The brutal murder of prominent local businessman Slavisa Krunic has shaken many in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Shock is not easily triggered in Bosnia, given the country’s long fractious politics, endemic corruption and Byzantine constitutional and administrative divisions. But there are still a handful of red lines left, one of which appears to have been crossed with Krunic’s killing in Bosnia’s Serb governed Republika Srpska, RS, entity where he lived.
While half a dozen suspects were already in custody the morning after the killing, including two who were arrested in Bosnia’s other entity, the mainly Bosniak-Croat administered Federation, the motive behind the killing remains unclear.
That, however, has not stopped Bosnians in both entities from drawing their own conclusions. And it is the popular narrative that has emerged – whether ultimately true or not – that speaks to the disturbing realities of contemporary Bosnian politics and what is at stake in their conduct.
The story is simple: Slavisa Krunic was a successful and outspoken entrepreneur, a fearless critic of Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik and his ruling Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, and an ethnic Serb who saw no qualms about also identifying himself as a Bosnian.
His heterodoxy won him accolades among many in both Banja Luka, the administrative centre of RS, and the Bosnian capital Sarajevo – but it ultimately cost him his life.
In short, the authorities have their “signature” all over the death of Krunic, as Bosnia’s Security Minister Dragan Mektic alleged. Or so the story goes.
The trouble – the real trouble – is that the story is far too plausible and dovetails far too well with current events in Bosnia to be readily dismissed as the paranoid gossip of the mahala or the inane ravings of fringe figures.
For one, the case of David Dragicevic, the 21-year old Banja Luka man whose unexplained death prompted nearly a year of anti-government protests in the town and solidarity rallies across Bosnia, shows the Republika Srpska government is hardly a paragon of transparency.
Secondly, Dodik and the SNSD-led government in Republika Srpska have long been followed by allegations of links to organised crime, allegations they deny.
Third, as I chronicled in my February column for Balkan Insight, critics and opponents of the ruling SNSD party and Dodik himself have become the targets of threats and harassment by various government proxies. Some have already fled Bosnia for fear of their lives and the lives of their loved ones.
Fourth, and finally, the SNSD is at this moment finalising the creation of a remarkable apparatus of fear and intimidation in the form of a 1,100-person strong “auxiliary” force of police officers.
The completely spurious rationale provided by RS Security Minister Dragan Lukac for this brazen challenge to the Dayton Peace Accords – that Bosnia is hotbed of Islamic radicalism – is farcical.
In truth, the creation of this force is but the latest chapter in the piecemeal militarisation of the RS police and security services, and Dodik’s evident desire not merely to permanently secure his grip on power but also develop his capacities to directly and forcefully undermine Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Given this context, is it absurd to at least suspect that there might be political dimensions to Krunic’s death? And is it any less absurd to believe that if that is, in fact, the case, that the whole affair is likely to be covered up?
The very fact that such a narrative appears entirely plausible to so many in Bosnia – despite, to an outside observer, bearing all the hallmarks of a paranoid conspiracy theory – speaks to the profound depth of dread and insecurity felt by many in the country. That fact, far beyond the exact circumstances of Krunic’s death, is what should worry the relevant international actors concerned with Bosnia’s stability.
Whether the authorities under Dodik have actually begun murdering their critics, as I warned was soon possible, or whether public confidence in the rule of law in Bosnia has simply deteriorated to the point where that not only seems like a plausible but, indeed, the most likely scenario, the result is the same. Fear and violence are in the air.
Nothing good can come of that, especially not in a climate where a proto-authoritarian regime like the one in Banja Luka is deliberately stove-piping a still larger, more existential security crisis in the country. This is when idle chatter, when rumour, gossip, and paranoia can combine to create a lethal toxin.
It is therefore imperative that Bosnia’s state and entity authorities investigate and establish the true circumstances of Krunic’s death, and that the country’s international partners likewise use this opportunity to signal to ordinary citizens that Bosnia is still a country with red lines and consequences when they are crossed.
Of course, far more structural changes in international policy towards Bosnia and the whole region are needed. But for the moment, Krunic’s death is a reminder that long-simmering crises always have a spark of one sort or another – one that transforms a seemingly controlled burn into a raging inferno.
Until a more comprehensive international program in Bosnia can be enacted, the priority must be to ensure a basic sense of peace and security in the country, a task for which the international community, on both sides of the Atlantic, bears considerable responsibility.
With dueling security services now a daily feature of Bosnian front pages, great care must be taken not to add murder and mayhem to the mix. The room for error in the Western Balkan’s central polity has narrowed markedly as it is. But if the country goes off the rails completely, it will affect not just the lives and welfare of individuals – the damage and destruction will spiral outwards.