Of the six foreign policy priorities announced by US President Joe Biden after taking office in January this year, it seems that the Western Balkans, in particular, Bosnia and Herzegovina, got their turn. In the last few weeks, we have witnessed a great acceleration of things in connection with B&H, and clear indications that the long period of the world’s disinterest in B&H is coming to an end. The acceleration is coming from the USA, it was without a doubt expected and it was only a matter of time before it would be activated. Whether the Balkan actors are ready to welcome this “offensive” is a question to which they will have to give an answer very soon.
At the end of October last year, then the candidate for president, and two weeks later the winner of the elections, Joe Biden, announced the so-called Plan for B&H as part of his campaign. It could, at that moment, look like a typical pamphlet for the end of the campaign, which, like one of hundreds of similar ones, would end up in the trash as soon as the election is over. However, as much as there were phrases and glorifications of Biden’s commitment to the Balkans in the 1990s, and especially to Bosnia and Herzegovina, it had to be taken seriously. Because, less than a year later, it is applied in the field. Even if taken lightly in October, Biden’s plan for B&H had to be taken very seriously as early as January, after he took office, when he mentioned the Western Balkans with Afghanistan, Russia, Iran and other “giants” among his foreign policy priorities. And when we keep in mind that one of the main foreign policy strategies of Biden’s presidency is to strengthen the weakened partnership with European allies, then it should come as no surprise that only half a year later we have a synchronized American-European “shaking” of things in B&H.
It is even physically tangible, only through a few important decisions, made in the last few months. First, at the end of May, Christian Schmidt was appointed the new High Representative in B&H, without any regard of the West for the Russia’s opposition to that choice and its demands that this choice must pass through the UN Security Council. This was followed by a farewell reach for the so-called Bonn powers by Schmidt’s long time predecessor Valentin Inzko, who introduced into the criminal law in B&H punishment for the denial of the genocide in Srebrenica. Meanwhile, the Russian-Chinese request before the UN Security Council to abolish the institution of the High Representative in B&H, failed, that is, a defeat of 13 to two. Only these decisions, garnished with the renewal of the US President’s decree on sanctions against those political leaders who disturb peace processes, democracy and with corruption prevent the development of their countries, put B&H in the centre of international attention, at least when it comes to the Balkans.
In Republika Srpska, they reacted to all of this quite predictably. In Banja Luka, Bosnian Serbs, led by Milorad Dodik, responded to the strong pressure with equally strong – “nyet”, and they have decided not to participate (but also not to leave) in the work of central state institutions in Sarajevo – the Presidency, Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Although they want to act confidently, and demonstrate political harmony surrounding this boycott, the RS leadership does not seem to be taken too seriously in the rest of B&H. They have seen such manoeuvres from Banja Luka enough times, their boycott of joint B&H institutions. Some even estimate that “the anger will get them going” for about 40 days, because August is a period of vacations, when institutions in Sarajevo generally do not work.
Apart from this Boycott, no other plan or at least some new phase in further decisions can be seen from Banja Luka. Under the decisive influence of Dodik, who has been under American sanctions for four and a half years, any other answer, apart from the boycott, is practically inconceivable. Nor is any of his longer-term strategies imaginable. Except that, as in other similar situations, he will rely on the views from Belgrade. And how are things there?
The President of Serbia, Vučić, reacted rather moderately, incomparably more tactfully than Dodik and RS, regarding the decision of Valentin Inzko to introduce the denial of genocide as a criminal act in B&H. He asked for time to analyse all the decisions made, but at the same time repeated that much stronger ties between Serbs and Bosniaks are necessary.
Serbia does not have the right to the “luxury” of hitting a fist on the table, as they do in Banja Luka. If in Belgrade they correctly connected the threads about the much stronger engagement of the USA and the EU in the Balkans, and especially in B&H, the sequence of events so far imposes several important directions for the future position of Serbia. Confrontation with the United States over moves in B&H (as Dodik does) would be a dangerous path for Serbia. As a guarantor of the Dayton Agreement, but also due to its actual impact on the situation in RS, Belgrade would pay the bill for all the damage that would result from non-cooperation regarding the new approach, and not Banja Luka.
On the other hand, which is perhaps more important, Serbia’s entry into a clinch with the West, and on the occasion of B&H, would have an extremely bad effect on its positions regarding Kosovo. Belgrade has invested enormous effort and patience to reach the current position of a respected and responsible negotiator in the process on Kosovo, someone without whom a solution is impossible to achieve. Radical attitude towards the Western “offensive” in B&H, for Vučić and Serbia, would be a step backwards in the reputation they gained during the decade of negotiations on Kosovo, and they will certainly not allow that. However, Kosovo is a top priority for Vučić, even when there is also a capital interest on the other side, and that is Republika Srpska. Things have not yet come to the point that he will have to decide on one of those two priorities, but it would be wise to avoid such a dilemma on time. That is still possible, but a clear strategy is already needed for that. In the next month or two, with the new appointments in the State Department, both B&H and Kosovo will get new implementers of American policy in two key Balkan issues, and they will naturally be primarily interested in Serbia’s position regarding new developments. One wrong answer has already been seen and was expected, they gave it in Banja Luka. However, much more is expected from Belgrade. In line with Vučić’s words from April this year that Serbia “cannot be the economic power of such a small region and progress in a very fast way without US support” or from a few days ago when he said that “Serbia could not survive without the European Union”.