The West is under attack every day. Our values of freedom of the individual, speech and belief, as well as self-determination and democracy, risk being one generation away from vanishing. In Africa and Asia, China funds massive infrastructure projects that make poorer countries dependent on a genocide-committing Communist regime. In Europe, a single word from Putin could ignite an energy war. At least 100,000 Russian troops are amassed on the Ukrainian border. And in a corner of Europe, a country to whom we have a unique historical duty, is on the verge of collapse: Bosnia. Make no mistake, a failed Bosnia is Putin's ambition, because conflict and instability in our near neighbourhood would lead to a distracted NATO and empowered Putin.
Bosnia is a beautiful country with a heart-breaking history. Its capital, Sarajevo, was where the First World War was sparked. There have been wars there for centuries – most recently in 1992-5, when it was the scene of the only genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. Bosnia’s very existence is a delicate balancing act – and Putin is trying to destroy that balance right now to serve his own interests.
After the Bosnian War, and the terrible failure of international community which saw the terrible massacre of 6,000 Bosniaks at Srebrenica by Milosevic’s troops, the international community finally stepped forward to help establish a fragile stability. The peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio created a multinational state with three presidents to serve the three communities in Bosnia: one Bosniak, one Serb, and one Croat. The Army, police and judiciary are cross-community, serving as shared institutions for all Bosnians. Overseeing it all is the international community’s High Representative, currently the German politician Christian Schmidt. He has the power to veto laws, and introduce his own. One such law set Putin reeling.
Earlier this year, the outgoing High Representstive Valentin Inzko, criminalised the denial and glorification of genocide in the country. This created a problem for Putin’s puppet in the region, Bosnian Serb leader Dodik. He has a proud record of denying the mass murder of 6,000 Muslim men and boys, and the heinous efforts to hide the mass graves and deny the systemic rape of women. To this day funerals are still taking place as DNA is used to identify remains, and grave sites are still being sought out.
Putin (alongside his partners-in-dictatorship China) refuses to recognise the new High Representative Schmidt, and refuses to recognise this new, important law that would help prevent the exploitation of hatred and division for political gain.
Spurred on by his backers, Dodik has threatened to withdraw the Bosnian Serbs from most state institutions. When last I spoke to the Bosnian Ambassador, his message was clear: Bosnia is on the verge of disintegration and conflict. Schmidt said as much the same to the UN.
We are seeing an attempt to remove international maintenance of peace, and to draw the curtain across Bosnia and let Dodik realise Milosevic’s dream of a Greater Serbia.
Stability, even if fragile, is what Bosnian citizens strive every day to maintain – and it’s a real tinderbox, with sparks lit on a daily basis. That’s why the international community must step forward and firmly focus on maintaining stability in here, ensuring we preserve the peace made in 1995.
The UK can play its part by explicitly recognising that there is a problem, and that we have a duty to preserve the hard-fought peace. Not just for the British soldiers who fought there – including some of my colleagues in the House of Commons and so many of my constituents in Rutland and Melton – but for the memory of all those murdered and who live today with the agonising memories of hatred and slaughter.
The last time I was in Bosnia, back in 2015, there was a sense of optimism about the future. The country was on the brink of joining NATO (and this is something we must all continue to push for) and looking towards closer ties with the EU. Yet the wounds of the war were there for all to see. The bullet holes in walls. The Serbian-speaking drivers who threw rubbish and shouted as they drove past the Srebrenica Memorial. The protesters and genocide-deniers spouting hated at the funerals of some of the finally-identified victims of the genocide.
Putin is cynically exploiting this – and we cannot allow his policy of spreading discord around Europe to stand unchallenged in the Balkans. We need to act. Now is the time for diplomacy to prevent descent into conflict. We need to demonstrate we have not taken our eye off peace and stability in Bosnia.
We need to see an uplift in UK (and all NATO members) presence at the NATO HQ in Sarajevo and look at joint exercises across the Balkans. We also need to consider sanctions against those who systematically undermine the Dayton Agreement, and formulate a cross-Government Atrocity Prevention Strategy led by the newly established Conflict Centre to demonstrate the important role it can play. Both Russia and China - as well as significant internal actors - are pushing a cocktail of division and hatred across Bosnia and Serbia. A counter-disinformation effort, and the continuation of media plurality and media freedom programmes are also vital.
The Government is listening and acting. From agreeing to raise the situation at the NATO Ministerial meeting next week, to visits to the region in coming weeks, and engagement with High Representative Schmidt and convening efforts with allies across the western world.
In two weeks I've secured a debate in Parliament on the grave situation in Bosnia. I hope that our voices will carry to the Balkans, and to Russia, demonstrating the resolve of our elected representatives to maintaining peace, and preventing more bloodshed. We have a duty to the people of Bosnia, to the survivors of the war and genocide, and to our veterans whose memories of Bosnia stand painfully strong. We must stand firmly behind that duty, and we must do so now.
This article originally appeared in The Express on 21st November 2021