BOSNIA: BREWING TENSIONS
Recent arrests and calls for a third political entity by Bosnian Croat political groups are indicators of trouble brewing in Bosnia. The Balkans are traditionally an area of discontent, and the recent unrest should come as little surprise. However, the global financial crisis and the drastic rise in unemployment could reignite old tensions.
Tensions between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia are rising with demand for autonomy coming from Croats in the Muslim-Croat political unit. Police arrested a group of 15 Croat miscreants on April 25 who set fire to a bus carrying Muslim football fans in Mostar, an ethnically divided town between Croatians and Muslims in southern Bosnia. Furthermore, RT news outlet reported April 21 that Croatian elements within the Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are calling for greater independence within the Muslim-Croat political unit (Bosnia and Herzegovina is split into two political units, the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation).
While the calls from the Croatian community for a third political entity within Bosnia are not new, they come at a time when the economic crisis and rising unemployment could spark serious social discontent.
The economic crisis has hit Bosnia hard, with more than 21,000 workers having been laid off since November 2008, an alarming figure considering that the country was already faced with an unemployment rate of nearly 40 percent (with the gray economy providing employment for a large share of the officially unemployed). Government expenditures in Bosnia totaled 44 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), a figure double that of neighboring Croatia and Serbia, with a large segment of Bosnia's labor pool and the overall economy still dependent on government employment.
Bosnia has never truly recovered -- either economically or politically -- from its brutal civil war from 1992 to 1995 that ravaged the country's economy and industry. Once the Yugoslav core for military industry, Bosnia was left with only a shell of its former manufacturing capacity. The subsequent partition of the country into the Republika Srpska (the Serbian entity) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Muslim-Croat entity), has only stalled economic progress and increased dependency on an enlarged bureaucracy, which has essentially doubled in size due to ethnic mistrust between the two political units.
A combination of an economic crisis and distraction by the international community (concerned with geopolitical issues and economic crises of their own) could lead to renewed ethnic tensions in Bosnia. Normally it has been Republika Srpska and President Miroslav Dodik who have demanded political concessions, and at times outright independence from the Bosnian federation. Recently, however, Croatians have called for greater independence and many in the Croat community are rumbling about what they perceive as an "Islamization" of Bosnia. The self-styled Alternative Government of the Croatian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina demands self-rule as a third political entity in Bosnia in order to avoid being dominated by the more numerous Muslims in the joint federal entity. According to STRATFOR security sources in Bosnia, similar sentiment is being echoed among the Bosnian Muslim element of the population as well. So while it is normal for one or even two of the groups to look to break off, having all three groups wanting a divorce at one time could spell trouble.
The danger for Bosnia is that the still ethnically mixed political unit between the Croats and Muslims could create social unrest that would split down ethnic lines as the economy continues to contract and as the international community, particularly the European Union, concentrates on economic problems at home. The Serbian political entity, Republika Srpska, is in similar dire straights economically, but its population is far different from its pre-war multiethnic character due to ethnic cleansing and population movements. Therefore, tensions in Republika Srpska would likely be political, with conflict between various Serb factions, rather than ethnic in nature.
Flaring tensions in the Balkans are not surprising even though the situation has been relatively quiet for the past nine months. Simmering conflicts in the Balkans are still the norm because not all wars concluded with a clear winner emerging -- other than Slovenian war of independence in 1991 and Croatian war against its Serbian minority from 1991 to 1995. In the case of Kosovo and Bosnia, the international community intervened to stop the more powerful side (the Serbs in both conflicts) from dominating. In Bosnia and Kosovo, the result has been an uncomfortable balance maintained by the presence of foreign troops, now weakened because the attention span of EU and NATO states has recently shortened. The problem is that as soon as the military presence and the interest of the international community diminish, renewed conflict is possible.
This does not mean that renewed conflict is guaranteed. However, STRATFOR is noticing the heat starting to turn up in Bosnia and will continue to monitor simmering tensions in the Balkans carefully because the region has a long history of being the chessboard upon which great powers have traditionally settled geopolitical rivalries.
Copyright 2009 Stratfor.