By Patrick O’Brien
Imagine it's February, 2008. Kosovo's declaration of independence from Serbia is imminent. International analysts are warning about reactionary moves by other breakaway regions. They say that South Ossetia and Abkhazia would become more daring in making official their already de facto independence from Georgia. They also say that after the successes of these regions-turned-states, we shouldn't be surprised by the appearance on the map of independent republics called either Transnistria (in Moldova), Nagorno-Karabakh (Azerbaijan) or Republika Srpska (Bosnia-Herzegovina).
Eight months on, those predictions are still prescient. The "who started it" question in Georgia is, in a way, irrelevant. All the players played their roles quite well, and foreordained result was Russia's recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. It's important to remember that Russia gave a very clear warning in February, just before Kosovo's declaration. But neither is any major power supporting self-determination across the board. Without a common framework agreed upon by the major powers (the U.S. and Russia, of course, but also China and a united EU), traditional alliances and strategic concerns will determine who recognizes whom. The result could be a map of Eastern Europe with a lot more dotted lines where there were once solid lines.
So what's the next trouble spot? Bosnia is a good bet. Bosnia-Herzegovina has a federal system uniting two autonomous entities: half of the country is made up of Bosnians and Croats, the other half by Serbs. The latter, called Republika Srpska, has recently been moving toward more autonomy within the federal system. For 13 years the Dayton Peace Accord has embodied the spirit of power-sharing between these groups, and it has been enforced by a western military presence (NATO until 2004, when it was succeeded by the EU).
But recent strains between Haris Silajdzic, the senior President of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Milorad Dodik, prime minister of Republika Srpska, can only work to strain the confederacy. Local elections held nationwide this month gave a boost to ethnic parties of all stripes. Now recall that in February, some politicians in Republika Srpska said that Kosovo's secession would be the green light for their immediate secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of course, "immediately" in diplomatic language may mean years, but eight months without such a declaration is no reason to feel complacent. The English-language media has been largely mute on Bosnia lately, except for a warning in The Guardian by Richard Holbrooke, the architect of Dayton, to wake up and smell the Turkish coffee. If Holbrooke is right and the Bosnian Serbs are positioning themselves to declare independence, America's and Europe's reaction isn't clear.
Unlike in the 1990s, when America was at the height of its relative power and thus able to extend security over the region, America is now fighting two wars in the Middle East and is preoccupied with the financial crisis. Europe is still divided on its interpretation of Kosovo and is severely dependant on Russia for energy. The question of the day in the 1990s -- "Why should I be a minority in your country when you could be a minority in mine?" - is surfacing again. And to ethnic separatists, post-Kosovo, there is no longer a satisfying answer.
Patrick O'Brien is a graduate student in the Russia and Eurasian Studies progam at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Bologna Center in Italy.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.