Serbs are the only people in the Balkans who have been denied self determination. Its time for the West to end this hypocrisy.

  2. Michael Thompson

    This must be the most balanced and articulate assessment of the reality in Bosnia today that has ever been written. I am not joking.

    To say the Serb concerns must be considered and heard and not dismissed, is not how the Western press and academics view the situation in Bosnia.

    Yet Zellman very correctly focuses on the root issues here. That the Serbs, who make up almost 40% of the population of Bosnia, demand their rights, as guaranteed by the Dayton Accords, to preserve their autonomy.

    They fought and died to protect their very culture and ethnic identity as Serbs and collectively carry a debt to those who sacrificed so much to defend them.

    That latter comment I know is complete anathema to the West and the average Bosniak after years of media demonization.

    But to the Serbs it’s a universal truth which cannot be ignored. And as the author correctly states, cannot be further ignored by the West.

  3. Mark

    It’s refreshing to see an impartial analysis of Bosnia’s political/ existential issues free of any finger pointing. Dr.Sellman, perhaps you could get in touch with Daniel Serwer and give him a few pointers. It seems as though “blame the Serbs” has become an all too common conclusion when trying o make sense of the ethno-political mess that is Bosnia, hence dismantling any further political discussion.

  4. George Vaughan

    I am responding to this article on the assumption that Dodik’s announcement of a postponement is the end of the referendum matter for the time being, although I have seen reports that Inzko might not find a simple postponement satisfactory. Either way, I am not sure that many serious observers of BiH politics would view the whole thing in terms of win and loss.
    The writer presents the standoff and what underlies it as some sort of dispute between the Bosniaks, supported by the OHR, and RS. While this is in some degree true, it should be said that the OHR – which many in Europe would like to see abolished as much as Dodik would – is acting in a way that would bring BiH into line with what would be required from a unitary state capable of joining the EU. The writer omits to mention the reasons put forward by RS for the referendum, that there is a perceived bias against Serbs – a phenomenon which long pre-dates the OHR – specifically in terms of prosecutions for war crimes. To present this as an attempt to weaken the role of the OHR in Bosnian jurisprudence is over-simplification. Similarly, it might have been worth mentioning, at least in passing, the suggestions which regularly surface that Dodik might have personal reasons for wishing to fend off a more centralized state. Whatever the validity of these ‘reasons’, they need to be dealt with rather than viewing the standoff in this rather straightforward fashion.
    One might be led by this article to the conclusion that there is a constant contest between the OHR (as proxy for ‘Sarajevo’, the Federation, the Bosniaks or whatever) and RS. There have been various occasions when Dodik (in particular) has tested how far he can push the boundaries of his authority but the number of times the OHR has invoked its powers has been rather limited. The idea that Dodik “cannot be faulted for his desire to alter the institutional status quo” is open to serious question. If his desire is to see the back of the Dayton provisions – where nobody could have predicted the present situation – few would argue. Most people would suggest that BiH moving towards EU membership is likely to be the best hope for peace and prosperity in both entities. This undoubtedly means a more centrally functional state and compromise on the degree of independence of the entities. If Dodik cannot be faulted on anything else, he can be on whether his actions are constructive in terms of his people’s future.
    And since the article is concerned with leverage, there is one further aspect of Dodik’s actions which constantly escapes attention. If RS wants to maintain a greater degree of independence or alter its position in terms of BiH, it needs to act before Serbia moves closer to EU membership. Leverage decreases as progress towards accession continues.

  5. Arthur, Michael, and Mark, thank you for your kind words.

    George, to address a few of your points.

    First of all, I do agree; viewing the postponement or cancelling of the referendum as a simple win or loss is too simplistic. What I meant, or at least should have been more explicit in stating, was that the outcome does not mean that the very proposal of the referendum has not had an effect on the political status quo. Insofar as Inzko’s agenda (and I choose this word in its least insidious meaning) is to preserve the status quo, I do not believe that this has been successful. Whether the challenge to the status quo will lead to a positive or negative end result is still up in the air.

    As for the issue of perceived bias, I actually addressed this in an earlier piece I wrote on my own site: As the article that appears here on transconflict also appeared on my site, I was trying to avoid repetition, not dodge the specifically expressed reasons the referendum was proposed.

    Regarding Dodik’s more personal motivations, I think that you are also at least partially correct. In this regard, you may find an article by Charles King published in World Politics in 2001 to be particularly instructive: “The Benefits of Ethnic War.” Despite the rather bombastic title, his primary argument is that leaders of unrecognized states have an interest in perpetuating the uncertain status of their territories/quasi-states as it bolsters their personal authority versus contenders from whichever state they are seceding and may allow them to accrue economic benefits they would not otherwise in a regulated market. In short, Dodik may very well have a vested interest in preserving his autonomous authority because it also preserves his authority and position at the top of the Republika Srpska “food chain.” However, there is no reason that this approach cannot be complementary with one which demands (or appears to demand) a more “democratic” approach to governance of BiH.

    Of course, there is always much more that can be said, but I will cut it off here in the interest of time and space. Truly, thank you for your input.

  6. George Vaughan

    I am not sure what political status quo Inzko is trying to maintain. If this status quo is a state with a functional centre compatible with EU membership, he has little choice – although this is more like work in progress than status quo. It is hard to believe that he is trying to maintain the present political and governmental structure which he and everyone else knows is completely dysfunctional. It seems to me that his problem is not so much maintaining a status quo as having to deal with a situation where there is no consensus on how best to move forward – political stagnation with no encouragement for those who might wish to be constructive.
    Dodik’s call for a referendum has indeed had an effect, irrespective of whether such a referendum ever takes place. However, the basis for the referendum – the secession option might be preferable but Inzko’s certain reaction is a little too final and predictable – seems to me unlikely to win too many hearts and minds beyond those already won over.

  7. Pingback : Republika Srpska’s dangerous politics of leverage – Ariel Zellman :: BiH DAYTON PROJECT

  8. You write that “The image of a multiethnic Bosnia which is devoid of particularistic institutions and without conflicting nationalist interests is unachievable without meaningful domestic reconciliation.”

    In my opinion we should make here a distinction between friendship and respect:
    – Thousands in Bosnia have lost friends and family and thousands of others have risked their life for their ethnic group. No matter how much reconciliation we will achieve there will always be a lot of those people who keep grudges. I think that people who claim that it is possible to have a reconcilion where everyone is happy are selling snake oil. That is impossible.
    – What is much more important is respect: the readiness to treat each other as equals. Read Serb accounts about why the war was started and it is about not being treated as equals by the Muslims at the time of independence. Recent Croat complaints are quite similar. The Serb entity serves as a symbol of equality. Serbs will only accept its abolition when they feel that there is no longer a need for such an entity as they are treated as equals in the whole of Bosnia.

    In my opinion the West has chosen the wrong strategy in Bonsia. It should have embraced the Serb entity and given the Croats one too. Not as a first step towards partition but as a symbol that all groups are equal in Bosnia. From there they should have worked to achieve a situation where such equality is achieved with other means.

  9. Jovan Ivosevic

    Very insightful and refreshingly impartial article. It is a matter of historical irony that the Serbs have now begun to insist on the letter of the Dayton Agreement, when it was in fact the Serbs that were its biggest opponents at the time it was signed. The Croats want their own federal entity similar to Republika Srpska. This cannot happen for one simple reason – they lost their military campaign. In 1993 they launched an offensive against the Muslims and were defeated. Tudjman managed to broker a deal for them in 1994 through the Washington Agreement and they must now live with the current Federation where they are the minority. It is about as realistic for them to get their own entity as it is for the Serbs to get their own political autonomy in Croatia which was on the table pre-operation Storm. Wars have a way of mercilessly and irrevocably altering political calculations.

    As for the Muslims, they clearly have not learned their lesson either. Although secessionist tendencies were undoubtedly present among the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia in 1992, the Muslims rejected the Carrington-Cutileiro plan which would have given the Muslims a more centralized Bosnia than today’s arrangement under Dayton, and most importantly the war would have been prevented. Instead, 100,000+ people lost their lives, millions lost their homes, and they got a worse deal. And 16 years later, they continue to hope for a more centralist deal, except instead of using force of arms, they intend to force it through international overseers.

    Muslims have to understand that the majority of Bosnian citizens (the Serbs and the Croats together) accept Bosnia as a compromise. They would prefer to be part of Serbia or Croatia but they don’t want bloodshed. If the Muslims continue to insist on unbalancing that compromise contained in the Dayton Agreement, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men won’t put Bosnia back together again. Surely someone in the West has to see that encouraging the Muslims to act on these unitarist tendencies will lead to war.

  10. Damir

    Reply to Jovan Ivosevic

    Bosniaks do not want a completely centralist state – they realize that something like that is impossible. But they want, and have a right to demand, a governance framework that binds both entities in functional (based on compromise) central institutions that can further the country’s goals of joining NATO and the EU. Unless this is achieved no Bosniak can really feel safe living inside the Republika Srpska after the atrocities of the 1992-1995 war.

  11. Jovan Ivosevic


    I see no evidence that Muslims in Bosnia realize the impossibility of a centralized state. When Bosnian Muslim politicians refer to the Bosnian Serb republic as a “genocidal creation” and call for its abolishment, it is a stretch to suggest that they want a federal state.

    The West has given Muslim politicians in Sarajevo political cover to seek centralization under the guise of furthering euro-atlantic integration. As you know today’s Bosnia is far more centralized than the one which was envisioned by the post-War agreement. The centralization has come largely from the office of the high representative which is basically there to implement the west’s agenda for that country, is not an elected institution and does not answer to anyone in Bosnia, but instead to Washington, London and Brussels.

    However, Serbian politicians led by Milorad Dodik have made it clear that this top-down centralization approach has its limit and threatened a referendum, and it appears that the West has backed off. For this reason Mr. Dodik is loved among Bosnia’s Serbs and hated among its Muslims. Be that as it may, there is simply no consensus among the country’s three constituent people’s whether further centralization is worth joining the EU or NATO. I think that on the Serbian side you will find a diametrically different answer than on the Muslim side, which is no surprise.

    Is this a ploy by the Bosnian Serb leadership to paralyze Bosnia? More than likely yes. Is this a recipe that has been successfully implemented by minorities like the Slovenes and Croats in the old Yugoslavia when the 1974 Constitution gave them the power to do so? Or the recipe implemented by Montenegrin leaders to break its state union with Serbia under the powers of the Belgrade Agreement in 2003? Most definitely Yes. The 1974 Yugoslav Constitution, the 2003 Serbian and Montenegro Constitution and the 1996 Dayton Agreement which provided Bosnia’s post war framework all have one thing in common – they are instruments designed to keep people who don’t want to live together temporarily there in order to prevent a war. The Serbs of the 1980s were in denial about that and the result of that denial was Slobodan Milosevic. On the other hand, by 2006 they had no illusions about Montenegro leaving and the result was a peaceful and stable transition. The Muslims of Bosnia should look at those examples to see what the consequences are of them attempting to hold a Bosnian state by force or simply accepting the reality that exists.

    The reality I am referring to has been decided by force of arms everywhere in Yugoslavia. The Serbs lost in Croatia but were given the right to remain in eastern slavonia because the Croatian Army did not and could not overrun this pocket so close to the Serbian border. The Croats lost to the Muslims in Central Bosnia and to the Serbs in Posavina which is why if they do a census of Bosnia one of these days, they will find that Bosnia’s Croats are probably half in number that they were before the war. Many have moved to Croatia or elsewhere because they don’t want to live in a state dominated by Muslims in Herzegovina and by Serbs in Posavina.

    Meanwhile, the Albanians won part of Serbia (Kosovo, but not Presevo Valley) and the Serbs won part of Bosnia (today’s Republika Srpska) but both groups for political reasons were not given their independence immediately but instead tied into institutional arrangements which reduced that goal to a long and drawn out process. Albanians are presently on better terms with the West than the Bosnian Serbs, which is why their process is moving faster. Don’t mistake the process in Banja Luka being slower for the absence of such a process.

    As for people and refugees returning, it is a wonderful and completely unrealistic sentiment. Not for the Balkans only, but for the whole world. Anywhere where there has been a conflict of this type, that lasted years and cost as many lives as it did in Bosnia, people will not and cannot live together anymore. It’s truly a credit that at least some refugees have been repatriated. But the notion that all the Muslims can go back to eastern Bosnia which is today Serbian territory, or that Serbs will return in full numbers to Sarajevo or Grahovo, Glamoc and Mostar, that’s simply fantasy and we both know it.

    This is not a reality I like. I would have preferred a much different solution. Yugoslav politicians proved in 1939 they can resolve questions of national identity on their own and without bloodshed, and but for communist doctrine, they may have been able to find solutions to those new ethnic problems which were created by Nazi Germany after World War 2. But Tito believed that he could give every ethnic group their own demand by making Yugoslav republics fully sovereign, and then control them through the “democratic centralism” principles in the Yugoslav League of Communists., which were standard for communist societies everywhere. Seems to have been a flaw in the plan, as it was in the USSR.

    We could have come up with a more realistic solution then, but we didn’t. All we can do is come up with a more realistic solution now, or be in denial, cause further tragedies and leave future generations to recognize reality after more bloodshed. As a Serb from Serbia, I realize how much simpler our politics are without the Montenegrins and Kosovo Albanians sitting in our Parliament, and how we can deal with non-ethnic issues in Belgrade far more effectively. I hope that one day the Muslims in Bosnia will realize that the only way to have an effective state is to have one which consists of people who actually want to be a part of it. I realize this is a painful realization. In Serbia, people still haven’t accepted the fact that Kosovo will never be a part of Serbia, although this is slowly changing. But this painful process will in the long run be a good thing. The sooner the same process begins in Sarajevo, the sooner it will be over and everyone can escape the ghosts of the 1990s.

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