Amid its deep ethnic divisions, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s armed forces have stood out as an anomaly where Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs stand side by side.
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik’s proposal to have one infantry regiment wear wartime uniforms for ceremonies threatens to undo that.
Dodik reportedly made the suggestion during a May 12 ceremony coinciding with the formation of a Serb-dominated army — commonly referred to as the Bosnian Serb Army — within the newly independent Bosnia on the eve of the Bosnian War 27 years ago.
In a country still riven institutionally along ethnic lines, the speech immediately raised concerns over how such a move could destabilize one of Europe’s poorest countries.
“Milorad Dodik is playing with fire this time more than ever before. This is the point from which there would no longer be a return from the road of new suffering,” Predrag Kojovic, leader of social-liberal, multiethnic Our Party, said in a statement.
“The armed forces of Bosnia-Herzegovina are one of the greatest achievements of the Dayton peace agreement,” Kojovic said in a reference to the U.S.-brokered 1995 peace deal that ended the three-year Bosnian War, “and their attempt to destroy and restore one of their parts, even in the symbolic plan, in the form of uniforms, is the destruction of peace.”
Kojovic called nostalgia for the uniform of the Bosnian Serb Army “a clear sign of hostility toward Bosnia-Herzegovina. With this uniform, the most terrible memories, genocide and other horrific crimes, are associated. It would be impossible to accept their return.”
Rare Bosnian Success Story
The unification of the Bosnian armed forces in 2006, effectively combining what had been two warring sides only a decade before, has been one of the success stories of post-Dayton Bosnia.
Troops who had spent almost four years shooting at each other came together to form a unified military structure.
Since then, several ethnically mixed Bosnian units have served in international missions and both Bosnian entities — Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation — are entitled to use military regiments in public ceremonies.
Dodik’s comments came at a ceremony in Banja Luka to mark the Day of the Republika Srpska Army and the Day of the 3rd Infantry Regiment.
The hard-line leader, who has advocated for Republika Srpska to break away from Bosnia, said that while he respected the entity’s decision to remain neutral, it was a mistake to abolish its army, which “lives in the hearts and souls of the Serbs and members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment will defend the freedom of the RS and its people.”
Toward the end of his speech, Dodik asked the commander of the 3rd Regiment to make half of the unit wear wartime uniforms at next year’s ceremony.
He then doubled down on his comments on May 13, questioning the “hysteria” over the speech and accusing those speaking out against it of being motivated by “the goal to incite unrest in Bosnia’s internal situation.”
“A uniform is also part of a tradition. The Army of Republika Srpska insignia is also on the uniforms of the 3rd Infantry Regiment and I don’t see what the hysteria is all about,” he said, adding that he wasn’t asking Bosniaks or Croats to wear the uniforms, just Serbs.
Paying The Price?
The ethnic Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosniaks and Croats that make up Bosnia are linked by joint state-level institutions, including a tripartite presidency.
Dodik won the Bosnian Serb position in the presidency in an October 2018 election after previously being the entity’s prime minister.
His fiery rhetoric caught the attention of another member of the presidency.
Sefik Dzaferovic called Dodik’s statement “very dangerous” and warned the Bosnian Serb leader to choose his words more carefully in the future.
“Mr Dodik should take care of what he’s saying because he will harm the most the entity he represents but will also harm himself. What he said today is a severe criminal act,” Dzaferovic said.
“The armed forces will survive, only Dodik may end up in prison,” he warned as the Croatian presidency member, Zeljko Komsic, announced criminal charges against Dodik for allegedly sparking a rebellion within the armed forces.
With contributions from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service