Tensions High in the Balkans as Bosnia Votes

This apartment building in Sarajevo, pockmarked with bullet and shell holes from the Bosnian war, is one of many in Bosnia that still show signs of damage. (Photos by Cain Burdeau/Courthouse News Service.)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (CN) – All too often, the people of Sarajevo, a city marked by wars, talk as though another war is not an impossibility. Heightening concerns are general elections in Bosnia on Sunday and the likelihood of a messy outcome.

Twenty-three years after the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, and armed conflict in Bosnia ended, there’s a sense of potential danger hanging over this fragile region.

This historically volatile peninsula, experts warn, could unravel again due to a number of factors. Among them: old ethnic rifts, the West vying with Russia for influence, a rise in nationalism and Muslim extremism, ineffective European Union and US diplomacy, widespread corruption, economic turmoil, a brain drain of young people, and legal and political problems created by the Dayton accord.

“Peace is not certain here in Bosnia,” said Nihad Čolpa, the 35-year-old leader of the Civil Alliance, a small liberal political party in Bosnia, as he sat at an outdoor cafe and spoke with a Courthouse News reporter on a recent afternoon. One by one, he ticked off a list of problems that threatened the stability of the Balkans and Bosnia.

Nihad Colpa, the leader of Civil Alliance, a small political party in Bosnia-Herzegovina, talks about his nation’s problems.

Asked if entry into the European Union might resolve many of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s problems, Čolpa shook his head.

“I think Bosnia will never join the EU,” he said. “I don’t think Europe wants a Muslim country in the midst of Europe.”

Others too warn of possible conflict brewing.

“The risk of renewed violence and political instability is growing in the Balkans,” Daniel Serwer, a Middle East Institute scholar and former US diplomat in the Balkans, warned in a November 2017 report for the Council on Foreign Relations, a US foreign policy think tank. He urged more US involvement in the region.

Serwer did not reply to a message seeking comment, but he continues to cite his 2017 report as a summary of the region’s problems and a road map to potential solutions. He said peace agreements are “fraying” and could “unravel.”

In the report, Serwer said the United States has “passed the baton” to Europe, but that the EU has proven to be “distracted, disunited, and hesitant.”

Postwar Sarajevo

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It’s hard to imagine this city being plunged into conflict again.

In its city center, Sarajevo is busy with glitzy shopping malls and a downtown that bustles with tourists in the summer. Life seems to be ticking along well enough, and the horrors of war a thing of the past.

But it’s an unsettling geopolitical period in the Balkans that has people like Čolpa worried.

A look across the map of the Balkans is a study in friction.

There are concerns about renewed violence in Kosovo between Serbs and ethnic Albanians. Kosovo broke away from Serbia in 1998 and war ensued between Belgrade and NATO and Kosovar rebel forces. Serbia and its ally Russia still do not recognize Kosovo as independent.

One idea for cementing peace in Kosovo has been a proposal to redraw Kosovo’s boundaries: The Serb-inhabited northern parts would become part of Serbia and in exchange Belgrade would allow the mostly ethnic-Albanian Preševo Valley to join Kosovo. Tentatively, the United States and the EU have backed the plan.

But some experts warn that redrawing boundaries in Kosovo along ethnic lines would spark tensions elsewhere.

In an August open letter, three former high representatives to Bosnia, diplomats who oversaw the enactment of the Dayton agreement, warned against the land swap.

“Moving borders like this will not solve divisions, it will deepen them,” the letter said.

This fear is particularly acute in Bosnia, where a semi-autonomous and Bosnian Serb-dominated entity known as the Republika Srpksa threatens to hold an independence referendum and break away from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

To win peace, the Dayton treaty approved slicing Bosnia into ethnic enclaves, and this legacy continues to be a source of contention.

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik is close to Russia and often hosts Russian militants, according to news reports. His government recently voted to reinvestigate the Srebrenica massacre. Dodik claims it was a “staged tragedy with an aim to satanize the Serbs.”

Čolpa said: “If they try to get independence, that would cause a war. The president of the Republika Srpksa is an atomic bomb.”

A move to declare independence could draw in the Bosnian military and ignite a secession attempt by Croat communities in Bosnia.

Dragan Čović, a nationalist Croat leader in Bosnia-Herzegovina, has pushed to create an entity similar to that of the Republika Srpska based around Croats.

Jasmin Mujanović, a political scientist at Elon University in North Carolina, called Dodik and Čović “the two most prominent architects of dysfunction” in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Council of Ministers building in Sarajevo, where the executive branch of the Bosnia-Herzegovina government works.

Elsewhere, fighting could break out between Albanians and Macedonians, experts warn, and cause wider problems. Ethnic Albanian paramilitaries in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia have sought to carve out parts of Macedonia and make them part of Kosovo or Albania.

Then there’s the possibility of a terrorist attack or political assassination by Islamic extremists against Christians, and that could lead to violence against Muslims, Serwer warned.

Looming large is the presence of Russia.

“Russia now has its fingers in Bosnia too much,” Čolpa said. “Russian paramilitaries are working with the Republika Srpksa. The Russians want to show how strong they are in Europe.”

He said Russia is meddling in Macedonia and Montenegro too.

Northern Montenegro is home to ethnic Serbs and Russia has supported them, with the aim of destabilizing Montenegro, Serwer warned. Russia is supporting groups in Macedonia too.

Making matters more tense, Čolpa said, Serbia and Croatia have been building up their armies.

“It is part of a longstanding ‘cold war’ between the two sides,” Mujanović said in an email. Serbia and Croatia were enemies during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

For some political analysts, the instability in Balkans is caused by outside forces vying for influence and power in the region.

“The best prospect for peace in the Balkans is that outside powers-that-be leave the region to its own devices,” said Serge Trifkovic, a foreign affairs specialist at the University of Banja Luka in the Republika Srpska, in an email.

He said that “outside meddling” harmed the Balkans during the 1990s and continues to do so.

Trifkovic said Bosnia is “as divided as ever” a quarter of a century after the Dayton agreement. He called it “a Frankenstein’s monster propped up by the ‘international community’ utterly devoid of the dynamics of stable existence.”

Others blame Bosnia’s divisions on its own politicians, who stoke nationalism for their own benefit.

“The political parties are continuing the war,” complained Augustina Rahmanović-Koning, who helps run Vive Žene, a groups that brings Muslim and Orthodox Christian women together in eastern Bosnia towns.

“At this point, many people in Bosnia are in fear of a new war,” she said. “I don’t believe there will be a new war, but the feelings are there.”

Elmedin Šišić, a 31-year-old café owner, wasn’t worried about new conflict. “There’s not going to be a war here,” he said, shaking his head and rolling a cigarette.

But he acknowledged Bosnia has many problems, including a brain drain and a harsh tax system.

He was worried about his nation’s drift toward materialism and his government’s squashing of creativity and culture.

“They killed the rock ’n’ roll. They killed the art,” he said. “It’s only capitalism — money, money, money. There’s no culture. No writers, no artists.”

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