The Europe House in Sarajevo hosted the next stop of the Budapest Balkans Forum on Tour event series in Bosnia and Herzegovina on February 20, 2024. The event was organized by the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs (HIIA) in cooperation with the Hungarian Embassy in Sarajevo. The participants of the conference entitled “The Role of the International Community in Ensuring a Safe and Secure Environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina” presented their views about the topic from a local and international perspective, which in many cases sharply contradicted to each other.

The event was opened by the CEO of the Hungarian Institute of International Affairs (HIIA), Márton Schőberl, introducing the spirit of the Institute’s flagship conference, the Budapest Balkans Forum (BBF). Both the BBF and the BBF on Tour aim to learn about the situation in the Western Balkans through the direct involvement of local actors and voices. Furthermore, Márton Schőberl also outlined the topics (including energy security, cyber security, demographic challenges) that were in focus of the five previous stops of the BBF on Tour, suggesting that each BBF on Tour event addresses a key issue of importance to the country concerned. Afterwards, Ambassador of Hungary in Sarajevo greeted the audience. Krisztián Pósa highlighted Hungary’s visible role in the post-Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), especially in maintaining the country’s security and stability.

The first keynote speech was delivered by Major General László Sticz, Commander of the EU Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR Althea), who gave an insight into the history, current goals and challenges of EUFOR Althea, and also presented the mission’s means and operating principles. The Major General emphasized that during the mission’s 20-years long existence, significant results have been achieved, resulting in a politically stable and relatively calm security environment in the country. However, he also acknowledged that EUFOR Althea continues to face significant political challenges as a result of the divisive politics of local actors and the negative influence of some external powers. The legitimacy of the mission is given by the mandate extended annually by the UN Security Council, to oversee the implementation of the military elements of the Dayton Peace Agreement. In this regard, the Major General highlighted six operating principles: 1) impartiality, 2) unity, 3) credibility, 4) integrity, 5) cooperation and 6) progress, and also drew attention to the fact that the mission benefits all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as serves and cooperates with the security authorities at all levels. He ended his speech with the motto of his command: “Forward, Onward, Together in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

Following Major General Sticz’s remarks, Brigadier General Pamela McGaha, Commander of the NATO Headquarters Sarajevo addressed her keynote speech, first congratulating the commemorations of the 40th anniversary of the Sarajevo Winter Olympics. As she said, the world-class sport event meant pride, hope and optimism for the locals. Brigadier General McGaha then pointed out that EUFOR took the place of the NATO mission 20 years ago, and since then it has been supporting – still working with NATO – the reform of the national defence and security agencies, the development of disaster prevention capabilities, and at the same time the promotion of freedom, democracy and the enforcement of the rule of law, which principles face serious challenges. The Brigadier General added that NATO will continue to contribute to the implementation of security priorities, including action against terrorism and strengthening cyber security. As a closing thought, McGaha pointed out that NATO’s presence and role in the Western Balkans has gradually expanded over the past 20 years, as a result of which Slovenia, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro and, most recently, North Macedonia also joined the alliance.

The expert-level panel discussion following the keynote speeches, moderated by Julianna Ármás, Research Fellow and Coordinator of the Western Balkans Center of HIIA, covered a number of highly debated issues. Disagreements have already developed in relation to the assessment of the current security challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to Sead Turčalo, Dean and Associate Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Sarajevo, the Western actors of the international community sometimes underestimate or treat too carefully for political reasons the so-called “soft” threats; by which he primarily referred to the divisive political rhetoric in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, can easily become a “hard” security challenge. He added that the geopolitical environment has a significant impact on the perception of threats. According to Nina Sajić, Assistant Professor at the University of Banja Luka, illegal migration and paramilitary organizations formed in often isolated small settlements are a much more serious security challenge.

Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences of the University of Sarajevo, pointed out that the Russian invasion of Ukraine changed the way of thinking of the Western half of the international community, as a result of which the role of representing common values increased. As for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s relationship with NATO, the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 was a key moment, since the leadership of Republika Srpska turned away from the Atlantic alliance and the disintegration narrative grew stronger. Sead Turčalo added to this idea that, as a result of the worsening Russian–Western relations, the leadership of Republika Srpska also turned away from the European Union (EU) integration. However, the Serbian speaker rejected the latter and emphasized that the EU – even if it faces a lot of criticism within the RS – is the one that can bring the representatives of the three constituent peoples to the same table in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Dean of the University of Sarajevo noted that the EU integration cannot be a cure for the country’s problems if the political leadership does not want to carry out the reform process expected by the EU in its entirety, but only some of its elements. He agreed that the EU was often able to exert pressure on local decision-makers, but the most effective actions were taken together by local political actors, when societal pressure also increased to certain steps with tangible benefits for the population (e.g., visa liberalization). Nedžma Džananović Miraščija also highlighted the “cherry-picking attitude” as a problem, not only in relation to EU integration, but also in connection with the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement.

As for the role of EUFOR and NATO, Christian Haupt, Security Institution Building Advisor of the NATO Headquarters Sarajevo noted with some irony that the situation in the country is so stable that the system can hardly be reformed. Despite the political debates, there are indeed situations when the authorities and their representatives act for the entire population regardless of nationality. As an example, he mentioned a Serbian head of disaster management, who fulfilled his task in an exemplary manner during flood protection. As one good example of NATO’s role in strengthening the security of the state, he cited the encouragement of young people to join the state army in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is a matter of utmost importance. Wolfgang Braumandl-Dujardin, Political-Military Advisor to EUSR and COM EUFOR of the EU Delegation in Bosnia and Herzegovina drew attention to the fact that EUFOR and NATO HQ are excellently cooperating and complementing each other through the extensive institutional relations of EUFOR and NATO’s security-military experience. Returning to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Christian Haupt noted that the position of EUFOR and NATO became much clearer in 2022, which is a positive development from the point of view of the security of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Regarding future prospects, Nedžma Džananović Miraščija highlighted the contradictory relationship of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards NATO as an example. While NATO membership does not enjoy general support, the country’s residents see NATO first, followed by the EU, as the main guarantor of security. Sead Turčalo even added that the Russian aggression increased the acceptance of NATO membership by 6.5 percent at the level of the entire population – even among the Serbs too. Džananović Miraščija in light of all this and taking into account the fact that BiH and Serbia are surrounded by NATO member states, does not see the point keeping Bosnia and Herzegovina outside NATO, and interprets the Serbian position as political manipulation. At the same time, Nina Sajić emphasized the need for joint decision-making, as there is currently a lack of trust between political actors, and a lack of consensus on the international presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially on the Office of the High Representative and (OHR) on international judges. This is also partly a consequence of the fact that today the international presence in the country has been narrowed down to the representation of the West, while earlier a wider international community (including China and Russia) held a similar position, e.g. regarding the role of the OHR. According to Nina Sajić, this is how the international presence, which divides the constituents in an extraordinary way, could itself become a security problem.

Finally, the expected decision of the EU concerning Bosnia and Herzegovina’s accession negotiations in March, as well as the effects of the unsettled situation between Belgrade and Pristina were on the agenda. Most of the panellists see a chance for the EU accession negotiations to begin, but at the same time they do not hope for any particular change in the country. According to Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, however, a negative decision could result in a further decrease in the EU’s credibility and in the citizens’ trust to the EU. Regarding the unresolved issue of the Brussels dialogue, they all stated that the tension between Serbia and Kosovo will not have a particular security impact on Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that external observers often overestimate the possibility of conflicts spreading.

The comments made during the panel discussion pointed out the significant differences of opinions regarding the role of the international community and the West in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These debates have a serious influence on the future and development of the country. The next exchange of ideas will continue at the Budapest Balkan Forum 2024.