European Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi travels to Bosnia and Herzegovina on Wednesday and Thursday (24-25 November) in an effort to defuse the ongoing political crisis in the country that is once again cracking along ethnic lines after a bloody 1992-95 war.
Asked by EURACTIV if any tangible outcomes are expected from the visit, a European Commission spokesperson said they “cannot prejudge the discussions”.
The divided country’s crisis escalated last summer when the leadership of Republika Srpska, one of post-war Bosnia’s two entities, announced a boycott of joint central institutions that have held the country together since the 1995 Dayton peace agreement.
The move was a response to the outgoing top international envoy Valentin Inzko’s decision from 23 July to outlaw denial of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, which Serb leaders found unacceptable.
The Office of the High Representative (OHR), which is charged with the civilian implementation of the peace agreement, has the authority to impose decisions or dismiss officials.
Inzko’s successor, Christian Schmidt, has since been warning of a deteriorating situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, underscored by Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik’s promises of secession and creation of an army separate from the joint state forces.
The loose central institutions of BiH hold Republika Srpska in an uneasy state alliance with the other entity, the Bosniak-Croat federation.
Any political solution will have to take into account the demands of the HDZ, the biggest Croat party, and its leader, Dragan Čović, who despite claiming support of the majority of Croats is not the current member of the country’s tripartite presidency representing the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.
The HDZ refuses to acknowledge the current Croat representative, Željko Komšić, saying he had been elected thanks to Bosniak votes.
Čović and the HDZ have been demanding an overhaul of the electoral law in a way that would bolster the position of Croats in elections in the Federation, where Bosniaks represent a sizeable majority.
The issue of whether to acknowledge the HDZ’s claims has divided the political groups in the European Parliament as well.
Speaking on behalf of the Christian conservative European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest force in the European Parliament, MEP Andrey Kovatchev said: “In order to secure peace and stability, the three communities have to be represented in a fair way”.
“This is why changes in the electoral law are in high demand to provide the Croats in Bosnia Herzegovina with an opportunity to be on an equal footing in terms of representations with the other two communities,” he told the Parliament’s plenary in Strasbourg on Tuesday (23 November).
Meanwhile, the much smaller Greens have been calling for the phasing-out of ethnicity-based logic.
“I urge the EU and the whole international community not to compromise on the so much needed democratic reforms and to finally depart from the ethnic division lines,” said MEP Tineke Strik.
To sanction or not to sanction?
Slovenian Foreign Minister Anže Logar, whose country holds the rotating EU Council presidency, said “the recent blockage of state institution is unacceptable.”
“Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political leaders need to overcome the stalemate as a matter of priority and return the focus on joint efforts to more move forwards on reforms, which will enable the country to advance on its EU path,”, he told lawmakers during Tuesday’s debate.
The EU has so far been heavily criticised for its lacklustre response to the crisis and Washington, which largely abandoned the region after the war, seems much keener to have an active role now.
During their (15 November) meeting in Brussels, EU foreign affairs ministers discussed the situation in Bosnia but without tangible outcomes.
The issue of whether to slap Dodik with sanctions has also divided the bloc, but only Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Czech Republic supported the idea, far short of the necessary 15 EU countries.
In contrast, the US has taken a more assertive role, with US Western Balkan Special Envoy Gabriel Escobar accusing Dodik of provoking a new crisis to “protect his power and his money”, in a recent interview with Radio Free Europe.
However, the division amongst EU countries on sanctions is also reflected in the European Parliament, where the EPP made no mention of sanctions in Tuesday’s debate.
The Greens, strong advocates of sanctions, also backed by social democrats and liberals, failed to get a resolution on the situation in BiH on the agenda for the plenary session this week.
“The European Union cannot remain silent,” social democrat MEP Pedro Marques told Parliament’s debate on Bosnia.
“It must play a much stronger role with all instruments at its disposal, including pressure and even sanctions to preserve Bosnia and Herzegovina territorial integrity, unity and peace,” he added.
Klemen Grošelj, a Slovenian MEP for the liberal Renew group, echoed this: “Our Euroatlantic friends and the EU need to act immediately, including sanctions. Sanctions should also be on the table”.
Another way to apply financial pressure on Dodik would be to cut the EU’s financial aid for countries waiting to join the club.
However, that would require a political push from the cabinet of Commissioner Várhelyi, who in turn has been accused of favouring Dodik-ally Serbia’s EU bid and playing down democracy concerns in Belgrade.
Unlike Serbia, which is already conducting EU accession negotiations, Bosnia-Herzegovina has applied for membership but is not yet an official candidate.
After a recent trip to Bosnia, MEP Strik told journalists Várhelyi has declined to place responsibility on Milorad Dodik for the crisis.
“He said, ‘look, I think it’s the EU actually that is the cause of all of this because we don’t give any perspective and therefore we should open new [negotiating] clusters for Serbia,” the green MEP recounted her recent meeting with the Commissioner.
She added that Várhely is actually “one of the persons supporting Dodik and the Serbs”.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]