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Could there be a war in Europe?
Sensemaker audio

Could there be a war in Europe?

Could there be a war in Europe?

Bosnia has been held together by a complicated peace deal since its civil war 26 years ago. Is it about to fall apart?


Transcript
Nimo Omer, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world. 

Today, why Bosnia is once again teetering on the edge of armed conflict – and why the rest of the world could get drawn into it.

“It’s been called Bosnia’s deepest political crisis since the end of the war in 1995. The UN high representative warned the country was at risk of unravelling amid a resurgence of nationalist and separatist rhetoric.”

France24

Twenty-six years after the end of its bloody civil war, Bosnia is on the brink of breaking up. 

And if it does it could result not just in ethnic conflict – disastrous though that would be – but in a confrontation involving the world’s major powers. 

Worried?  We should be.

Things have come to a boil because of things said by one of Bosnia’s top politicians just a few weeks ago.

“The Republika Srpska will control its own affairs in a legal and constitutional manner including having its own army, judiciary and fiscal administration as well as security and intelligence agencies. We will re-establish all these institutions.”

Al Jazeera

That’s Milorad Dodik, he’s a Bosnian Serb and one of the country’s leaders. 

And what he said could pave the way to the country splitting up.

But before we get into what’s happening now…

It’s worth understanding a bit about how we got here…and how Bosnian politics works.

Let me explain: Bosnia’s political system is based on a power sharing agreement between the three main ethnic groups in the country: the Bosnian or Bozniak Muslims, the Serbs and the Croats. 

In the 1990s the Bosniaks and Croats voted in favour of independence from Yugoslavia in a referendum that was boycotted by the Serbs.

A civil war followed. 

The Serbs wanted to create a Bosnian Serb state – and to get rid of Muslims and Croats living there. 

They besieged the capital, Sarajevo, occupied most of the country and killed thousands of Bosniaks and Croats.    

[Shelling in Sarajevo]

AP News

It was a brutal war lasting three years. Around a hundred thousand people died – Serbs, Croats and mostly, Bosniaks.  In one massacre at a town called Srebrenica, 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were murdered.

But a peace deal – called the Dayton agreement – brought an end to the fighting in 1995. 

And it was from that deal that Bosnia’s political system emerged. 

….But… it’s a system that’s more than a little bit complicated…

There are two main parts to Bosnia: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska.

The Federation is dominated by the Bozniaks and Croats… the Republika by the Serbs.

Each of the country’s three ethnic groups gets its own president. And in theory, they work together on behalf of all Bosnians.

Milorad Dodik is the one of the presidents – the Serb one – and he has plans to make the Republika way more independent from the rest of Bosnia. 

He said he’d withdraw the region from a lot of the country’s shared institutions.  Specifically, he wants to set up its own army and police force – paid for by its own tax regime.   

It sounds a lot like secession. 

And in a state where politics – and political tensions – are heavily drawn along ethnic lines this kind of rhetoric is divisive and dangerous. 

So, is this mere rhetoric from Milorad Dodik? Or could the situation evolve into all out war?

***

There have been some threatening moves from the Serbs in recent weeks. 

[Police drill]

Al Jazeera

That’s not actually the sound of fighting – although it sounds a lot like it. 

That gunfire comes from the Serb police force in a heavily militarised drill they carried out in October on a mountainside overlooking Sarajevo. 

The police claimed they were just conducting an “anti-terror” exercise.  But for citizens of Sarajevo, the sound of guns brought back a lot of traumatic memories. 

Because the location of the drill was one used by Serbs to shell the city in the Civil War. 

To Bosniaks and Croats, the exercise was a naked act of intimidation.

But what’s fuelled this aggression? And why now?

***

First, there’s the refusal by Serbs to recognise a law that makes it illegal to deny that what happened at Srebrenica was genocide.  

And then there’s Russia’s influence in the region. 

Milorad Dodik and Vladimir Putin are close allies and analysts say that Russia, along with Serbia, has been goading Bosnian Serbs into separation. 

It suits Moscow because as long as these ethnic and political divisions remain, it will stop the country from getting any closer to the EU and NATO. And as long as Milorad Dodik stays in power the Russians have a foothold.

But that’s not all.

Muslim Bosniaks feel abandoned by the West and are turning to Turkey for support. Iran and the Gulf States are observing the situation too.  

Bosnian Croats, meanwhile, are looking towards Croatia which, of course, is a member of the EU.  

And inevitably, eyes are turning to America.  How relaxed is the White House about the roles being played in the region by Russia and other countries?

You can understand why a commentator in the New York Times wrote this week:

The fuse on the Balkans’ powder keg has been lit. It must be stamped out before the region, and even Europe itself, is engulfed in fire.

***