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The Balkans Are Coming Apart at the Seams Again

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When a country elects a president, the choice is not usually someone whose stated aim is to break it apart. But that’s just happened—ominously—in a country synonymous with 20th century European conflict.

Milorad Dodik, who is emerging as the most powerful politician in Bosnia-Herzegovina after a vote this month, has made a career of advocating partition. He’s the leader of the Serb minority in that hyphenated country stitched together after the Balkan wars of the 1990s; and he’s always been clear about what he wants—to carve it up again and create an independent entity allied to Serbia next door. “This is not a common state, we are all its prisoners,” he said in 2016. “Bosnia isn’t worth a dime.”

Such inflammatory talk is not unusual in a corner of Europe where the existence of states, their ethnic and religious makeup, and even their names have caused rifts and violent confrontations. But Dodik’s words—reinforced by support from Serbia and Russia—have acquired menacing substance with his ascendancy to Bosnia’s tripartite executive, which he now shares with co-presidents representing the country’s Muslims and ethnic Croats. The U.S.-brokered peace in 1995—which stopped the shelling in the capital Sarajevo and redrew the map—is looking very fragile.

The concern is that Europe is sleepwalking into another meltdown in the Balkans just as the continent marks a century since the end of World War I—a cataclysm that started in the Bosnian capital. Indeed, this region where global powers have collided for centuries has become more incendiary because of a reconfiguration of the world order. Donald Trump’s rhetoric and style have emboldened Dodik, along with leaders ranging from Brazilian far-right presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is embroiled in an international outcry over the suspected murder of a journalist. With Trump’s neo-isolationism, the U.S. can no longer be relied on to play policeman in the Balkans—or elsewhere—and often looks more like an accomplice to local autocrats. Nationalists in Poland, Hungary, and other parts of the former communist east have relished the shift.

Russia and Turkey have taken advantage to reassert themselves in old spheres of interest. Vladimir Putin has backed populists across the Balkans to counter the expansion of NATO and the European Union. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan showed up in Bosnia during his presidential election campaign this year. Muslims make up the biggest proportion—just over half—of the 3.5 million population. The EU, meanwhile, has been pouring in money, though the carrot of membership has been pushed into the distance. It can’t come up with a road map palatable to all sides. Dodik sees this confluence of Trump, Putin, and the equivocation of the EU as his golden opportunity to upend the 1995 Dayton peace deal, the Pax Americana that created today’s Bosnia—Muslims and Croats folded in with 1.2 million Serbs in their enclave, Republika Srpska.

Ethnic resegregation has always been a poisonous goal in the Balkans. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, a close ally of Dodik’s as well as Putin’s, has floated the idea of a land deal with Kosovo—which is predominantly Albanian—that would allow his country to absorb much of its Serb population. Trump’s security adviser, John Bolton, said the U.S. would be open to the border changes. Germany, on the other hand, opposes the plan, fearful that redrawing borders would reopen a Pandora’s box of old and violent animosities. “We see this new dangerous idea of talking boundaries, of talking down the EU, of talking about the importance of ethnicity, we see this from both the Kremlin and from the president of the U.S.,” says Gerald Knaus, head of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank with offices in Berlin, Brussels, and Vienna. “We have seen this ideology in the 1990s, and that ideology is extremely dangerous for the Balkans.”

Blood-and-soil nativism has a feral tenacity in the region. It was a Bosnian Serb who triggered the onslaught of war in 1914 by killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War II, the tribalism was contained for the most part during the existence of Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia—out of which Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and others emerged in the 1990s. That single federal entity ran from the Alps next to Austria to the Adriatic Sea and down to Greece. Within the territory, the language stays similar, but the alphabet moves from Roman to Cyrillic as you head east, and the religion from Catholicism to Orthodox Christian and Islam. In 1990, a decade after Tito’s death, Yugoslavia imploded. The ensuing ethnic battles and genocide left more than 100,000 people dead in Bosnia alone.

Slovenia—Melania Trump’s native country—and Croatia in the west are now members of the EU, but aspirations of integration elsewhere are being replaced by doubts it will ever happen. To pave the way for entry into the EU and NATO, the Republic of Macedonia—another country carved out of Yugoslavia—had to organize a referendum to add the geographical modifier “Northern” to its name. That was key to overcoming objections to membership from Greece, which zealously guards the legacy of Alexander the Great’s ancient kingdom of Macedonia. The renaming was approved by most voters who showed up—but not enough did to make it legal. Indeed, Macedonia’s president led a boycott.

In the week between the renaming vote on Sept. 30 and the Oct. 7 Bosnian election, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the EU should get serious about Balkan yearnings to accede to the union—or face the consequences. “If, in this highly complex European area, the impression emerges that we’re not serious about that perspective, we will later—or rather sooner—again experience what we had in the Balkans in the 1990s,” he said in a speech in Austria on Oct. 5.

Sarajevo is the embodiment of this tension. On the surface, it looks like any modern European city—perhaps even more so with its cosmopolitan mix of church spires and minarets. Packed cafes serving local beers, vodkas, and shisha water pipes make it feel like a place at peace with its diversity. There’s little evidence on the faces of its buildings of the Great War that spilled out of it in 1914—or the bloody siege of the city from 1992 to 1995 that ended with the creation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by the Dayton treaty.

After the fighting was over, Bosnia received aid and investment from the EU, Turkey, and the Middle East that boosted growth and lowered unemployment to below 20 percent. But even in Sarajevo, the recent talk of redrawing borders is having a chilling effect. Families worry about the economy and uncertain security situation—and many are choosing to flee. There have been lines of people outside the German Embassy seeking work permits. The disquiet is exacerbated by the country’s administrative divisions, put in place by the Dayton accords, which are at best complicated, at worst chaotic. The country has more than 150 ministers and 14 governments: one central, one each for Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation, 10 regional, and one for a district of the town of Brcko that’s under special rules. Phone companies, statistics offices, and regulators are set up along ethnic divides.

Nezir Volode, 65, remembers a different Sarajevo. “I grew up in multiethnic Sarajevo, and it’s not the same, even though people still have friends from other ethnic groups,” he says as he baby-sits his 7-year-old grandson in a park next to a cemetery that contains the remains of Ottoman graves as well as some of those killed by snipers in the 1990s. And when it comes to Republika Srpska, there’s barely any relationship at all. “There’s little contact with Serbs.”

Recent history remains explosive. The town of Srebrenica—about 80 miles by road from Sarajevo—was the scene of the mass murder of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys during the Bosnian war. A Muslim-majority town before the bloodshed, it’s now part of the ethnic Serb enclave ruled by Dodik. The possibility that it could end up in an independent Serb state set up by Dodik is unthinkable to Bosnia’s Muslims, according to Valentin Inzko, the Austrian diplomat who is the current high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, a position set up by the Dayton accords.

Dodik’s rise to the country’s three-headed presidential council revives bad memories for Ahmed Ustic, a 40-year-old hairdresser in Srebrenica. In July 1995, as Bosnian Serb forces overran the area—which had been designated as a United Nations safe haven—Ustic survived by trekking with thousands of other men through forests to the Bosnian government-held town Tuzla, a hazardous ordeal now known as the “Death March.” Despite the ethnic cleansing of Srebrenica, Ustic returned in 2008 to reside among its new Bosnian Serb majority. Reached by phone at his parlor, Ustic says, “I have an Orthodox woman sitting here, and we have to live together and work together.” But, he adds, “I’m completely disappointed by how everything has turned out. Dodik got the votes of many people. There are many people who voted for him, and that is worrisome for me.” Ustic doesn’t expect war but is prepared to leave again if the situation deteriorates.

The UN, EU, and U.S. classified the Srebrenica atrocities as genocide in a 2004 report. Dodik acknowledged it in 2008, but then in 2016, as he promoted his separatist plans, he said Serbs “would never accept that there was genocide in Srebrenica.” Dodik was slapped with U.S. financial sanctions last year for undermining Bosnian stability. That’s not been enough to impede his ambitions; on Oct. 7 he defeated the Serb incumbent on the presidential council by getting 56 percent of the vote. “With this outcome of the election, Bosnia has entered the most volatile, the most uncertain phase since the Dayton peace agreement,” says Dragan Bagic, a sociology professor at the University of Zagreb. “Now, one of the key representatives of Bosnia is someone who most radically questions its existence.”

Dodik’s first move was to announce that he won’t enter the presidency building in Sarajevo without bringing a Republika Srpska flag with him—a symbol of separateness. He also said he will only participate in meetings in Sarajevo via a video link from his office in the capital’s eastern suburb, from where Bosnian Serb forces shelled the city during the three-year war.

It’s not clear who can stop Dodik, even though Bosnia’s complex ethnic power-sharing system is still overseen by the high representative. Under the Dayton accords, Inzko has the power to remove Dodik from his position. Naturally, Dodik wants Inzko’s post rescinded. “If they want a stronger Bosnia than the one today, then they must get rid of the high representative,” Dodik declared on Sept. 29 during his campaign. Inzko shrugs off the proposal: “Paradoxically, the people who are most in favor of removing the international oversight are the same people who are most responsible for perpetuating the need for international presence.”

The Serb leader has repeatedly called for a referendum on independence, though he has thus far stopped short of setting a date. Inzko says he believes Dodik will ultimately back down. “He should be given a benefit of doubt,” Inzko says. “He is now bound to respect territorial integrity of the country, the constitution, and the Dayton treaty.”

But history repeats itself again and again in the Balkans. “Bosnia has landed in a situation of even greater nationalism that leads nowhere but more divisions and possible confrontations,” says the Croatian journalist and novelist Slavenka Drakulic. She says it’s foolish to argue that these problems aren’t important and alludes to a comment made by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after Hitler annexed sections of Czechoslovakia in 1938. It was, Chamberlain said, “a quarrel in a forgotten country between people of whom we know nothing.” Out of that quarrel came the holocausts and horrors of World War II. —With Misha Savic

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at

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