Bosnia and Herzegovina at a crossroads, participants at 105th Rose-Roth Seminar in Sarajevo hear

29 November 2023

A clear majority in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to look to EU and NATO membership for their future prosperity. Whether political leaders will cooperate to achieve these goals remains a key challenge, however. In the absence of swift progress, many Bosnians are voting with their feet and moving West themselves. As large-scale emigration continues, internal and external challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina are intensifying. 

Divisive rhetoric and malign external interference, particularly from Russia, threaten further instability and obstruct much-needed reforms. Russia’s brutal aggression against Ukraine has also sent shockwaves throughout the Western Balkans, creating an environment where spoilers feel emboldened to stir up long-standing conflicts and tension along ethnic and confessional fault lines.

Despite these mounting challenges, Bosnia and Herzegovina has made progress on its Euro-Atlantic path in recent years. The new state-level governing coalition is reviving hope for a fresh wave of important reforms. In return, NATO and EU institutional support remains strong. NATO Allies continue to work to deliver ‘tailored support measures’, most recently adopting a Defence Capacity Building package. In parallel, the European Commission recently recommended opening accession negotiations with Sarajevo, with the caveat the country must demonstrate further progress on complying with the EU’s membership criteria.

These, and many more, were key messages and topics under discussion during the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s (NATO PA) 105th Rose-Roth Seminar from 14 to 16 November in Sarajevo. The seminar was organised jointly with the NATO PA’s Defence and Security Committee (DSC) and in cooperation with the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It received financial support from the Swiss Federal Department of Defence and in-kind support from the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF). Alec Shelbrooke (United Kingdom), DSC Chairperson, led the seminar’s participants, which brought together 51 members of parliament from ten NATO Allies and six NATO PA parliamentary partners as well as Bosnian government and parliamentary leaders, regional and international experts, and representatives from local embassies. 

A Complex Arena: Lingering Domestic Hurdles to Effective Reforms and the Rapidly Evolving Euro-Atlantic Security Environment

Bosnia and Herzegovina has long found itself in a challenging security environment. The country emerged in its modern form out of the Dayton Peace Accords after the brutal 1992-1995 Bosnian War, which killed approximately 100,000 people. The Dayton Accords brought peace, but also left the country with a legacy of constitutional challenges for effective governance. The country’s three constituent peoples – Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs – share power via a rotating presidency, and the country itself is divided into two political entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. 

Internally, the country is challenged by two main issues over the past decade: secessionist rhetoric in Republika Srpska and stalled efforts to reform the country’s electoral system. These challenges, particularly secessionist rhetoric coming out of the Republika Srpska, are being amplified by the resonating effects of Russia’s war against Ukraine across Euro-Atlantic security. Russia’s stated enmity toward Euro-Atlantic institutions and its persistent efforts to undermine NATO and EU consensus is emboldening hard-line nationalist regional leaders to push the envelope on fragile political and social accords, driving fears of a renewal of serious conflict in the Western Balkans.

As Mr Shelbrooke stated in his remarks opening the seminar: “Bosnia and Herzegovina and others find themselves on the frontlines of the struggle to protect the democratic ideals that bind us together – democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”. Violent protests rocked Kosovo in May 2023, leaving 93 KFOR troops injured, and an attack in the north of Kosovo in September 2023 resulted in the death of a Kosovar policeman and three ethnically Serbian gunmen. Oana Lungescu, RUSI Distinguished Fellow and former NATO Spokesperson (2010-2023), stressed the dangers of the continued divisive rhetoric threatening to splinter the fragile post-war consensus in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as complacency when it comes to the urgent reforms required to strengthen democratic institutions. Such reforms are necessary to forestall further efforts to undermine the country. 

While Russia has less regional economic leverage than in the past, it remains a powerful regional disruptive force. As experts noted, Russia understands its relative lack of regional power and, therefore, eschews long-term strategy for short-term tactical gains. This means relying more on relationships with individual political actors and cultural influence to undermine reform attempts and sow discord, rather than more direct economic or military means of influence. Olaf Reinertsen, Ambassador of Norway, which holds the function of NATO Contact Point Embassy, reminded delegates that NATO identified Bosnia and Herzegovina “as one of the three most vulnerable” partner countries in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and that “we need to be attentive to potential security threats, such as hybrid warfare and efforts to influence political dynamics”.

Next to Russia, experts told attendees China’s economic influence in the Western Balkans has grown through infrastructure projects and potentially disruptive financing schemes. China is also increasing its soft power and cultural foothold across the region. It does so through the establishment of Confucius institutes, cultural centres, and cooperation agreements between universities. Many experts have raised concern about China’s growing footprint, citing unsustainable debt schemes and the sharing of authoritarian practices.  

While Allies continue to voice strong support for the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina and see stronger NATO-EU cooperation in the Western Balkans as a formula for anchoring peace and prosperity, they must take the continued challenges of malign external influence in the region seriously, participants heard. Unity and determination of the international community are crucial to safeguard security in the region. 

Taking Stock of the Situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina Today

Several high-level representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina briefed participants about recent important reforms after the 2022 elections. Kemal Ademovic, Speaker of the House of Peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina, underscored the significant achievements made since the first Rose-Roth Seminar in Sarajevo almost two decades ago in 2004. Key among recent measures are a strategy on organised crime, an updated risk assessment and an action plan to combat money laundering, and terrorism financing and action plans related to migration and terrorism. Several draft laws on judiciary integrity and freedom of information were adopted by the parliament just this autumn. Borjana Kristo, Chairwoman of the Council of Ministers, underscored a growing will to find consensus and compromise when it comes to important reforms, and Elmedin Konakovic, Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed the Council of Minister’s ability to take much-needed decisions quickly. 

Representatives of the international community agreed a newfound reform momentum exists in the country. High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, told attendees a willingness for reforms unseen in previous years now prevails. Adebayo Babajide, Deputy Head of Delegation of the EU to Bosnia and Herzegovina, noted more progress on reforms within the last three months than in the past three years. All experts agreed, however, that the ability to sustain this will is essential, and that only the Bosnian political leadership can take the action necessary on crucial reforms to continue down the Euro-Atlantic path.

Despite these positive marks, all experts underscored a variety of remaining challenges. Some actors are ready to challenge the Dayton Peace Agreement openly. As the High Representative noted: “Republika Srpska politicians have not abandoned their secessionist policies, but rather have intensified them in recent months”. In addition, efforts to secure judiciary independence and combat entrenched corruption and cronyism remain stalled. Further, necessary progress on electoral reforms is also lacking. Implementing them by the October 2024 municipal elections will be a crucial litmus test of the new government.

The Challenge of a Brain Drain-sapped Future

Entrenched corruption and cronyism, an anaemic and stymied private sector and a bloated and party-captured public sector are all key factors pushing sizeable numbers of citizens out of Bosnia and Herzegovina, participants heard. As experts noted, Bosnia and Herzegovina is among the countries most impacted by emigration globally, particularly among the youth. The country has lost one quarter of its population over the last three decades, and a recent study found a full remaining third of the country’s youth expressed a strong desire to emigrate. The Bosnia and Herzegovinian diaspora is so large that its remittances now account for almost 10% of GDP.

The departure of younger generations has a real and significant impact on the country across all sectors. Essential services, from policing to the health sector to the military, struggle for personnel. Across the country, a lack of new young minds also suffocates potential economic grow and dynamism.

Stopping and reversing this brain drain is, therefore, a major priority for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Elmedin Konakovic, Minister of Foreign Affairs, stressed that fighting corruption is a priority for the Council of Ministers as it is a major factor driving emigration. Experts made it clear that Bosnia and Herzegovina can and must do more or it risks future peace and stability. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina on the Euro-Atlantic Path

A clear outcome of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine has been renewed attention to ‘vulnerable’ partners in their near neighbourhood by the Euro-Atlantic community. NATO Allies highlighted the need to bolster the resilience of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia via new tailored support measures. In parallel, the EU also refocused its attention on its Balkan partners, with the European Commission calling for accession negotiations with Sarajevo, contingent upon further progress on complying with the EU’s membership criteria. 

As many experts noted, the country’s leaders have a real window of opportunity with the newfound support initiatives from both NATO and the EU – one that should not be squandered. Progress on its Euro-Atlantic path, they stressed, would not only foster peace and prosperity, but would also counteract the risk of potentially irreparable disillusionment among the public about the countries’ Euro-Atlantic future.
NATO Allies announced a new Defence Capacity Building package for Bosnia and Herzegovina in February 2023. The package focuses on areas such as crisis management, cyber defence, aero-medical evacuation, and counterterrorism. External experts noted the package, along with broader NATO Allied resilience-building efforts in the country, are needed more than ever. Brigadier General Pamela McGaha, Commander NATO Headquarters-Sarajevo, told the delegation that Allied investments in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s armed forces have an ‘outsized’ impact on the ground. She noted that the armed forces are rated as among the most trusted institutions in the country and that continued focus on them should remain an imperative. 

Allied attention, many external experts stressed, has a significant impact. Daniel Hunn, Ambassador of Switzerland to Bosnia and Herzegovina, noted strong support for NATO’s Partnership for Peace Programme (PfP) cooperation with Sarajevo, underscoring its consistent and multipronged impact in the country. Echoing this sentiment, General McGaha, cited the 2022 certification of a light infantry battalion group to NATO combat readiness standards, the largest unit ever certified under the PfP mechanism. 

NATO support for Bosnia and Herzegovina has remained steadfast since it joined the PfP in 2006. A conditional invitation to the Membership Action Plan (MAP) came in 2010, with a principal hurdle being the national registration of immovable defence property, a process which remains incomplete. Allies offered a way forward in 2018 by expressing a readiness to accept Bosnia and Herzegovina’s first Annual National Programme under the MAP, a step subsequently blocked by opposition from the Republika Srpksa. Sarajevo instead submitted a so-called Reform Programme outlining intended reforms and providing areas for focused Allied support. 

To coordinate the activities within the Reform Programme, Bosnia and Herzegovina also created the Commission for Cooperation with NATO in early 2021. However, the Minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Relations, Stasa Kosarac, decided to withdraw ministerial representatives from the Commission in line with the position of the Republika Srpska in April 2023. The Speaker of the House of Peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kemal Ademovic, however, stressed the country continues to fulfil Reform Programme obligations despite these challenges, but acknowledged further progress requires consensus amongst the three constituent peoples. 

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Prospects for Accession Negotiations with the EU

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s EU prospects, while brighter than ever, remain fraught with significant challenges. After signing a Stabilisation and Association Agreement in 2015, Bosnia and Herzegovina submitted its application for EU membership in early 2016. In December 2019, the European Council endorsed 14 European Commission-identified priorities for EU its membership application. The country was granted candidate status in 2022, and the European Commission recommended opening accession negotiations in November 2023, contingent upon further progress on complying with the EU’s membership criteria. 

The European Commission’s recommendation is a key step forward and has unleashed some new momentum. Throughout the seminar, governmental representatives outlined various reforms already initiated and others to be taken to fulfil these criteria. As Marina Pendes, Deputy Head of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s delegation to the NATO PA, noted, the door is wide open, and it is up to Bosnia and Herzegovina to walk through by delivering on reforms. 

Taken together, Bosnia and Herzegovina finds itself at a crossroads. The country’s future prosperity hinges upon its Euro-Atlantic integration. Political leaders need to demonstrate the political will to make the significant remaining reforms to obtain the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of a majority of its people. To get there, Bosnia and Herzegovina must make full use of new NATO and EU support initiatives. A failure to do so will only condemn the country to further political paralysis and economic stagnation, which will in turn only be further amplified by the continued emigration of future generations West.

Additional topics of discussion during the seminar included:
•    Climate change and resilience in the Western Balkans;
•    Cybersecurity governance and the role of parliaments; and
•    Switzerland’s support towards peace and security in the Western Balkans

Throughout the seminar, Members of Parliament engaged with the following speakers:

Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Borjana Kristo, Chairwoman
Elmedin Konakovic, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Slaven Galic, Deputy Minister of Defence
Ivica Bosnjak, Deputy Minister of Security
Muhamed Hasanovic, Deputy Minister of Finance and Treasury

House of Peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Kemal Ademovic, Speaker

Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Nermin Niksic, Prime Minister
Barisa Colak, Advisor to the President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Directorate for Coordination of Police Bodies of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Enes Karic, Director

Representatives of the International Community
Christian Schmidt, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina
Daniel Hunn, Ambassador of Switzerland to Bosnia and Herzegovina
Olav Reinertsen, Ambassador of Norway to Bosnia and Herzegovina and NATO CPE
Brigadier General Pamela McGaha, NATO HQ Commander in Sarajevo
Adebayo Babajide, Deputy Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Bosnia and Herzegovina

Former Officials, Experts, Academics and Civil Society
Mladen Ivanic, Former member of the Presidency, University Professor
Srecko Latal, independent analyst
Ivana Korajlic, Executive Director, Transparency International, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Marko Prelec, Consulting Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group, Belgium
Jelena Dzankic, Global Governance Programme, Robert Schuman Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, Italy
Nedzma Dzananovic Mirascija, Associate Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Sarajevo
Jens Bastian, CATS Fellow, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)
Othon Anastasakis, Director, South-East European Studies at Oxford (SEESOX), St Antony's College 
Alida Vracic, Executive Director and Co-Founder “Populari”
Dzeneta Karabegovic, Researcher, University of Salzburg
Lejla Suman, Director of the Resource Environmental Centre (REC) in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Ivana Vojinovic, Director of the Centre for Climate Change, Natural Resources and Energy at the University Donja Gorica 
Goran Svilanovic, Consultant ABKONS, Serbia
Marc Henauer, Head, MELANI Operation and Information Centre, Switzerland 
Predrag Puharic, Associate – Faculty for Criminal Justice and Security Studies, CEO, Cyber Security Excellence Centre, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Photos © Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Read also