After attending Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s inauguration in Grozny in early October, former Bosnian grand mufti Mustafa Cerić took to Facebook to reflect on his visit. As a leader of the Bosnian Islamic community for nearly two decades, he was known for his headlines, but this post was seen as particularly controversial.
Evidently impressed by what he saw in Grozny, Cerić noted how Russia integrated Chechnya after the Chechen wars, but “Brussels did not want and apparently does not want to integrate Bosnia into the European Union”. He then advised the EU leadership to “come here to Grozny, Chechnya, to see and learn how Vladimir Putin works in collaboration with Ramzan Kadyrov”.
His words were seen by many as a dramatic turnaround for a Muslim community leader known for his pro-Western views. In 2006, Cerić famously wrote A Declaration of European Muslims emphasizing the commitment of European Muslims to European values and two years later he led a Muslim delegation to a high-level meeting of Catholic and Muslim leaders at the Vatican. He also used to publicly emphasize the western orientation of Bosniak Muslims with his often repeated statement: “Our sultan is in Brussels”.
Cerić’s statement reflects a growing tendency towards Euroscepticism among Bosnians, who have traditionally viewed EU integration as the only way to solve all of Bosnia’s post-war problems. These attitudes reflect Brussels’ integration fatigue and inconsistent policies towards the Western Balkans. However, losing hope for EU membership could be a dangerous prospect for Bosnians.
In 2003, the EU held the Thessaloniki Summit during which it promised the Western Balkan countries European integration if they met certain admission criteria. In 2016, Bosnia finally applied for EU membership, and three years later, Brussels outlined 14 requirements the country must meet in order to initiate the accession process, but the process has stalled since then. In early October, an EU summit in Slovenia failed to produce a clear timetable for Bosnia’s accession to the Union.
It is now obvious that the decline in support among EU citizens for the continuation of EU enlargement is affecting the EU decision-making process and its willingness to move forward with integration.
These negative signals from Brussels are inevitably hitting Bosnian public opinion, which is beginning to perceive the integration process as inequitable and inconsistent. In a 2020 survey by Bosnia’s European Integration Office, 75% of respondents said they were in favor of EU membership. Just six years earlier, this number was 85 percent.
The downward trend is also evident in various public spheres, including academia, intellectual spaces and even politics. I have been teaching at university level in Sarajevo since 2014. In this capacity, I used to do a considerable number of master’s theses on Bosnia’s European integration process every year. But in the past year or two, there has been a sharp decline in student interest in writing or researching the EU.
I have seen a growing lack of interest in EU policy even among my colleagues. Academics who once lectured regularly and consulted on European integration are now refocusing their work and focusing on Russia, the far right and illiberal politics. Likewise, non-governmental organizations that focused on EU membership have also moved into other fields.
Even key public figures in the political sphere have apparently lost their passion for EU integration and seem increasingly disillusioned in their public statements. Reuf Bajrović, for example, who founded the Civic Alliance party and advocated civic politics to counter ethnic politics in Bosnia, has become increasingly outspoken in his criticisms of the EU.
He, like other prominent figures, has argued that Brussels is biased against Bosniaks, who make up just over 50 percent of the Bosnian population, and does not want to admit countries with large Muslim communities within the Union.
Although this topic was almost unknown in the Bosnian public sphere five to ten years ago, it is now increasingly accepted as a plausible explanation for the EU’s inconsistent policies towards Bosnia. Anti-Muslim sentiment in Brussels is also raised as a possible reason behind the slow progress made by North Macedonia and Albania towards membership; Muslims make up 36 percent and 59 percent of their population respectively.
Adding to the growing skepticism among Bosnians is the perception that integration into the EU has failed to transform the politics of other Balkan countries. Corruption and dysfunction continue to plague the Balkan nations that have joined the union for the past 17 years. This calls into question the belief that the EU can solve Bosnia’s problems.
The dangers of EU disillusionment
For Bosnia, as for other Western Balkan states, the prospect of EU membership has been a driving force for political reform, but now that membership is an increasingly distant prospect, the momentum for reform has diminished. .
This inevitably affected the EU’s influence on Bosnian politics. Bosnian politicians are increasingly challenging EU positions, calling the EU bluff and walking away without consequences. Take, for example, Milorad Dodik, a Bosnian Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency. It has continually undermined the Dayton peace accords and destabilized the country.
In July, Valentin Inzko, the then United Nations High Representative who holds some executive powers in Bosnia, imposed a ban on denial of the Bosnian genocide, widespread in Republika Srpska. In retaliation, Dodik ordered Bosnian Serb representatives in state institutions to stop their work, thus effectively blocking their decision-making processes, as the contribution of all three major ethnic groups (Bosnians, Serbs and Croats) is required to function. ).
Since then, he has further intensified his violations of the peace agreement, announcing his intention to create alternative institutions for the Republika Srpska, thus rejecting the authority of state-level institutions. He also recently declared the formation of the Armed Forces of Republika Srpska, separated from the Unified Bosnian Armed Forces.
In his aggressive stance, Dodik seems confident that the EU will not impose sanctions on him and recently went so far as to declare that if they were to be imposed, it would usher in “Republika Srpska Independence Day”. Bosnian politicians like him know that the EU is too divided to act.
Dodik’s escalation has worried many Bosnians, who see the establishment of a Serbian army as an important step towards the secession of Republika Srpska and another war. The moves he is making are reminiscent of those made by Bosnian Serb leaders in the fall of 1991, shortly before the outbreak of the war.
The EU response to Dodik’s threats was to send Claudio Graziano, a senior military officer from Brussels, to Sarajevo where he expressed his support for the Bosnian armed forces. It is clear that the EU cannot be relied upon to provide security for Bosnia, given its ineffective response in the 1990s and the limited presence of the European Union Force (EUFOR) in the country, which has only a few hundred soldiers.
However, what the EU can do now is impose a prohibitive cost on any move that jeopardizes the country’s peace and security. The EU must take a clear stand against the separatist policy in Bosnia by imposing sanctions on Bosnian leaders who violate the Dayton peace accords. To ensure sanctions are effective, he can ask the United States to join the effort and extend these measures to cover not only politicians, but also their associates and businesses they own or are controlled by their cronies.
Bosnia also needs a strong reassertion of its European future, which clearly puts it on the path to EU membership. Since the country applied for EU membership in 2016, there has been no EU decision that has generated momentum. Now is the time for the EU to grant Bosnia candidate status.
Failure to act promptly and decisively could invite pernicious actors to step up their destabilizing policy. If Bosnia is pushed to the limit, it will not only be its people who will suffer the consequences, but the whole of Europe.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.