A headline in the German newspaper WELT caught my attention a few days ago. It says, "Everyone is looking to Belarus – and overlooking the next big crisis". Carolina Drüten, WELT correspondent from Athens, wrote about the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (what is often known informally as Bosnia) that has come to a head.
So I immersed myself a bit into the political history and present of the country on the Balkan Peninsula in southeastern Europe.
Here is a nutshell reading what is going on there right now.
This summer, the international peace envoy to the country used his executive powers to bring in a new law banning denial of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. Breaking the law can be punished with a prison sentence from six months to five years.
This envoy, called The High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, was created in 1995 immediately after signing the Dayton Agreement, which ended the 1992–1995 Bosnian War. The High Representative is still powerful and sometimes competes with the elected state institutions.
In the last year of the war, the Bosnian Serb army slaughtered over 8,000 people as it captured the city of Srebrenica, mainly targeting men but also women and children. This mass killing is the only genocide to occur in Europe since World War II.
Milorad Dodik, the current Serb representative in the country's threeway presidency, denies that the slaughter in Srebrenica constitutes genocide.
That appeal has now put Dodik on a collision course with the country's laws.
In addition, Dodik has been threatening to create a breakaway Serb army, boycotting the country's central institutions, and pledging to withdraw Bosnian Serbs from central institutions.
These institutions were carefully drawn after the war since the country is home to three main ethnic groups:
The Bosniaks are the largest group of the three.
The Serbs are the second-largest.
The Croats are the third-largest
By the way: In English, all natives of Bosnia and Herzegovina, regardless of ethnicity, are called Bosnian.
The following political construct results from these three ethnic groups:
Bosnia and Herzegovina has a so-called bicameral legislature and a three-member presidency made up of one member from each of the three major ethnic groups.
The central government's power is highly limited, as the country is largely decentralized.
The country comprises two autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, with Srpska headed by Dodik.
The young country's history (gained independence from Yugoslavia on 3 March 1992) has been tense, even after the Bosnian war. On 4 February 2014, protests marked the largest outbreak of public anger over high unemployment and two decades of political inertia in the country since the end of the Bosnian war, with hundreds of people injured.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is still a developing country, ranks only 73rd in human development, and is an applicant for membership in the European Union – with little chance of being accepted into the EU since the bloc became increasingly hesitant to welcome new members.
"The prospect of integrating Western Balkan states into the EU was once an effective means of curtailing wayward Balkan leaders," Una Hajdari writes on Politico. In the meantime, Balkan leaders have become less fearful of hurting their country's EU prospects.
Dodik has been a central figure in politics for more than two decades, rallying ultra-nationalist voters by minimizing the Bosnian Serb army's crimes during the war. "Dodik's nationalist rhetoric closely resembles that of other right-wing populists in Europe," Hajdari writes.
Subsequently, Dodik met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša recently, ahead of a visit of Gabriel Escobar, the U.S. special envoy to the Western Balkans last week.
But after the conversation with Escobar, Dodik seemed untamed. At a press conference, he said (according to Politico):
"I told Escobar that we would continue with our goal to send certain laws to the parliament of the Republika Srpska and withdraw our consent from issues such as the army, indirect taxation, the court system, and that we will draft new legislation in the next six months."
It seems that the state construct of Bosnia and Herzegovina is shaking violently and is in danger of falling apart.
"People in Bosnia see the calls for the country's destruction as an existential threat. Currently, people are again talking about either how to flee or how to fight."
She also accuses the EU of inaction:
"I think that the lack of understanding of the situation in Bosnia — by the EU, in particular — is huge, and that unfortunately, the EU will pay the highest price for this lack of understanding and lack of timely reactions. Simply, the focus is elsewhere — which I completely understand. But unfortunately, Europe cannot avoid the consequences of the conflict or degradation of Bosnia to its own security and its own political and economic interests."
Two decades after the end of the Yugoslav Wars, progress made in the region in the 2000s is at stake, and the space seems wide open for troublemakers.