Bosnia And Herzegovina 2024: Is Peace In BiH Under Threat? – Analysis

Local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) are scheduled for 6 October 2024. Although Bosnia and Herzegovina received the green light to start EU membership negotiations in March this year, this was largely unmerited and represents a symbolic gesture from the EU towards BiH due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Milorad Dodik (SNSD), President of the Republika Srpska (RS) entity, has announced that a proposal for “peaceful separation” from the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) is in the works, which further exacerbates the situation in BiH and necessitates increased involvement from the international community, primarily the USA and NATO, due to the flagrant violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement and the threat to peace.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, an early election campaign for the local elections is underway, which the Central Election Commission (CIK) is not sanctioning. Dodik is intensifying efforts to declare the independence of Republika Srpska, causing additional tensions that may lead to conflict in a country already fragile in terms of peace and security, thereby seriously jeopardising the existing semblance of peace.

By escalating the situation, Dodik aims to divert attention from the plundering of public resources, the dire economic and financial situation and the American sanctions (OFAC) imposed on leading officials of Republika Srpska, including Milorad Dodik and members of his family. Consequently, he is attempting to safeguard his wealth and that of his oligarchy by transferring money and other assets to tax havens, as well as abroad and to neighbouring countries where he conducts intensive business activities. It is estimated that around three billion euros of capital belonging to Milorad Dodik and his oligarchy is circulating in Ljubljana and Slovenia, with certain Ljubljana officials providing services and support, thereby reaping certain benefits. Dodik’s capital is being channelled into various sectors such as construction, real estate, the IT sector, employment agencies, the financial sector, and others. His transactions in Slovenia are followed by capital from the Sarajevo political and drug cartel, which has also intensified its activities in Slovenia, likely using these business ventures to partially fund its political patrons in Sarajevo. To address this situation, the US should consider expanding its next sanctions package to target not only the companies and individuals involved but also Slovenian officials and banks that knowingly facilitate these controversial transactions involving public money and EU funds, which threaten peace and the Dayton Peace Agreement. US sanctions can be applied to any institution, including banks and other financial institutions, whether privately or publicly owned, that provide material support to individuals or companies under US sanctions. Decoding the Sky application will help police agencies and prosecutors expose the activities of these dangerous criminals in BiH and the region and their connections to politicians, which could lead to a significant number of arrests and prosecutions.

Political-criminal structures have escalated their attacks and crackdowns on dissenting media, the judiciary (HJPC), and journalists.

Dodik’s Crackdown on “Disobedient” Media – The RTVBN Case

Bosnia and Herzegovina has recently faced considerable media threats from the regime of Milorad Dodik and his family, who are on the US OFAC list[2].

Under the leadership of Milica Ristović Krstić, a Dodik-appointed director, the state Institute for Metrology of BiH (IMBiH) illegally terminated the existing audience measurement system, depriving media of a crucial metric used for advertising revenue.

The final blow to Audience Measurement LLC came in May 2024 when its device certificate (peoplemeters), valid until the end of 2032, was revoked.

As a result, data delivery stopped overnight. TV stations RTRS, ATV, UNA TV, and K3 ceased to be clients of Audience Measurement LLC as of 30 June 2024. Anticipating the takeover of measurements by “Dodik’s Institute for Metrology” by the end of 2023, they had all agreed only to contracts until mid-year.

In early June 2024, Kantar Media confirmed signing a cooperation agreement (licensed technology) with See Media Research LLC Banja Luka.

The goal of this strategy is evident: to establish a monopoly on audience measurement and bolster TV channels aligned with Republika Srpska regime by manipulating viewership results. This would allow these channels to significantly increase their revenues from marketing agencies, which annually allocate around 30,000,000 EUR. Additionally, the aim is to influence reporting practices, thereby undermining independent media, particularly BN TV in Republika Srpska and TV Hayat in Sarajevo.

Marko Gujaničić, director of See Media Research LLC Banja Luka, is associated with Igor Dodik, organizational secretary of the SNSD and Dodik’s son. Recent US OFAC sanctions have revealed that ATV and UNA TV are also under the control of Igor Dodik and the Dodik family.

Experts believe that the solution to mitigate the widespread damage as soon as possible, sought by all other media outlets in BiH, is to remove audience measurement from statutory metrology, aligning with practices in the EU and globally. Despite the severe impact on independent and free media, the Head of the EU Delegation to BiH, Johann Sattler, and the High Representative of the international community (OHR), Christian Schmidt, have so far refrained from commenting.

Further erosion of the HJPC by the executive power

For well-known reasons, ruling parties seek to exert influence over key sectors and institutions. One such pivotal institution in the justice sector, with broad-ranging responsibilities, is the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HJPC). Evidently, reducing the competencies of this institution increases the jurisdiction and influence of the line ministry. Hence, it is unsurprising that the executive branch laid out a well-devised plan to diminish the HJPC’s authority by drafting the new Law on the HJPC of BiH. The drafting of the new Law on the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HJPC) clearly indicates attempts to curtail its competencies or abolish its status as an independent body. There are evident efforts by the executive branch, particularly the Ministry of Justice, to conceptually revise the existing Law on the HJPC, previously regarded as effective. This aims to subject the HJPC to administrative laws applicable to ministries and other public bodies in BiH, intending to incorporate such provisions into the new Law on the HJPC. Concurrently, there are attempts to weaken the engagement and role of HJPC through potential personnel decisions favouring the ruling structures. There is an evident desire to introduce the application of administrative laws that pertain to ministries and administrative bodies in BiH.

Additionally, the executive authority aims to introduce regional representation in the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC), where members would be elected based on nationality, reflecting ethnic dominance in specific regions of BiH. There is an attempt to impose solutions that portray HJPC members merely as representatives of judicial unions. The HJPC must retain the ability to independently make decisions and uphold the best legal judgments in the interest of both the HJPC itself and the broader judicial system.

Through these legislative interventions, the executive branch seeks to undermine the HJPC’s independence and introduce ethnic criteria into the judiciary, potentially enabling entity-level blockades—a situation unprecedented in HJPC operations. Rules regarding ethnic and gender structure have already been prescribed in current legislative solutions.

Another significant concern is that almost a year after the Law on the HJPC was adopted, funds for its implementation have not been approved, undermining a critical function of this institution. This raises questions about why the law’s drafters did not anticipate and prevent this situation through transitional provisions.Who stands to benefit from the HJPC’s dysfunction and failure to fulfil its mandated duties?

The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe (VC)[3] recommends that the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) should be provided with a constitutional status. In continuity with the current law, the general provisions stipulating the non-application of the provisions of the Law on Ministries and Other Bodies of the Administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Law on Administration of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the HJPC should also be maintained, with the aim of preserving the independence of the Council and its Secretariat. The Venice Commission agrees the composition of any institution at the State level should reflect as much as possible the country’s diversity in terms of ethnic, gender, linguistic, religious or other criteria. It also emphasizes that the ethnic approach is to be phased out and any forward-looking piece of legislation should aim at overcoming the ethnic divisions.

Therefore, the Venice Commission recommends adding to Article 5, paragraph 5, a reference to the fact that the HJPC, as well as the judiciary overall, shall be generally representative of the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as required by the Constitution, and modifying all those provisions that still make reference to the constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Likewise, judicial appointments should be primarily merit-based, and the ethnic factor should be only exceptionally taken into consideration, as the multi-ethnic composition of the judiciary should be of itself sufficient to ensure public trust (see Articles 71 and 103.2 of the Draft Law). As regards membership of the HJPC, the Commission recommends: establishing a Council with an uneven number of members. The two Departments, judicial and prosecutorial, should also consist of an uneven number of members, which implies that they should count on an uneven number of lay members belonging to both Departments; opening lay membership to other legal professionals, and considering also non-legal professionals; increasing significantly the number of lay members and ensuring that there is no unjustified difference in treatment between judicial and non-judicial members.

Regarding appraisal, asset disclosure, and the transfer of judges and prosecutors, the Venice Commission recommends elaborating on how appraisal criteria should be interpreted and applied, especially concerning “performance quantity” and “statistical quality of decisions” (Article 138), integrating several previous recommendations regarding the asset declaration system that are still unresolved, reviewing the possibility of temporary reassignment of judges and prosecutors without their consent (Articles 146 and 148), and identifying a different court for appeals against decisions of the HJPC on this matter.

Criminalization of defamation in the criminal legislation of Republika Srpska

The National Assembly of Republika Srpska (NARS) passed amendments to the Criminal Code of Republika Srpska reintroducing defamation as a criminal offence after a 20-year absenceand reinstating it into criminal legislation. The law, which was poorly and inexpertly drafted, shifts prosecutorial authority from individuals to the state. Small media outlets, already financially strained, are at risk of disappearing, leading to self-censorship in the media. Clear and precise legal provisions are crucial to prevent confusion and unpredictability in the public sphere. Laws are grounded in established standards, and international standards oppose the criminalization of defamation. Bosnia and Herzegovina lacks robust democratic institutions, and the regression of defamation laws mirrors a broader trend of rising populism in the region.

During his lengthy autocratic rule, Milorad Dodik successfully divided, weakened, and co-opted the opposition in Republika Srpska. However, he has been unable to exert control over a small yet vocal group of media and NGOs openly critical of his government, corruption, abuses, and the harm inflicted on the citizens of Republika Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Notable examples include RTVBN from Bijeljina, the portals Buka and Capital, Transparency International, and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (HCHR). To blunt their criticism and their influence in the public sphere, Dodik devised laws that contradict the Constitution of BiH and the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, enabling the punishment of free thinkers and speakers with long prison sentences or draconian fines. According to the Prosecutor’s Office in RS, nearly 100 investigations related to the criminal offence of defamation have been initiated, and the competent Prosecutor’s Offices are already interrogating journalists.

At the same time, while placing journalists and civil society activists under the brunt of autocratic laws, the National Assembly of Republika Srpska recently passed the Law on Immunity, which grants the President and Vice Presidents of RS, members of the RS Government, deputies of the National Assembly of RS, and delegates in the Council of Peoples immunity from criminal or civil liability for any actions taken within their official duties, both during and after their mandates.

Obvious discrimination is at play: journalists and media outlets face criminal liability for what they say or write, while public officials enjoy additional immunity, shielding them from criminal responsibility. To obstruct the free operation of NGOs, Milorad Dodik initiated the drafting of the Foreign Agents Law without any legal rationale or necessary analysis. Modelled after a similar law in Russia, this act grants the Ministry of Justice of RS the authority to ban any NGO funded from abroad or subject them to particularly restrictive control by the institutions of Republika Srpska. This includes numerous prohibitions, such as the ban on expressing “political views,” under threats of abolishment, hefty fines, and imprisonment. The Ministry of Justice of RS is tasked with not only controlling but also maintaining a special registry of all details related to such NGOs and their staff. Simultaneously, the Government of Republika Srpska has prohibited schools, universities, and other institutions from cooperating with these NGOs.

Credible information suggests that there is an instruction in place stating that individuals who have worked in NGOs funded by foreign money can never again be employed in the public sector.

Some members of the RS government are foreign agents and not certain NGOs

The mere announcement of the Foreign Agents Law has prompted a number of NGO employees to resign, as many do not wish to be subjected to “special treatment” from Republika Srpska authorities. Interestingly, the same government, ministries, and other institutions freely utilize tens of millions in foreign donations and various financial arrangements. This means that while the government can use foreign donor money, civil society will face discriminatory treatment if it does the same. It is also worth mentioning that the RS government and other institutions have consistently refrained from financially supporting the work of NGOs, except, of course, those they control entirely or have established themselves.

The enactment of these three laws has understandably sparked criticism and concern from the EU and the US, as they conflict with European integration strategies. The substantial decline in foreign investments in RS over the past two years has exacerbated the region’s already dire economic situation and accelerated the emigration of the working-age population.

During the adoption of these laws, the RS government launched a propaganda campaign depicting EU countries, particularly Germany, as adversaries, while openly criticizing the United Kingdom and the USA as hostile nations supposedly aiming to destroy Republika Srpska.

Fostering a hostile attitude towards foreigners increases RS’s isolation from economic and political currents in the region. The Law on Foreign Agents is slated to take effect on 1 January 2025. It is likely to further diminish the already small number of active NGOs in Republika Srpska and jeopardize their operations and survival. In a paradoxical twist, some members of the Republika Srpska government were identified as foreign agents, rather than certain NGOs.

Following the Appeal (U-21/23) filed in late August 2023 by Denis Zvizdić (NiP), the former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives of the Parliament of BiH, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina issued an interim measure, finding that Article 280a of the disputed law, which imposes prison sentences for insulting Republika Srpska, contravenes the Constitution.

IDB – a new platform for circumventing US sanctions

As part of the institutional privatization in RS, Milorad Dodik instructed the Ministry of Finance and the National Assembly to devise a way for businesses and individuals to operate unhindered. Currently, the National Assembly of RS is attempting to transform the Investment-Development Bank of Republika Srpska (IDB RS) into a bank that facilitates financial transactions for sanctioned businesses and individuals. Therefore, it is crucial to note the following:

It is evident that US sanctions have proven highly effective against businesses closely associated with the President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik. To mitigate the negative impact of these sanctions on businesses controlled by Dodik and his family, institutions in Republika Srpska have recently devised and launched an effort to minimize and repair the resulting damage. As Finance Minister Zora Vidović recently announced, the National Assembly of Republika Srpska initiated the adoption of the Law on the Investment-Development Bank of Republika Srpska (IDB RS), intended to commence internal financial operations, disregarding US sanctions. IDB RS thus serves as a new platform for evading US sanctions. The opposition has dubbed this law the “The Law on Prointer and the first family of Republika Srpska” accusing Milorad Dodik of total privatization of the institutions within the Republika Srpska entity.

The Investment-Development Bank of Republika Srpska has been notorious for many years due to numerous scandals involving embezzlement, non-transparent loans, widespread abuses, and criminal activities, yet no one has been held accountable to date.

Instead of addressing crucial issues for RS citizens, such as economic development, raising standards, and tackling the catastrophic demographic decline (from approximately 1.45 million inhabitants in 1998 to around 750,000 today), the government and the National Assembly of Republika Srpska spend enormous time and energy protecting the corruption and criminality of Milorad Dodik and his family. This situation starkly exemplifies an entity where all institutions are firmly under the control of one person and his loyal tycoons.

An analysis by Transparency International Bosnia and Herzegovina (TI BiH) on the effectiveness of prosecuting high-level corruption in BiH has shown that only one out of nine prosecutors handling economic crime and corruption cases has initiated an investigation into high-level corruption. Equally troubling is the finding that nine out of eighteen prosecutor’s offices in BiH have failed to launch any investigations into criminal acts of corruption over the past three years. This highlights the alarming subservience of prosecutors and prosecutor’s offices to political powerbrokers and criminals.
As part of consolidating complete financial control, Milorad Dodik has taken steps towards taking over the Banja Luka Stock Exchange under his personal authority. The announcement of upcoming local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where technological electoral innovations will be applied at 10% of polling stations, raises concerns about the fairness of these elections. It is unacceptable that some citizens are granted the privilege of “fair elections” while others are denied this opportunity. This situation constitutes discrimination not only against the 90% of polling stations but also against the 10% covered by technological electoral innovations. Alongside a wide range of electoral fraud, it is essential to prevent the widespread practice of vote-buying, as some estimates suggest that every third vote in elections is paid for by parties or candidates.
In his confrontation with the international community, Milorad Dodik has launched vigorous activities and a broad campaign through his para-intelligence network, managed by Branislav Okuka Crni, to intimidate those who criticize his criminal activities and abuses of power. Opposition political leaders, independent media, and civil society representatives have become targets of surveillance, pressure, and threats. They are being unfairly portrayed as traitors and informants of the international community regarding sanctions, which have evidently proven effective.

Experts believe that the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina must halt Milorad Dodik’s latest experiment with IDB RS and the misuse of institutional power to evade US sanctions. Dodik is attempting to seize control of three key financial levers: the Securities Commission, the Central Securities Registry, and the Banja Luka Stock Exchange.

All of this evokes memories of the 1990s

Political developments in the region resemble a replay of the early 1990s. However, national gatherings come with a new twist: political elites across the Western Balkans unanimously support their countries’ accession to the EU. This stance is shared by both the ruling and opposition parties in BiH. The current focus lies on relations between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is growing EU support for the simultaneous accession of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina into the union of European states. It is anticipated that the Bosnian government will initiate a joint declaration with Serbia affirming the urgent and indispensable accession of both states to the EU. The declaration would be adopted in a joint session of both parliaments/assemblies and promptly sent to the EU. The declaration would contain nothing else but a clear request calling for the EU’s urgent decision to admit the two states. Such an approach aims to ease tensions, enabling the EU to collectively consider all necessary measures and also assume responsibility for peace in the Balkans. Failure to pursue pro-European initiatives would unequivocally demonstrate that political elites are deeply mired in crime and corruption and that EU accession is merely a pretext to extract funds from EU budgets.

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