What Serbia and Croatia are trying to do in the Balkans

Daniel Serwer

Krug 99 (Circle 99) Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
22. November 2023-43

What Serbia and Croatia are trying to do in the Balkans

The Serbian world in Montenegro…
– The primary regional factor is Belgrade, which is trying to create what some there now term the “Serbian world.” President Vucic wants to control the political fate of Serbs in neighboring countries. That includes not only Bosnia and Herzegovina but also Montenegro and Kosovo.He is using his security and intelligence forces, financing, disinformation, and the Serbian Orthodox Church to overcome resistance and ensure that serious, Western-aligned democracies cannot emerge on Serbia’s periphery.He has been most successful in Montenegro, where he exploited genuine unhappiness with President Djukanovic and the long-ruling DPS. That discontent empowered an avowedly pro-European opposition that is reaching out to Belgrade and its proxies for support.The irony is that Djukanovic presided, with dignity, over a mostly peaceful and entirely constitutional transition that is bringing his hypocritical opponents to power.
…and Kosovo
In Kosovo, Vucic’s overt political effort to control the Serb population is conducted through the Lista Srpska. But he also uses the Serbian secret services and their allies in organized crime to ensure that the Serb population, especially in the north, stays loyal to Belgrade, not Pristina.We saw that combination at work September 24, when Lista Srpska and the secret services attempted an armed uprising. The Kosovo police and KFOR foiled that.Vucic since then has leaned heavily in the direction of Russia and China. He no doubt fears that the US and Europe will demand that he apologize for the September 24 insurrection and promise it won’t happen again.The media campaign against Albanians inside Serbia is intense, as is Vucic’s use of the media to support his increasingly autocratic role.  
As well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Vucic has in Milorad Dodik someone who is part proxy and part rival. Belgrade backs Dodik’s efforts to separate the Serbs from Sarajevo authority. But Vucic won’t want Dodik to fulfill his ambition of declaring independence.That would put Serbia in a difficult position. It could not recognize Republika Srpska for fear of the European and American reaction. Vucic will be careful not to allow Dodik to outflank his ethnonationalism by declaring independence and demanding annexation of Republika Srpska by Serbia.That said, Vucic has edged closer to Dodik as he moves increasingly into the orbit of Russia and China. Preventing successful democratic governance in Bosnia and obstructing its path towards Europe are Vucic’s aim. Dodik serves that purpose well, so long as he doesn’t go the final mile.
Croatia’s role
What about Croatia? How does it fit into this picture?Zagreb, like Belgrade, wants control over its co-ethnic population inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is willing to cooperate with Belgrade to that end, cozying up as well as Moscow.Zagreb’s objective, however, is not secession but the third entity, de facto if not de jure. It wants political representation of Croats inside Bosnia and Herzegovina loyal to Zagreb, not Sarajevo.The irony here is that the Bosnian Croats did not ask for the third entity at Dayton, because they got a better deal: half the Federation and one-third of the state.But they failed to take political advantage of that situation and now are looking to exploit the High Representative to achieve their maximalist political goals.
The HiRep at risk His electoral decisions have favored Zagreb’s ambitions. He has ignored the European Court of Human Rights decisions that would counter group rights, like Sejdic-Finci and Kovacevic.At the same time, the HiRep has made himself persona non grata with Milorad Dodik, by countering Dodik’s efforts to remove Republika Srpska from Sarajevo’s authority.The failure of the international community to respond effectively to Dodik’s challenge risks vitiating the HiRep’s role and ending any hope that he can play a constructive role in dismantling the group rights that plague Bosnia’s politics.This is nub of the issue for both Serbia and Croatia. Zagreb and Belgrade want group rights and the constitutional provisions to protect them to prevail over individual rights, thus ensuring a permanent hold on power for ethnic nationalists friendly to Croatia’s and Serbia’s interests. Washington and Brussels are not the answer
That brings me to Washington and Brussels. The Americans and Europeans, who for a long time regretted the group rights granted at Dayton and backed the European Court decisions against them, are no longer fighting that fight.They seem content to allow Bosnia to wallow in its current dysfunctional state, so long as no major violence erupts.Lenin asked a good question: “what is to be done?”My colleagues and I in the diminished Balkan-watching world in Washington will continue to speak up for individual rights, for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and against Serbia and Croatia’s efforts to monopolize politics among their co-nationals inside Bosnia.But the center of gravity of Bosnian politics is properly inside Bosnia, not outside it.
Bosnia is the center of gravity
The media and civil society can play a vital role. I’d like to see them mobilize as many voices as possible to press for implementation of the European Court decisions.Anything that reduces the salience of group rights and increases the commitment to individual rights would constitute progress.Ideally, the Bosnian state should have all the authority required to negotiate and implement the acquis communautaire while everything else is delegated to the municipalities (opstine).I’d like to see the entities and cantons, which are the power-sharing embodiment of ethnic identity and division, gradually disempowered and eventually eliminated.But that is an American’s version of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is your vision that counts.Democracy is not an easy system to manage. It requires courage and commitment. The majority of Bosnians showed lots of courage and commitment during the war.I hope they can summon that same spirit in 2023 and beyond.
The introductory speech for the session was given by Professor Daniel Serwer, Scholar, Middle East Institute; Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute; and Professor, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University; from Washington, DC. It has been more than 25 years since Professor Serwer first attended a session of Circle 99 in person, and he gave an introductory speech also in 2021, focused then mainly on the political and constitutional situation inside Bosnia and Herzegovina. He notes that it has not improved since. This October 2023 session focused again on Bosnia, but in the regional context.  
Adil Kulenovic, President of “Circle 99” (“Krug 99”)
Association of Independent Intellectuals – Circle 99 (Bosnian: Krug 99), a leading Bosnian think-tank, was established in Sarajevo in 1993, in the midst of the Bosnian war (1992-1995), while the capital was under siege. Circle 99 provides a platform to bring together intellectuals of various professional and ethnic identities; university professors, members of the Academy of Sciences and Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, artists, journalists, entrepreneurs, diplomats, and other prominent figures from Bosnia and from abroad. Multidisciplinary discussions and initiatives are held each Sunday throughout the academic year, in the form of regular sessions about politics, science, education, culture, economy, and other societal issues. The overall goal is to sensitize the public towards a democratic transformation, achieving and maintaining peace, and integration of modern Bosnia into the community of countries fostering liberal democracy. Circle 99 has been declared an organization of special significance for the city of Sarajevo.