Western analysts say Bosnia-Herzegovina is facing its greatest crisis since the Dayton Accords ended a war there in 1995, with many suspecting Russian and Chinese hands in what could be the unraveling of the pact that has provided 25 years of uneasy peace.
The U.S.-brokered accords divided the Balkan country into a Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and a region known as the Federation, dominated by Bosniaks and Croats. All three ethnic groups are represented in a tripartite presidency.
But Milorad Dodik, the Serb representative in the presidency, has in recent weeks started the process of withdrawal from state-level institutions and is threatening outright secession by Republika Srpska.
Such moves, including the plan for unilateral transfer to Republika Srpska of such functions as taxation and military forces, are a clear violation of the Dayton Accords in the eyes of several current and former diplomats, U.S. officials and analysts interviewed by VOA. Many fear the actions not only threaten to undo many post-war achievements, but also create the potential for new conflicts and a partition of the country.
"Bosnia-Herzegovina as a country has been able to sort of muddle through from one crisis to the next and still remain at least a semi-functional democracy. My concern is that Dodik is simply pushing things too far this time," said Bruce Berton, a U.S. diplomat who headed the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 2015 and 2019.
Berton also was deputy chief at the Office of the High Representative (OHR), an international entity established to oversee the implementation of the Dayton Accords.
While Dodik claims he is reclaiming functions taken from Republika Srpska without its consent, many were approved by the state parliament with the participation of Republika Srpska parties.
"It seems a bit schizophrenic behavior," said Paul McCarthy, Europe division director at the International Republican Institute, who pointed out that Dodik's own party of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) supported some of those decisions.
While there is some resistance to Dodik's moves by opposition parties in Republika Srpska, McCarthy said he believes the latest moves have been encouraged from Moscow.
"This is a low-cost way for Russia to sow dissension and to undermine the West, the EU and Washington's position in the Western Balkans," he said.
Several VOA interviewees said China and Serbia also stand to benefit from the crisis and worry that even Hungary - an EU member - is backing Dodik.
Toby Vogel, a senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a Berlin think tank, sees the events in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the context of deteriorating relations between NATO and Russia and other regional escalations between Serbia and Kosovo and in Montenegro.
"I have a hard time believing that these are just sort of a spontaneous manifestation of local grievances, Vogel said.
Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, warns about the "Serbian World" idea, floated recently by Serbian politicians. For Serwer, that is just a different name for the nationalistic concept of a "Greater Serbia," in which all territories where Serbs live would become a single country.
"That means the destruction of several states in the Balkans, it means war, it means death, it means refugees. And Western states shouldn't want that," he said.
FILE - Serb representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite presidency Milorad Dodik addresses journalists after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (not pictured) in East-Sarajevo, Dec. 14, 2020.
Cooperation of China, Russia
In July, the U.N. Security Council rejected a resolution put forward by Russia and China to close the OHR. The two countries claimed that the appointment of German politician Christian Schmidt as a High Representative was not valid as it was not confirmed by the Security Council.
Schmidt was appointed in May by the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), an international body that provides the High Representative with political guidance. Only Russia opposed the decision. The Security Council discussed the matter but did not vote to confirm Schmidt after the United States and other countries maintained that was not necessary.
Now Moscow, like Dodik, refuses to recognize Schmidt as the High Representative.
Analysts had feared that Russia and China, in retaliation, might veto the renewal of the international military mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, known as EUFOR, which has helped to maintain the peace there. The Security Council did in fact approve the European Military Force (EUFOR) mandate on November 3, but only after other countries caved in to a demand by Russia and China that Schmidt not present an expected report on Bosnia-Herzegovina during that session.
In that report, Schmidt had written that Bosnia-Herzegovina "faces the greatest existential threat of the postwar period" and that Republika Srpska authorities, led by Dodik, "endanger not only the peace and stability of the country and the region, but - if unanswered by the international community - could lead to the undoing of the [Dayton] Agreement itself."
Many Western analysts were outraged at what they saw as a sign of weakness by the West.
"It is absolutely appalling that [Schmidt] was not permitted to speak. It damages the OHR," said Tanya Domi, a professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, who used to work for the OSCE mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Berton, the former deputy High Representative, said China and Russia have different goals in seeking to weaken the Dayton Accords. For China, he said, Bosnia-Herzegovina is part of its larger plan to expand its influence in the world, primarily through economic efforts such as its "Belt and Road Initiative."
Russia, he said, "has been a sort of malign influence in the country and in the region. I think they want to poke a sharp stick into the eyes of the West, especially as Bosnia-Herzegovina and other countries in the region move closer to the EU and to NATO."
What will US, EU do?
Most of the VOA interviewees agreed that a greater U.S. involvement on Western Balkans issues is key to decreasing tensions, especially since EU enlargement - once a primary motivation for keeping peace and implementing reforms -- has pretty much ground to a halt.
Several U.S. diplomats have recently visited Bosnia-Herzegovina, including Gabriel Escobar, the State Department's special representative for the Western Balkans, and Derek Chollet, the department's senior policy adviser. They confirmed U.S. support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina and criticized Dodik's unilateral actions.
Still, some analysts fear the U.S. is too focused on electoral and economic reforms while there is a much greater threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Domi, the Columbia University professor, said she doesn't think the West is taking Dodik's actions seriously: "What I'm deeply troubled by is that everybody just seems to think, 'Oh well, we'll turn these words around and we're going to reverse the situation.' And it's clear that Mr. Dodik is doubling down."
Vogel said destructive behavior has been allowed for some time.
"Neither the U.S. nor the EU have been pushing back against increasingly escalating attacks on the unity of Bosnia-Herzegovina over the last several years," he said.
Escobar repeatedly said the U.S. plans to "aggressively use" sanctions against Bosnian politicians, but no concrete actions have yet been taken. In 2017, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on Dodik for obstructing the Dayton Accords, but the EU never followed suit. Some countries like Germany are now considering their own sanctions.
Amra Alirejsovic and Ajdin Muratovic from VOA's Bosnian Service contributed to this report.