The U.S. ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina says Washington’s commitment to that Balkan state is “enduring” and it is committed along with its European allies to Bosnia’s “territorial integrity, sovereignty and security, and multiethnic character.”
In a recent interview with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, Ambassador Michael Murphy accused Russia of seeking instability in the region but said a recent reinforcement of EU peacekeepers amid that challenge was indicative of transatlantic resolve.
“I think you did see from the United States and the Europeans a response, and it should signal that we are not going to leave [Bosnia-Herzegovina] to Russia,” Murphy said. “That is not going to be the outcome here.”
Earlier this month, Germany deployed about 30 of its troops to rejoin Europe’s EUFOR peacekeeping mission to ensure civilian order and compliance with a 26-year-old peace deal that organizes the country along ethnic lines, with a high representative for the international community who holds sweeping powers.
The international response to Russia’s war in Ukraine has tested the governments of aspiring EU members like Bosnia and Serbia, and their willingness to join Western sanctions and other measures to punish Russian aggression as well as to speed up reforms aimed at compatibility with Western institutions.
Tensions have meanwhile increased in the Balkans amid a potentially violent standoff over mutual recognition of documents between Serbia and its former province Kosovo, a culture-and-language spat between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, and public support from Moscow and EU member Hungary for ethnic Serb grievances around the region.
But Bosnia still routinely faces many of the same questions that dogged it in the early years after the Dayton Agreement ended three years of bloody fighting among Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats in 1995.
“It’s not a secret, it’s readily apparent, that Bosnia-Herzegovina is not moving in the right direction and it hasn’t been for some time,” Murphy said.
He cited “terrible rhetoric” from political leaders in postwar Bosnia, “threats of secession, threats to reorganize the territory of the country, or just plain warmongering” but said Washington remains committed to Bosnian statehood.
“We want to ensure that we protect this country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and multiethnic character, and we’re prepared to use the tools at our disposal to defend this country’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and multi-ethnic character,” Murphy said. “That includes sanctions where appropriate.”
Around half of Bosnia’s 4 million people are Bosniak, and centralized authorities are facing increasing pressure from secessionists in its majority Serb entity known as Republika Srpska and from ethnic Croats unhappy with perceived electoral inequalities.
Murphy suggested domestic politicians have “ignored” many of Bosnia’s problems, including withholding funding for elections under threat of boycott but also things like inflation, approximating EU laws, or preparing for possible energy shortages.
“Part of the good news story…is that the commitment of the United States [to Bosnia] is enduring,” Murphy said.
Echoing previous statements by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, he added: “We are not leaving, we’re not going to go away. We’re going to sustain our international presence here and our international military presence. And I think that’s very important when making an assessment about the security situation here.”
Murphy also expressed support for the current high representative, German Christian Schmidt, and his use of the so-called Bonn mandate to ensure smooth functioning of key civilian institutions, including to clear a path to planned Bosnian general elections in October.
Schmidt has hinted at his willingness to use that mandate to impose electoral reforms ahead of the voting if Bosnia’s ethnically based leaders prove unable or unwilling to do it themselves.
Murphy criticized powerful domestic politicians’ “all-or-nothing approach” when he said they should be achieving through compromise in the ex-Yugoslav republic.
He placed the blame “squarely, squarely on the shoulders” of unnamed political leaders who have put “their own narrow ethno-nationalist and corrupt interests above” the needs of ordinary Bosnians.
“Politicians [in Bosnia] have taken an all-or-nothing approach when engaging on these issue sets,” Murphy said. “They have concluded that compromise is a dirty word or a sign of weakness as opposed to success. And of course the exact opposite is the truth; in a democracy, compromise is how things get done.”
He acknowledged that some of Bosnia’s leaders “are on blacklists” and are running for office when in Washington’s view “they shouldn’t be.”
“But the voters of Bosnia have an opportunity to pass judgment on their performance this October,” he said.
In January, the United States imposed sanctions on secessionist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik for alleged “destabilizing and corrupt activity.”
Dodik has established parallel institutions in Republika Srpska and held high-profile meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov since the war in Ukraine began, sparking massive international sanctions and other measures to punish Moscow.
There have been reports of intensified correspondence and consultation recently between NATO and Bosnian officials including Foreign Minister Bisera Turkovic and Defense Minister Sifet Podzic.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg recently cited a perceived threat to European security from Russia and said, “NATO is developing a set of measures especially tailored for Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
Bosnia became a NATO partner in 2006, but many ethnic Serbs regard the alliance with suspicion since its bombing campaign targeted Serb-led rump Yugoslav forces during the Kosovo War in 1999.
Dodik, who is the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, responded by saying Bosnia had sought no special measures from the Western alliance and that “NATO has no role in [Bosnia-Herzegovina] and is not the guardian of its territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
The Russian Embassy in Bosnia complained that the United States and Britain were “preparing the ground for the creeping NATOization of Bosnia.”
Murphy accused Moscow of acting “against the goals” of Bosnia’s citizenry and of issuing “irresponsible” statements about Bosnia.
Murphy suggested Moscow “doesn’t want to see stability, security, peace, and prosperity, [or] a prosperous Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
“Russia doesn’t have a say in the decisions that Bosnia-Herzegovina makes about its treaty relationships, whether that’s joining the European Union or joining NATO — those decisions are for a sovereign [Bosnia-Herzegovina] to make.” Murphy said.