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Past Haunts the Present: Escalating Political Crisis in Bosnia

Since July 2021, Bosnia has been experiencing the biggest political unrest that regenerated the fears of ethnic conflicts happened during the 1990s. Former High Representative, Valentin Inzko, amended the law by including the prohibition of the genocide denial by using his powers. This decision was immediately followed by the criticism of the central state institutions by the Serb politicians and later concluded with their withdrawal. These acts quickly galvanized the tension within the country between the national bodies and Republika Srpska. There are deep concerns towards the non-Serb population in the country regarding the anxiety of facing a possible armed conflict. Withdrawing from the central state instructions and creating "mono-ethnic" ones instead are an overt violation of the Dayton Peace Accords since it challenges the federal authority[1]. Although campaigning for more autonomy and even secession is not new[2], this time, the latest actions of Republika Srpska have created a fearful atmosphere that is similar to the pre-war period of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. 

The first step was leaving the judiciary, armed forces, and tax administration system. These were followed by prohibiting Bosnian security and intelligence agencies from operating in the Serb entity and finding an independent medicine procurement agency. The situation is quite alarming since Milorad Dodik, the current Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia, implicitly gives examples of the use of violence during the dissolution of Yugoslavia when asked how the members of the state services are going to leave the entity's territory[3].

Since January 2022, there have been protests all over the globe to draw the attention of the international community to lower the tension. Protestors demand the international community not "put Bosnia in the same position near the end of 1991". At this point, it is crucial to observe how international and regional actors respond to this crisis. Although the U.S. and EU responded by imposing or planning to impose new sanctions towards Republika Srpska, these apparently did not have the intended impact of de-escalation of the turmoil[4].

Lately, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic visited Turkey on 18 January. This visit had notable outcomes since both states have considerable impact on the regional politics in the Balkans. In a joint press statement, two leaders responded to the questions and indicated their concerns about the escalating political crisis in Bosnia. Furthermore, both leaders stressed the importance and urgency of bringing Bosnian, Croat, and Serb leaders to resolve the crisis[5]. With this respect, Turkey's cooperation with Serbia is essential for regional stability and security. During the joint press statement, Turkey especially stated the importance of Serbian cooperation in supporting and respecting the territorial integrity of Bosnia to enhance regional peace and stability. On the other hand, Vucic emphasized the significance of avoiding any violations of the Dayton Peace Accords. In his speech, Vucic also highlighted that Republika Srpska'sinterests are considered in the framework of the Dayton Peace Accords, while Serbia fully respects the territorial integrity of Bosnia. 

Back in the years, Turkey and Serbia had similar regional cooperation schemes, including Bosnia and Croatia, which had considerable but limited success. In 2010, because of the trilateral consultation mechanism, Serbia had brought an official apology for the crimes and atrocities committed during the Srebrenica Massacre without mentioning the word “genocide”. The Serbian President Boris Tadic had attended the commemoration at the Potocari Memorial Center, which was highly welcomed as a step for reconciliation by the international community[6]. Another achievement was normalizing inter-state relations between Serbia and Bosnia by signing the Istanbul Declaration on Peace and Stability in 2010. The declaration met a variety of achievements. The most substantial one was acknowledging the respect for Bosnia's territorial integrity and sovereignty by the members of the trilateral meeting, which contributed to the regional security, stability, and peace prospects. 

After the suspension of the trilateral meetings in 2013, the call of both leaders of Turkey and Serbia in 2022 to bring the entire parties involved to the same table matters today. Approximately ten years later, in a more heated and worrying environment, the cooperation of Turkey and Serbia on the current crisis in Bosnia is highly critical yet limited. Balkans as a region has its regional dynamics and complexities where state-level resolution and reconciliation attempts pose their own challenges. 

Although the Dayton Peace Accords officially terminated the war in Bosnia, the tension and political unrest between the ethnic groups never fully ended. Remembrance of the Srebrenica massacre has been a source of political controversy between different actors locally, regionally, and internationally since 1995. There is an apparent clash and fracture on how to remember the Srebrenica Massacre in Bosnia between different ethnic groups, as different narratives exist. However, the impact of the external actors via memorialization policies have had unintentional hardening effects on the resolution of the crisis, which we continue to witness today.

Recognizing the massacre as genocide is seen as a significant step for the reconciliation in Bosnia by the international actors, as it mostly worked for the post-World War II political conjuncture in Europe[7]. Despite promoting the universal norms and values on human rights, externally imposed memorialization policies with the aim of reconciliation can cause serious clashes and incompatibilities with the local narratives[8]. In 2005 and 2009, the European Parliament and U.S. House of Representatives issued resolutions that recognized the genocide to commemorate the war victims. These were expressed as "remembering by resolution."[9] However, these attempts were faced with severe criticism by the Bosnian Serbs politicians and were never approved in the Bosnian parliament. In 2015, a draft resolution was proposed to the U.N. Security Council to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre. However, the resolution was vetoed by Russia with the claim that it was "anti-Serb" and had the potential of deepening the ongoing tension[10]. Serbia and Republika Srpska suggested Russia to veto the resolution before the voting process.

Previously, these memorialization policies were observed in the form of soft power and international pressure by the external actors. The High Representative has power to impose state-level legislation by bypassing the domestic politicians for the sake of the security and wellbeing of Bosnia. However, these were never utilized until July 2021, when the former High Representative amended Article 145a, in which genocidal denial and glorification of the war crimes could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and other domestic courts in Bosnia[11]. These amendments were welcomed by the Bosniaks, as well as most of the regional and international actors for seen as a key and concrete action for the reconciliation, while declined by the Bosnian Serb entity since they did not recognize the genocide. Once again, this crisis in Bosnia has demonstrated how remembrance qualitatively differs for each involving party and how past traumas of the war continue to shape the current politics.

 

[1] Emir Suljagic, "OPINION- This time we know," Anadolu Agency, (17 October 2021), https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/opinion-this-time-we-know/2394776

[2] Zuvela Maja, "Biggest Serb party in Bosnia threatens 2018 secession," Reuters, last modified 25 April 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-bosnia-serbs-secession-idUSKBN0NG0NB20150425

[3] Mersiha Gadzo, "Bosnia’s political crisis: What you should know, in 600 words," Al Jazeera, (21 October 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/10/21/all-you-need-to-know-about-bosnias-crisis-in-600-word

[4] Mersiha Gadzo, "Protesters call for action to prevent Bosnia sliding into war," Al Jazeera, (10 January 2022), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/1/10/protesters-call-for-action-to-prevent-bosnia-sliding-into-war

[5] CNN Türk, "Sırbistan ile kritik imzalar atıldı! Cumhurbaşkanı Erdoğan hedefi açıkladı: 5 milyar dolar!," Youtube, (18 January 2022), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvM_SXuDofU&t=947s

[6] Muhidin Mulalic, "Prospects for Trilateral Relations between Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina," Insight Turkey 21, no. 2 (Spring 2019): https://www.insightturkey.com/articles/prospects-for-trilateral-relations-between-turkey-serbia-and-bosnia-and-herzegovina

[7] Daniela Mehler, "The last ‘never again’? Srebrenica and the making of a memory imperative," European Review of History: Revue européenne d'histoire, Vol 24, No. 4 (n.d.), xx, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13507486.2017

[8] "Policing Memory in Bosnia: Ontological Security and International Administration of Memorialization Policies," International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 32 (November 2019): https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10767-018-9305-y

[9] Hamza Karcic, "Remembering by resolution: the case of Srebrenica," Journal of Genocidal Research, (May 2015), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14623528.2015

[10] Denis Dzidic, "Russia Vetoes UN Srebrenica Genocide Resolution," Balkan Insight, last modified 8 July 2015, https://balkaninsight.com/2015/07/08/russia-vetoes-un-srebrenica-genocide-resolution/

[11] Hamza Karcic, "Analysis: What Bosnia's new genocide denial ban means," Anadolu Agency, last modified 27 July 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/analysis-what-bosnias-new-genocide-denial-ban-means/231542

CONTRIBUTOR
Aslı Şebnem Haliman
Aslı Şebnem Haliman

Aslı Haliman recently completed a Master’s Degree from Koç University, International Relations Program in 2021 Fall. Her research interests cover international memory politics, ontological security, and Balkans. She currently works as a consulting analyst. 

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