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We must not allow the western Balkans to slide back into conflict

We must not allow the western Balkans to slide back into conflict

Bridge over the Neretva river, Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina | Alamy

3 min read

Next October it will be 30 years since I came to live in the UK. I didn’t come out of choice, but because I had nowhere else to go. I was seeking refuge from one of the bloodiest conflicts in Europe since the Second World War: a three-year war that displaced my family, killed my friends, saw rape camps set up on European soil, and culminated in the Srebrenica genocide.

In 1995, Nato finally intervened in response to the slaughter. The subsequent Dayton peace accords set up two separate administrative units, called ‘entities’, inside Bosnia-Herzegovina – sadly, in the case of the smaller entity of Republika Srpska, created through ethnic cleansing and genocide. At the time, it was seen as a necessary price for peace, but it baked instability into the constitutional framework of the country.

It was never an easy peace. But it held, and Bosnia made progress. So much so that in 2003 the country was identified as a potential candidate for EU membership. But after 2006, when the late, great Paddy Ashdown finished his term as high representative (the international official responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Dayton peace accords), the international community turned its attention elsewhere and failed to confront the warning signs that secessionists in Republika Srpska remained intent on breaking up the country.

After all these years, Bosnia is under threat again. This time, secessionists are backed not only by Serbia, but also by Russia and, more tacitly, China. Moscow sees an opportunity to create chaos at the heart of Europe, with weak client states spreading instability. The Kremlin realises the Balkans are a testing ground for the ability of Nato and the west to act meaningfully, anywhere.

This is a manageable threat, but only if we organise to prevent it

The goal of the secessionists is to collapse the country by paralysing its institutions. They want to create a crisis as a pretext for a declaration of secession, with the eventual goal of joining the territory to Serbia. Their leaders recently declared plans to raise a Bosnian Serb army, resurrecting forces that were responsible for the Srebrenica genocide, and potentially triggering conflict.

This is a manageable threat, but only if we organise to prevent it.

First, it requires political leadership. This is not a matter than can be relegated to ambassadors in the region, however capable they might be. Peace and security in Europe demand the attention of the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the National Security Council backed, I would hope, by bipartisan support in Parliament. At present, our government is silent.

Second, we should impose sanctions on anyone undermining the Dayton peace accords – matching action already taken by the US – and call on EU states to do so the same. The mixed signals currently emanating from the international community are deeply destabilising. We and our allies must send the unequivocal message that the redrawing of borders in the western Balkans is over, and secessionism will not be tolerated.

Third, the crisis in Bosnia is a security issue; it demands a security response. Eufor, the EU stabilisation force in Bosnia, has only 700 soldiers on the ground – far too few to see off a potential military challenge likely supported by Serbia and even Russia. The UK ill-advisedly withdrew its troops after Brexit, even as a contingent from Chile remained. We should reinstate our military contribution in Bosnia, and work with Nato allies to ensure that Eufor is a credible deterrent.

We urgently need to find the clarity and resolve to prevent the reversal of decades of peacebuilding in the western Balkans, for the good of the whole region and in our own national interest.

Baroness Helić is a Conservative peer

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