Twenty years and three months after the Dayton Peace Accords, which marked an end to the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II,[1] Bosnia and Herzegovina will submit its long-awaited formal application for European Union membership on 15 February. This application kicks into action a multi-step process, which could see the strife-ridden nation joining the EU in a decade if all goes according to plan — the caveat being that in this corner of the Balkans, things don’t always go according to plan, and are never as simple as they seem.

Image courtesy of BloodSaric © 2007, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of BloodSaric © 2007, some rights reserved.

‘It is realistic that we [will] get candidate status at the beginning of [2017],’ said Dragan Čović, chairman of Bosnia’s presidency, with ultimate membership currently targeted for 2025. Becoming part of the EU would be the realisation of a long-term goal for Bosnia, one which has long eluded the young country due to a myriad of stumbling blocks. Challenges include a convoluted and cumbersome governmental system, which more often than not serves to feed into lingering ethnic tensions, the frequent threat of secession by the ethnically Serb administrative entity of the Republika Srpska, and Republika Srpska’s relationship — founded in ethnic and religious solidarity — with the Russian Federation.

Rather than establishing an egalitarian democracy with room for sustainable development and ethnic cooperation, the Dayton Agreement’s terms froze into place the ethnic divisions that plagued the nation for decades. With a few alterations, the Inter-Entity Boundary Line [IEBL] between the primarily Bosnian-Croat administrative area of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the ethnically Serbian Republika Srpska closely mirrors the front lines of the 1992-1995 civil war.[2] Republika Srpska’s president, Milorad Dodik, has repeatedly threatened an independence referendum, a notion that Russia supports. Last July, Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution which would have classified the Srebrenica massacre as a genocide,[3] and current and past Russian ambassadors to Bosnia have expressed sympathy toward the idea of a referendum, as well as an unwillingness to support Bosnia’s bid for membership in either the EU or NATO, despite having previously agreed to do so.[4]

By getting involved in the affairs of this former Yugoslavian region, Moscow is making the implicit yet clear statement that it will do whatever it takes to obstruct Western power and/or involvement in lands which Russia feels remain within its sphere of influence. By seeking to exert influence on Bosnia, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is behaving as it did with Ukraine, another state that had previously sought EU membership before said bid was derailed by its conflict with Russia.

Bosnia’s EU application does not come as a surprise, as Sarajevo and the EU have been courting each other for quite a while. The Western Balkans are in many ways the last frontier for the European Union. The only Western European states to remain separate from the EU (Iceland, Norway, and Switzerland) have done so by choice. By contrast, the majority of the Western Balkan states historically have not been economically stable enough to join. With Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania now on the official list of candidates for membership, only Bosnia and Kosovo — the latter of which isn’t recognised as a nation by five EU member states — remain outsiders. For Brussels, gaining the full complement of the Western Balkan nations would be a major accomplishment, one which would go a long way toward the EU’s aim of promoting the stability and economic prosperity of the continent. Russia’s backing of the Republika Srpska, however, adds another layer to the complicated geopolitical fabric of Bosnia and its EU bid. In the event of an eventual successful Republika Srpska independence referendum, Russia — with President Dodik on speed-dial — appears ready to dive into the carnage to establish a proxy state, not unlike what it did in Crimea in 2014. The stakes have been raised.

Bosnia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement [SAA] with the EU, a step which typically precedes official candidacy and involves the state in question making commitments to reform in exchange for economic aid from the EU, was originally ratified in 2011 but had failed to go into effect due to the nation’s inability to meet the stated requirements and the EU’s concern about Bosnia’s ethnic strife and political corruption.[5] Today, hesitations remain with all eyes on the Serbian contingent and on Putin, but the EU is evidently concerned enough about Russia to finally give the go-ahead on Bosnian EU candidacy. In November 2015, Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador to the UN and former ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, expressed concern about ‘the threat of a referendum in the Republika Srpska questioning the state-level judiciary and the powers of the High Representative’ and called the threat of a referendum ‘divisive, anti-constitutional, and contrary to the Dayton Agreement,’ yet he iterated Europe’s commitment to supporting Bosnia through the necessary reforms in order for it to see its way to EU membership.[6]

It is therefore plain that the EU’s willingness to look past Bosnia’s shortcomings, to green-light the process of eventual membership, and to help the nation financially with the goal of meeting EU prerequisites, can be seen not only as part of the EU’s standard plan for expansion, but also as a defensive measure in keeping Bosnia and Herzegovina whole and healthy and, crucially, out of Putin’s range of influence. In this regard, Bosnia is already unwittingly serving the role of proxy in the high-risk chess game between the West and President Putin.

The situation will likely culminate in one of two ways for Bosnia and Herzegovina: either with increased Bosniak-Croat-Serb cooperation and a membership in the European Union, proving the Dayton Agreement to be a long-term diplomatic success, or it could equally plausibly end with the nation crumbling along its ethnic divides, with Russia, via the Republika Srpska, indirectly staking its claim to the region.

[1] Simkus, Albert, and Kristen Ringdal, eds. The Aftermath of War: Experiences and Social Attitudes in the Western Balkans. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2013.

[2] Bastian, Sunil, and Robin Luckham. Can Democracy Be Designed?: The Politics of Institutional Choice in Conflict-Torn Societies. London: Zed Books, 2003.

[3] www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/07/russia-vetoes-genocide-resolution-srebrenica-150708150057291.html

[4] www.sarajevo.mid.ru/pr_lj_148.html

[5] https://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RS21344.pdf

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-whole-security-council-is-committed-to-the-territorial-integrity-and-sovereignty-of-bosnia-and-herzegovina