Now, war has returned to Europe and, once again, the West is allowing a sovereign people to be the target of brutal aggression. If this isn’t an urgent wake-up call for European Union leaders that they must accept Ukraine and the Western Balkans into the bloc, then they are incapable of understanding what is at stake.
But many obstacles remain in the way of integration.
The nationalist and revisionist worldview of Russia has found a receptive audience in the region, in particular in President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary.
Serbia is the only European country refusing to impose sanctions against Russia. Vucic has tried to have it both ways, courting the West while strengthening energy and trade ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But his political base is very pro-Moscow, influenced by propaganda peddled by media outlets that support Vucic. While Serbia has become a Russian client state, the forces that triggered war and genocide in the Balkans are again gaining ground.
In 2019, Serbia’s defense ministry promoted books denying war crimes committed by Serb forces in former Yugoslavia, which earned it a sharp rebuke from human rights activists. Last October, the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center issued a report describing how officials have manufactured a populist narrative of national pride built on the lie that “previous governments and international community coerced the Serbian nation to feel ashamed about its heroes and victims of the 1990s wars.” These efforts echo Putin’s own victimization narrative justifying his invasion of Ukraine.
In Bosnia, Dodik, who has gone, as NPR put it, from “reformist to genocide-denying secessionist,” is also moving closer to his “true friends” Russia and China. This year he was slapped with corruption-related sanctions by the United States, which Dodik claims is the West punishing him for championing the rights of ethnic Serbs.
These illiberal narratives are being built on top of the Dayton Agreement of 1995, which did manage to put an end to the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but, in its current form, it further enshrines discrimination, injustice and division.
While the agreement accommodates the rights of Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, it fails to extend protections to Jewish and Roma minorities, as confirmed by a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on Bosnia’s discriminatory electoral system. The ruling ethno-nationalist elites abuse the agreement to further divide Bosnia, even as citizens try to push back in favor of a free and fair multiethnic democracy.
One of Putin’s key objectives in the Western Balkans is to block Bosnia’s Euro-Atlantic path; a potential one is to provoke a conflict.
This is why citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not as members of ethnic groups but as true democratic actors, are calling on the international community to start the process of constitutional reform and creation of a revised Dayton Agreement. This calls for negotiations at the highest levels, including the United States, E.U., Turkey and, yes, even Russia.
Bosnia is a key U.S. ally. We need support now more than ever, before Putin tries to enact another perilous plan.
Young people in Bosnia are leading the effort, oriented toward a free, progressive European future in which we can fully realize our potential, equally exercise our human rights and unanimously leave the bloody past behind.
Complete and official reconciliation can be achieved only when the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, which the Serbian political and military establishment at the time failed to prevent, is fully acknowledged, following the ruling of the International Court of Justice. Yet, the responsibility for the crimes is to be ascribed to its perpetrators only, freeing the collectives for a life with dignity and mutual respect.
The citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, 30 years after choosing and fighting for their freedom, rights and democracy are still facing the tight fists of authoritarianism and illiberalism. We look at Ukraine with a mix of unequivocal support and existential concern.