The Stability of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Turkey's Role

Athina Tesfa YOHANNES
14 July 2011
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This April, a tri-lateral summit between the leaders of Turkey, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) revealed the unique strategic importance that Turkey places on this new Balkans alliance. The meeting outlined the urgency of keeping the nations on an EU path in terms of accession, ideally also counting all of the Balkans as NATO members in the future as a security measure. The summit also successfully paved the way for Bosnia’s Serbian entity, Republika Srpska to drop its’ May plans for a secession referendum, which was thwarted with the help of the EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton. Within the recent capture and Hague trial of Serbian ex-general Ratko Mladic for his role in the Srebrenica massacre (and the anniversary of these tragic events), relations have dramatically improved between the two countries, topped off by a rare July visit to Sarajevo by Serbia’s president Boris Tadić. During this visit, Tadić repeated his view that Serbia respects Bosnia’s territorial integrity as a functioning federal state with a central administration. With the EU’s announcement that Balkan neighbor Croatia will likely become an EU member in 2013, Tadić has noted that the next round of EU accessions should come immediately after Croatia’s entry, and likely including fellow Balkan country applicants like Serbia. While Serbia still has headway in addressing its’ southern (Muslim majority) regions like Sandžak, its recent positive efforts towards improving relations with BiH are noted, with actions being spearheaded by its’ regional ally Turkey.

However, to solidify regional security in the Balkans, Turkey must also further assist Serbia in reducing its’ potentially destabilizing behavior in BiH. In BiH, Serbia’s influence over the Serbian entity Republika Srpska (RS) holds great weight regarding the stability in the region, and this growing relationship must be carefully examined and managed in a productive manner. Both Serbia and Republika Srpska have recently signed increased trade agreements regarding infrastructure and energy fields. The ethnic and historical alliance between Serbia and Republika Srpska is evident, with President Tadić and President Milorad Dodik (Republika Srpska) continuing and strengthening their solidarity pact over recent years. But Serbia’s financial and moral support to primarily one entity of the federal BiH is destabilizing the country, as evidenced by the now-postponed secession referendum talks that previously gained speed in Republika Srpska’s (capital) Banja Luka. Multi-ethnic BiH is unquestionably fragile at the moment, yet RS President Dodik has remained firm in his stance that country’s constitution reform (which has been the source of BiH’s EU candidacy refusal due to various inherently ethnically-related discriminatory features) should not be changed in a way that challenges RS’s autonomy. Dodik, elected on a nationalist platform, has also stated that he advocates an internal solution for BiH, one reached without the dramatic assistance of foreign interference. Dodik’s government has often been at odds with the Office of the High Representative, which remains the protectorate of the country through the implementation of the Dayton Agreement. As the internal struggle amongst Bosnian politicians and their respective political parties continue, Dodik still advocates for strong entity autonomy. He has increasingly criticized the growing centralization of BiH’s (fairly weak) political institutions in the country, and remains heavily committed to Serbia.


Serbia continues to invest in RS, as one of the policies of the Serbian government is the protection of ethnic Serbian citizens both domestically and abroad. However, the dearth of economic investment in the country has exasperated ethnic tension in the region, as the (2011) estimated 43% unemployment rate is projected to grow if political and economic reforms continue at its’ current slow pace. The unemployment rate in the Bosniak-Croat entity is much higher than that in Republika Srpska (1) as RS enjoys heavy investment from Serbia and Russia. For instance, in July 2011, a joint Russian-Serbian oil venture was granted to begin exploration in Republika Srpska. The unemployment disparities are as high as 68% in the Bosniak and 47% in RS, particularly among female youth. The Bosniak entity is also more likely to be dissatisfied with the public services offered by the government, compared to those citizens of RS. Bosnia’s economy is thought be buoyed only by the assistance of foreign aid and international officials, and deep ethnic cleavages have grown wider due to the economic crisis, as talks of ethnic-based secession for the country’s major ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs) have turned from murmurs to weekly topics of conversation. The viability of the state has always been in question for the last fifteen years, and the troubles that BiH currently faces haven’t changed these regional concerns.

Turkey’s role in BiH in recent years can be described as one of continued commitment to the country and helping the country lay foundations for stability and growth. Turkey is BiH’s 4th largest investor, including the recent (49%) purchase of BiH’s main airline. Turkey also helped steer negotiations between Serbia and Bosnia, helping Serbia deliver the long-awaited apology for the 1995 Srbrenica massacre. However, Turkey must use its’ restored relationships with both Serbia and Bosnia to help maintain equal and fair cooperation and investment between the two countries. While Serbia has officially stated that it respects the territorial integrity of Bosnia, its preferential bilateral agreements with Republika Srpska and continued investment to the region has made the economically-challenged Bosniak-Croat entity suspicious of Serbian investment in the country. Serbia’s (ethnically aligned) investment behavior in BiH is essentially fueling separatist dialogue from RS’s President Dodik, potentially destabilizing the already fragile country. Turkey must help Serbia equally invest in both entities of BiH, and further encourage Serbia to hold talks with Republika Srpska to drop barriers for non-Serbian investors in their entity. With such unofficial barriers in place, tensions over ethnic discrimination will continue to rise throughout BiH, whose precarious economic situation makes a perfectly dangerous foundation for ethnic strife to once again take root.

Reducing nationalist rhetoric from Republika Srpska will be critical, along with spurring economic investment to both BiH entities. Support of civil society is especially important in BiH, where three major ethnic majorities still harbor general mistrust of one another. In this case, civil society can be effectively used in alleviating social tensions and increasing understanding between ethnic groups, in addition to providing education and training on the local level for jobs created from (eventual) further economic growth in the region. Bosnia’s media, for example, has been identified as a source of contention, with information sources siding along ethnic lines, and delivering biased and journalistically flawed information to the masses. Civil society organizations, supported by federal government funding, could help address this problem with proper media training for these media outlets, for example. While Serbia is further along the EU path than BiH, Turkey will also need help BiH in stepping up its’ involvement in strengthening state institutions within the country, or at least boosting inter-institutional cooperation between both federal entities. BiH still has many reforms on its’ agenda (constitutional, judicial, economic, and social items namely), and these reforms have unfortunately slowed with the onset of the global economic crisis and the increase of nationalist-themed vitriolic dialogue within the country.

After the ‘Flag Crisis’ earlier this year (in which Turkey’s FM Ahmet Davutoğlu asked that a Republika Srpska flag be swapped for the national Bosnian flag during a meeting in Banja Luka), Dodik has grown increasingly wary of the Turkish presence in the region, citing ‘neo-Ottomanism’ as a destabilizing force in the region. However, the ‘Flag’ crisis indeed highlights Turkey’s intention to respect the territorial integrity of the unstable country. It is also with Turkish insistence and support that inter-regional dialogue has stepped up in the region, enabling initiatives like Tadić’s Sarajevo visits to take place.

As the United States has expressed its’ dissatisfaction with the stagnation of Bosnian progress in the last five years, Turkey has thus stepped into the leadership gap left by former forces in the region. Turkey’s role in solving internal political strife among Bosnia’s parties will be critical, as the dialogue process between Bosnia’s politicians (and its’ neighbors) will help determine whether a wholly new strategic plan will be necessary for Bosnia to proceed on an EU (and ideally NATO) path in order to secure regional peace. Despite recent strides in Bosnian-Serbian relations, a federal constitutional stalemate, coupled with residual domestic (political and civil society) skepticism, could collectively lead the teetering region to an impasse. It is therefore up to international actors like the EU, and regional leaders like Turkey, to step up their incentives for Bosnia to ‘play fair’ for the sake of the country’s joint future.



(1) “Bosnia and Herzegovina Gap Analysis.” Europe and Eurasia Bureau, US AID. Strategic Planning and Analysis Division. January 2011. Page 5. <>.


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