Balkan Democracy Dances Between Russia, Turkey and NATO

Photo: Nelson_A_Ishikawa/iStock.com

Bosnia and Herzegovina has been held together under two separate entities ever since the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 ended the civil war and created the present-day country: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, made up of Bosniaks and Croats, and Republika Srpska, home to the country’s Serbs. But the peace and democratic functioning of the country is fragile and could soon face its biggest test.

On Wednesday, the lower house of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s parliament is expected to vote on an election reform bill, which, if passed, would validate a constitutional court ruling from December 2016 that states electoral reform is needed in order to better represent all segments of the population, particularly the minority Croats. If it doesn’t pass, the country might be unable to form a government in the 2018 elections.

The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with President Marinko Čavara, the president of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the sidelines of the 2017 Transatlantic Economic Forum of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

President Čavara says there could be a “constitutional crisis” next year, which could bring the country back into conflict.

“If we don’t implement the electoral law according to the constitutional guidance, we are going to end up in a constitutional crisis because there will be no means to actually have general elections next year when they are scheduled. In the long-term, without fixing this, Bosnia and Herzegovina will be pulled back to the type of relations between constituent people that was there before the Dayton Peace Agreement.”

There is now an “unprecedented” level of Russian involvement in the region, said Croatian Ambassador to the U.S. Pjer Šimunović at the forum, and Russia views the Balkans as a zero-sum game. Čavara agreed, noting that Russia wants to stop Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entry into the European Union (EU) and NATO.

“It’s clear that it’s not in Russia’s interest for Bosnia and Herzegovina to be a part of NATO. While most people in Bosnia and Herzegovina believe that activating a plan for integration in NATO is the only way forward; there’s no alternative to it. That’s the only way to guarantee safety and security and the stability of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

But part of the country has very close ties to Russia, according to Čavara.

“We have to keep in mind that the connection between Republika Srpska and Russia is much stronger than the connection between the Federation [of Bosnia and Herzegovina] and Russia. We can clearly see this just by looking at how often presidents of each entity visit Moscow. As the President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I have never been to Moscow, while the President of Republika Srpska goes to Moscow at least once every five or six months.”

Another country with growing influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina is Turkey.

“There’s also a significant Turkish influence in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We need to consider this and take into account the fact that in the last couple of years, Russia and Turkey have been coming together and coordinating their foreign policy. … I’m afraid that Russian and Turkish interests might come together; they might have common interests in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that is to stop EU integration and NATO integration with the country.”

Part of the reason why Bosnia and Herzegovina needs NATO is to combat Islamic extremism, says Čavara. A few hundred young Bosniaks have left to fight in Iraq and Syria with the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS. That’s the highest per capita number of ISIS fighters from a European country.

“A certain segment of the population is sympathetic to those people, and it’s helping them to thrive within the country, which we can clearly see in the last case of the extradition of a person who helped to organize and recruit terrorists in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have a law that punishes those that leave the country to fight for ISIS in the Middle East, and thus far, this law has proven to be very efficient. But the question is, if we don’t keep our democratic system together, what will happen with the efficiency of that law, and will the system be able to prevent attacks and recruitment before they happen?”

Not just NATO, but also the United States, needs to work with Bosnia and Herzegovina to fight terrorism and maintain a stable Balkans, says Čavara.

“We need a joint fight against ISIS, this big threat in the world. This is the reason why we need NATO, and this is the reason why we need the help of the U.S. – to stabilize the country and make it work like everyone wants and like we all deserve. Without all of this, we can’t achieve results in any other field, including this [fighting terror].

That’s the reason why we ask the U.S. as the guarantor of the Dayton Peace Agreement to implement it in the spirit of the Dayton Peace Agreement as it was originally agreed, and to assist us on our path toward EU and NATO integration, so all of us can fight together against this threat that’s harmful to all of us, for the good of all people in Bosnia and Herzegovina – all its citizens and divided regions – and for the security and stability of the whole world.”

Kaitlin Lavinder is a reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @KaitLavinder.

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