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BiH Security Situation on Eve of RS Referendum - Long-ignored Warnings

23 September 2016 by Democratization Policy Council

BiH Security Situation on Eve of RS Referendum – Long-ignored Warnings


Democratization Policy Council

September 23, 2016


On Sunday, 25 September, residents of Republika Srpska (and many non-residents) will be able to vote on the question of RS Day, a holiday which has been celebrated on January 9 and which was ruled unconstitutional by the Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) Constitutional Court.

The vote constitutes a direct challenge to the BiH constitutional order, but also to the wider Dayton framework, which includes international executive powers and responsibilities. These are vested in Annex 1A, originally undertaken by NATO’s Implementation Force (IFOR, then Stabilization Force – SFOR) and, since late 2004, in the EU’s EUFOR, and the civilian High Representative (Annex 10). Both instruments have been allowed to wither over the past decade, as the EU became the predominant Western actor in BiH. Its presence was predicated on the assumption that the transformative power of its enlargement process would render these tools unnecessary. The institutional view from the European Commission – as well as numerous EU member states – holds that these instruments are outright heretical – that their continued existence impedes BiH sovereignty, which is a precondition for "the European path.” This amounts to unilateral disarmament for theological purity.

The EU’s refusal to engage with international executive powers and responsibilities is especially troubling given that the EU, ever since taking over international leadership in BiH from the US in 2005, has failed to address the core problem of its policy approach. It handed over a state that is dysfunctional by constitutional design to local elites, thereby empowering them. BiH’s institutional setting continues (despite numerous post-war reforms) to encourage a politics based on patronage and fear. While the Union is preventing the use of the Dayton instruments to counter attempts to roll back key democratic reforms (for example, in policing and the judiciary), it has demonstrated no willingness to use its own instruments. Instead, the EU has compromised or turned a blind eye on reform rollbacks, including various attacks from the RS on the constitutional order of BiH. The EU has actively participated in turning BiH into a failed state in which sub-state entities can ignore the Constitutional Court, and judicial and police authorities won't do their job.

The result, as evident in the deteriorating political climate and rising fears of violence and references to the 1992-1995 war, is a deterrence failurewholly of the EU’s design, though the US has done little to meaningfully resist this tendency.

In a fortuitous confluence, EUFOR is holding its annual field training exercise in Manjača on Sunday, the day of the RS referendum, drawing in troops from Britain and Portugal (the latter by way of KFOR in Kosovo, traveling from Montenegro), along with EUFOR’s BiH-based units and forces from the BiH army (AFBiH). It remains to be seen if additional forces will be added to the mix. DPC has advocated American boots on the ground in Brčko for many years, arriving at the Tuzla airfield (formerly the US/NATO Eagle Base). RS commentators have mentioned planned "terrorist” actions to be undertaken by Western forces and the Bosniak nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA) on the day of the referendum.

With the security risks posed by the RS referendum and the potential reactions to it, it is worth revisiting the impotent posture and capabilities of EUFOR and the Armed Forces of BiH, as well as the police forces in the country. The AFBiH would likely disintegrate into its ethnic components were significant violence to erupt. The police forces have been undergoing re-politicization for several years and have demonstrated a lack of coordination in several instances, including the February 2014 demonstrations in Sarajevo.

DPC has analyzed these issues before. The second edition of DPC’s security risk analysis, undertaken by Bodo Weber and Kurt Bassuener with the Atlantic Initiative’s Vlado Azinović, highlights numerous concerns of relevance in the impending referendum. In addition to the three policy notes linked above, the papers cover inflammatory and hate speech in the media, the potential for renewed social unrest, and Islamist extremism. The first security study – "Assessing the Potential for Renewed Ethnic Violence in BiH: a Security Risk Analysis” – published in October 2011, identified risks and trendlines, which have continued ever downward since then. The potential for a Russian veto of extension of EUFOR’s Chapter 7 executive mandate is a perennial concern; no evident effort has been undertaken to deal with it this year. Russia’s overt support for the referendum makes a veto appear more likely.

There should be no surprise in Western capitals if the situation becomes far uglier in BiH. All the necessary ingredients for organized violence have been present and self-evident for many years. The potentially good news is that there is the ability – as well as responsibility – to prevent this from developing. What has been lacking has been the will to face the situation squarely and contend with it accordingly. There is no evidence that this has changed.

Foreign policy analysts who downplay the referendum and call for the West to ignore it may have a point in insisting that Dodik has been using the referendum threat for a decade as a simple instrument to secure his power, and that he has no interest in realizing his various secession announcements. But they are missing a key point – this instrumentalization of threat and fear is still damaging and dangerous. First, it forms part of a concerted effort to undermine the constitutional order, not only by words but also by actions, that has turned BiH into a failed state; and second, there is a real risk that this Bosnian version of Machiavellism may at some point spiral out of control. The latter risk is increasingly evident as the RS leadership is digging in amidst a self-inflicted socio-economic crisis. It is no coincidence that after ten years of threatening referenda, Dodik is actually going to organize one for the first time this Sunday.

In the event the situation shifts from a war of words to actual bloodshed, European bureaucrats and officials will have a lot to answer for – not just to citizens of BiH, who have a legal (and moral) right to expect that the terms of Dayton will be upheld and that a "safe and secure environment” will be maintained, but also to their own citizens, whom they have kept blithely ignorant of the actual situation and risks with happy talk about BiH’s membership application just earlier this week. It is understandable that the EU doesn’t want more problems now. But this one is on its doorstep and is largely of its own making – and it is becoming worse by the day.

The default setting in the US to not "get up the Europeans’ noses” (as one American official was reportedly admonished not so long ago) has made the administration complicit in the degenerating situation in BiH. While it is outside the blast radius in a way the EU is not, the US Government will not evade its own responsibility for this crisis, however it develops. President Obama recently told the UN General Assembly that not all problems are America’s fault or responsibility to solve. But in this case, it is American leadership that stands the best chance to snap the EU out of its bureaucratic autopilot. And it is far overdue. The place to start is – and has long been – at the top: President Obama advocating a substantial policy reset with Chancellor Merkel.The outlines of a workable policy are clear. Until they are acted upon, the trajectory will be ever downward. And at some point, that means a crash.