“We just wanted to live in peace and freedom. But because we’re Muslim they tried to kill all of us.”

Those were the words of a Bosniak woman who spoke to me this May at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Potočari, a village in Eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Her father and two brothers were among the roughly 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed in the 1995 Srebrenica genocide. Now that 27 years have passed since the 1992-1995 Bosnian War officially ended, that woman along with her husband and daughter expressed concern about the world slowly forgetting about the killing.

That three-year conflict, which entailed the Siege of Sarajevo, resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and more than 2 million Bosnians becoming refugees. The war’s legacy haunts Bosnians, feeding endless trauma still to this day. It is impossible to visit the Balkan country without seeing signs of the horrors from the 1990s. Across BiH there are countless cemeteries with graves marking deaths between 1992 and 1995.

The exact event which marked the start of the war is debatable. Yet it is perhaps most useful to trace the conflict’s origins to the 1992 referendum in which the people of BiH voted for national independence. After that vote, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic responded forcefully. In pursuit of “Greater Serbia,” he called for an operation against Bosnian statehood led by his Bosnian Serb proxy, Radovan Karadzic.

In the summer of 1995, the Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) and the Scorpions (a Serbian paramilitary force) carried out the Srebrenica genocide, which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) recognized in 2007 as part of a campaign to eradicate Bosnian Muslims from “Greater Serbia.”

The bloodshed in Srebrenica spoke volumes about the international community’s failure and the major institutional shortcomings of the United Nations, which was responsible for protecting ethnic Bosniaks in that area. As the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan put it, “The tragedy of Srebrenica will forever haunt the history of the United Nations.”

General Ratko Mladic, who commanded the VRS, hailed the capture of Srebrenica as a triumph in a 500-year struggle against “the Turks” (a racist way in which many of his Serbian supporters often referred to Bosniaks, who are ethnic Slavs, not Turks). Today, many Serbians and Bosnian Serbs believe that Belgrade and the VRS were on the right side of history in that war. They accuse judges in The Hague who held some of their leaders accountable of a bias against Serbs and allege that much of the bloodshed resulted from BiH’s Muslims killing each other.

At the time of the 1992-1995 war, Islamophobic narratives also shaped Western discourse on the conflict. Sead Kreševljaković is a film producer currently working as Creative and Commissioning Producer at the Project Department of Al Jazeera Balkans. He lived through the Siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s. In an interview with Foreign Policy In Focus, Kreševljaković recalled the extent to which anti-Muslim bigotry left statesmen in the West largely indifferent to the campaign against Bosniaks.

“Unlike Ukraine” today, he told me, Bosnians were subject to an arms embargo while “English, French, and other [Western] politicians competed in equalizing the guilt of ‘all sides.’ And Bosnians were persistently called ‘Muslims’ although before the war they were mostly atheists and lovers of Tito and Yugoslavia.”

No Conflict Stays Forever Frozen 

Bosnian Muslim women visit one of the sites of 1995 mass execution of their loved ones, July 2020. (Photo by Damir Sagolj/Getty Images)

Bosnian Muslim women visit one of the sites of 1995 mass execution of their loved ones, July 2020. (Photo by Damir Sagolj/Getty Images)

The war froze with the signing of the Dayton Accords in November 1995 following NATO’s direct military intervention, which began in August of that year.

The accords divided the Balkan country into two primary entities — the Bosniak-majority Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which also includes a substantial Croat minority, and the ethnic Serbian-majority Republika Srpska (RS) — along with the Brčko District, a tiny self-governing administrative unit in the northeast of BiH. Under this arrangement, the BiH’s delicate peace has survived since 1995.

Yet frozen conflicts often unfreeze. Nearly 30 years after the peace agreement was signed in Ohio, BiH’s post-war stability remains fragile and Bosnians fear that their country is at risk of spiraling back into another war.

Much of this concern has to do with Milorad Dodik, the current Serb member of the Presidency of BiH. He’s all but announced his intention to have RS formally secede from the rest of BiH, which could plunge the country back into violent conflict. By blockading state institutions, Dodik has been making moves that severely endanger the Dayton Peace Accords.

In 2021, the RS’s regional parliament voted to bring the regional entity out of state-level institutions including the armed forces, the tax regime, and judiciary, basically paralyzing the national government. The withdrawal from national institutions threatens to implode BiH as a sovereign nation-state.

Many Bosniaks believe that Dodik has determined that the time is opportune for finishing what Bosnian Serbs started in the 1992-1995 conflict.

“We’re talking about a continuation of the genocidal policies of the 1990s by other means,” explained Reuf Bajrović, a former Bosnian government minister. “So, the idea here is to achieve Bosnian Serb wartime goals, which included perpetrating a genocide, through peaceful means. They basically want to use the parliament to finish off what they could not do on the battlefield.”

Rising Serbian Nationalism — And Bosniak Anxiety

Relatives of Srebrenica vicitims visit one of the massacre sites against a backdrop of Serbian nationalist graffiti. (Photo by Damir Sagolj/Getty Images)

Relatives of Srebrenica vicitims visit one of the massacre sites against a backdrop of Serbian nationalist graffiti. (Photo by Damir Sagolj/Getty Images)

Considering that essentially all the VRS leaders were convicted of crimes against humanity in the 1992-1995 war, these moves toward removing Bosnian Serbs from BiH’s national army to establish an independent RS army have raised much alarm in Sarajevo. Bosniaks have fears about Dodik’s agenda threatening their safety.

In October 2021, the highly militarized Bosnian Serb police carried out “anti-terrorist” drills at a ski resort on Mount Jahorina. Bosniak and Croat officials in BiH slammed the exercises as “a clear provocation.” The drills, which involved armed and camouflaged special force personnel using helicopters and armored vehicles, occurred in the area where the VRS pounded Sarajevo amid the siege of the 1990s, which took the lives of thousands of Bosnians. Although Bosnian Serb officials defended the exercises as unrelated to BiH’s political tensions, such assurances mean little to those who suffered from the VRS’s crimes in the 1992-1995 conflict.

This year, Dodik’s supporters have gone to the streets to sing Islamophobic songs and hail Mladic. There have been Bosnian Serb nationalist riots across BiH that disturb many Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, who remember all too vividly the horrors that followed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’s collapse.

There are efforts in RS to whitewash or deny the crimes committed by Bosnian Serb armed forces in the war. In 2021, BiH banned denial of the Srebrenica genocide with punishment of up to five years in prison. Nonetheless, Dodik does just that. “They suddenly decided to create a myth,” said the Bosnian Serb leader. “Every nation needs a myth and Bosniaks did not have one. So, they decided to construct one around Srebrenica.”

Very close to Srebrenica is Bratunac, a town and municipality in eastern BiH situated near the Serbian border. The authorities in Bratunac were responsible for helping cover up the Kravica massacre of 1995, which was one of the major executions amid the Srebrenica genocide.

Throughout the past 27 years, authorities in Bratunac have not permitted the establishment of a single memorial to pay tribute to those massacred there in 1995. When recently addressing the question of setting up a museum or monument there to commemorate the victims, Bratunac mayor Srdjan Rankic said that what is needed are “factories, not cheap nationalist demagoguery and museums.”

As a hardline Serb nationalist, Dodik’s agenda goes far beyond whitewashing or denying crimes committed against Bosniaks in the 1990s. In RS there is a campaign to rehabilitate and glorify those who were behind the genocide. Hariz Halilovich, a Bosnian-Australian scholar, coined the term “triumphalism” in identifying this as the “latest stage of the Bosnian Genocide.”

On January 9, 2022, Bosnian Serbs celebrated RS National Day all over RS, despite BiH’s constitutional court ruling in 2015 that such celebrations are unconstitutional. In Banja Luka, which is BiH’s second largest city and RS’s administrative capital, there was a parade with a military style march attended by Dodik. He told the crowd that Bosnian Serbs will not be free without a state and that RS is “our state, regardless of what some may think of it.”

His speech ended with him declaring, “long live Republika Srpska, long live Serbia.” Standing close to Dodik was convicted war criminal Vinko Pandurevic, as well as Serbia’s prime minister,  Serbia’s interior minister, and Russia’s ambassador to BiH.

NATO’s Doorstep and Europe’s “Inner Courtyard”

Serbian nationalists rally in support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo by Damir Sagolj/Getty Images)

Serbian nationalists rally in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo by Damir Sagolj/Getty Images)

It is impossible to understand Dodik’s politics and emboldened Serb nationalism in Bosnia without taking stock of Moscow and Belgrade’s roles.

Dodik is close to the Russian government, including President Vladimir Putin himself. Just as Russia has purported to defend Orthodox Christians and Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine, Georgia’s South Ossetia, and Moldova’s Transnistria, Russia has supported the Orthodox Dodik in various ways — including through the Russian Orthodox Church and with massive amounts of moral, financial, media, and diplomatic support.

Putin is glorified throughout BiH’s autonomous Serb republic. Since February 24, there have been Bosnian Serbs in RS wearing the “Z” symbol to show support for Russia’s war against Ukraine. Pro-Putin motorcycle gangs have held rallies in Banja Luka and elsewhere in RS to express solidarity with Moscow amid the Russian-Ukrainian war.

This spring, Alexander Dugin, a philosopher known as “Putin’s brain,” said the following about Moscow’s interests in the Balkans: “I think the turn of Serbia in Russia’s geopolitical agenda of Slavic revival will come. You will see when we formulate the goal concerning the Balkans. Now we should finish what we started.”

Put simply, as Dodik works to weaken national institutions in BiH while pushing for RS to break away and form a de facto independent country in the Western Balkans, he is essentially acting as Russia and Serbia’s proxy.

This brings us to the Kremlin’s own geopolitical and strategic interests in the Western Balkans that Dodik serves to advance.

As the Russian-Ukrainian war rages on, the situation in RS can enable Moscow to play an increasingly divisive role in the Western Balkans. This is somewhat of a tit-for-tat strategy whereby Russia could potentially flood RS with arms, military advisers, diplomats, and money via Serbia — thereby pressuring the two NATO members bordering RS (Croatia and Montenegro) and, by extension, the rest of the western alliance.

With Russia feeling that NATO’s eastward expansion up to its borders amounts to a knife held at Russia’s neck, the situation in RS can give Moscow the chance to reciprocate by backing a potential pro-Russian breakaway republic in Europe’s “inner courtyard.”

The threat of transforming roughly 47 percent of BiH into a “Balkan Transnistria” could help further decrease the already remote chance of the Southeastern European country joining NATO. Russia’s ambassador to BiH made this threat clear to the world in March when he referenced his country’s invasion of Ukraine the previous month while addressing the prospects of BiH entering NATO. “If [BiH] chooses to be a member of anything, that is its internal business. But there is another thing, our reaction,” asserted Ambassador Igor Kalabukhov. “We have shown what we expect in the example of Ukraine. If there are threats, we will react.”

Kreševljaković told Foreign Policy In Focus that the Russians view “the Western Balkans (BiH and Montenegro) as a convenient territory for destabilizing Europe in order to pursue their interests by holding the countries of the former Yugoslavia as an unstable Eurosceptic space.”

No serious analyst can deny Russia’s willingness to violate the sovereignty of a European country to prevent it from joining NATO, the European Union, and other Western institutions. Moscow’s February 24 invasion of Ukraine was a wake-up call that informed the West of Moscow’s determination to accept high levels of risk in pursuit of these objectives.

There is good reason to believe that BiH could be Moscow’s next European target.

Supported by Russia and his Serbian allies, Dodik is moving ahead with his agenda. U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Dodik don’t appear to be slowing him down. Across BiH, many Bosniaks nervously watch the political crisis in BiH play out as the war in Ukraine further heightens such tensions in the country and elsewhere in the Western Balkans.

Many in the region wonder how much longer before BiH’s fragile post-1995 peace unravels and another war in this part of Europe breaks out.

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the founder and CEO of Gulf State Analytics.