Written by: Adam Peterson
In recent months, a variety of actors have voiced their support for the dissolution or partition of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina; a memo allegedly procured by the Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Jansa has recently been circulated calling for such a proposal.
Whether the memo was strategically leaked or the result of a whistleblower is not clear. The international community has responded in a variety of ways, with key international actors offering both support and opposition to the suggestion.
In more recent weeks, the tension in Bosnia has begun to boil over. Milorad Dodik, the Serbian representative to the three-member presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has pledged the withdrawal of the Republika Srpska from governmental institutions such as the army and judicial system.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, has voiced support for Milorad Dodik’s calls for the secession of the Serbian constituencies of Bosnia from formal institutions. Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s President, has pledged economic assistance to the Republika Srpska, the Serbian half of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most of the Western European and ‘Atlantic’ powers have responded negatively to any calls for dissolution or secession of Bosnia as it exists.
While we can reasonably expect that Russia and the West will find themselves at odds in the context of geopolitical affairs, the greater concern comes in the attitudes regional actors might adopt toward a potential offer of dissolution or secession.
While the 2020 memo led to little action, a move by the Serb member of the presidency has seen new attention and concern devoted to growing sentiments of secession. Milorad Dodik, the Serbian representative for the three-member presidency, has threatened to withdraw soldiers hailing from the Republika Srpska from the Bosnian armed forces. Some critics have labeled this as ‘tantamount to secession’. While Bosnia’s future is not clear, it is clear that the existence of Bosnia as it currently exists is under threat.
History / Demographics
To get a proper understanding of the situation in Bosnia, it is critical to understand the political and demographic history of the country.
What is now the contemporary state of Bosnia was under Ottoman domination for much of its history across the past few centuries. In 1908, the Austro-Hungarian Empire formally annexed Bosnia from the crumbling Ottoman Empire. In the aftermath of WWI, Bosnia was incorporated into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, under the Serbian Karadjordjevic dynasty. The new kingdom was only in existence for a little more than a decade before its second monarch, King Alexander I, was assassinated in a joint effort by Macedonian and Croatian separatists. The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and the fascist, Croatian Ustasha collaborated in carrying out the assassination in an attempt to provoke secessionist movements in the territories with a Croatian or Macedonian majority.
The death of Alexander I crowned Peter II as the new King of Yugoslavia, with Prince Paul I serving as regent in Peter’s adolescent years. It was during Peter II’s short reign that Yugoslavia was invaded by Axis forces from all sides and put under occupation. Axis powers annexed various territories, with a Croatian puppet state established under a joint German-Italian condominium. Ante Pavelic, the head of the Ustasha organization, was declared the supreme leader of the Independent State of Croatia (NDH).
The Ushtasha-controlled state participated in genocides of Jews and Serbs and they were known for their fanaticism and violence. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs were murdered in what is now Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, with some estimates reaching three-quarters of a million lives.
The war in Europe eventually turned against the Axis, and this momentum allowed the partisans, communist guerilla fighters, to seize control from the rapidly crumbling axis-backed NDH. These partisans were led by Josip Broz Tito, and in the vacuum left by the Axis Powers’ withdrawal, they were able to gain control of Yugoslavia.
Tito’s authority, legitimacy and policy of ‘brotherhood and unity’ allowed Yugoslavia to exist as a single state comprised of an ethnically and religiously diverse population. His death, the collapse of Communism internationally, growing nationalist movements, and a general economic stagnation in the late 80s/early 90s were major contributors to the destruction of Yugoslavia. The destruction of Yugoslavia, in a territorial sense, began with the secession of Slovenia and resulted in a number of wars throughout the region. The largest and most well-known conflict, the Bosnian Civil War, saw many state and non-state actors attempt to redraw the borders of Bosnia along ethno-religious lines.
History of the Bosnian War
The Bosnian War is among the most confounding to those unfamiliar with the conflict. The First Yugoslav War principally involved three states; Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. In this conflict, the combatants sought to join their regions with the republic which shared their ethnic identity.
Croatia, under Franjo Tudjman, declared independence from Yugoslavia first among the three combatant parties. This prompted an uprising by Croatian Serbs in the Krajina region, which borders the northwest corner of Bosnia. These Serbs created a state known as the Serbian Krajina. Serbs in Kninska and Slavonia, regions in the northern half of Croatia, similarly rose up, and a political structure coalesced. That political structure was the Serbian Autonomous Oblast (SAO), which represented Croatian Serb separatists. Serbia declared war on Croatia and launched an offensive on the Serbia-Croatia border, most infamously in the city of Vukovar.
The situation in Bosnia mirrored that of the situation in Croatia. Bosnian Serbs created their own state, known as the Republika Srpska, consisting of the eastern and northern regions of Bosnia. Serbia proper never declared war on Bosnia, but it directly funneled soldiers from its army, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), into the ranks of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). The Croatian population in the southern region of Bosnia, traditionally identified as Herzegovina, established the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia. This republic was directly supported by Croatia.
The war was not a traditional linear conflict but saw thousands form militias or join already established armies. Ethnic cleansing defined the war; at times, violence directed against civilians also turned into an indiscriminate slaughter of ethnic minorities. Many acts of violence perpetrated by armed units of all allegiances were determined to have constituted crimes against humanity, war crimes, and in some cases, genocide. The most infamous act of genocide was committed in the city of Srebrenica against Bosnian Muslims by the VRS. More than 8,000 men and boys were systematically massacred in Srebrenica by the forces of Ratko Mladic.
Political Structure and Ethnic Composition
The Dayton Agreement, a U.S.-led process of negotiation between the leaders of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, was designed to end the bloodshed in Bosnia. The Dayton Agreement divided Bosnia into three sectors of 1st level administration. The Republika Srpska and Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina are internal divisions of Bosnia-Herzegovina designed to grant ethnic autonomy to the Serbs in one region, and the Bosniaks and Croats in another region. The third unit of 1st level administration is the Brcko District, a region with no clear ethnic majority centered on the city of Brcko. The Republika Srpska continued from its wartime inauguration, albeit with adjustments to its territorial dimension. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina consists of most of the areas that have Bosniak or Croatian majorities. The third region, the Brcko District, centers on the northern city of Brcko. This district is a special autonomous region of Bosnia and serves to geographically unite the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, which both exist in two non-contiguous sections.
Bosnia, compared to the rest of the former Yugoslav republics or autonomous regions, is by far the most diverse both in terms of religious affiliation and ethnic identity. Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, constitute 50.1% of the population, Serbs 30.8%, and Croats 15.4%. Additionally, these ethnic groups largely do not exist in total regional homogeneity. That is to say, throughout a large part of the country, at least two ethnic groups will constitute significant portions of a regional population. Additionally, the demographics of the administrative units are not ethnically congruent. In the Republika Srpska, Serbs constitute 82.5% of the population, Bosniaks 12.69%, and Croats 2.27%. In the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosniaks constitute 70.4% of the population, Croats 22.44%, and Serbs just 2.55%. Demographic statistics also exist for the Brcko District, with Bosniaks constituting 42.36% of the population, Serbs 34.58%, and Croats 20.66%.
While it is not unusual for former Yugoslav republics to retain significant ethnic minority populations, Bosnia-Herzegovina is unique in that the three populations do not exist in territories that are completely ethnically contiguous. That is to say, the populations of all three ethnic groups exist in a series of enclaves and exclaves of ethnic majority and minority status.
In the case of other former Yugoslav republics, such as Croatia or North Macedonia, the ethnic minorities, Serbs and Albanians respectively, mostly reside in specific geographic areas of the country. Croatian Serbs are concentrated in the Krajina region, along the border with Bosnia. Similarly, Macedonian Albanians are concentrated along the northwestern border with Albania proper.
Problems with Partition
What must be principally understood about any potential partition of Bosnia is that it is impossible to neatly order every ethnic group into their own, territorially congruent states. The map of Bosnia, particularly in the central and eastern regions, is a patchwork of identities. The uniqueness of the ethnic question in Bosnia, relative to the rest of the former Yugoslav states, is demonstrated in this demographic reality. In states like North Macedonia or Kosovo, the minority populations tend to be concentrated in a congruent territory. In the case of North Macedonia, Albanian majority regions are essentially only concentrated in the Northern/Northwestern area of the country.
In the case of Bosnia there are geographic regions that tend to align with ethno-religious affiliation, but in many cases these regions are not geographically contiguous with one another. The center of the country also has a large degree of ethnic pluralism. This distinction is important because any planned partition or secession will almost certainly occur along ethnic lines. While the territories of Bosnian-Croats are largely contiguous and align with the borders of Croatia proper, this is not necessarily the case with the Bosniak and Bosnian-Serb populations.
The Bosniak population is especially disjointed. Significant populations reside in Sarajevo and the central region of the country, while other significant populations reside in the northwestern corner, as well as in the eastern section of the Republika Srpska along the border with Serbia. The Serbs face a similar, albeit likely more easily resolved problem. The Republika Srpska as it exists in the contemporary formation of Bosnia is not territorially congruent. The northwestern section is not linked to the eastern section, except by travel through the Brcko district. The Brcko district has a significant population of all three ethnic groups relative to their size in the rest of the country. A plan dividing Bosnia along purely ethnic lines would require either the Serb annexation of the Brcko district or the division of the city of Brcko and its hinterland along ethnic lines. Both of these options are neither practical nor realistic to implement due to the territorial importance of Brcko to all three ethnic groups.
The incongruence of ethnic regions also presents an issue of what can be claimed by various groups. If secession is to occur, it must be made clear how mediation of conflict over claims in dispute with one another will occur. Creating a process for mediation is especially critical in a regional context. Since the Balkan Wars, ethnic cleansing has been used as a tactic by state and non-state actors to increase homogeneity.
How the West Should Respond
NATO and the European Union should recognize that it might be impossible to completely stave off secession. There might come a time when Dodik or those that follow him decide to make the decision to move on secession. The focus in the region should not be on preserving NATO’s dominance, but rather preventing ethnic conflict and war. Even if the Bosnian-Serbs succeed in their withdrawal from Bosnia, they pose no true threat to the outside powers of the European Union. Geographically, Republika Srpska is completely surrounded by NATO/EU-aligned states. The real threat that the Republika Srpska has the potential to pose is to the Bosniak population that lives within its borders. Violence against Bosnian Muslims only has the potential to increase with the advent of war. For the EU to truly succeed in Bosnia, it must realize that secession might be inevitable, and it must act accordingly.
The most crucial part of any potential plan for the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina is the recognition of minority rights. No matter the plan, or how closely it pays attention to ethnic borders, there will still be significant communities of minority ethnic groups inside of post-settlement states. It is imperative that all states recognize the rights of minority ethnic groups, both as cultural units and individual persons. This is especially true within the Republika Srpska, as a significant minority of its population (12.69%) consists of Bosnian Muslims. Prior to a potential partition or secession, if it is to occur, the mediating powers must examine the position of minority ethnic groups in Bosnia, and look ahead for the potential of Bosnian-Serb or Bosnian-Croat populations to join Serbia or Croatia proper.
When a plan for partition, secession, dissolution, or otherwise is crafted, it should be subject to a timeline, wherein authorities for specific governments are not immediately drawn up and handed sovereignty over a specific region by a mediating power, but rather are granted power within a specified period. This will allow for individuals to gain greater personal choice in the mediation, as they will be able to determine where they would like to live in a post-settlement Bosnia. This might also mandate that the current states supporting the partition, or directly benefiting from it, (Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia) allocate funds to provide for those who wish to move but would otherwise not have the financial capability to do so.
The Brcko district does not have any ethnic majority, and each of the three ethnic groups constitutes a large portion of the population of the Brcko district, relative to their total population in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Additionally, the Brcko district is geographically positioned along the meeting point between the two sections of Republika Srpska, as well as Bosnia’s northern border with Croatia. The importance of the Brcko district was also understood at the Dayton Accords, as none of the three leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, or Croatia wanted to surrender the Brcko district during Dayton Agreement negotiations. The realities surrounding the Brcko district’s geographic and ethnic situations require a special solution.
Rather than divide the city of Brcko along ethnic lines, it might be best to allow Brcko to remain as its own sovereign entity. As each ethnic group has the ability to lay claim to Brcko in some capacity, by intentionally asserting the multicultural nature of Brcko, it could avoid annexation by any of the three constituent parties.
While it may seem inconvenient to establish a sovereign state of just 190 square miles, it might be necessary to do so in order to avoid conflict over such a geographically crucial region. A potential independent Brcko might also be encouraged to follow the model of contemporary Rwanda or Singapore. Both of these states generally lack natural resources in a great capacity, but due to their geographic placement, are able to maintain a robust economy. An independent Brcko would lie along the border with both sections of the current Republika Srpska, as well as Croatia proper, and a potential Bosniak state post-partition. In this manner, an independent Brcko could act as an economic center for the Western-Balkans region, given the correct economic policy. In addition to the economy, Singapore also serves as an example of a state that has managed to successfully exist as a country with significant ethnic and religious diversity.
In the case of significant ethnic minority populations irrevocably separated from their constituent state, a free city should be established as a means of ensuring cultural sovereignty. In the postwar settlement of WWI, territory previously controlled by Austria-Hungary, Germany, and the Russian Empire was awarded to Poland. In the city of Gdansk, or Danzig as it is called in German, a “free city” was established to give Poland an economic foothold in the North Sea. The free city model recognized the possibility of ethnic tension and attempted to give greater political autonomy to Germans living in Danzig/Gdansk.
This general model of a free city or a city-state model could be applied in a partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a means of creating political and cultural autonomy for heavy concentrations of minority ethnic groups far away from the borders of territory controlled by states not belonging to that ethnic affiliation.
The principal goal in any settlement in Bosnia is the prevention of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Secondly, an emphasis should be placed on the preservation of cultural and religious groups. Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina at large were long admired for their ethnic diversity and multicultural nature. Mediating powers involved in solving disputes in Bosnia-Herzegovina should do their best to ensure that peace continues among the peoples of the region, and their cultural heritage is preserved for the future.