After attending the inauguration of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny in early October, former Bosnian Grand Mufti Mustafa Cerić took to Facebook to reflect on his visit. As the leader of Bosnia’s Islamic community for almost two decades, he was known for his head-generating proclamations, but this post was considered particularly controversial.
Apparently impressed by what he saw in Grozny, Cerić noted how Russia integrated Chechnya after the Chechen wars, but “Brussels did not and, apparently, does not want to integrate Bosnia into the European Union”. He went on to advise the EU leadership to “come here to Grozny, in Chechnya, to see and learn how Vladimir Putin works in collaboration with Ramzan Kadyrov”.
His words were seen by many as a dramatic consideration 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 led a Muslim delegation to a high-level meeting of Catholics and Muslim leaders at the Vatican. He also publicly emphasized the Western orientation of Bosnian Muslims with his oft-repeated statement: “Our sultan is in Brussels.”
Cerić’s statement reflects a growing trend of Euroscepticism among Bosnians, who have traditionally seen EU integration as the only way to solve all the problems of post-war Bosnia. These attitudes reflect Brussels’ own integration capacity and inconsistent policy towards the Western Balkans. However, losing hope of EU membership could be a dangerous prospect for Bosnians.
In 2003, the EU held the Thessaloniki Summit promising 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 set out 14 requirements that the country must meet in order for the accession procedure to be launched, but since then the process has come to a standstill. In early October, an EU summit in Slovenia failed to draw up a clear timetable for Bosnia’s accession to the union.
It is now clear that the declining support among EU citizens for the continued enlargement of the Union is influencing the EU’s decision – making and its willingness to continue with integration.
These negative signals from Brussels inevitably affect the Bosnian public, who are beginning to see the integration process as unfair and inconsistent. In a 2020 poll by Bosnia’s European Integration Office, 75 percent of respondents said they were in favor of joining the EU. Just six years earlier, that number was 85 percent.
The downward trend is also evident in various public spheres, including in academia, intellectual spaces and even politics. I have been teaching at university level in Sarajevo since 2014. In this capacity, I have undergone a significant number of MA thesis defense on Bosnia’s European integration process each year. But over the past year or two, there has been a marked decline in students’ interest in writing about or researching the EU.
I have even seen a growing disinterest in EU politics among my colleagues. Academics who previously gave regular lectures and consulted on European integration are now reorienting their work and focusing on Russia, far-right and illiberal politics. Similarly, non-governmental organizations that previously focused on EU membership have also moved to other fields.
Public key figures in the political sphere have also apparently lost their passion for EU integration and sound increasingly disillusioned in their public statements. Reuf Bajrović, for example, who founded the Civic Alliance Party and advocated civic-based politics to oppose ethnic politics in Bosnia, has increasingly spoken out in his criticism of the EU.
He argued, like other prominent figures, that Brussels was biased against Bosnians, who make up slightly more than 50 percent of the Bosnian population, and did not want to allow countries with large Muslim communities within the union.
While this argument was almost unheard of in Bosnia’s public sphere five to 10 years ago, it is now increasingly accepted as a credible statement for the EU’s conflicting policies towards Bosnia. Anti-Muslim sentiment in Brussels is also raised as a possible reason for the sluggish progress that Northern Macedonia and Albania have made towards membership; Muslims make up 36 percent and 59 percent of their population, respectively.
Contributing to the growing skepticism among Bosnians is the perception that EU integration has failed to transform the policies of other Balkan countries. Corruption and dysfunction continue to plague the Balkan countries that have joined the union for the past 17 years. This disputes the belief that the EU can solve Bosnia’s problems.
The dangers of EU disillusionment
For Bosnia, like other Western Balkan states, the prospect of EU membership was a driving force for political reform. Now with membership an increasingly distant prospect, momentum for reforms has waned.
This inevitably affected the influence of the EU on Bosnian politics. Bosnian politicians are increasingly challenging EU positions, calling the EU a bluff and walking away with no consequences. Take, for example, the Bosnian Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik. He continually undermined the Dayton peace accords and destabilized the country.
In July, Valentin Inzko, the then UN High Representative for Certain Bosnian Executive, imposed a ban on the denial of the Bosnian genocide, which is widespread in Republika Srpska. In retaliation, Dodik instructed Bosnian Serb representatives in state institutions to stop their work and thus effectively block their decision-making processes, as input from all three main ethnic groups (Bosnians, Serbs and Croats) is needed for them to function.
Since then, he has further escalated his violations of the peace agreement and announced his intention to set up alternative institutions for Republika Srpska, thus rejecting the authority of state-level institutions. He also recently declared the formation of Republika Srpska armed forces, separate from the united Bosnian army.
In his aggressive stance, Dodik seems confident that the EU will not impose sanctions on him and has recently gone so far as to declare that if instituted, 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 a major step towards Republika Srpska’s secession and another war. The moves he makes are reminiscent of those made by Bosnian Serb leaders in the fall of 1991, just before the war.
The EU’s response to Dodik’s threats was to send Claudio Graziano, Brussels’ top military official, to Sarajevo, where he expressed his support for the Bosnian armed forces. It is clear that the EU cannot be relied on to provide security for Bosnia, given its ineffective response in the 1990s and the limited presence of European Union power (EUFOR) in the country, which is only a few hundred troops tel.
What the EU can do now, however, is impose an excessively high cost on any move that endangers the country’s peace and security. The EU must take a clear stand against separatist policies in Bosnia by imposing sanctions on Bosnian leaders who violate the Dayton peace accords. To ensure that sanctions are effective, it may require the United States to join the effort and extend these measures to cover not only politicians but also their associates and businesses owned or controlled by their partners. word.
Bosnia also needs a strong reaffirmation of its European future – one that clearly puts it on the path to EU membership. Since the country applied for EU membership in 2016, there has been no momentum-generating EU decision. It is now time for the EU to grant Bosnia candidate status.
Failure to act early and decisively may invite pernicious actors to escalate their destabilizing policies. If Bosnia is pushed over the edge, it will not only be its people who will suffer the consequences, but the whole of Europe.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial views.