Handcuffed by a ‘necessary’ IMF loan that has forced stringent austerity measures on a country that continues to struggle from the lagging effects of war, Bosnia once again finds itself caught in the middle of competing agendas. As Serbia warms towards Moscow after alienation from Brussels over the issue of Kosovo and accession, ethnic tensions have begun to simmer once more. Compounded by Russia’s threats to Montenegro over joining NATO, the sceptre of conflict has reared its head once more, causing unease across the Balkans.
Although Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia’s President during the war, lamented Europe’s approach to the conflict, claiming they equated the Serbian aggressors with the Bosniak, Bosnian-Croat and Bosnian-Serb victims, he nevertheless came to the conclusion that Bosnia’s survival centred on greater integration with Europe and advised in his last days that Sarajevo should seek to commence proceedings for accession.
In his eyes, greater integration accompanied by the enhancement of democratic institutions would eventually result in immutable mutual interests between the ethnic groups, resulting in a cohesive harmony imposed by necessity, if not by genuine political will. Practically, this would also diminish Republika Srpska as a mechanism for Belgrade to pursue the partition of Bosnia. Few parties during the Dayton agreement were in any doubt regarding the reasoning behind Serbia’s insistence on the formation of Republika Srpska, reflected in the sticking points regarding the status of Banja Luka and the size of Posavina ‘corridor’.
Since the war, Bosnia’s perceived identity has been in a flux. Although Izetbegovic went to great lengths to highlight his deep desire for a Bosnia that represented a cohesive framework for different religions and ethnicities, outside powers have built their policies towards Bosnia on alternative narratives and preconceptions.
For Europe, Bosnia’s large Muslim population in a climate of global terrorism and islamophobia remains a deep concern. Former Croatian President Franjo Tudman often referred to Izetbegovic’s efforts as that of seeking to establish an Islamic state. Ironically, a successful partition of Bosnia along the lines of those advocated by Tudman himself and Serbia’s Milosevic would have achieved just that. Izetbegovic’s outright refusal of their suggestions ensured that such a state never emerged. For Europe however, Bosnia is perceived as a potentially dangerous haven for terrorists, particularly as corruption, unemployment levels and discontent continue to spiral.
The approach of Europe has therefore involved not only providing financial assistance (however dubious that sounds given the imposition of strict austerity), but also engaging in social engineering by seeking to restrict religious tendencies, the Islam-infused Bosniak identity, and focus on the promotion of liberal, ‘progressive’, values as a key cornerstone of any future policy towards the country.
Europe’s approach and preconceptions of Bosnia differ greatly from the Muslim world which, through Turkey and the Gulf, have invested heavily in Bosnia within the framework of a mutual Muslim identity to protect Bosnia from another ethnic cleansing based on religion. For while Europe believes the Bosnia conflict centered on the ethnic fallout following the collapse of Yugoslavia, the particular atrocities committed in Bosnia were rooted in anti-Islamic sentiment; reflected in Ratko Mladic’s famous declaration before the Srebrenica massacre that the ‘time for revenge against the Turks [Muslims] had come’.
Europe’s inability to strike justice in punishing Serbian aggression by awarding lands seized through ethnic cleansing to Serb authority, and protecting the integrity of Bosnia as a fully-fledged state, has galvanised the Muslim world to provide assistance to Bosnia where Europe has failed. This has involved investing in Belgrade to create lobbies and amenable relations with Serbia to leverage against negative policies towards Bosnia. This has involved investing in Bosnian infrastructure directly. This has involved investing in madrasas and cultural fairs emphasising Bosnia’s proud Muslim history. While this might be seen antagonistic to notions of democracy and secularism, they are in fact counter-mechanisms to Europe’s approach to wipe out the Muslim Bosniak identity entirely.
While EU investors lag in investing in Bosnia, insisting on crippling austerity measures that only increase domestic discontent, fuel political discord and strengthen calls for partition, investment from the Muslim world has seen Bosnia salvage remanants of Izetbegovic’s desire for a prosperous Bosnia that weakens separatist rhetoric. The extent of the impact of these investors on Bosnia’s political dynamic is clear; Turkey and Bosnia’s transport ministries signed a letter of intent for the construction of a highway connecting Belgrade and Sarajevo, a project estimated to cost 3 billion euros ($3.5 billion). Republika Skrpska, an institution insisted upon by Milosevic and Belgrade in the 1995 negotiations, have sought to block the project, with many analysts believing that Skrpska fears a diminishing of its power if the project goes ahead. Skrpska will accept the project only in the event that most of the route falls within its territory; in other words, in the event that it is by far the main beneficiary that would strengthen their entity. Sarajevo insists that the proportion should be more equal, with the route passing through Tuzla.
Sarajevo remains caught between these two worlds; between East and West. President Bakir Izetbegovic continues to wrestle with the legacy of his father in pursuing further integration with Europe, while preserving the identity and ideals that Alija Izetbegovic advocated and fought to protect. While these concepts are not inherently antagonistic, they appear so because of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s unique context in which the country neighbours a Serbia keen on inciting Republika Skrpska into secession, and a situation in which Sarajevo negotiates with a Europe set on a project of social-engineering as an implicit primary condition for integration.
If Europe continues to press Sarajevo on austerity, on social-engineering measures, and if Europe fails to provide genuine solutions to strengthen Sarajevo, weaken Pale, curb public discontent and provide a genuine future for Bosnia that preserves the integrity of its borders in every manner, then Sarajevo may find the allure of moving headlong into Ankara, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh’s arms too much to resist. While this may not be detrimental, and perhaps more beneficial for Bosnia than its current course of action, Europe would only have itself to blame for igniting calls for a more Muslim Bosnia that seeks not integration, but the capabilities to protect itself from a re-igniting of a terrible war.
Put simply, the perception is that it is clear that Serbia wants to, or is currently, ruling large chunks of Bosnia as Europe watches on. At some point, Republika Srpska will seek secession; this was the intention behind its creation. According to the average Bosnian, history shows that Europe cannot be relied upon to prevent war, destruction and devastation. France and Germany are unlikely to commit troops headlong in a war against a Russia-supported Serbian project. Donald Trump is unlikely to request NATO airstrikes. The UK is likely to ‘mediate’ in a process that does not address the causes of the conflict but seeks to establish what looks like peace, irrespective of how false or unjust it might be.
However, if Turkey and the Gulf can offer leverage against Serbia and a source of economic development, and if insistence on warm relations with Europe continues to bring the country closer to domestic troubles and possible partition, then in this case the East appears to be potentially a far more favourable ally than Europe…perhaps.