Republika Srpska: After Independence| 19 November 2009 | By Matthew Parish
A new state – “Republika Srpska” - is shortly to be born in South Eastern Europe, the eighth to emerge from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The delivery of this troubling new child will be neither easy nor straightforward.
People may die, and diplomatic isolation may follow. The choices the international community makes in the aftermath of these events will be critically important to the welfare of all the people of the region. For Western policymakers it will be a matter of choosing the lesser evil.
Ever since the 1995 peace agreement at Dayton divided the country into two highly autonomous “entities”, it was manifest, even from its name, that the Republika Srpska had pretensions towards statehood. But after the atrocities committed by Serb forces in the Bosnian war, the West viewed the creation of Republika Srpska as a necessary evil at best, a “genocidal creation” in the words of the current Bosniak President, Haris Silajdzic, to be eventually dismantled. This goal, once achieved, would compensate the Bosniaks for the collective guilt the international community felt for having failed to intervene earlier during the conflict.
To pursue this objective, the High Representative was invested with broad and unchecked legal authorities to dismiss elected officials, impose legislation, and freeze parties’ bank accounts. Although the constitution agreed at Dayton limited central government authorities to a paltry catalogue, by 2006 the number of functions performed by the state were significant, including prosecution of war crimes and financial crime, foreign affairs, indirect taxation, central banking, and EU negotiations. These structures were created by threatening Bosnian Serb politicians, sullied by associations with wartime crimes, with a one-way ticket to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, ICTY, if they refused to cooperate. The new central institutions were funded from outside Bosnia’s bankrupt domestic economy through foreign aid.
But then two things changed. Most fundamentally, everyone who could be deported to The Hague had been, and the wartime Bosnian Serb political party, the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, had been emasculated through the measures taken by successive High Representatives.
This led to the rise of Milorad Dodik, a different brand of Bosnian Serb politician, untainted by participation in the war. His new party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, could not be bullied by High Representatives’ threats, as his officials had no wartime record to hold against them.
Second, international interest in Bosnia faded, and the high levels of development funds needed to keep state institutions operating dried up. The Bosnian tax system, chronically inefficient and corrupt, was increasingly relied upon to fund the central state. These two factors, combined with a withdrawal of foreign peacekeeping troops, coalesced just as Milorad Dodik became Prime Minister of Republika Srpska in January 2006.
Dodik shares many of the qualities of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Tough, shrewd, uninterested in democracy, and determined to elevate his nation’s status after a decade of weakness, he is a formidable opponent for the weak and ineffective international figures remaining in Bosnia. Uncontaminated by the Republika Srpska’s wartime past, and buoyed by international criticism of the heavy-handed tactics previously employed by Bosnia’s international governors, he is invulnerable to the High representatives’ traditional methods.
He has taken to embarrassing the High Representative by frustrating his every endeavour. The High Representative can do little to constrain him. He has no money to withhold – Republika Srpska now receives investment from Eastern Europe and Russia – and no troops to send; international peacekeepers remain in only negligible numbers. When the High Representative’s office tried to pin corruption charges on Dodik, he shut down the State Court. He then shut down the state electricity company. When the international community tried to impose a centralised police management on the country, Dodik frustrated it. When the High Representative tried to change voting in the State Council of Ministers, Dodik had the State Prime Minister, a Serb, resign, throwing the central government into paralysis.
In theory, the High Representative can dismiss Dodik. But the High Representative’s notional authority is now bereft of might because there is no way of enforcing it. There are no foreign troops to evict Dodik from office.
The State Police are small in number and ethnically divided and no match for Dodik’s RS Police. Bosnia has no army of substance. The RS controls its own tax revenues and can financially withdraw from the rest of the country without significant sanction.
Dodik’s agenda in the short term is to detach the Republika Srpska from dependence upon the central state institutions. This will be straightforward to achieve, because central government and indeed the Dayton Constitution incorporate “consociationalist” principles whereby decisions can only be taken by consensus of all three of the country’s ethnic groups. Provided he can continue to control most Serb officials, Dodik can block every decision of substance. The writ of the State Police and the State Court already runs weakly in Republika Srpska, which has its own police, courts, tax system, national flag and legal regime.
The only significant institutions it shares with the rest of the country are a currency, a vehicle licence plate regime, a common system of VAT and excise collection, border controls and the State Court. These will all be easy to dismantle. The euro could be formally adopted overnight. The central state account for indirect taxes is situated in Banja Luka and it would be no hard task to divert all indirect tax revenues received from RS territory into an exclusive RS account. In any event the RS finance minister can veto all decisions of the state indirect taxation authority, rendering it effortless to destroy the system from within.
The theoretically unified State Border Service is almost exclusively manned by Serb officials where Bosnia’s borders fall within RS territory. On the RS’s frontiers with Serbia, borders are almost invisible.
The State Court was once a force to be reckoned with, but since 2003 it has been reliant upon international judges and prosecutors and funded by foreign donors. Such an arrangement was never sustainable; and the Court’s international officials are now fleeing in light of Serb politicians’ threats to block their reappointment. The courts of the RS are loyal to Dodik, and will not faithfully apply state laws against RS interests.
Dodik’s motivations in pursuing a detachment agenda are plain. Whereas politics in the Federation are divided between warring politicians from two ethnic groups, five major political parties and ten cantons, politics in the RS is remarkably unitary. Everything is managed within one political party, and, ultimately, by one man.
Compellingly, detachment from the rest of Bosnia is what the overwhelming majority of Bosnia’s Serbs want.
They share a collective paranoia about cultural and political dominance by a Bosniak majority. Fears of dominance and persecution have driven politics in the Western Balkans for centuries, and nothing has happened in the past fourteen years since the end of Bosnia’s war to extinguish them.
The only force preventing the RS’s detachment since 1995 has been the Office of the High Representative, issuing centralizing decrees backed by military force and diplomatic pressure. But since 2006, as the peacekeeping troops have departed and international interest in the region has waned, the High Representative’s powers have faded. Dodik has publicly pronounced on several occasions that he considers the actions of the High Representative illegal and will ignore them.
The current High Representative, Austria’s Valentin Inzko, dares not attempt to dismiss Dodik by decree lest Dodik makes good on his threat to march 50,000 Serb demonstrators to Sarajevo. Moreover a change of leader in the RS would make things worse, not better.
It is often forgotten that by Bosnian Serb standards, Dodik is a moderate. It may be tough for international community negotiators to accept but Dodik represents the most liberal wing of mainstream Bosnian Serb political thinking. Any replacement might be far more extreme, seeking independence within a more truncated timescale, or being more prone to creating inter-ethnic provocations that may precipitate violent clashes.
Dodik’s plan for the RS is incremental. Independence will be pursued piecemeal, as one tie to the central state after another is sequentially cut. By the time the RS is de facto independent, already not far off, the international community will barely have noticed.
As with the case of Montenegro, by the time the formal declaration of independence is made the event will be a fait accompli.
It might once have been possible to strike a grand bargain between Bosnia’s three ethnic groups: Bosniaks would accept a loose confederation structure in exchange for Serb and Croat relinquishment of separatist aspirations. Alas, the prospects for this moderately optimistic scenario have all but evaporated, due in large measure to clumsy interference by OHR. For example, a domestic political procedure known as the “Prud Agreement” was an initially promising series of meetings between the Bosniak, Croat and Serb leaders of Bosnia’s three principal parties that mapped out a structure for the country’s constitutional future after the OHR’s departure. Ultimately, however, the OHR-sponsored criminal investigation into Dodik’s finances disrupted this initiative.
If therefore the independence of Republika Srpska looks increasingly inevitable, what should the international community do when it happens?
Bosniak politicians and the OHR will urge the High Representative to dismiss Dodik, “annul” independence, and perhaps rewrite the Bosnian constitution to abolish the Republika Srpska or eradicate the consociational voting system that allows Serbs and Croats to veto state-level initiatives. Such a radical course – tearing up the entire post-war constitutional structure – is tempting, but exceptionally dangerous.
If such radical measures were applied only after independence (or a referendum on independence) had been declared, they would be too late. Dodik would either ignore them or use them as a pretext to accelerate his agenda. They could be enforced only by armed intervention in the RS, and occupation by foreign troops; but the necessary soldiers are neither available nor are their political masters willing to commit them in an era in which foreign military adventurism has a bad name.
To stand any hope of success without massive military commitment, High Representative imposition would have to occur before the momentum for independence is irreversible. It would have to take place tomorrow. But at this time there is no international consensus about the desirability of actions of this enormity. It would have to be a US initiative; the EU would almost certainly not support such a measure, considering proconsular constitutional restructuring incompatible with its regional programme.
Moreover, it is almost certainly too late. The time unilaterally to rewrite Bosnia’s constitution was in 1999, when the RS was at its weakest and foreign troops were still present in significant numbers. But to act then would have made Bosnia an internationally administered colony indefinitely, a responsibility which nobody wanted to undertake, which is why it was not done. The contemporary situation is quite different. If it were possible for the High Representative to dismiss Dodik, it would have happened in the last two years. The OHR is now too weak and the RS too strong to expect such dramatic orders to be enforced. Ultimately, they would destroy what is left of the international community’s credibility in the country, because they would not be obeyed.
In that scenario – a hastened declaration of RS independence triggered by dramatic OHR action – Bosniaks, in the name of defending the Constitution and the authority of the High Representative, might take up arms. The flashpoint would be Brcko, the free city formerly administered by the US government but which has since been abandoned, having not a single US citizen (beyond a couple of Bosnian-American dual nationals) now residing there.
The greatest single impediment to RS independence is geography: its extended territory is difficult to defend and Brcko is its weakest point. Bosniaks might reclaim the officially neutral territory using military force, seeking to cut the RS in two. The international community could then send a small military force into Brcko, ostensibly to stabilize inter-ethnic conflict but in fact to give themselves bargaining power with Dodik through military division of his territory.
If Croatia’s support could be garnered, the borders with the western RS could be closed, encircling the RS capital Banja Luka with hostile neighbours. But this strategy would be exceptionally risky. What would be the exit strategy for the foreign troops? How would they avoid being drawn into sporadic acts of violence?
The gravest danger in this scenario would be the reactions of Bosnia’s neighbours. Serbia might supply material aid to Bosnia’s Serbs. Irregular militias might cross the border from Serbia to the RS as happened in the 1992-95 war. Croatia might refuse to cooperate, due to the likely reaction of Bosnia’s Croats. They have their own separatist aspirations. The fact that the entire region’s stability is at stake if a clumsy approach is taken to the RS’s separatist ambitions is why nothing has been done, and why Dodik remains in office under the international community’s sufferance.
This impotence may be unfortunate, but the international community must reckon with its own lack of power if it is to make sound policy decisions. The High Representative’s recent strategy is to engage in domestic politics with Dodik: to use such institutions as he has at his disposal against him, such as investigations by the State Court. The aim is apparently to weaken Dodik, and occupy him with domestic political battles rather than the pursuit of an RS statehood project.
But this approach has no end game. Sooner or later the High Representative and his fellow international officials will leave; Dodik will stay. Second, even if it succeeds, a successor to Dodik will almost certainly be more extreme and push the country into crisis more rapidly. Third, the plan of moderating separatist ambitions through creation of ancillary political problems may have the opposite political effect. It may accelerate separatism as the most effective means of counter-attack.
It is, therefore, not hard to conclude that the current strategy of the High Representative is part of the problem rather than the solution. What other options are available? One is to do nothing – abandon hard power in post-war Bosnia and let the country’s domestic politicians make of it what they can, at least in the short term. Perhaps they will dust off a grand bargain and catastrophe can be averted. Left to its own devices, the RS might find reason to cooperate with the Federation over a number of issues, leaving some state institutions formally intact.
There is plenty of commercial activity between Bosnia’s entities. This would suggest an economic rationale for retaining a common currency (now pegged against the euro and remarkably stable), common transport and infrastructure, free movement of goods, people and services, harmonized legal systems, and even a common regime of indirect taxation.
If and when some act of de jure independence does occur, the international community may be forced reluctantly to accept it. Short of military intervention, there is little it will be able to do. Russia would veto UN sanctions. The EU probably would refuse to recognise RS passports and other documents but it is not clear what this would achieve beyond imposing fresh hardships on the population. In any event most Bosnian Serbs hold Serbian passports. Current foreign investors in the RS, many of whom are from Eastern European members of the EU, would lobby against economic isolation of the RS. Its situation appears economically and politically stable: in the centre of Europe, it has a tolerably professional government, a measure of foreign investment, and an unsubsidised, balanced, government budget.
International isolation of an independent RS will prove difficult and in all likelihood unproductive as it is unlikely to achieve any significant result. A diplomatic black hole in the centre of Europe will also be dangerous to Western Europe’s security interests. If a self-proclaimed independent RS is not recognised, it cannot sign extradition treaties, it cannot be a member of INTERPOL, and it is difficult to send international technical assistance to support domestic police and security forces (as happens currently).
If formal recognition of Republika Srpska as an independent state by Western Europe and the United States is unrealistic, there are some prudent steps that pragmatic Western powers can undertake to guard against the danger of violent conflict erupting when Bosnia collapses. Every measure should be used to ensure that even if gradual de facto independence is inevitable, and to a great extent has already occurred, any act of declaration of de jure independence – which might incite Bosniaks to take up arms, and Croats to themselves secede – is postponed indefinitely. If the proper aim is delay, the international community can do nothing better than to leave the country alone, at least for now. The current strategy – of giving Dodik pretexts to detach himself from the rest of Bosnia – can only catalyse the secessionist agenda.
Second, temperate politicians must be supported. The Prud negotiations showed voices of moderation exist in post-war Bosnia. The international community must restrain Bosniaks from doing what will come naturally to them – fighting to prevent the disintegration of their country. However much sympathy for the Bosniaks’ situation one may have, knowing the atrocities perpetrated against them, their political aspiration of a unified Bosnia governed by majority rule is possible only for so long as the international community is prepared to run the country as a colony. That level of commitment has evaporated. The Bosniaks must thus be gently disabused of their unitary political agenda, or they surely will be prepared to go to war for it, and foreign Muslim fighters will again be drawn in as they were in the 1992-95 war.
For international politicians familiar with the injustices of Bosnia’s first war, this is an unpalatable message. But the time is long past for pursuit of perfect moral ideals. There danger of catastrophe unfolding in Bosnia is real and the overwhelming aim must be to prevent a second Bosnian war. The least bad option is to preside over Bosnia’s inevitable gradual disintegration with a moderating hand, ensuring it happens slowly, so its citizens become accustomed to the evolving political landscape. We must keep all parties calm and moderate, to prevent outbreaks of local violence or wholesale mobilisation. In this unenviable position into which the international community has manoeuvered itself, this is the best we can now do.
Matthew Parish was formerly Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brcko. His book on international intervention in post-war Bosnia, A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia, is published by I.B. Tauris. www.matthewparish.com