By Conor Gallagher
As the political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to deteriorate, it’s looking increasingly likely that NATO forces will return to the country as Washington’s answer to a problem it has created.
Questions over the integrity of the October 2 election are ratcheting up tensions in the ethnically-divided country. On top of that, US-backed changes to future elections were announced the day after polls closed, drawing widespread criticism from within the country.
The turmoil comes at a time when a bill is making its way through the US Congress that would lock in support for Bosnian “Euro-Atlantic integration,” and a real possibility exists that NATO troops could return to Bosnia in the coming months due to disagreements between Washington and Moscow over the mandate for European Union forces to remain in the country.
Just after polls closed on October 2 and as votes were still being counted, the High Representative for Bosnia, Christian Schmidt, imposed changes to the country’s election law and constitution. Here’s Euronews on the changes:
Schmidt introduced a series of changes, with the most significant revolving around the number of delegates. They have been upped from 58 to 80.
According to his decision, the new entity-level House of Peoples will now comprise 23 Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats each, along with 11 Others.
The increase in seats now allows Others to select a representative from each canton, which was not the case earlier.
However, the way the delegates are elected from cantonal assemblies has consolidated the three ethnic groups and their representatives and strengthened their power.
The 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the fighting in what was formerly Yugoslavia divided the country into two highly independent governing entities: the Serbian-dominated Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is shared by Bosniaks and Croats.
The system has been wildly dysfunctional, but most observers inside and outside of Bosnia believe Schmidt’s plan, which was backed by the US and UK but not the EU, will only make matters much worse.
Here is Just Security on the changes:
The essence of the move – and its apparent motivation – remain the same: to appease a single ethnonationalist party – the BiH branch of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), the hardline wartime political party that again has controlled neighboring Croatia in recent years and has agitated for this change for years as a singular foreign policy goal.
Schmidt’s action not only represents a retreat from American policy to promote greater integration in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). It also demonstrates a continuity in U.S. policy toward the Balkans from the avowedly amoral and transactional approach of the Trump administration. Bosnia’s vibrant and progressive civil society leaders, who have pressed for a BiH constitutional system fully inclusive of people who don’t identify with one of the three ethnonationalist groups, view Schmidt’s order, correctly, as a betrayal of U.S. support for ensuring individual rights (including as ordered in numerous European Court of Human Rights rulings). Instead, it cements the oligarchic status quo enshrined in the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war of the 1990s but has gripped BiH in dysfunction for most of the time since then.
Schmidt’s order and the way it was developed and rolled out also shows that, far from the theme of transatlantic unity of purpose that U.S. President Joe Biden had touted with his “America is back” message to allies, the real message to Europe in Bosnia is “America calls the shots.”
To make matters worse, Schmidt’s plan was not shared in advance with the other members of the international Peace Implementation Council, which oversees the Office of the High Representative.
More from Just Security:
The U.S. support of the Schmidt order is apparently led by mid-level rungs in the State Department pushing him to impose a package against the will of all EU PIC Steering Board members (with only Croatian support) and against his own German government’s position.
Who Is Christian Schmidt?
Schmidt, a German, has been High Representative since August of 2021. Prior to assuming the post, he was most well-known for when as Agriculture Minister in 2017 he went against the wishes of the German government and voted in Brussels to extend the EU’s use of the likely cancer-causing herbicide glyphosate for another five years.
The Dayton Accords created the Office of the High Representative, a body financed by the international community with a mandate to enforce the civilian aspects of the peace agreement.
Schmidt also served as Parliamentary State Secretary in the Federal Ministry of Defense from 2005 to 2013 where he handled international outreach to the US, UK, Israel, and Croatia among others.
Schmidt took over as High Representative last year despite not being approved by Russia and the fact that according to the 1995 Dayton Agreement, the UN Security Council must approve each new High Representative for Bosnia. The US and EU simply ignored Russia and installed Schmidt anyways.
His election changes and the petulant manner he responds to anyone who questions his decisions has not endeared him to Bosnians.
— Jakub Bielamowicz (@KubaBielamowicz) October 9, 2022
By Schmidt’s standards he’s doing a great job, as he told a Croatian news outlet that Emperor Franz Joseph I once said: “I was a good ruler if all my people were equally dissatisfied.”
Are Schmidt and Washington’s actions just a lethal mixture of hubris and incompetence that will make a bad situation worse? Or are they preparing the ground for NATO forces to return to Bosnia?
NATO Forces on the Horizon
Roughly 50,000 NATO forces were first deployed to Bosnia in 1996, to enforce the truce that ended the 1992-95 civil war between the country’s Serbs, Muslims, and Croats.
The EU took over in 2004 and its EUFOR mission has been there ever since, but its presence is looking increasingly fragile.
The announcement that 50 German troops will return the mission for the first time in ten years has drawn criticism. The stated reason for the small number of troops is fear of Russian “meddling,” but the return of German troops is highly symbolic for Serbs in Bosnia.
Bosnian-Serb separtist leader Milorad Dodik alludes to to World War II, during which Germany killed thousands of civilians in Serbia, and says German troops are not welcome.
Additionally, Croatia is lobbying to join the EUFOR mission. Here’s Bosnia’s foreign minister on the prospect of that occurring:
Serious concerns about the intention of Croatia’s President to send Croatian troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a part of the Althea EUFOR/NATO mission to Bosnia & Herzegovina, while at the same time denying the Genocide committed in Srebrenica. pic.twitter.com/hI6QQ3C5ZT
— Bisera Turković (@BiseraTurkovic) September 16, 2022
The return of German troops and potential addition of Croatia to EUFOR is discrediting the mission just as its mandate is scheduled to end in November. Any extension would need to be approved by the UN Security Council, where Russia has a veto.
Due to the fact that the US is not agreement-capable and already ignored the Dayton Agreement to install Schmidt, it likely matters little whether Moscow approves of an extension of the EUFOR mission.
Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly mentioned Bosnia as a country that needs “shoring-up” of its security. And arguments for NATO to “stabilize” Bosnia are popping up as Dodik renews his threats to secede. Most follow the line of thinking presented in this War on the Rocks article:
Recognizing that the structural factors that gave rise to Dodik’s secessionist moves are still present, the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom should take immediate action to transform this frozen conflict. Russia’s war in Ukraine has made sending NATO troops to Bosnia and Herzegovina vital for maintaining a safe and secure environment in the Balkans.
Dodik is friendly with Russia and has drawn the ire of the west, including US sanctions. The current election recount in Bosnia is focused on Republika Srpska where Dodik was again supported overwhelmingly.
Some are arguing NATO already has the authorization to deploy its forces to Bosnia under the Dayton Accords and reports in Bosnia are that the decision has already been made.
Additionally a bill is making its way through the US Congress (HR 8453) that is all about getting the Russians out of Bosnia and the Americans in. The bill states that it is US policy to:
- support progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration; use sanctions against those who undermine the Dayton Peace Agreement and Bosnian democracy;
- Expose Russia’s role in fueling instability in Bosnia and imperiling the Office of the High Representative and EU peacekeeping presence in Bosnia
- Mandates sanctions on foreign persons who undermine the Dayton Peace Agreement or otherwise threaten the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina
- Requires regular reporting to establish strong Congressional oversight over the Administration’s use of sanctions to hold accountable internal and external actors undermining stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina
And despite all these issues in Bosnia, its EU candidacy got a minor lifeline on October 12 when the EU Commission advised member states to grant it candidate status.
“It is in the EU’s strategic interest and essential to their own stability and prosperity that all six Western Balkan states get into the EU as fast as possible,” enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said.