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Bosnia's defense chief says U.S. troops needed to hold the country together as Serb leader tests fragile 30-year-old peace deal

Ethnic tensions rising again in Bosnia
Ethnic tensions rising again in Bosnia-Herzegovina 03:27

Sarajevo — Just three decades ago, the country today known as Bosnia and Herzegovina was the center of Europe's bloodiest conflict since World War II. The war that erupted between the country's Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats left about 100,000 people dead and displaced millions more.

The landmark moment in the bloodshed was the massacre in Srebrenica in July 1995, when some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serbs. NATO intervened, and finally, after more than three years of bloodshed, the United States was able to broker a ceasefire later that year.

The resolution established a power-sharing agreement among Bosnia's three main ethnic groups: Bosnia would remain one country, but with two semi-autonomous regions, the Republika Srpska and the Bosnia-Croat Federation. The overall nation, Bosnia and Herzegovina, would be led by three leaders simultaneously: a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak.

The deal ended the war, but it has been a fragile peace, and one that Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, has increasingly threatened to destabilize over the last six months.

Dodik has stirred up nationalist sentiment and had the Serb parliament pass laws that enable the theoretical withdrawal of the Republika Srpska from the combined military of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and from the judicial and tax systems of the federation. If his administration continues in that direction, it would shatter the agreement reached in 1995 in Dayton, Ohio, and there's fear that could pave the way for a return to armed conflict.

Despite the actions he's taken, Dodik's secessionist moves are often dismissed as rhetoric by Western diplomats. But those who know how fragile the peace holding the country together really is, say the risk is real. 

Christian Schmidt is the high representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a job created as part of the peace accord. His mission is to oversee the implementation of the Dayton Accords that have kept the peace for 30 years, and he told CBS News that he sees a creeping dismantlement of the country from within.

"It is such an inflammatory rhetoric," Schmidt told CBS News of Dodik's remarks, "that I see we could come to a situation where their own purposes and promises are self-fulfilling, and this is the challenge of the tactics of Mr. Dodik and people like him: They are putting the peaceful development in danger." 

Pictures of the Week-Global-Photo Gallery
Bosnian Serbs march carrying a giant Serbian flag in Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022.  / AP

Dodik remains hugely popular in the Serbian Republic. 

"For us Serbs in the Serb Republic, but also for the Croats and the Muslims living here, he is good," Alexander Kolar, who lives in the Republika Srpska town of Pale, told CBS News. "He is a leader for everyone and he does a lot for his people… I hope he will win in the next election, here in my country!"

But in other parts of the deeply divided nation, Dodik is dredging up painful collective memories. 

For Nedzla Ohran, they aren't her own memories - she was born not long after the war ended. But her parents remember it well. Her father fought for the Bosniak army, and her mother was held in captivity.

Ohran told CBS News there's still a lot of hostility toward the Muslim community in Bosnia, and she believes Dodik is fueling it, very deliberately.

"In many interviews, Dodik degrades the Muslim community, denies that the Srebrenica genocide happened," she said. "In my opinion, he is voting for a cultural war here in Bosnia."

Abdi, who lives in the capital Sarajevo, echoed Ohran's concerns: "We can't afford the luxury to think we won't have another conflict. That's what we thought in 1992, and we were wrong."

The most immediate concern is the possibility that Dodik will withdraw Republika Srpska from the Bosnian armed forces, which could leave him with some revived iteration of an ethnic Serb army.

That is of particular concern to Sifet Podzic, Bosnia and Herzegovina's minister of defense.

"Unfortunately, the situation is very grave. Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, this is the most difficult year," he told CBS News. "We have a specific situation here: In case of an internal conflict, the armed forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina have no mission whatsoever to deal with an internal conflict."  

As the country's own forces cannot be deployed to fight any part of the fragile alliance that splits off – and the Bosnia and Herzegovina military would cease to exist in its current form anyway, should Dodik make good on his threat – Podzic told CBS News that U.S. or NATO forces are needed in the country, once again, to keep the peace. 

Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations thinktank, said Dodik's recent words and actions are part of a well-established pattern of provocation by the Serb leader.

"This is now an escalation of a process that has been ongoing since 2006, really since he assumed power in Republika Srpska," she told CBS News. "He has been repeatedly assaulting the authority of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina and threatening the maximalist scenario of secession to negotiate kind of concessions and weaken the authority of the state."

The West has taken some action against Dodik: Last month, the U.S. Treasury froze his property assets in the U.S. and barred American citizens from doing business with him. The European Union has threatened to impose sanctions, "should the situation further deteriorate."

But especially as he appears to have at least tacit support from Russia and China, the limited pressure from the West may be not be enough to convince Dodik to drop his secessionist intentions.

With memories of the Bosnia War fading, it's far from clear that the U.S. and its European allies are willing to do what it takes to ensure that the state they fought to hold together in the 1990s remains intact. 

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