Bosnia and Herzegovina faces grave political crisis exacerbated by Russia’s War on Ukraine, NATO PA delegation hears

13 June 2022


Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is coping with the most severe political crisis since the country emerged from the ashes of a bitter civil war almost thirty years ago, a delegation of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NATO PA) learned during a visit from 7 to 9 June 2022. After a decade of mounting internal tensions and lack of international focus, political fissures in BiH have recently deepened while Russia’s war against Ukraine and meddling in the Western Balkans have exposed the country’s vulnerabilities. 

In an effort to learn more about these worrying developments and to express solidarity with all citizens of BiH, the delegation, which consisted of over 20 legislators from NATO member countries and partners from the Western Balkans, met with a number of the most important protagonists in BiH. 

In the midst of the visit, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Christian Schmidt, invoked the so-called Bonn Powers to ensure allocation of sufficient funding to the Central Election Commission to prepare and organise elections on 2 October. The BiH Council of Ministers had failed to allocate full funding the previous day. Schmidt told the delegation that “nationalist narratives will not bring reconciliation nor promise a future. I don’t know who will win, who will run, and what I did was to ensure that there is paper for ballots.  The tensions are getting higher. We have to try to cool this situation down. We have to bring cooperative understanding to this country.”

The parliamentarians of the NATO PA's Sub-Committee on Transition and Development explored the sources of the BiH’s political stasis, economic torpor and far too slow progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration in extensive discussions with parliamentarians and senior government leaders from BiH, members of the diplomatic community in Sarajevo, the commanders of EUFOR and NATO HQ Sarajevo, civil society actors as well as business leaders in Kresevo, a town in Central Bosnia where, unlike in much of the country, the private sector is driving job creation and demonstrating the country’s potential to flourish when and where good governance is practiced. 

The delegation heard from several observers that BiH’s political system is handicapped by a political elite that purposefully ratchets up ethnic tensions to perpetuate their positions in power and to expand their privileges and access to an overly large public sector. At a moment of grave international tension in Europe linked to Russia’s war on Ukraine, the internal crisis in BiH is now generating serious concerns in NATO and EU capitals.

The mass emigration of young and talented people from BiH represents one of the most worrying trends in the country, Ivana Korajlic, Executive Director of the BiH chapter of Transparency International, told the delegation. She said that pervasive corruption has closed off opportunities for the most dynamic elements in society, leaving many little choice but to emigrate to the EU. They are, in essence, voting with their feet and feel that they cannot afford to wait for positive change and economic opportunity in a heavily statist national economy which corrupt leaders exploit while undermining the private sector. 

Although Russia is the source of very little investment and economic support to the country, Russia is an outsize political factor in parts of the country, notably Republika Srpska, and contributes to hardening divisions and political instability, members heard. The head of the EU Delegation and EU Special Representative, Johann Sattler, noted that the EU worked hard to counter Russia’s false narratives in the country, especially in the wake of its war against Ukraine.

Both NATO and the EU have expressed deepening concern about the security situation in BiH. On 23 February 2022, as a precautionary measure to strengthen stability, the European Union reinforced the EUFOR Althea mission by deploying about 500 personnel from EUFOR's reserves to BiH. EUFOR’s Commander, Major General Anton Wessely, told the delegation that this was a “prudent measure due to tensions and spill-over potential of Ukraine.” He added that the goal now is to make this increase a permanent signal of the EU’s “100%” commitment to stability in BiH. In November, the UN Security Council is set to make a decision on renewing EUFOR’s mandate. A number of speakers noted that there is very strong European and North American determination to maintain a military presence to safeguard the security of all in BiH.

NATO supports the EU-led operation EUFOR Althea, and the two Commands are based at Butmir Camp, which the delegation visited on the outskirts of Sarajevo. NATO Commander Brigadier General Pamela McGaha outlined a series of defence and security sector reforms, while pointing to key outstanding challenges. She said that the creation of an integrated multi-ethnic military in a country that had been torn asunder by civil war, in itself, represented an important success story. 

NATO is working together with BiH, a NATO aspirant country, to explore the possibility of expanding its personnel in the country and of a tailored assistance package to advance the reform and modernisation to advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, without prejudice to a final decision on NATO membership.

Indeed, the ambition to accede to NATO remains vibrant with a large majority of citizens, albeit not in the Republika Srpska. This lack of unity emerged as an important theme in discussions with Šefik Džaferović, the Bosniak member of the Presidency of BiH, and senior advisors to the two other members of the Presidency, Željko Komšić and Milorad Dodik. There is a greater consensus on the notion of EU Accession, but the country has made very little to no progress in meeting the 14 points that the EU has designated as essential before EU candidacy status could be considered.

The head of the Bosnian delegation to the NATO PA, Nikola Lovrinovic, accompanied members of the Sub-Committee, which was led by the Latvian MP Ivans Klementjevs. The visit sought to generate information for the final draft of a Sub-Committee report by Michal Szczerba (Poland) entitled  The Western Balkans: Russia’s War on Ukraine and the Region’s Enduring Challenges

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