A recent escalation in secessionist rhetoric from the Serb entity Republika Srpska (RS) and an ongoing dispute over electoral reform have driven tensions across Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). As elections in October 2022 draw closer, we examine the potential political and security impacts of these crises in the coming two years and beyond.

  • Despite recurring threats from RS leaders, secession remains unlikely. International actors in the coming two years will continue to use short-term fixes to stifle threats of secession or electoral boycotts.
  • In the run-up to and immediate aftermath of the polls, isolated security incidents are likely.
  • Beyond the next two years, the international community’s waning commitment to structural reforms will leave the country increasingly vulnerable to institutional erosion – heightening risks for businesses, for example in the form of policy uncertainty.
  • However, even in the event of complete institutional collapse, a full-scale war remains highly unlikely in the coming two-to-five years. 

Turning up the heat

In October, President Milorad Dodik – the Serb member of BiH’s three-person presidency and leader of RS – announced a range of legislative changes aimed at creating RS institutions parallel to central bodies in BiH. These changes included withdrawing from the state-level judicial, tax and medicine regulatory authorities, but most alarming was his threat to create an independent army – a significant infraction of the Dayton Agreement that put an end to the 1992-95 war.

Secession unlikely

Dodik’s recent moves are unlikely to signal a genuine desire for RS to secede from BiH. RS would need the backing of its regional ally Serbia – support that Serbia is unlikely to offer for a number of reasons. Not least, secession could generate an armed conflict in BiH, damaging investor sentiment in neighbouring Serbia. Secession would also threaten Belgrade’s relationship with the EU. Its influence in the RS gives Belgrade leverage over BiH politics – and by extension leverage in its strategic partnership with the EU. Should RS seek to unite with Serbia, this would threaten Belgrade’s closer integration with the bloc. Although Belgrade no longer appears keen on full EU membership, a positive relationship with the bloc brings Serbia political and financial benefits, such as making the country more attractive to foreign investors.

In any case, RS would struggle to form a viable independent state. It is heavily reliant on economic support from the governments in BiH’s capital Sarajevo and in Serbia. On top of this, only a handful of states would support its pursuit of sovereignty.

Undermining international oversight

Rather, the threats are more likely to be the most recent attempt by Dodik (alongside his ally Russia) to undermine international authority in BiH – and specifically that of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), an international position with executive oversight in BiH. Dodik’s secessionist narrative has in the past 15 years seen him secure significant compromises from the international community. In 2009, his threats of secession resulted in international judges and prosecutors being barred from investigating organised crime and corruption in BiH. This has compromised judicial independence, and the country has seen very few prosecutions of high-profile officials since.

High Representative Christian Schmidt on 28 October speaking in Sarajevo (Photo by Elman Omic / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The timing of Dodik’s latest threats is significant, as they coincided with a successful bid by Russia to decrease the perceived authority of the OHR, including blocking High Representative Christian Schmidt from speaking on 3 November at the UN Security Council (UNSC). This suggests that Dodik and Russia to some extent, have been successful in their strategies to undermine international authority. The international community’s readiness to compromise diplomatic acknowledgement of the OHR, as demonstrated on 3 November, has weakened its position. As a result, Dodik will likely be able to extract further concessions from international authorities, with the ultimate aim of getting international bodies to withdraw entirely from BiH.

The likely motives for this are twofold. First, decreased international oversight would leave BiH in political disarray, giving Dodik and his allies in Serbia and Russia room to exert greater control – and significant leverage with the EU. Secondly, it would leave RS more freedom to implement policies that benefit the political elite.

Disunited front

The other crisis facing BiH is a dispute over electoral reform. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ruled that all Bosnian citizens should be eligible to run for elections – currently, only those of the three peoples recognised in the constitution (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) are allowed to run for the tripartite presidency. In response, ultra-nationalist Croats are demanding that there should be a separate Croat-majority electoral district within BiH’s other entity – the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH). However, Bosniak and moderate Croat political leaders oppose this, on the grounds that it would further divide BiH along ethnic lines and not bring the constitution closer to complying with the ECHR ruling.

Frustrated by the lack of electoral reform, ultra-nationalist Croats have effectively entered into a tactical alliance with Dodik, echoing many of his complaints. While the spat between Bosniak and Croat parties persists, the FBiH cannot mount an effective response to RS secessionist claims.

2022 and beyond

In the coming two years, BiH will likely remain structurally intact but institutionally and politically dysfunctional. The US and the EU are still present in the country and will continue to play an important role. Short-term compromises by the US and the EU will likely keep secession and political extremism – and the threat of an armed conflict – at bay. US diplomatic efforts in particular are likely to stifle RS’s secessionist threats.

The EU will also likely play an important role in the BiH general elections on 2 October 2022 going ahead as scheduled. Both Croats and Serbs have threatened to boycott the elections if the latest electoral reform effort fails. Such a boycott would effectively strip the elections (and by extension state-level political institutions) of their legitimacy, throwing the country into an extended period of political crisis. However, as in 2018, the EU is likely to be able to convince Croats and Serbs to participate in the elections, even without the electoral reform.

The run-up to the 2022 polls is likely to be heated. Radical political actors will use ultra-nationalist, belligerent rhetoric and threats to win support at the polls and later use as leverage during coalition talks. Central government formation talks (with members of all three peoples) will be marred by squabbles, and likely take more than a year, perpetuating political instability. Isolated security incidents both pre- and post-elections will be likely across the country.

Beyond the next two years, the international community’s waning willingness to commit to and oversee longer-term structural reforms will leave the country increasingly vulnerable to institutional erosion. However, even in the event of institutional collapse, a full-scale war is unlikely. Inter-communal relations are benign, despite occasional belligerent political rhetoric. Although political and public consensus in RS favours getting rid of the OHR and similar institutions, many RS politicians do not share Dodik’s urgency to do so, or dismantle the central state. Across RS and FBiH, much of the public too is wary of a repeat of the 1992-95 war, limiting the likelihood of widespread armed conflict in the coming five years.

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