Bosnia and Herzegovina is on the brink of a constitutional and political crisis. Simply put: If it happens, Russia wins and the United States and Europe lose.
In December 2016, the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) Constitutional Court ruled in the “Ljubic” decision that elements of the country’s electoral legislation undermines the rights of the country’s Constituent People’s – the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats – to elect their own representatives, as enshrined in the Dayton Accords. What makes this decision so important? The court ordered BiH’s parliament to amend the election law, but Parliament has so far failed to act, causing the court to completely strike down the election code. If legislators do not enact a new law by May, a full government will not be able to be formed following the October election.
The implications of such a scenario are hard to exaggerate. BiH would be in complete paralysis and could rapidly disintegrate without functioning institutions. Of particular concern – Republika Srpska (RS) where Russia has dominant influence — would be the only BiH entity left with a fully functioning government, giving it every opportunity for its leaders to pursue their long-held goal of breaking away from the rest of the country.
This would have dramatic consequences for the future of BiH and the stability of the entire region. This all would serve’s Russia’s strategic goals to stop European integration. Even worse, this crisis is being caused by the West’s inaction; Russia barely has to lift a finger to create chaos in this scenario.
Russia’s interference in the Balkans has increased considerably in the past several years. Recent reports, including one released by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, highlights its attempts and successes to disrupt the respective ambitions of Balkan nations toward further EU and NATO integration by using military force, cyber warfare, and disinformation campaigns. Russia has also demonstrated its intent to overtly interfere in the political process within Southeast Europe.
As a prime example Russian intelligence was caught attempting a coup in Montenegro in October 2016, where mercenaries had planned to assassinate Milo Djukanovic, the pro-Western leader of Montenegro to prevent it from joining NATO. Further frustrating Balkan EU/NATO integration, Russia transferred six MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia in 2017, which suggests a newly ramped up military cooperation with Russia. In response, the Engel-Aderholt amendment to the 2017 NDAA directed the Defense and State Departments to submit a report that would analyze the “defense and security relationship between Serbia and the Russian Federation.”
Republika Srpska is one of the main playing fields for Russia’s Balkan disruption campaign. Russia has consistently curried favor with the RS by pushing significant political, economic and military investment to prevent BiH’s NATO bid and the EU accession process. For example, in 2017 President Putin pledged support for the Bosnian Serb’s unilateral referendum pushed by Milorad Dodik to hold a National Day for the RS entity, despite a ruling from the Constitutional Court of BiH that it violated the rights of non-Serbs living in BiH. Taking all of this to account, in January 2017 the U.S. Department of Treasury designated Milorad Dodik as a significant threat to the Dayton Accords (DPA) and imposed sanctions against him.
More recently, Dodik and Russia have taken active measures to deepen RS military ties to Russia and to undermine BiH’s prospects of joining NATO. This includes increased Russian training RS police; Dodik refusing to recognize a BiH Constitutional Court ruling that military property in RS is owned by the Country and not RS; and Russia shipping vast amounts of military supplies to RS and already 2500 automatic rifles this year. The RS National Assembly also held a vote in October 2017 declaring RS’s neutrality, setting up a significant roadblock to NATO membership.
However, Dodik and Russia are not the only ones to blame for this situation. The failure of Bosnian political leaders to find compromise and for Western diplomats to exert their influence on these leaders is creating a situation ripe for Russia to exploit. The failure to reform the election law is the most acute example of this growing instability.
Recently, Croatian political parties, independent think tanks, and the Central Election Commission have all offered solutions to fix the electoral code. However, Bosniak political leaders have rejected all of these proposals without offering any compromise ideas of their own. This scenario of inaction by the FBiH Parliament caused by the unwillingness of Bosniak politicians to implement the Constitutional Court ruling will see the BiH political system collapse from within, leaving a vacuum for further Russian influence.
America has a critical national security interest in a stable and prosperous BiH. Its important for Americans to realize how important Croatians are to the overall multi-ethnic fabric of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and one could argue the glue that can keep this country together. Bosnian Croats of all stripes look West for their future and are profoundly pro-NATO and pro-European.
American and European top diplomats must act urgently to pressure political leaders in BiH to quickly produce new legislation that guarantees the rights of Constituent People to elect their own representatives in the House of Peoples and in the Presidency of BiH. However, Russia would like nothing more than for Bosnia and Herzegovina to suffer a constitutional crisis and fall into further chaos.
The failure for the United States and European Union to take more assertive action, will be devastating for Bosnia and Herzegovina, would allow Russia’s objectives in the Balkans to be further fulfilled, and would seriously weaken the United States and the European Union interests in this region.