"Good morning. Is another war brewing in Bosnia?"
That was the opening of a Croatian state TV morning program on February 16. The Zagreb studio's question was then posed via satellite to Vlado Azinovic, a professor of political science in Sarajevo who stood outside in his winter coat as life in the Bosnian capital unfolded behind him. The show's anchor pressed Azinovic to concede that a new paramilitary formation was preparing for another conflict and that "Wahhabi-Salafi groups" enjoyed Bosnian government support.
The issue of such purported groups became a hot topic after the appearance of a YouTube video, titled Askeri Winter Camp 2018, in which children could be seen getting Islamic instruction and training.
The clip unleashed a storm of reactions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the wider region. Some of the alarming headlines that appeared in Bosnian and Serbian media included: Wahhabis Training Boys To Fight, The Military Camp For Kids, and Askeri Training Young Warriors.
Meanwhile, the leadership (Rijaset) of the Bosnian Islamic Community said in a statement to N1 TV that it had no official information of any religious education being administered by the group in question; nor had the group requested any support or input from the Islamic Community.
"The video and its publication should be placed in its proper context," Azinovic said, adding that 10 days earlier an actual, suspected paramilitary formation from Serbia had marched fully armed through the streets of Banja Luka, in Republika Srpska, during official celebrations marking that northern Bosnian entity's controversial statehood day. "And once they had changed out of their uniforms, they were received by members of the [Republika Srpska] government, before that armed group returned home to Serbia."
The Banja Luka formation was part of a group that calls itself Serbian Honor and claims to be a humanitarian organization. Some of its members, however, reportedly fought on the side of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Asked whether the purported "Askeri" training camp was evidence of rising Islamic extremism in Bosnia, Azinovic answered that "for the past 30 years, we have been seeing a rise in all forms of extremism in Bosnia." Azinovic has argued that Bosnian authorities, lacking meaningful economic or social policies, are manufacturing fear among voters -- especially on the eve of elections. "They have nothing else to offer."
He warned against underestimating the effect of what he referred to as "domestic hybrid warfare" that creates tensions that can easily escalate into bloodshed.
Thawing The 'Frozen' War?
The reports concerning paramilitary units were followed by news of major arms purchases by the Bosnian Serb police from neighboring Serbia.
There was no attempt by the Bosnian Serb authorities to downplay the purchase. On the contrary, on February 16, Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik claimed that "they have taken our military, but they won't take away our police."
Dodik also visited a police training center near Banja Luka that is due to be officially inaugurated on April 4. Local media have suggested that instructors at the center will be Russians, although that has not been confirmed, and they will be training Bosnian Serb police to "fight against terrorism." Dodik added that the purchase of 2,500 automatic rifles was legal and that all the necessary permits had been secured.
However, concern over the apparent move to arm Republika Srpska police was expressed by EU High Representative Valentin Inzko, among others. Inzko said the police in all of his native Austria have only 400 automatic rifles at their disposal.
Alex Kliment, the Eurasia Group's director of global research, also drew attention to the saber-rattling in the Balkans and its wider context to CBS. Kliment warned that the combination of "local ethnic tensions or rivalries" and "geopolitical tension" was highly combustible, especially in this region of the world. He suggested that the Bosnian government's stated desire to eventually join the EU and NATO had prompted Russia to ramp up its involvement in the Balkans, with the aim of destabilizing that country.
"It's a very dangerous situation," Kliment said. "The horrific Yugoslav civil war never really ended, it was more sort of frozen. And things like this can unfreeze that quickly." Adding more weapons to the mix only made this outcome more likely, in his opinion.
An Unwatched Pot Boils
It seems clear that the "Askeri" are not boy scouts, just as members of Serbian Honor are not humanitarian workers. Regardless of whether they are marching in the streets or gathering clicks on YouTube, both are reviving old antagonisms and feeding the narrative of an unfinished war.
Kliment suggested that neither NATO nor the United States was going "to focus a whole lot of attention on this.... There are...bigger issues playing out. This was a part of the world that spilled into civil war because no one was paying attention."
Bosnian elections are due in October. Dodik, who has already served two terms as president and two more as prime minister of Republika Srpska, is seeking to join the presidency of a country (Bosnia) that he wants to dismantle. It is unclear how far he might be prepared to go to achieve his goal, or whether he would risk another war.
He could be a nationalist or merely a pragmatist convinced that nationalism is politically expedient. But that sort of thinking was also attributed to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, and then, too, the West was distracted elsewhere while the Balkans slid into internecine conflict.