‘The UK Must Help Bosnia Resist Putin’s Pressure’
Following Bosnia’s elections, Labour MP Fleur Anderson discusses the country’s prospects and what Britain can do to help
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Bosnians went to the polls last weekend after months of rising ethnic tensions as the region holds its breath. The results will take a few more days to be announced, but early results have more moderate candidates winning the Bosnian and Croatian parts of the three-member presidency.
Overall, the same main parties still dominate, but with a small and growing number of more reformist MPs in the many governments of the region. No one can breathe easily yet, however, and the majority of Bosnian people want their newly-elected leaders to fight corruption, not each other.
Bosnia is going through its worst political crisis since the end of its war in the 1990s, prompted by the separatist policies of the Serb leadership and threats of blockades by Bosnian Croats. These elections are critical and could spell the end of the fragile peace that has held since the early ‘90s. The Dayton Peace Accord set up a complicated governance system which has remained frozen. Not simply a three-way presidency; for a country of just 3.2 million people there are 7,257 candidates for the 14 governments with 136 ministers.
In July, I was part of cross-party parliamentary group visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. We made the trip to demonstrate our support for the beautiful but beleaguered country, whose outlook is not bright. The rise of nationalism and the threat of violence in the run-up to the elections on 2 October were causing mounting concerns, as were the continual problems of corruption and young people leaving to work in other countries.
Political scientist Adnan Huskic believes that the electoral conditions are a “perfect storm” in which nationalist parties represent their own interests at the expense of their constituents. Particularly worrying is that Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik is seeking his third term as the president of Republika Srpska and has used the election campaign to champion a secessionist agenda, as well as Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Being in Bosnia, the conflict in Ukraine and the influence of Vladimir Putin feels very close.
The UK Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe and North America are two of the latest in a series of high-profile political visits that mark a welcome change in the UK’s attitude to Bosnia. However, it is only a matter of time until the Conservative cuts to the aid budget trickle down to post-conflict regions like the Balkans.
Historically, the UK had little interest in the small, once-Ottoman province. This changed during the Second World War, however, as Winston Churchill understood the role of the Balkans in disrupting Hitler’s armies.
Post-war relations with Yugoslavia were cordial, but when it broke apart in the 1990s, the UK’s relations with the newly-formed Bosnia and Herzegovina were not seen by local people as entirely positive – though military support contributed enormously to building the peace and those who died are remembered for their service and bravery.
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I worked for Christian Aid in Serbia and Bosnia during the conflict and for a year after, rebuilding villages. I saw first-hand the generosity and aid provided by the British people, which created lasting links. Brave volunteers drove lorries of aid down to Bosnia for years after the war, unloaded by people like myself, providing people with coats, crockery and furniture for homes in which they had nothing.
Since the end of the war in 1995, the British political establishment has taken steps to help. The late Sir Paddy Ashdown served as the country’s high representative from 2002 to 2006, helping to create the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial and still hailed across the country as a hero – mentioned in every meeting during our visit. Now, the generation of MPs who witnessed the atrocities on our TV screens or spent time in the region are using our voices to ensure that the UK does not abandon Bosnia once again.
Building Lasting Peace
As a post-Brexit Britain sets out into unchartered foreign policy waters, and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office goes through a huge process of change, we need to pick our foreign policies carefully. A sustained and focused engagement with Bosnia can achieve several goals.
Firstly: security. Hikmet, a young genocide scholar I met in Sarajevo observed that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is not only fighting for the future of Ukraine, but also for the future of Bosnia, too. This is because Putin has for many years viewed his allies in Serbia and the Bosnian entity Republika Srpska as tools for instability. Key to Putin’s Balkan strategy has been the obedience of the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik (currently in St Petersburg), who has been a loyal ally. Recently, as result of pressure from parliamentarians, the UK Government joined the Americans by imposing stringent sanctions on him. This will weaken Dodik, decreasing his usefulness to Putin, but more needs to be done.
A stronger showing by NATO in Bosnia would seal this entrance point for Putin permanently. To that end, the Government should commit to keeping a UK peacekeeping force in the north of the country, in the strategic region around Brčko, along with the expansion of the sanctions regime to include other power-brokers in Bosnia determined to lead the country to war. Diplomatic pressure must be maintained. We cannot afford another Balkan conflict.
Secondly, we need to support those who are working to build peace. I met a young yet veteran peace builder, Tatjana, from the Post-Conflict Research Centre, who told me of the wonderful (but difficult) work being done by civil society to help young people in the country to face their past. We need to facilitate these organisations as, in the long-run, they are going to secure the region’s future. We should also connected them with UK organisations such as the Aegis Trust, that have an extremely successful track-record of peace-building in Africa.
We’ve seen it from Northern Ireland to South Africa, and in Bosnia and Ukraine too; it is women’s groups, community organisations, and brave activists that will build lasting peace.
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It was moving and unbearably sad to visit the Srebrenica Memorial for the 8,372 people who were killed in the July 1995 genocide. The Government must continue to support the centre and remember the genocide in schools and communities across the UK. Alongside this, we must continue to counter genocide denial.
Thirdly, we must develop better economic ties. We should encourage trade, particularly tourism. Bosnia is a stunning country, with amazing food, welcoming people (most speaking excellent English) and, importantly for UK visitors, still cheap. We should do all that we can to encourage Bosnians to holiday in the UK. Flights to Bosnia have been cut as there are too few people flying out, so we must work to end the long delays to visas experienced under this Government.
Stabilising Bosnia can be achieved easily, without much risk or expenditure. Boosting its economic development would secure us a lasting ally in the region, lessening its tragic brain-drain. Supporting its civil society will improve the country’s social and political life.
A stable, developing Bosnia would in turn stabilise the wider region. Failing to take this opportunity now might see the country regress still further, possibly even into violence. Hopefully the Government will agree with my colleagues and I when we call for the UK to step up our efforts.
And please, do visit. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful country.