Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
In the Balkans, and especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, images from Ukraine of besieged cities, massacres, and mass displacement are re-traumatizing a society that has never been allowed to heal after the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Along with the rest of the world, Bosnians have watched the razing of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol with horror. But having lived through the siege of Sarajevo and similar atrocities, Bosnians recognize the velocity and brutality of Russia's war on Ukraine more viscerally than others—and it puts them on edge.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine comes at a time when the Western Balkans have reached a level of tension and uncertainty unseen in decades. Ethnic nationalism threatens to destabilize the region once again, with local political leaders manipulating the public’s worst fears. President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia has assumed close to complete control over his country’s media and is stoking unrest in Serb-inhabited parts of Kosovo. In Bosnia, his close ally Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite state presidency, has advocated for secession of the Serb-controlled parts of the country. A similar alliance exists between the government of Croatia (an EU and NATO member) and Dragan Covic, the nationalist Bosnian Croat leader, who has called for what would amount to further ethnic partitioning of Bosnia. Many Bosnians have responded to growing corruption, the impunity enjoyed by political elites, and economic hardship by leaving the country altogether. The UN estimates that roughly 55,000 people leave Bosnia each year and has warned that if this pattern continues, Bosnia’s population could drop to 1.6 million in 2070 from today’s three million.
Russia has played a hand in these developments. Putin has encouraged separatism, with the aim of generating disruption on the West’s frontiers. For years, Russia has actively sought to impede and deter Bosnia’s pursuit of EU and NATO membership, asserting that such moves constituted a provocation. Russia’s ambassador to Bosnia recently pointed to the invasion of Ukraine as an example of what could happen to Bosnia should it pursue NATO membership.
But the Kremlin’s activities have depended heavily on local leaders pursuing their own agendas. What’s most troubling is that these leaders are often the same people the EU and the United States present as their partners in Bosnia’s democratic and economic development. By relying on a handful of “ethnocrats,” the EU and the United States have put the region on a dangerous path, one that could end with the dissolution of Bosnia and the redrawing of borders across the region—neither of which would happen peacefully.
It didn’t have to be this way. The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war and gave the West the tools it needed to forestall instability and violence and help keep the country on a more unified and democratic path. But those tools have gone unused for years. Instead, Western powers have allowed Bosnia to backslide into instability as nationalism surges in Serbia and Croatia. Now, the war in Ukraine represents an opportunity for the United States and its allies to carry out a long-overdue recalibration of their approach to Bosnia. The West has united in response to Russian aggression. That same energy and attention should be applied to the Balkans so that local actors who benefit from instability and Russian interference can no longer keep their chokehold on the state.
In the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian war, the West recognized that it would need to play a strong role in the country to ensure that peace held and that postwar institutions did not favor one ethnic group over another. During the war, Bosnian Serbs, under the control of and materially assisted by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic, attempted to drive non-Serbs out of the country by laying siege to cities and conducting mass killings, other war crimes, and genocide. Over the course of the war, atrocities were committed by all sides, but roughly 80 percent of the civilians killed (and 60 percent of the total number of people killed) were Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims).
Putting the country back together in the face of such trauma and violence among communities was a daunting task. To do so, the Dayton Agreement split the country into two administrative units: Republika Srpska, populated mostly by ethnic Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, populated mostly by ethnic Croats and Bosniaks. The accord also established the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which was tasked with ensuring that local leaders and officials complied with the Dayton provisions. NATO also maintained a force of nearly 60,000 troops on the ground to prevent outbreaks of violence.
These steps helped catalyze progress in the early postwar years. This included the creation of a unified Bosnian army, over which warlords and the political class did not have organic control. By around 2006, such progress and the optimism it generated led many in the West to conclude that the enforcement tools created by Dayton were no longer necessary. In Brussels in particular, the view took hold that Bosnia was on the road to EU membership and no longer required this level of outside oversight. According to this view, elected Balkan leaders would want to meet the standards required to join the EU and would therefore drive reform from within. Today, 15 years later, the country has not even made the step of attaining formal EU candidate status.
The United States has taken a back seat to the EU in management of the situation, embracing Brussels’ confidence that the EU enlargement process would facilitate Bosnia’s transition to a functioning, accountable democracy. As part of this, in December 2004, NATO troops were replaced by a smaller EU force. Yet the goal of having Bosnian leaders take full “ownership” of public security led to dwindling EU institutional and member state support for maintaining it. Nevertheless, the United States and others, such as Japan, Turkey, and the United Kingdom, objected to the elimination of the OHR and the full withdrawal of troops, which France and Germany proposed. Since then, the number of EU troops on the ground has steadily shrunk from roughly 7,000 in 2005 to 600 at the beginning of this year. In late February, 500 more troops were added, but the force remains far below its mandated strength.
Western powers have allowed Bosnia to backslide into instability.
With the West no longer driving reform and ensuring security, the leaders of ethnonationalist parties stepped in to fill the void. Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader, led the charge, systematically gutting state institutions, particularly the judiciary, and later threatening a de facto Serbian secession from Bosnia. In December 2021, he pushed to withdraw Bosnian Serbs from the joint Bosnian army, judiciary, and tax system. Dodik is now under U.S. and British sanctions, including visa bans and asset freezes, on account of his efforts to undermine the Dayton agreement and the legitimacy and functionality of the state, as well as for alleged acts of corruption for personal gain. Despite this condemnation by international officials, his rhetoric remains unchanged, and he continues to call for Serbs in Bosnia to have their own state. Dodik has his eyes on general elections scheduled for October. He is betting that a strategy of fearmongering and polarization will put his political opponents—already at a disadvantage due to his incumbency—in an even less competitive position.
Dodik has also found a faithful and trustworthy ally in Covic, the speaker of the upper chamber of Bosnia’s parliament and leader of the main nationalist Croat party. Covic clearly envies the “vertical of power” that Dodik enjoys in Republika Srpska: the predominantly Serb electorate elects the Serb member of the Bosnian presidency. In the country’s other administrative unit, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, voters may choose any of the candidates running for the two presidency seats. This makes it more difficult for Covic to hold onto power. He wants a Croat version of what Dodik has: a formalized fiefdom in Croat-majority areas. To this end, he has joined Dodik in his assault on the Dayton order and its enforcement structures, culminating in his recent call for “territorial reorganization” of the state, which would in practice amount to a more intense form of ethnic partition.
Even as the danger signs are flashing, U.S. and EU policy in Bosnia remains largely unchanged. Sanctions against Dodik appear to be as far as Western governments are prepared to go for the time being. During President Joe Biden’s time in office, U.S. diplomacy has focused on achieving an electoral reform deal, which is supposed to facilitate state functionality, electoral integrity, and implement several European Court of Human Rights judgements, which had ruled the current system to be discriminatory (for example, by excluding citizens of Jewish or Roma background from running for the presidency—or indeed those citizens who do not wish to fit in the three “constituent peoples” boxes). In practice, however, the reforms would create a virtual constituency for the Bosnian Croats, who do not live in a contiguous region. This would ensure Covic the designated Croat seat on the state presidency—and the deal exists primarily because he threatened to impede elections if he didn’t get his way.
Visiting U.S. diplomats also make the mistake of approaching Bosnia only after first consulting Serbia and Croatia, which have a predatory attitude toward the country. Serbia’s government embraces a carbon copy of Russia’s irridentist nationalism, seeking to consolidate its hold over ethnic Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo and, in the long term, incorporate them into a “Serbian world,” in the phrase used by Serbia’s interior minister, Aleksandar Vulin. Yet no American or European official has ever publicly confronted the Serbian government about this conduct. Croatia, meanwhile, has used all its weight as a member of the EU to push for changes to the election law of Bosnia and Herzegovina that would allow its allies there to tighten their hold on power. Despite this, Croatia’s agenda has been embraced by both the United States and the EU, who fear that if they don’t compromise with these leaders, further destabilization—and perhaps politically directed violence could erupt. This is a far cry from U.S. policy 20 years ago, when Washington was committed to defending Bosnian independence. Now, the United States is working with neighboring countries that insist on their right to interfere in Bosnia on behalf of their co-ethnics there—exactly as Putin is doing with Ukraine.
It is not too late for the United States and Europe to change course and help prevent the de facto dissolution of Bosnia. The centerpiece of such a policy shift would be to redeploy a full brigade of NATO forces to Bosnia. A contingent of those forces should be based in and around Brcko, the town in northeast Bosnia that divides the two halves of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity. This could help forestall any bid for independence—and also prevent any preemptive action on the part of Bosniaks. It is crucial for NATO to take this step prior to the November UN Security Council vote on an extension of the mandate for EU forces, which Russia (and perhaps China) is expected to veto. NATO’s mandate derives from the Dayton accords, not from the UN Security Council, although in recent years it has been linked to the Security Council’s annual renewal of the mandate for the EU force. A veto would therefore complicate the situation for NATO, too. Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, such a move may have been seen as provocative. But NATO is already sending more troops to its eastern and northern frontline states, and NATO members are sending vast amounts of arms and aid to Ukraine. In this context, a NATO deployment to Bosnia should be viewed as similarly prudent.
The United States should also make clear that until Bosnia has replaced the Dayton-forged constitution with an alternative that guarantees political accountability and rule of law, NATO forces and the High Representative will remain in place. The attempts to do away with Dayton’s enforcement tools while not actively pursuing their fundamental overhaul for the past 16 years has helped create Bosnia’s rules-free environment.
If the West maintains its current hands-off approach, leaders such as Dodik and Covic might instigate violence as a defensive maneuver in the face of popular outrage at their protracted malfeasance. If Washington and Brussels do not shift course, it will advertise to the world, including adversaries near and far, that the democratic decline in the West has gone so far that it cannot summon the will to pursue progress even in a place that it once managed to deliver from the abyss.
Ukrainians in their ongoing struggle have compelled the West to devote costly material, political, and moral support to defend its proclaimed values of democracy and human dignity—shifting it away from a more transactional foreign policy. Rather than staying on autopilot in Bosnia and the wider Balkans and risk losing even more credibility, the Biden administration should embrace this opportunity to adopt a policy that will allow its deeds to match its words.