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Passports, Peacebuilding, and Bosnia’s Rogue Republic

The president of Bosnia’s Serb ministate, Republika Srpska, has rejected a landmark visa agreement with Kosovo, demonstrating how unresolved traumas from the last century still shape the politics of the Balkan Peninsula.

The free travel agreement, which was signed in November of last year by the Prime Ministers of Serbia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, would have removed the final visa barrier in the region between Bosnia and its partially recognized neighbor. Yet Milorad Dodik, president of one of Bosnia’s two federal entities, Republika Srpska, announced in February that he will not allow the deal to take effect, citing what he perceives as the continued oppression of the Serb minority in Kosovo. Dodik’s veto has created a major diplomatic obstacle for the six Western Balkan nations comprising the cooperative Berlin Process group, but should come as no surprise considering the Bosnian Serb president’s history of political obstruction.

In fact, the hang-up over Bosnia’s visa barrier is only the latest installment of noncompliance stemming from Republika Srpska. Officially recognized in 1995 by the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (commonly known as the Dayton Accords), the ethnically Serb-majority federal entity has routinely defied the Bosnian state under Dodik’s leadership. Last month, for instance, Dodik came to blows with Bosnia’s High Representative, the international envoy tasked with upholding the Accords, when the latter suspended a controversial property law which would have granted Republika Srpska sole legal ownership of Bosnian state properties. This debacle came shortly after the European Commission issued a report criticizing Republika Srpska for attempting to usurp a variety of state functions and institutions, including those related to taxation and defense.

Dodik’s persistent defiance of Bosnia’s highest legal authorities and efforts to establish parallel state institutions (accompanied, no less, by repeated calls for total independence) have led Republika Srpska to increasingly resemble a rogue state-within-a-state. And while the disintegration of Bosnia’s almost thirty-year peace may be implausible, the frequent difficulties posed by the rebellious entity’s leadership illustrate the shortfalls of the Dayton peace process, which concluded the Bosnian War in 1995. Although the watershed agreement successfully halted four years of ethnically motivated fighting, its ability to create a sustainable, positive, and above all else productive peace has proven troublesome.

Perhaps Dayton’s greatest pitfall was its inability to reconcile the ethnic tensions which Bosnians endured during the war. Even today, Bosnian citizens inhabit a political system defined explicitly by ethnic affiliation. The two federal units drawn up by the Accords, which have borders closely resembling the war’s front lines, functionally legitimized the demographic changes and ethnic separation brought about by the conflict. Likewise, by distributing political power along ethnic lines, Dayton granted leaders such as Dodik a structural mechanism for obstruction built around old ethnic narratives — the President’s latest remarks concerning the visa deal are even reminiscent of the 1989 SANU memorandum, the basis for the Greater Serbian project that eventually catalyzed the Bosnian War. Now, nearly thirty years since the end of the bloodshed, Bosnia is still plagued by threats of Serb secession, remarkable political dysfunction, and stagnant EU hopes.

Republika Srpska’s ongoing mutiny against the state has demonstrated how the system that once characterized Bosnia’s peace has now become the biggest obstacle to its future stability. Moreover, it shows that when we consider peacebuilding, we must consider the positive elements of peace just as much as the negative ones. In other words, peace is not merely an absence of violence, but a presence of cooperation, trust, reconciliation, and good governance. By and large, Dayton failed to instill these principles in Bosnia and Herzegovina — and although hindsight may be 20/20, we must scrutinize the past if we wish to learn anything from it. Otherwise, as Bosnia has shown, unresolved traumas will continue to lurk in the shadows of post-conflict societies, ready to erupt over something as simple as passports.