The act of Valentin Inzko a week before the end of the mandate is, unfortunately, likely to represent a new stage in the modern history of Bosnia and Herzegovina and all the Balkans, writes Valdai Club expert Ekaterina Entina. They are still a “nobody’s land”, but now not because the international community doesn’t care about them, but because in the existing coordinate system, the Balkans are the “cheapest” piece on the common chessboard of international relations in Europe.
The news from the Balkan Peninsula is becoming more and more alarming. The theme of criminal prosecution for denial of genocide, which echoed through the Russian media in July, when the world traditionally remembers the Serbs with unkind words for the events in Srebrenica in 1995, is merely the latest deliberate effort to stir up inter-ethnic conflict in the region.
Valentin Inzko, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2009, took advantage of the so-called Bonn powers and introduced an amendment to the legislation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to prosecute the denial of genocide and glorification of war criminals. Let us recall that in accordance with the provisions of the Dayton Peace Agreements, such direct additions to the state system of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the High Representative must be accepted by the entities in full and without amendments. However, it is assumed that any such activity of an international representative should be rational in nature and contribute to national reconciliation and stabilisation. Thus, taking into account the extremely negative attitude of the Serbs and the practically enthusiastic Bosniaks (i.e., the absence of at least some common perception of the initiative), we can conclude that Valentin Inzko acted in a voluntarist manner even in a situation where, due to the end of his mandate, he does not bear any responsibility for the results of his actions.
It is also noteworthy that the Stability Pact for South-Eastern Europe, as well as the criteria for the accession of the countries of the former Yugoslavia to the EU, are based on two essential principles that the European Union has used in various ways over two decades to put pressure on the political elites of the post-Yugoslavian space in order to reduce the conflict potential of the region and create a “security society” in the sphere of their geopolitical interests: the cooperation with the Hague Tribunal and the development of regional cooperation and ties. Let’s not deny that this policy was not successful at all. However, by the end of the 2000s, the countries of the former Yugoslavia had managed to launch a more or less stable bilateral dialogue. Issues of interethnic strife, it would seem, gave way to a sober understanding that none of the locals need a new Balkan war. However, by the mid-2010s, the international conjuncture around the Balkans began changing, and we’re seeing a resurrection of Balkan ethno-nationalism. Moreover, we cannot say that this is being done at the initiative of local political elites.
Here is just a chronology of individual small but vivid episodes that have filled the emotional background in the Balkans over the past two years. They consist of cultural and political gestures. In modern cinema, the topic of civil wars and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia remain very popular. Local cinema is devoted to it, and it can be seen in American movies as well.
Nevertheless, it was in 2020 that films were released and distributed to the world one after another. In terms of emotional content, they are terrible, involuntarily reanimating the deep ethnic rejection of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. There is a Bosnian film, “Where are you going, Aida,” filmed in collaboration with a number of leading European countries, about the events in Srebrenica through the eyes of Muslims. There’s a Serbian film, first released in the United States in February 2021, “Dara from Jasenovac”, about the genocide of Serbs by the Croats during the Second World War. Their forerunner was a picture by a Croatian director, “The Last Serb in Croatia,” released a little earlier, where, doomed to wish to disappear altogether as a result of mutual hatred for each other and in the struggle of each for exclusive recognition by an un-understanding world confused by what the difference is between them, the Croats and Serbs are worthy of each other. All three elicited a wide resonance in the region, again — very untimely from the point of view of the international political context — raising the question, among the general public, of which local group is most responsible for the unhappy fate of the Balkans
In a series of political incidents, a separate place is occupied by Kurti’s coming to power in 2020 in the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo (March 2020, the second cabinet — March 2021), who de facto withdrew from any negotiations with Belgrade regarding a possible compromise in the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina.
It is noteworthy that attacks against Serbs in Kosovo have since increased. In April 2021, on the eve of the Slovenian EU presidency, there was a leak of the so-called “Non-paper” on the redrawing of borders in the Balkans, a de facto presentation of scenarios for solving the “Balkan issue” by a number of British think tanks. It implies the creation of “greater Albania” and “greater Serbia”, assuming that Belgrade will give up Kosovo in exchange for the Republika Srpska and a possible confederation with the Montenegrins; the Croats will “retreat” from part of the territory of the federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Bosnians will either be forced to join someone, or they will get a mono-state.
In July 2021, a series of incidents that were clearly strange for the “policy of stabilisation and reconciliation” occurred: the parliaments of Montenegro and Kosovo adopted resolutions condemning the genocide in Srebrenica, followed by the aforementioned amendments to the legislation of BiH at the suggestion of the High Representative. Finally, a trifle, but still: the Croats adopted the portrait of the ethnic Serb Nikola Tesla as a symbol for one side of the future Croatian euro cent. Of course, all of the above can be interpreted in the traditional European paradigm of demonstrating tolerance and a desire to show how much in reality, both objects of pride and grief, bind the peoples of the Balkan region. But given the broader international context, such an explanation is no longer credible.
It is obvious that the protrusion of the problem of interethnic contradictions, ambitions and claims is associated with at least two circumstances. First, in recent years Belgrade has grown significantly in the subregional format. It is difficult to blame it for insufficient cooperation with European institutions on the traditionally painful issue of the status of Kosovo and Metohija. It is it who is the initiator of intraregional cooperation, in particular the Balkan “mini-Schengen” with Albania and North Macedonia.
Second, Southeast Europe, like a century ago, has again become a multi-actor space from the point of view of the international situation. The monopoly position of the European Union has been greatly weakened over the past two decades. It was ousted not only by the United States, but also by the UK which left the EU, as well as Turkey, Russia, and China, as well as a number of Arab countries. Here Belgrade again won as the largest and most profitable state in terms of transit. The relatively neutral and multi-vector foreign policy pursued in the last decade, which has developed as a result of the changed geopolitical situation, does not meet the interests of the collective West. In addition, the strengthening of Belgrade and the potential restoration of subregional cooperation within the borders of the former Yugoslavia without returning to the idea of a common state / unification brings back to the agenda the question of the feasibility of splitting the SFRY / FRY / Serbia and Montenegro / Republic of Serbia in the 1990s-2000s and the role of the world community in the large-scale impoverishment of this part of Europe.
Going even further: the potential success of Belgrade in consolidating the regional space around it from a different angle (very particular, but very specific) emphasises the topic of justice for Russia, the organisation of a post-bipolar world replacing the one dominated by the West, and strengthens the arguments of Moscow and Beijing about the multidimensionality of the world order.
Thus, it turns out that the aggravation of the situation, rather than regional reconciliation, is beneficial, by and large, for the United States, Britain and the EU. In the event of conflicts and instability, the PRC loses the final section of the Belt and Road project. For Russia, the potential opening of a “third front”, not to mention the threat to the energy project, if not unacceptable, then it brings to the brink of a possible resource. In the event of new tension, Turkey finds itself involved not only in the Middle East and South Caucasus, but also in the Balkan Peninsula.
Moscow, while gradually strengthening in the Balkans, due to various circumstances, takes an ambivalent position on a number of regional strategic issues. Thus, Russia did not openly support the Montenegro opposition that came to power in 2020, and specifically the Krivokapic cabinet. An indirect consequence of Moscow’s position was not only its toothlessness, but also the fact that in the short term, taking into account the departure of both the Montenegro and Serbian patriarchs, the adoption of a resolution unthinkable for a significant part of the country condemning the “genocide” in Srebrenica, the almost complete failure of that political agenda, for which the citizens of Montenegro took to the streets for a year, and the West de facto ensured the impossibility of forming an opposition, strong and ready to fight for their ideas in Montenegro. For Moscow, in practice, this means that in the end there is no consistent and powerful support both in Djukanovic’s supporters and among the ranks of his opponents.
Submitting to the UN Security Council a resolution on dismantling the post of High Representative in BiH and failing to achieve its adoption, Moscow, albeit with reservations, agreed to the election of a new representative for BiH. These, like other steps, allow both international players and local political elites to view the Balkans as a region of minor importance for Russia, for which it will fight, but only in order to once again “exchange” its victories for other international issues. Returning to the metaphors of cinematography, in this regard, the feature film “Balkan Frontier” (2019), based on real events and dedicated to the march on Pristina in 1999, becomes a silent reminder of the realities of Russian politics in the Balkans and the region itself, as well as for Moscow and the entire world community. In 1999 Russia did the impossible: it outplayed the Americans, took a strategic position at the Slatina airfield in Pristina, carrying out a brilliant operation to transfer forces from BiH to Kosovo. It won a tactical victory. And it left the region in 2003, unwittingly giving locals the opportunity to carry out pogroms against the Serbs in March 2004.
In the same context, the film by D. Tanovic “No Man’s Land” about the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, released twenty years ago, is symbolic in its own way. The film ends with a scene in which a young Bosniak, abandoned by the entire international community and realising that his friend — a Bosniak — and his enemy, a Serb — who’d been with him for the last hours, had killed each other in front of the peacekeepers, is left to die in the trench alone. He dies because he is unable to lift himself off a super-efficient grenade, the latest European design that explodes when a weight is removed from it. His death will be long and painful, because no one needs him and even a neat German sapper cannot neutralise this ultra-modern mine.
The act of Valentin Inzko a week before the end of the mandate is, unfortunately, likely to represent a new stage in the modern history of Bosnia and Herzegovina and all the Balkans. They are still a “nobody’s land”, but now not because the international community doesn’t care about them, but because in the existing coordinate system, the Balkans are the “cheapest” piece on the common chessboard of international relations in Europe. What is happening in the Balkans is a provocation. Moscow can and should create a situation when stopping it, instead of ignoring, will be more advantageous to it as well as to Ankara, Beijing and Belgrade.