The Rhetoric and Reality of NATO Integration in Bosnia and Herzegovina

As the conflict in Ukraine persists with little sign of a diplomatic solution, Western media outlets have begun paying tentative attention to the conflict’s potential to destabilize other parts of Europe, not least, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement which ended 3 years of civil war in Bosnia, also, under the auspices of peacekeeping, enshrined NATO’s presence in the country into law, which remains an issue of contestation to this day. Additionally, Dayton created a new federalized state in BiH, consisting of two autonomous entities, the Bosniak-Croat dominated, Federation of BiH, and the predominantly Serb, Republika Srpska (RS), between which relations have been strenuous through 26 years of peace.

As the frangible systems upheld by the Dayton Agreement begin to seemingly deteriorate, commentators have cast the nation and the whole Balkan peninsula, as a new potential theater for competing superpowers. Much of the recent focus and criticism emanating from the West, has centered on Russia’s developing relationship with Serbia, and the secessionist rhetoric emanating from The Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) in RS, and from the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ). Less, however, has been paid to the reality of NATO’s nation building project in BiH, and the stubborn insistences of further NATO integration coming from Bosniak statesmen and bureaucrats in Washington and Brussels, which have been equally animated and incongruous.

Last week, candidate of the united opposition for the Presidency of BiH, and delegate in the House of Peoples of the Parliamentary Assembly, Dr. Denis Bećirović, reacted to a statement previously made by the President of RS, Milorad Dodik, in which he claimed that "NATO has no role in BiH." Dodik has also recently taken aim at the Dayton appointed, High Representative to BiH, Christian Schmidt, accusing him of abusing powers, influencing elections through funding, and undermining the country’s constitution. For these perceived violations, Dodik has asserted that Schmidt "must be expelled," in line with the law for foreigners breaching Bosnia’s constitutional order.

The Sarajevo Times reported Bećirović’s response:

"The path to full membership in NATO is an integral part of BiH’s legislation. In the Law on the Defense of BiH, which was also voted by parliamentarians from the SNSD, it is precisely stated that the state institutions of BiH will carry out the necessary activities for the admission of BiH into NATO membership"

"It must be clear to all citizens of BiH, including those who support Milorad Dodik’s policy, that BiH is a country that has decided to move towards membership in NATO, but also that the admission of our country to NATO is not detrimental to any individual or ethnic group – quite the opposite."

In conclusion, he told Dodik that "NATO stays in BiH, and if it’s difficult for you, you don’t have to stay. And convey that to your superiors in Moscow and Belgrade."

Dodik has made no attempt to hide his plans for RS’s secession, and despite admitting to a pause to these plans due to the war in Ukraine, he will possibly be only further inspired in his course of drastic action by Bećirović’s taunts.

Drawing the ire of London, Brussels and Washington, Dodik has been accused of "divisive, dangerous, nationalist rhetoric" by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO), who added that he has been "emboldened by Russia’s undermining of the international rules-based system." In 1992, it was the UK and US that covertly broke that ‘rules-based system’, namely the UN arms embargo on BiH, to provide Bosniak and Croat forces with weapons and jihadist mercenaries from Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. Thus, the UK FCDO’s accusations against Dodik only characterize the West’s own provocatively hypocritical line of discourse on BiH, likely perceived as divisive by many in RS.

Similarly, Bećirović’s assertion that NATO membership is good for all ethnic groups in BiH, may sit difficult for those that hold a different perspective on NATO’s ‘humanitarian intervention’ in the former Yugoslavia. Operation Allied Force in particular, was an illegal 78-day aerial bombardment campaign of Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, which killed hundreds of civilians, over 1000 servicemen, and leveled Yugoslavia’s remaining state Infrastructure to the ground.

Currently sanctioned by the UK Government and US Treasury Dept. for undermining the terms of Dayton, Dodik has noted that the Armed Forces of BiH, the Indirect Taxation Authority and the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council, which he plans to boycott, were not bodies contained in the 1995 Dayton Agreement, being formed in 2005, 2003, and 2004 respectively. The increasing centralization of BiH’s political structures under the cover of Dayton, has largely occurred as part of a push by Washington and Brussels to expedite BiH’s EU membership, a process which Dodik feels has come at the expense of the rights of Serbs in RS.

Today, the inefficiencies and inequalities inherent in Dayton’s systems are widely perceived, with the Croatian National Parliament also threatening secession in the absence of electoral reform. In such a climate, Becirovic’s unwavering commitment to deepening cooperation with NATO, may represent for many a further solidification of Dayton’s nonviable system, and the trading of barbs may become increasingly consequential. And it is more than understandable why many might be wary of further integration with the European project and US-dominated supranational bodies. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) for instance, played an instrumental role in rewriting BiH’s new constitution at Dayton, choosing to include Article 7, which dictated that:

"The first governing board of the Central Bank shall consist of a Governor appointed by the International Monetary Fund," who shall "not be a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina or any neighboring state," and who "may cast tie-breaking votes on the Governing Board."

IMF loans to Yugoslav nations during the pre and postwar periods came with ruinous repayment plans and economic restructuring, with corruption and embezzlement also accounting for €1 billion going missing from foreign aid and loans made toward BiH’s public funds between 1995-1999.

The clear compromise of BiH’s national sovereignty inherent in Dayton, has also been picked up on within a military context, most recently by the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo. On Tuesday, they issued a statement which noted that as more German troops enter BiH to join NATO’s Operation Athlea, that certain western states, "primarily the United States and Great Britain, are preparing the ground for creeping NATOization." They also noted that the security situation in BiH is currently stable, making additional forces unnecessary, remarking that the real motivation stemmed from a "desire to maintain their hegemony at all costs."

Bećirović’s pronouncements on NATO’s impartial benevolence in BiH, also bear more than just echoes of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s reiterations, of NATO as a "defensive alliance" upholding a "rules based international order." Having met with the Chair of the Tri-Presidency of BiH, Sefik Džaferović, in May, Stoltenberg has affirmed that NATO strongly supports BiH’s sovereignty and "remains committed to its Euro-Atlantic aspirations," adding that "security and stability in the Western Balkans is important for NATO and for peace and stability in Europe."

A greater than usual intensity of identical declamations were also exhibited from Stoltenberg prior to the escalation of violence in Ukraine. The stalling of Minsk II, a steady supply of weapons, and pushes for Ukraine’s integration into NATO, were all at the time obfuscated by his expressions of solidarity and commitment to regional security.

EU President Ursula von der Leyen, who remains on her quest to banish Russian gas from the European continent with no regard for consequence, has too previously declared that "BiH, and all the Western Balkans, belong in the European Union." "It is in our common interest," but I also believe, it is our destiny" she added. Under the neoliberal dogma epitomized by Stoltenberg and Von der Leyen, of the EU and NATO’s exclusive right to a sphere of influence, any Russian involvement in BiH and the Balkans will be perceived as inimical, and civic-nationalist aspirations as dangerous.

While the geopolitical dynamic in BiH differs to that in Ukraine, there exists a parallel between NATO’s aims and trajectories in both instances. Given the disastrous consequences of NATO’s expansionist posturing in Ukraine, such a resemblance should not be overlooked or obscured by lecturing on a supposedly malign yet comparatively impalpable Russian influence in the region. And nor too should those that steadfastly carry NATO’s hegemonic aims in the name of security, escape the spotlight of scrutiny when considering the spectrum of divisive rhetoric and policy in BiH.

Patrick O’Reilly is an independent journalist from Brighton, UK, and Editor of “The Parallax Report," specializing in Western foreign policy, civil liberties, propaganda, and healthcare.