A controversial and regularly raised issue since the beginning of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s statehood is the possible independence of the Republika Srpska (RS), an entity inhabited by a majority of Serbs. The events of the Bosnian war, which took place between 1992 and 1995, with about a hundred thousand fatalities, centred mainly on the Bosnian Serb aspirations for secession and independence. Finally, the Dayton Peace Agreement granted broad autonomy to the both main components of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Bosnian-Croatian majority of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the RS), however, the secession of the Serb side is on the agenda from time to time, in particular if there is a violation of the autonomy of the RS.
This issue became relevant again after Milorad Dodik, a Serbian member of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, set out to hold a referendum on secession after a constitutional court decision detrimental to the Serb-majority entity, furthermore, Serbian deputies have suspended their decision-making activities at state level.
The purpose of this article is to examine and present the outcome of the resurgence of tensions in the country and the attitude of the international community towards the RS, whose relations with Serbia will also come to the fore.
A brief history of separation efforts to date
The 1995 Dayton Agreement did not provide a basis for the entities of BiH to become fully independent or to access to other countries. Nevertheless, already a year after the conclusion of the agreement, the accession of the RS to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (which at that time included the territory of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo) was on the agenda. Biljana Plavsic, a biology professor who became a politician, then president of the RS, and later a leader convicted of war crimes, was forced to back down due to pressure from the international community.
During the 2000’s, the aspirations for independence of RS were linked to the status of Kosovo. According to the public, if Kosovo declares its independence unilaterally, an independence referendum should also be held in the RS. In February 2008, RS legislators passed a resolution declaring that if the majority of the international community, including the EU, recognized Kosovo’s independence, they would hold a referendum on independence (it should be noted that the Bosnian Serb did not support Kosovo’s aspirations, therefore Bosnia and Herzegovina did not recognize the independence of the new state). Milorad Dodik at the time coordinated the events as Prime Minister of the RS and President of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD). The right to self-determination was cited as a point of reference as the main argument: if the Kosovars had the right to determine their own future, why not the Bosnian Serbs? Both the United States and the European Union strongly opposed this initiative and therefore the referendum was not held. According to Miroslav Lajcák, the former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, RS has no right to secede from Bosnia and Herzegovina, as its territorial integrity is guaranteed by the Dayton Peace Agreement.
In 2011, the referendum initiative came back to the agenda, but for similar reasons, it also failed. In October 2012, Milorad Dodik, already President of RS, stated that the entity would become independent and it would be able to survive as a sovereign state. The situation began to escalate again in 2015, when Dodik and his political party practically made the achievement of the region’s independence a party program, arguing that the Bosnian majority undermined the autonomous powers of the RS. It is expected that if the RS cannot extend its autonomy by the end of 2017, a referendum on secession will be initiated by 2018. With reference to the Dayton Convention, the international community once again criticised these aspirations. In reply, Milorad Dodik argued that the Constitution of the RS (as amended by the Dayton Convention in 1995) included the right to self-determination.
In addition, Serbian leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina have complained − and they do so nowadays − about the activities of state courts and prosecutors’ offices, accusing them of bias towards the Serbs. Furthermore, the Constitutional Court at state level is attacked by the leadership of the RS on the presence of three foreign judges, provided for in the Dayton Agreement. Dodik eventually announced in September 2017 that there would not be a referendum on independence next year. However, because the President was only talking about a postponement, it was expected that the issue would become relevant again a few years later. That took place in February 2020.
The current situation
The Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina − on its 117th plenary session on the 7thFebruary 2020 − found Article 53 of the Law on Agricultural Land, adopted by the legislation of the RS, unconstitutional. According to the law, the agricultural lands once owned by the Yugoslav state are not owned by Bosnia and Herzegovina but by RS. The main argument of the Serbs is that during the Ottoman rule, Bosnians who moved to the cities and received administrative positions and other benefits relinquished their lands, so those − according to land registry books − became Serbian property.
According to the ruling of the Constitutional Court, the land must be state property, therefore must be the property of the federal state. Seven Bosnian representatives of the RS Council of Peoples (in this body all three nationalities are represented) have proposed this constitutional court process, which could intensify ethnic political debates in the case (especially in light of the fact that Dodik raised the question of Muslim judges in 2008. In his opinion, they should not act in cases relating to RS).
This decision was the starting point of the political crisis that has taken place since then. Led by Milorad Dodik (who has been a Serbian member of the three-member rotating presidency since 2018), Bosnian Serbs are once again attacking the presence of foreign constitutional judges, accusing the Constitutional Court of bias and interpreting its operation as an attack on the RS.
There was also the possibility that the two Serbian constitutional judges would be banned from work. What is certain is that Serbian deputies have suspended their participation in state-level decision-making bodies and are pushing for the adoption of a new law reforming the Constitutional Court – but this is fundamentally unconstitutional.
A similar boycott took place in March 2019, when the Constitutional Court ruled that a holiday introduced in the Serbian Republic was unconstitutional. Last year, Serbian opposition parties did not support Dodik’s move because they were then interested in maintaining the functioning of the central government. This year, however, all Serbian parties support a decision-making boycott. According to the vice-president of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), the decisions of the Constitutional Court are destroying the identity of Serbs. Milorad Dodik once again foresaw the secession of RS, sharply opposing the United States and the EU.
The Bosnian Serb leaders visited Belgrade on 15 February 2020 to discuss the current situation with Serbia’s president. Vucic stressed that the moves and measures of RS should not lead to the destabilization of the region, but should be carried out in legal and institutionalway. Dodik is nonetheless determined to hold a referendum, a question of whether his momentum will continue in spite of strong foreign criticism. The formation of the government took a year, but it seems that several months later, Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing another political crisis.
Activities of international supervisory bodies in Bosnia and Herzegovina
The General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, developed by the international community to end the Bosnian war, was agreed in November 1995 by political leaders at Wright-Patterson Air Base, Ohio, USA. The official signing took place in Paris on 14th December the same year. The Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina is attached as Annex IV to the Agreement. At the same time, the international community set important control rights in the drafting of the Convention. One of the most important is the ongoing presence of peacekeeping missions in the country, which implement and monitor the adherence to the military aspects of the Dayton Convention. The United Nations Protective Force (UNPROFOR), which has existed since 1992, was replaced by the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR), which operated in the country in 1995-96. This has been replaced by the Stabilisation Force (SFOR), which was replaced in 2004 by the EUFOR Althea mission in the new foreign and security policy cooperation of the Member States of the European Union, which is still in operation today.
The Office of the High Representative (OHR) has the task of enforcing the civil and political provisions of the peace agreement. The High Representative (HR) maintains close links with the country’s various political and civil actors, coordinates their activities and was given additional rights at the 1997 Bonn Conference: if he finds that a local official is acting contrary to the principles of the peace agreement, he can remove him or her from office. The HR can also intervene in legislative processes and create laws and regulations when needed. Overall, this position has the greatest political power in Bosnia and Herzegovina nowdays. The Sarajevo OHR has had its regional office in Banja Luka, the administrative center of the RS, since May 1996. The overall aim is for the decision-making role of the HR to be constantly transformed into a mediating role, which, however, would require a significant improvement in local conditions in all areas of social life. Valentin Inzko, a diplomat from Austria, has held the position of HR since 2009. From 2011, the EU has been represented in Bosnia and Herzegovina by a Special Representative, currently Johann Sattler, also an Austrian citizen. This post was created mainly to coordinate the country’s EU integration process. The international community maintains its most comprehensive control over the country through the Peace Implementation Council, which involves 55 states and international organizations. This body has a so called Steering Board, consisting mainly of representatives from the major Western countries and the EU. The Steering Committee meets regularly in Sarajevo under the chairmanship of the High Representative, where ambassadors from participating States provide policy advice to the High Representative.
The international community ‘s response to the situation
On February 19 2020, the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council made a statement to the situation set out in the second paragraph. First, the Steering Board also provides support to the Constitutional Court of Bosnia-Hercegovina and its judges. It also draws attention to the bindingnature of the decisions of the Constitutional Court, of which enforcement is obligatory for the competent authorities in all cases. The resolution considers the Constitutional Court to be the most important building blocks of the rule of law and democracy, and declares the boycott of RS officials in state institutions unacceptable. In the same document, the international community emphasizes that the Inter-Entity Boundary Line between the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina does not constitute a state border and therefore does not imply the statehood of the RS. The resolution makes it clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a sovereign state whose territorial integrity and statehood are guaranteed by the international community through the provisions of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Accordingly, none of the entities has the right to secede. Sincethe two entities are a formation created by the constitution, they are fully subordinate to the constitution. The Peace Implementation Council calls on all political actors to take action to promote the reforms in the country that are essential for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s integration into the European Union. It should be noted that even though Russia is a member of the steering board, it did not take part in issuing this resolution.
The communiqué does not contain any new information and the international community has been trying to quell separatist aspirations with these same arguments for many years. It can be stated that if Milorad Dodik were to call a referendum on the secession, its holding would fail due to the intervention of international forces (such as the EUFOR mission). If the RS nevertheless arbitrarily declares its independence, there would be hardly any state that would recognise it. In addition, it is also doubtful to what extent an independent RS would be sustainable at all, despite Dodik’s rhetoric. If we look at the geographical features, we can conclude that the Brcko district belonging to both the two entities precisely divides the territory of RS. Furthermore, the canton of Posavina in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina extends into the territory of the RS along the Croatian border, which is divided into two parts (Orasje and Odzak). It is difficult to imagine that a state, with such an unfavorable geographical location, would be able to function properly and form an economic and legal entity.
Relations with Serbia
The Dayton Agreement allows both entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina to establish relations with other states in accordance with state-level relations. For this reason, on 28 February 1997, the RS concluded a cooperation agreement with the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (later Serbia). The political leaders have developed close co-operation in a number of issues, and there is a regular dialogue between the two presidents, prime ministers and governments through the Cooperation Council established by the 2006 renewed convention and other formal and informal channels. Cooperation in the area of infrastructure and energy development is strong, and Serbia is also providing substantial support for projects in the RS. In a statement in early 2019, Zeljka Cvijanovic, President of RS, expressed her gratitude for Serbia’s assistance and highlighted the country’s efforts to improving the situation in the region “without interfering in the internal affairs of the RS”. Moreover, during Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade in January 2019, she described Russia’s partnership with RS as excellent. It should be noted that Russia doesn’t support the secession either, because without the Bosnian Serb vetoes, Bosnia and Herzegovina would be significantly closer to NATO, and the country’s possible NATO membership would be another challenge for Russian foreign policy.
The 1997 Convention has already declared that cooperation between the two sides will be conducted in full respect of the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Among many other external factors, the lack of direct support from Serbia may also play a role in the fact that the Bosnian Serb leadership has never held an independence referendum despite many promises. The Serbian governments have consistently refused to bind RS to Serbia in official statements. Milorad Dodik pointed out in an interview in November 2017 that „the only obstacle to the secession of RS is Serbia itself”. Therefore, the separatist leaders of the RS prioritize joining Serbia as a priority, as the entity alone would be doomed to failure.
Furthermore, Serbia’s international credibility could be negatively impacted by open support for secession. Unless it recognizes Kosovo’s right to independence (which is fundamentally based on on ethnic grounds), it cannot openly support the ethnic-based secession of RS and its accession to the motherland. At the same time, Serbia cannot ignore the Dayton Convention.
Overall, the chances of the RS becoming an independent state or joining Serbia are almost minimal. Bosnian Serb politicians are also aware of this, but with separatist rhetoric (excellent example of this is Dodik’s statement to the Banja Luka parliament, which started with the phrase “Goodbye BiH, welcome RS-Exit” in February 2020), the promise of an independence referendum, the threat of a boycott of state-level decision-making, will not allow nationalist sentiments to subside. This brings political benefits to the parties and their politicians. Putting the threats into practice would have unforeseen consequences for the stability of the region, so Serbia is officially opposed to the demolition of the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The international community, no matter how extensive are its powers in the country, cannot change the basic emotional disposition of the Serbian population. If this trend continues in the future, it is almost certain that Bosnia and Herzegovina will not be able to make substantial progress towards becoming a functioning and modern state and towards Euro-Atlantic integration.