Senior EU officials are working behind the scenes to “correct” a new law in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) that criminalises denial of the massacre of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica, after privately concluding it risks reigniting fresh regional conflict.
Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite BiH leadership, has been accused in recent months of seeking to break up the country by withdrawing its Serbian part from state-level institutions.
He has claimed there is an imbalance of power and that when Valentin Inzko, the outgoing head of Bosnia’s office of the high representative (OHR), outlawed genocide denial this summer, it was undemocratic and symptomatic of the problem.
Dodik’s moves to take back powers have been widely condemned by the international community, which accuses him of leading the region to war, but leaked minutes reveal that the European commissioner for enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, has concluded that Inzko’s law is responsible for the current crisis.
During a meeting with EU delegation to Bosnia, Várhelyi – who is responsible for strengthening the bloc’s relations with BiH – gave his “frank assessment” that Inzko “was to blame for the current political crisis” in the country and the “delegitimisation” of the office of the high representative.
“While the Inzko amendments could not be disputed from the point of view of the law’s substance, the fact that it was imposed on the last day of the HR Inzko’s mandate had been problematic,” the minutes report Várhelyi as saying at the meeting on 25 November.
“Especially because it was an important decision, it should have been based on thorough debate having everyone on board. The question was now how to correct this.”
Várhelyi, a Hungarian close to his country’s rightwing prime minister Viktor Orbán, told his fellow EU officials that the Bosnian Muslim leadership had signalled willingness to resolve this issue through the adoption of a new law that could bring Dodik and the Serbian Republika Srpska entity back into the fold.
The current holder of the office of the high representative, Christian Schmidt, confirmed in a statement that he supported new legislation that was explicitly even-handed over the denial of any genocide.
The OHR said: “The High Representative takes the issue of glorification and war crimes very seriously.
“The High Representative’s main focus, however, is on the clear need to create the basis for a parliamentary legislative process through a broad social discussion involving social and religious stakeholders. He warns very clearly against politicising the issue.
“When faced with the graves of innocent people, party politics must remain silent. Humanitas is the focus, and not inciting turmoil”.
The Dayton peace accord of 1995 ended a civil war that cost about 100,000 lives after the breakup of Yugoslavia, including that of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys killed in and around the town of Srebrenica.
The agreement established a new constitution for BiH, made up of two entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, consisting predominantly of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and Republika Srpska. Bosnia’s three-member presidency is held by representatives of those three main ethnic groups.
The so-called Bonn powers of 1997 also grant substantial lawmaking powers to the office of the high representative in charge of implementing the deal. It has the authority to impose decisions or dismiss officials who undermine the postwar ethnic balance and reconciliation efforts.
Inzko, an Austrian diplomat, made genocide denial punishable by up to five years in prison in July. He cited a refusal by the Bosnian Serb assembly to withdraw decorations awarded to three convicted war criminals as part of his reasoning.
The minutes reveal that Várhelyi said he believed there was a way out of the current crisis and that he had sanctioned a special sitting of Republika Srpska’s assembly on 10 December where members backed a resolution supporting the taking back of powers.
His condition, however, was that the legislation required to take back powers from the state in the fields of tax administration, the judiciary, intelligence and even the national army, in order to create a Serb force, should be postponed for six months to allow time for negotiation.
Várhelyi said that dealing with the genocide law was vital in order to get Dodik to recognise Inzko’s successor, who has said the region faces its biggest crisis in a quarter of a century.
A European Commission spokesperson said: “The reconciliation process requires acknowledging what happened, honouring the victims and genuinely promoting reconciliation by confronting the roots of hatred that led to the genocide. Local ownership over the process is also key.”
• This article was amended on 22 December 2021. An earlier version said the Dayton peace accord was reached in 1994, rather than 1995.