Republika Srpska: After Independence
| 19 November 2009 | By Matthew Parish
Bosnia’s gradual disintegration would appear inevitable. The only question is how the international community will, and should, react to this process.
A new state – “Republika Srpska” - is shortly to be born in South Eastern Europe, the eighth to emerge from the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The delivery of this troubling new child will be neither easy nor straightforward.
People may die, and diplomatic isolation may follow. The choices the international community makes in the aftermath of these events will be critically important to the welfare of all the people of the region. For Western policymakers it will be a matter of choosing the lesser evil.
Ever since the 1995 peace agreement at Dayton divided the country into two highly autonomous “entities”, it was manifest, even from its name, that the Republika Srpska had pretensions towards statehood. But after the atrocities committed by Serb forces in the Bosnian war, the West viewed the creation of Republika Srpska as a necessary evil at best, a “genocidal creation” in the words of the current Bosniak President, Haris Silajdzic, to be eventually dismantled. This goal, once achieved, would compensate the Bosniaks for the collective guilt the international community felt for having failed to intervene earlier during the conflict.
To pursue this objective, the High Representative was invested with broad and unchecked legal authorities to dismiss elected officials, impose legislation, and freeze parties’ bank accounts. Although the constitution agreed at Dayton limited central government authorities to a paltry catalogue, by 2006 the number of functions performed by the state were significant, including prosecution of war crimes and financial crime, foreign affairs, indirect taxation, central banking, and EU negotiations. These structures were created by threatening Bosnian Serb politicians, sullied by associations with wartime crimes, with a one-way ticket to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, ICTY, if they refused to cooperate. The new central institutions were funded from outside Bosnia’s bankrupt domestic economy through foreign aid.
But then two things changed. Most fundamentally, everyone who could be deported to The Hague had been, and the wartime Bosnian Serb political party, the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, had been emasculated through the measures taken by successive High Representatives.
This led to the rise of Milorad Dodik, a different brand of Bosnian Serb politician, untainted by participation in the war. His new party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, could not be bullied by High Representatives’ threats, as his officials had no wartime record to hold against them.
Second, international interest in Bosnia faded, and the high levels of development funds needed to keep state institutions operating dried up. The Bosnian tax system, chronically inefficient and corrupt, was increasingly relied upon to fund the central state. These two factors, combined with a withdrawal of foreign peacekeeping troops, coalesced just as Milorad Dodik became Prime Minister of Republika Srpska in January 2006.
Dodik shares many of the qualities of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Tough, shrewd, uninterested in democracy, and determined to elevate his nation’s status after a decade of weakness, he is a formidable opponent for the weak and ineffective international figures remaining in Bosnia. Uncontaminated by the Republika Srpska’s wartime past, and buoyed by international criticism of the heavy-handed tactics previously employed by Bosnia’s international governors, he is invulnerable to the High representatives’ traditional methods.
He has taken to embarrassing the High Representative by frustrating his every endeavour. The High Representative can do little to constrain him. He has no money to withhold – Republika Srpska now receives investment from Eastern Europe and Russia – and no troops to send; international peacekeepers remain in only negligible numbers. When the High Representative’s office tried to pin corruption charges on Dodik, he shut down the State Court. He then shut down the state electricity company. When the international community tried to impose a centralised police management on the country, Dodik frustrated it. When the High Representative tried to change voting in the State Council of Ministers, Dodik had the State Prime Minister, a Serb, resign, throwing the central government into paralysis.
In theory, the High Representative can dismiss Dodik. But the High Representative’s notional authority is now bereft of might because there is no way of enforcing it. There are no foreign troops to evict Dodik from office.
The State Police are small in number and ethnically divided and no match for Dodik’s RS Police. Bosnia has no army of substance. The RS controls its own tax revenues and can financially withdraw from the rest of the country without significant sanction.
Dodik’s agenda in the short term is to detach the Republika Srpska from dependence upon the central state institutions. This will be straightforward to achieve, because central government and indeed the Dayton Constitution incorporate “consociationalist” principles whereby decisions can only be taken by consensus of all three of the country’s ethnic groups. Provided he can continue to control most Serb officials, Dodik can block every decision of substance. The writ of the State Police and the State Court already runs weakly in Republika Srpska, which has its own police, courts, tax system, national flag and legal regime.
The only significant institutions it shares with the rest of the country are a currency, a vehicle licence plate regime, a common system of VAT and excise collection, border controls and the State Court. These will all be easy to dismantle. The euro could be formally adopted overnight. The central state account for indirect taxes is situated in Banja Luka and it would be no hard task to divert all indirect tax revenues received from RS territory into an exclusive RS account. In any event the RS finance minister can veto all decisions of the state indirect taxation authority, rendering it effortless to destroy the system from within.
The theoretically unified State Border Service is almost exclusively manned by Serb officials where Bosnia’s borders fall within RS territory. On the RS’s frontiers with Serbia, borders are almost invisible.
The State Court was once a force to be reckoned with, but since 2003 it has been reliant upon international judges and prosecutors and funded by foreign donors. Such an arrangement was never sustainable; and the Court’s international officials are now fleeing in light of Serb politicians’ threats to block their reappointment. The courts of the RS are loyal to Dodik, and will not faithfully apply state laws against RS interests.
Dodik’s motivations in pursuing a detachment agenda are plain. Whereas politics in the Federation are divided between warring politicians from two ethnic groups, five major political parties and ten cantons, politics in the RS is remarkably unitary. Everything is managed within one political party, and, ultimately, by one man.
Compellingly, detachment from the rest of Bosnia is what the overwhelming majority of Bosnia’s Serbs want.
They share a collective paranoia about cultural and political dominance by a Bosniak majority. Fears of dominance and persecution have driven politics in the Western Balkans for centuries, and nothing has happened in the past fourteen years since the end of Bosnia’s war to extinguish them.
The only force preventing the RS’s detachment since 1995 has been the Office of the High Representative, issuing centralizing decrees backed by military force and diplomatic pressure. But since 2006, as the peacekeeping troops have departed and international interest in the region has waned, the High Representative’s powers have faded. Dodik has publicly pronounced on several occasions that he considers the actions of the High Representative illegal and will ignore them.
The current High Representative, Austria’s Valentin Inzko, dares not attempt to dismiss Dodik by decree lest Dodik makes good on his threat to march 50,000 Serb demonstrators to Sarajevo. Moreover a change of leader in the RS would make things worse, not better.
It is often forgotten that by Bosnian Serb standards, Dodik is a moderate. It may be tough for international community negotiators to accept but Dodik represents the most liberal wing of mainstream Bosnian Serb political thinking. Any replacement might be far more extreme, seeking independence within a more truncated timescale, or being more prone to creating inter-ethnic provocations that may precipitate violent clashes.
Dodik’s plan for the RS is incremental. Independence will be pursued piecemeal, as one tie to the central state after another is sequentially cut. By the time the RS is de facto independent, already not far off, the international community will barely have noticed.