The never-ending animosity seems to be the driving force among the main three ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats and Bosniak – in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). This results in constant competition among each other to develop ‘their’ part of the country while simultaneously discouraging unity, potential disclosure and a new beginning. This is especially seen between two entities of BiH – Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH). Therefore, Bosnian dream of joining the European Union (EU) might never happened because EU membership could bring fatal consequences instead of being a salvation, all due to Bosnian internal division.
Better cooperation between two entities in order to join the EU as soon as possible and as smooth as possible is hindered by how Republika Srpska is viewed by the rest of Bosnian population. Republika Srpska is often stated to be an entity guilty of genocide and ethnic cleansing. Toleration between entities in BiH as well as among the population is the only option at the moment but even that sometimes seems to be too much to ask for. Controversy regarding Republika Srpska and its history is a continuous source of controversies. What is certain and visible is that RS does not feel nor does it act like it is a part of BiH, and its actions and political leaders’ statements keep confirming that.
Besides accusation of genocide and ethnic cleansing, another reason of hostility towards RS is because Assembly of Serbs on January 9th 1992 announced Republika Srpska as an independent entity within BiH with the aim of being part of Yugoslavia, although Yugoslavia was already falling apart. Despite the fact that establishment of autonomous Croatian and Serbian regions started in 1991, RS received disproval because it was against disintegration of Yugoslavia along with Serbia, while the rest wanted independence and removed themselves from communist Yugoslavia.
Is joining the EU in these conditions possible? What could joining the EU do to BiH and its internal matters? Joining the EU by a state that is divided does not necessarily impose problems. Cyprus became an EU member despite internal disputes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots meaning BiH should have a chance joining the EU without resolving the internal division.
In the case of BiH, joining the EU could cause a vicious circle of problems and further separation instead of solutions, progress and harmony. Republika Srpska already has a very clear and strong attitude about wanting to be independent, and it continues to act to separate itself from Bosnia. As the result, joining the EU will only encourage RS to make more radical decisions.
RS has already been working on with Serbia on creating a joint declaration on the Serbian nation’s survival. The prime minister of RS Željka Cvijanović claims Serbia does not have any direct political influence regarding RS but she recognizes political cooperation. This can be interpreted as the continuation of the idea of the Greater Serbia.
Attempts at joining the EU will encourage even stronger cooperation between RS and Serbia. RS has Serbia’s support since Bosnian war, also regular meetings between RS’ and Serbian leaders occur at least twice a year since the war and the leaders have also signed Agreement on Special Parallel Relations. Their devotion and cooperation is undoubtedly strong. It could also make RS turn to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president who has already met with RS authorities several times and cooperates gladly with RS. Russia has been a traditional ally of Serbia and also does not want further EU enlargement; hence, Putin’s involvement will be inevitable if BiH joins the EU. Putin is careful with his moves and knows that another war in BiH is possible and that is not what he wants; however, if the EU keeps pushing him, he will be encouraging Serbian separatism even more, even at the cost of another war, especially given it is not on the Russian territory. Putin just like the EU prefers stability in the region but he does not want stability created under EU conditions. Therefore, if Serbian separatism, destabilization of BiH and a war are necessary for EU domination to be prevented, it will happen. However, Putin will more likely try to keep separatism strong enough to destabilize BiH but not strong enough to create a war. At the end of the day, the gains need to outweigh the losses which in case of another war in BiH is unlikely.
T-shirts featuring war criminals can be bought easily in RS. RS lives in the past and wants to build its future based on the ideas from the past which does not go along with EU vision of Europe and cooperation. For instance, on November 22, 2017 Bosnian Serb former general Ratko Mladić was found guilty of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Mladić who is seen in Europe, especially in BiH, as a war criminal in RS is viewed as a hero and Bosnian Serbs think he was treated unfairly. How can BiH move forward when certain figures are seen as war criminals by ones and heroes by others? It is extreme characterization of a person but also extreme division within BiH.
Furthermore, recently PM of RS Ž.Cvijanović has stated that RS will be the first to recognize Catalonia and its independence. Naturally, RS cannot recognize Catalonia because it is an entity, not a sovereign country but such statements should not be ignored. This confirms RS’ separatist attitude and ambitious. RS sees itself as a country within a country. RS might not be independent but it is not giving this goal ip.
On the other hand, RS is not allowing BiH to recognize Kosovo because of its loyalty towards Serbia. RS is loyal to Serbia, sees Russia as a friend and turning towards EU and the West is not an option for them in the near future. That is why BiH joining the EU could cause enormous struggles within BiH.
EU will not change the attitude of RS and Bosnian Serbs. They see themselves as one Serbian nation across the river. A supranational EU approach is not something RS would sympathise with. This is evident more through statements of RS’ political leaders which carry enormous weight and the president of RS entity saying he dreams and believes RS will be an independent country and that it is just a matter of time. Joining the EU by BiH is, clearly, not the right decision now and it will not provide favorable solution.
For BiH becoming a member-state of the EU and simultaneously preventing Serbian separatism currently seems a mission impossible. Joining the EU should be put on freeze and should not happen for now but that does not mean EU should give up on BiH. Some agreements should be signed with BiH to put BiH in a better situation and give it some benefits to enjoy although it would not be an EU member. Those agreements should allow more beneficial business cooperation and easier trade. Also it should allow and encourage investors to go to BiH. Prosperity and progress will increase the chance of uniting BiH because once economy starts developing the two entities might see politics differently and realize that they need to let go of the past and the future needs a different mind-set which cannot be achieved through disputes, and constantly working against each other.
Economic cooperation with a political aim should be a strategy for BiH, and once economic areas start to cooperate, RS will simply have to change its approach and mentality in order not to miss out on the opportunity. Politically, a third player is certainly needed because two entities alone will not solve anything alone. EU can be that third player but it needs to be careful, cautious, make small steps and wait for better times.
The author Tihana Tokić is an analyst of Balkan Region Affairs at Višegrad Plus