IN 1888, then German chancellor Otto von Bismarck remarked that war would come to Europe because of “some damned foolish things in the Balkans”. Within 30 years, his prediction proved prescient as the Great War broke out. Now, almost 150 years on the region is in turmoil again as Bosnian Serbs seek secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina, triggering a crisis that threatens to plunge the fragile state back into the dark days of the Bosnian War of the 1990s and destabilise the wider region.

The man at the centre of the current crisis is Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two entities. Dodik has a history of genocide denial and inflammatory rhetoric. Now he is effectively advocating for unilateral secession of the Bosnian Serbs and to hell with the consequences.

It is worth recapping how we got here. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have enjoyed 26 years of peace after a brutal three-year conflict which saw 100,000 people killed, nearly two million displaced and genocide on a scale last seen in Europe during the Second World War. The Dayton Accords brought peace to this troubled part of the world and resulted in the creation of the complex political system that is Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, Dayton was never meant to be a permanent solution. Its aim was to bring about a politically and democratically stable state where there was none before, backed up with a peacekeeping force. Yet having ended the conflict, the international community has failed to win the peace.

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Dayton divided Bosnia and Herzegovina into two entities: the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which consists primarily of Bosniaks but also has a substantial Croatian minority. The state itself is headed by a rotating tripartite presidency composed of a Bosniak, Serb and Croat and is held together by a weak central government overseen by a High Representative (HR) chosen by the international community.

The HR holds extensive gubernatorial powers which includes holding an effective veto on legislation and choosing government ministers. Finally, the EU has 600 peacekeepers (EUFOR) present in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The current crisis kicked off earlier this year when, just before he finished his term as HR, Valentin Inzko set lengthy jail terms for anyone who engaged in genocide-denial. Dodik and his cronies reacted furiously, first by boycotting state institutions before announcing in early October they would begin unravelling key institutions of the Bosnian state.

These threats turned to action when the Republika Srpska assembly adopted a law establishing its own medicine procurement agency on October 20. This was followed by Bosnian Serb police carrying out “counter-terrorist” exercises on Mount Jahorina, from where Serb forces bombarded Sarajevo throughout a 1992-95 siege, a move which Bosniak and Bosnian Croat leaders denounced as “a clear provocation”.

Dodik has also made clear his intention to re-institute the army of the Republika Srpska, the exact same paramilitary forces which committed genocide in the 1990s, and that he would force the Bosnian army to withdraw from the Republika Srpska.

These destabilising actions have led the current HR, Christian Schmidt, to warn the UN Security Council that Dayton is at risk of collapsing and that Dodik’s actions are “tantamount to secession without proclaiming it”. Analysts on the ground are warning that if left unchecked, we will see another ethnic war in the Balkans and an even bigger humanitarian crisis.

There is a wider game being played here though. Dodik’s actions are recklessly endangering the stability of the Balkans precisely because it is at the centre of geopolitical competition.

In neighbouring Serbia, the current government has effectively rebooted Milosevic’s “Greater Serbia” ideology and backed it up by doubling its military spending, as well as by sending troops to its disputed border with Kosovo when tensions flared earlier this year.

China and Turkey have their eyes on the region too. China has provided significant loans for construction projects whilst Turkey’s President Erdogan is positioning himself as a mediator by meeting with Bosnian NGOs and Dodik himself.

However, it is Russia and its seemingly unconditional support for Serb agitators, which should give us all cause for concern. This year alone it used its position on the UN Security Council to weaken the HR by refusing to accept Schmidt’s mandate (as did China) whilst only allowing EUFOR to be renewed in November after all references to the HR were removed.

It is perhaps not too much of a coincidence that the three crises happening on Europe’s borders – Belarus, Ukraine and Bosnia – are all happening at once and have a common denominator. Putin knows that the West is reeling from the fall-out from Afghanistan and he is hitting us whilst we are down.

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Bosnia and Herzegovina need not have gone down this path. However, the West’s inaction and continuous appeasement of Dodik and his cronies since the mid-2000s has only emboldened their desire for secession. Where once EU accession served as a motivation for reforms, the continual veto by some EU states to enlarge the Union has meant that many of the Balkan states are turning away.

EUFOR has been weakened to the point where its forces amount to no more than a “Potemkin Deterrent”. Moreover, the UK pulled out of EUFOR last year due to Brexit and subsequently has no active deployments to the region.

We are where we are though, and we must play the cards we’re dealt. The West has a narrowing window of opportunity to stop the crisis escalating. Smart, targeted Magnitsky sanctions against Dodik and his allies, as well as providing a peacekeeping force worthy of the name would go a long way towards preserving the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Decisive action must be taken against those who would see people’s lives lost for their own naked ambitions. Otherwise, history is doomed to repeat itself.