At a crucial time, the US must uphold its commitment to Bosnia

At a crucial time, the US must uphold its commitment to Bosnia
© Getty Images

This month marked the 26th anniversary of the referendum that started independence for Bosnia and Herzegovina from the now-dissolved Yugoslavia. The ensuing war of aggression left more than 100,000 dead, millions displaced and over 20,000 predominantly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) women and girls victims of sexual violence. Ultimately, it was the U.S.-led NATO military intervention that stopped the genocide and ethnic cleansing against Bosnia’s non-Serb population and got the parties to the negotiating table.

The war officially ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, which divided Bosnia into two entities — the Federation and Republika Srpska (RS) — and gave the newly independent Bosnia a complex system of governance that rewards ethnic-based politics.

ADVERTISEMENT
Despite its shortcomings, the U.S.-brokered peace agreement did put an end to the war, saving countless lives. NATO’s relationship with Bosnia evolved from that of peacekeeping to partnership. Since 2009, Bosnia has contributed to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan under U.S. command, as well as the U.S. coalition against ISIS by donating more than 550 tons of arms and ammunition.

 

While the promise of European Union and NATO integration remains the only formidable way forward, Bosnia’s Western allies must bear in mind that their sphere of influence in Bosnia and the wider region is slowly waning. Upon handing the reins over to the EU, the United States has allowed adversaries such as China and Russia to compete for influence in southeast Europe. In an emerging democracy such as Bosnia, China and Russia are exerting influence over the  economy and security sectors without much deterrence from the West.

China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013, has relied on soft power to propagate Chinese expansionism along the “Balkan Silk Road.” Countries in the region have seen an increase in Chinese investments, particularly in infrastructure projects such as airports, harbors, rail and roadways, and have relied on Chinese investments that often are heavily government-subsidized. By exerting its influence over EU-aspirant nations such as Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia, China is vying for a seat at the EU table.

If China’s influence is through the economy, Russia’s has been through military means. Moscow’s meddling these days is not limited to U.S. elections, Ukraine or Syria; rather, the Kremlin has played a dangerous role in Bosnia through a pro-Russian populist, Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s smaller entity Republika Srpska.

Dodik, a staunch genocide denier who was sanctioned by the United States last year for obstructing the Dayton Accords, enjoys a special relationship with the Kremlin, going as far as allowing Russian-trained mercenaries to train Serb militias loyal to his separatist movement. This alarming development was confirmed by Bosnia’s security minister, and comes on the heels of a reported agreement between Russia and the RS ministry of the interior to have Russians train the RS special police force.

The RS recently purchased military grade weapons from Serbia to equip the Bosnian Serb police, begging the question of whether Dodik is preparing for a future conflict. During the war against Bosnia, Russian volunteers came to fight on the side of the Serbs and against the United States and its allies. Serbs from the RS have returned the favor by fighting on the side of the Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine.

Russia also has found an unlikely ally in Bosnia’s nationalist Croat party, the HDZ, which has been lobbying the United States and EU to change Bosnia’s electoral law to cement ethnic supremacy akin to the three-fifths rule — a move that goes against democratic principles and basic human rights.

One thing is clear: Chinese and Russian assertiveness comes at a price, and 26 years after the United States stopped the war in Bosnia, it should not allow this small yet strategically vital country to falter. Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once stated that the United States is the “indispensable nation” — meaning that we have to stay engaged and respond resolutely and assertively to threats that are posed against our allies and our own national interests.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy singled out Russia and China as the two principal challenges to U.S. prosperity and security. That could not be more evident than in Bosnia today, where a swift and strategic U.S. response is imperative. In the words of Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP lambasts Trump over performance in Helsinki Trump stuns the world at Putin summit NY Daily News cover following Helsinki summit shows Trump shooting Uncle Sam MORE, “We ignore this region at our own peril.”

Ajla Delkic is president of the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina, a Washington-based nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that advocates for a united, multiethnic and democratic Bosnia and Herzegovina.