International Crisis Group New Report – Bosnia: What Does Republika Srpska Want?
Executive Summary and Recommendations
Republika Srpska’s flirtation in June 2011 with a referendum is a reminder that Bosnia’s smaller entity still threatens the stability of the country and the Western Balkans. It is highly unlikely that the RS will secede or that the Bosniaks will attempt to eliminate it, but if its Serb leaders continue driving every conflict with Sarajevo to the brink, as they have done repeatedly to date, they risk disaster. The agility of leaders and the population’s patience need only fail once to ignite serious violence. Over the longer term, RS’s determination to limit Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) to little more than a coordinator between powerful entities may so shrivel the state that it sinks, taking RS with it. RS also suffers from its own internal problems, notably a culture of impunity for political and economic elites and a lingering odour of wartime atrocities. Its leadership, especially its president, Milorad Dodik, needs to compromise with Sarajevo on state building and implement urgent entity-level reforms.
The RS threatened a referendum early in 2011 that could have provided support for a Serb walkout of Bosnian institutions and brought BiH back to the brink of war. The situation was defused in June, when the European Union (EU) offered a dialogue process on the judiciary, whose reform the RS was demanding. State and entity officials sat down and began to review the county’s complex judicial system with an eye to harmonising it with the EU body of law (acquis communautaire). The process will be long and painstaking, but RS can achieve effective change only by working through the BiH Parliamentary Assembly and Constitutional Court.
The international community has wrestled with RS for years. Given a free choice, many in the entity would prefer independence, but this is unacceptable to the rest of Bosnia and the international community. The RS is too weak to fight its way to independence and would not achieve international recognition as a state. Its leaders reject much of the internationally-led state-building project that has given Bosnia its current administrative structure. Some Bosniak and international observers believe international will has flagged, giving Serbs room to sabotage the state, while other international and Serb observers argue international interventions keep Serbs in a bunker mentality. The EU’s response, aided by the U.S. and others, to the political and legal challenge the RS posed in June offers a non-coercive alternative from which it will be difficult for any party to walk away.
Bosniaks, Croats and the international community have little choice but to engage with RS elites, especially President Dodik. He is the most populist and difficult leader the RS has had for years, but he and his party have strong support. The opposition did better than expected in the October 2010 elections, especially in the contest for the Serb position in the BiH presidency, but Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats party (Savez nezavisnih socijaldemokrata, SNSD) controls the RS government and presidency, as well as the Republika Srpska National Assembly (RSNA). Nationalism and protection of the RS remain the entity’s unifying idée fixe.
The RS is divided into east-west halves. The SNSD appears invincible in the politically and economically more influential western portion, controlling every municipality either directly or in coalition with a smaller party, and is encroaching on the traditional eastern stronghold of the Serb Democratic Party (Srpska demokratska stranka, SDS). Dodik’s government decides all budgetary issues, as well as much of the investment that goes to the east. Many eastern municipalities, especially those run by the opposition, feel deprived and are slowly beginning to seek greater economic and political decentralisation, but this takes a back seat to concerns about protecting RS as a whole.
Corruption and weak rule of law undermine economic growth. The RS, like the rest of Bosnia, is only slowly emerging from the recession that resulted from the global financial crisis. Privatisation of RS Telecom and an oil refinery gave the RS a cash bonanza in 2006-2008, creating a false glow of prosperity. But these funds have done little to further growth, and recent tax increases and expected cuts in social services may breed social dissatisfaction.
Many Serbs believe that they are asked to shoulder all blame for the 1992-1995 war, accused of being occupiers and aggressors. An overwhelming number of the war’s victims were Bosniak civilians, who suffered vicious ethnic cleansing and, most horrifically and prominently, mass murder in Srebrenica. Serbs worry that the RS will be taken away from them if they admit they carried out a genocide at Srebrenica. But this is an empty fear. Rather, RS elites should acknowledge the responsibility of their wartime leaders and support reconciliation efforts so as to become more respected and trusted authorities throughout Bosnia.
To the Government of Republika Srpska:
1. Cease challenging the emergency powers of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and the legitimacy of state institutions by calling for referendums; work instead to mend contested state institutions, including by:
- a) using all available procedures in the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH; and
- b) challenging impugned aspects of the institutions in question in the Constitutional Court of BiH.
2. Improve government-to-government relations with BiH and the (Bosniak-dominated) Federation of BiH, by holding regular and frequent joint sessions.
3. Cease support and funding for divisive commemorations of wartime events.
4. Support and fund actions to establish the historical truth about the war and to reconcile BiH citizens, such as by:
- a) presenting awards to persons and institutions responsible for saving the lives of members of persecuted communities; and
- b) publicising options for returnees to maintain links to the Federation, including health and social services.
To the President of Republika Srpska:
5. Promote reforms to:
- a) strengthen the rule of law and root out corruption;
- b) increase decentralisation; and
- c) multiply investment in less developed regions, especially those to which displaced persons have returned and in the eastern RS.
6. Deliver speeches to the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH and at the annual commemoration at Potočari acknowledging fully the responsibility of the wartime RS leadership, including past presidents of RS, for genocide in Srebrenica and crimes against humanity elsewhere in BiH.
To the National Assembly of Republika Srpska:
7. Amend the RS constitution to limit the Vital National Interest veto to matters of genuine national interest and to remove the ambiguity that allows the Constitutional Court to circumvent the veto.
To the European Union:
8. Declare that neither partition nor greater centralisation is compatible with Bosnia’s early progress toward EU membership.
9. Continue the high level dialogue on the judiciary and expand its format to address other disputed issues, while keeping international partners fully informed of progress.
To the Government of the United States:
10. Support EU efforts on judicial reform and other issues.
Sarajevo/Istanbul/Brussels, 6 October 2011
Bosnia: What Does Republika Srpska Want?
If the leaders of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) continue driving every conflict with Sarajevo to the brink, they risk disaster for themselves, the country and the Western Balkans.
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