The warring parties in former Yugoslavia finalised the peace accords on 21 November at the United States Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio. Subsequently, the Agreement was formally signed in Paris on 14 December. Presidents Slobodan Milošević, Franjo Tudjman, and Alija Izetbegović presented Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. Among others, the peace conference was led by US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, US negotiator Richard Holbrooke, US and NATO member delegation General Wesley Clark, EU Special Representative Carl Bildt, German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, and the First Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Igor Ivanov.
The Agreement’s main goal was to promote peace and stability in ex-Yugoslavia, principally in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Article V, Annex 1-B). As witnesses and guarantors of peace accords occurred US President Bill Clinton, French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, UK Prime Minister John Major, and Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González. Consequently, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a new post-war country, comprises the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosniak and Croat territories) and Republika Srpska (Serb territories). However, almost three decades after the end of the war, as a result of the complex political, institutional, and administrative organization of the country (2 entities, ten cantons in Federation divided into 79 municipalities, five regions in Srpska with 69 municipalities, added to the special status of Brčko District) the society remains greatly nationally divided.
Moreover, ethnic tensions, constitutional issues, a different understanding of the Dayton Agreement, and various visions of strategic objectives – European, Euro-Atlantic, or Euro-Asian integrations, make BiH a geopolitical question that includes guarantors of the peace agreement as significant national and supranational actors in international relations: USA, Russia, NATO, and EU. Also, regional factors, Serbia and Croatia, due to their national interests, could play the role of mediators or rabble-rousers, exacerbating the conflict.
Namely, BiH represents the Russian and American sphere of influence, but not forgetting Erdogan’s Turkey’s reemerging political interest and soft power in the former Ottoman territory. So, Sarajevo, willing to apply for NATO membership, sees the United States as the crucial ally; on the other side, Banja Luka, categorically contrary to the NATO accession, has close and fraternal relations with President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation. Thus, BiH is a security policy dossier for the EU and regional stability in Southeast Europe. Nevertheless, the country applied for EU membership in 2016 and 2022 (after the Russian invasion of Ukraine) was granted the status of candidate country by the European Council, but its path to the EU probably remains unclear due to the national leaders’ statements. For instance, in the last few months, President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik repeated that the objective should be joining the BRICS rather than EU accession.
Additionally, the Serb leader highlights that the final political goal of Banja Luka is separation from Sarajevo and independence via referendum. Those communications come after ongoing disputes over states’ property, constitutional questions, lack of the functionality of the political system, and dissimilar interpretations of the Dayton Agreement. The message detects that if Sarajevo continues interfering with Serb’s jurisdiction and sovereignty granted by the Dayton Accords, the consequence shall be independence. Furthermore, Banja Luka does not recognise the political figure of Christian Schmidt, the EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbian leaders define the member of the German Christian Social Union – CSU, as biased, an opponent of Serbian interests, and persona non grata.
It is important to bear in mind that Dodik has close political relations with Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó; the EU Danube country has recently opposed the main steps of Brussels’ security and foreign policy. Besides, new geopolitical events further divide BiH decision-makers; Republika Srpska does not condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and stands firmly against sanctions on Russia. Also, Banja Luka, amid the Middle East conflict, gives support to Israel, while in Sarajevo, the Muslim population sends messages of empathy with Palestine.
Hence, at least two foreign policies seem present in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In addition, occasionally, a third Croat ethnic constituent, represented in speeches of Croatia President Zoran Milanović (often condemning Brussels’ manoeuvre and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković’s foreign policy), assumes the role of Dodik’s ally defending Dayton Agreement, non-centralised politics, and particular national interests in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Therefore, anti-NATO and anti-EU discourse in Banja Luka moves the Serb entity closer to political and economic cooperation with Russia. Similarly, the Franco-German (EU plan), supported by the Italian government, for Belgrade–Priština talks where Serbia should de facto recognise Kosovo independence, is Dodik’s argument against the EU. As a result, there is a current political narrative to join friendly BRICS countries.
Likewise, Serbian media presents Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik observation on post–Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina. The American diplomat underscored that the country could not be functional and stable due to the terrible war wounds and accumulated hate among three ethnic groups. According to Kissinger, the best solution was to make a small Muslim (Bosniak) country with access to the sea and to allow Croat and Serb territories to join their patrias.
Another significant regional actor, Serbia, with President Aleksandar Vučić, provides solid economic and political support to Republika Srpska. Moreover, every year, Belgrade and Banja Luka jointly mark war anniversaries and cultivate shared history memories. For instance, it is the case with commemoration (in the presence of the Jewish community) for Serbian victims of genocide in Jasenovac, under the Ustasha regime, in WWII, and on commemoration for ethnic cleansing casualties in Croatian military operation Oluja ’95. However, Serbia seems still quite cautious in commenting on Republika Srpska’s eventual independence as the Belgrade–Priština negotiation process is ongoing.
Coming parliamentary elections in Serbia scheduled for 17 December could be essential for regional politics. Part of the Serbian opposition, particularly from the right-centre political spectrum (Dveri, Zavetnici, Narodna Stranka, Novi DSS), has dominantly anti-EU rhetoric and stresses the refusal of the Franco-German proposal for Kosovo. Furthermore, Dveri and Serbian Radical Party (SRS) politicians propose the idea of joining the BRICS. On the contrary, the green-left Serbian opposition held talks with German deputies in the Bundestag two weeks before the elections. Thus, in Republika Srpska and Serbia, certain political groups offer robust cooperation with Russia and China as an alternative to the EU. Nonetheless, perhaps it is not realistic to become a BRICS member in the short-medium term; Belgrade and Banja Luka use it as leverage over the EU, the foreign policy manoeuvre to irritate Brussels, enhance anti-EU discourse in daily politics, and above all, to make more vital negotiating positions for national politics in the region regarding the final status of Kosovo and Republika Srpska. It could be argued that Serb leaders in BiH vigilantly look at the Belgrade–Priština dialogue, as results could lead to potential Banja Luka unilateral political decisions.
Moreover, in recent weeks, after Serbian President Vučić participated in the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held on 17 and 18 October in Beijing, Belgrade hosted three high-profile political missions. First, the Commission President Von der Leyen, in shuttle diplomacy, called on delivering a final solution on negotiations with Kosovo Albanians and implementation of the Ohrid Agreement. Second, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited the Serbian capital after the Banjska shootings in September and sent more NATO troops to Kosovo for the KFOR peacekeeping mission. Meanwhile, Belgrade provoked alarm by massing the army on the administrative zone with Kosovo and Metohija and buying eleven MI-35P helicopters from Cyprus. Ultimately, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Belgrade again underlined the strategic importance of integrating Western Balkans into the EU.
Besides, Serbian actions remain based on four pillar foreign policy (EU, Russia, USA, China) adopted in 2009 by former President Boris Tadić after unilaterally self-proclaimed Kosovo independence. It could be argued that Serbia oscillates between the West and the East as a military-neutral country that cooperates with NATO (joined military exercises), characterised by significant energy dependence and political closeness to Moscow, and has an economy based on EU and Chinese investments.
Overall, while the Serbian path to the EU appears blocked by the Priština dialogue, Brussels still has not decided to open accession negotiations with BiH; that further leaves space for alternative proposals, even if it appears implausible at the moment, to join a rival economic and political union with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Furthermore, expressed pro-Russian sentiments on both Serb sides of the Drina River followed the statement of Sergey Lavrov at November’s OSCE meeting in Skopje, stressing the destroyed military-political dimension of OSCE by NATO and EU in 1999 brutal bombing of Yugoslavia and later in 2008, taking Kosovo from Serbia, violating 1244 UN Security Council Resolution and the principle of the inviolability of borders in Helsinki Final Act.
This year, the European Commission recommended opening negotiations with Moldova, Ukraine, and BiH – conditioned on fulfilling 14 criteria. Nonetheless, Croatia and Slovenia lobby for a diplomatic initiative to open membership talks with BiH at the European Council meeting on 14 and 15 December; the Netherlands firmly opposes, stressing the secessionist efforts of Republika Srpska and the adoption of a problematic law on foreign agents, as severe issues.
Summing up, still open, could be connected questions on the status of Republika Srpska and Kosovo accompanied by conflicting geopolitical interests of crucial international actors, guarantors of the Dayton Agreement, threaten to undermine peace, stability, and reconciliation between the former Yugoslav republics.