The 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre has brought turmoil to the political stage in Bosnia and beyond. At the behest of certain interest groups a resolution with be forthcoming in the United Nations Security Council commemorating the tragic events in Bosnia and condemning the “genocide” that occurred. Much ink has been spilled in regards to the causes and responsibility, who killed who, who ethnically cleansed who, who started the war, who’s at fault. I will attempt to answer a few of those questions and perhaps give a more rounded less partisan view.
Bosnia today is divided, three ethnic groups, two entities diametrically opposed to each other and a political class that is entirely centered on self-gain and interest. This is something that both Nebojsa and Ahmed have written and bemoaned yet that is where their agreement ends. The Bosniaks dream of a strong unitary state which will finally allow them to fulfill their dreams. Every problem, every setback in Bosnia it seems is connected to the continued presence of the “aggressors”, and their hated, genocidal entity “Republika Srpska” which is the real reason that Bosnia is stuck and that once this issue is resolved all things will be well. Even Ahmed repeats this mantra in his article. I would like to point out that the Sudeten are now German free as is all of Poland and nobody is talking about genocidal entities. Non the less that is part of the conversation in Bosnia which in reality is no dialogue but rather monologues next to each other. The FBIH entity which Croats and Bosniaks govern, is a crazy mash-up of 10 cantons, each with its own parliament and government level, 2-3 or of those are ethnically mixed and there is another layer of craziness, ethnic vetos and national interest votes. This Washington Agreement era government madhouse has been joined at the hip with Repubika Srpska, the Serb part of Bosnia. The inhabitants of RS would like nothing further then to secede with or without war. While the political class continues to talk and fear monger with the same topics and imaginary enemies Bosnia is slowly dying an economic death. Young people in Bosnia are desperate to leave, if tomorrow by some chance the Europeans were to decide to give Bosnians free visa travel most of the young, educated, and entrepreneurial would end up leaving that country and never looking back whether they are Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks…
Yet despite this dreadful situation, economic, social and demographic collapse, the politicians continue to spin and their voters continue to affirm them vote after vote, election after election. The topics are the same as they were in1991/92, and the electoral ideas are the same. In fact many of the politicians are the Same, one can’t blame a hollow shell of a politician like Haris Silajdzic for campaigning with the same slogan of “fighting for 100% of Bosnia” after all this is what brought him to power in 1991 and that’s what has kept the nationalist in power since. Even people like former prime minister and current president of Srpska, Mr. Milorad Dodik who once represented moderate and pro-European forces among the Serbs now is representing the most hardline positions, posturing as the sole defender of the Serbs in Bosnia. The fact that the political elite in Sarajevo and Banja Luka fully cooperated when it came to skimming of the customs duty scandal is apparently lost on most Bosnians irrespective of their ethnic background.
I am disheartened that the previous author posting on this issue has that same cognitive blindside. Ahmed seems to be falling into the same trap. While his analysis of Abdic and Izetbegovic is fairly accurate, he falls for the same political traps most of his ethnic kin fixates on: the 49% percent of land awarded that the Serbs got and the fact that they dared to lay claim on Sarajevo. If we look at the 1991 census, 157000 or 29% of Sarajevo citizens declared themselves as Serbs, compared to 49% as Muslim (Bosniaks). Today there are less than 12% or a mere 35000 are Serbs. This is particularly troubling when one looks at the 1921 census which had Orthodox Christians and Moslems at a relative parity of 38.9% and 34.9% respectively. Todays “multi ethnic” Sarajevo contains ten times less Serbs then it did before the war. It is particularly galling for those Serbs who were born and grew up in that town. Many of them spent a good part of the war fighting for their town only to be labeled as aggressors and outside interloopers. For somebody who was born there those are rather painful labels.
Bosniaks often refer to the Serb entity as Republika Sumska, implying that it is mostly Forest. While Serbs do control 49% percent of the country (and controlled during the war close to 70% of BiH), the Croat-Bosniak Federation has most of the urban and industrial areas. The RS railway company operates 400 km of rail while its counterpart operates 600km of railways. I could try do dig up the industrial output figures as well but there is no sense since industry in both entities has been in a state of collapse since 1991.
The second part of Ahmeds article in particular is disconcerting as well because two key aspects of analysis are missing. Was cohabitation in a “Third Yugoslavia” as he put it possible, and what exactly has changed in that formula that would make coexistence in Bosnia possible? Bosnia was often referred to as the heart of Yugoslavia because of its intermixed populace and the fact that no part of Bosnia or Hercegovina was truly homogeneous. Like the soviet union, Yugoslavia was composed of many different peoples and like the Soviet union, it featured borders that were drawn and redrawn by communist apparatchiks and had little do with where people lived and what ethnic group they belonged to. The AVNOJ borders were created by a set of wartime communist cadre who had no democratic or elected representatives. Those same borders were then used as de-facto state borders. But none the less Ahmed is insightful in the fact that he shows us the mindset of his father’s generation which did not want to continue living in the country of the south Slavs and expect a quickie divorce that would be enforced by NATO and western powers. Nobody has really addressed the reasons for war? What was so difficult and dramatic that made live in Yugoslavia unbearable for the non Serbs, and was this something that could not have been addressed during the profound changes that all of the eastern block countries were undertaking those years. Frankly this is probably the highest and darkest mark on the rank and file members of all ethnic groups. All of their leaders from Franjo Tudjman, Slobodan Milosevic, Alija Izetbegovic and on failed to understand what the future if not the next quarter century would bring. The focus was solely on primacy of their own ethnic group at the expense of the others. Unfortunately for Izetbegovic and most of his ethnic kin, the miscalculation was severe and gross. For the Bosniaks the war came and it was long and bloody and now 25 years later we still can’t put the pieces back together.
So where can we put the blame on? Was it truly Milosevic and his nationalistic rhetoric as Ahmed puts it? Was it Izetbegovic? Tudjman? All of them? Any of them? Reform forces in the Yugoslav republics were defeated during those first multi party elections. For a long time I was asking myself why couldn’t we be like the Soviets, why couldn’t we separate ourselves peacefully and live in separate but equally miserable states. Certainly that would have been preferable to the fate of all the people who suffered through war in Yugoslavia. The truth was and always is that it truly was not entirely up to us. After all to the victor go the spoils and the cold war victory required spoils, and in our case, well we were the spoils. Brzezinski has often declared that the ideal state size of a country of less than five million people because those kind of states can offer no kind of resistance to US interests. And indeed the statelets that came to be, are all weak and depended on US/western policy. This is in stark contrast to a Yugoslavia which was the center of world politics, which could field 8 million men under arms. whose armed forces were strong enough to be too tough of a nut both for east and west.
Yugoslavia was many things to many people. What it was not is pretty clear, it was not a democracy, it did not have long established and strong institutions that would have enabled a dialogue and a transition into the new world of liberalism, capitalism, and globalization. In many ways Yugoslavia was the EU before the EU, idealistic, full of unelected officials bent on turning the “unwashed masses” into a new Yugoslav (European/Soviet) man that was better, just like the New Soviet man, the new Yugoslav and the new European man have suffered defeat or reality. As soon as the good times where over and there no longer was a need for a strong buffer state between east and west it was utterly doomed to failure. Unfortunately for the Serbs, who had chosen it as the country where all of them could live together along with the others (narodi and nardnosti). I would like to point to Iraq, after the invasion there the occupiers organized elections and celebrated those results as just that, success and transition to democracy but in fact nothing could be further from the truth, the rule of the Shia in Baghdad was so tolerant and inclusive that it opened the door to ISIS because the sunnis saw them as the lesser evil.
The similarities between the former Soviet Union don’t end just with the borders. Like the ethnic conflict in Georgia, were Abkhaz and Ossetian people were thrown out of the constitution, in Croatia shortly after the multi-party elections Serbs were thrown out of the constitution and became “guests”, in 1995 those “guests” who had lived there for centuries were evicted. In Bosnia the Serbs were more numerous and despite effort on the part of the west did not share the same fate. The Croat and Bosniak leadership in Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence despite the fact that the right of secession was the right of the people and not of a federal republic, Serbian boycott and opposition to this were ignored and the war that followed was no surprise. Serbs, on the other hand insisted that the areas in which they were the majority remained within Yugoslavia. Two world wars and the ottoman occupation made the Serbs acutely aware that a minority status within a state often was the precursor for death, camps, and ethnic cleansing. This was the case during both world wars and remained deeply ingrained in the Serbian psyche.
Today, the region is again in the center of world attention. The latest east west conflict is upon us and again the Balkans are being used as a side theater for the great nations to settle scores. The anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre is being used as the springboard for reform of the Dayton agreements. The talk of the town in Belgrade is that EU membership for Serbia requires Serbian acquiescence on Kosovo and the defanging of Republika Srpska. While the current quisling leadership of former hardliners turned Europhiles is trying to balance their political futures with the demands from Berlin, Brussels and Washington, the writing is on the wall that the UNSC resolution discussions are just the first set of steps towards the pacification project in the Balkans. To some this is very eerie and reminds of 1941, where Germany is interested in pacifying its Backyard before it can turn its attention further east. Given the Greek “NO!” over the weekend and the Serbian hopes for a Russian veto it will be interesting to see what further developments will take. What is clear is that the local populace will continue to suffer from local political abuse and the interventions of the great powers which rarely if ever have the wellbeing of the natives on their mind.
Truth, Reconciliation and the Future.
The reality in Bosnia is that the ethnic groups are not in direct completion for resources or domination but are clearly unable to formulate a key set of principles upon which they could try to build on for the betterment of all. Instead politicians who have long outstayed their welcome on the political arena are continuing to court local populace with expired and poisonous delusions. However the biggest problem of course will be to reconcile and acknowledge the truth on all sides and move forward beyond the war and the associated ethnic approaches.
It is an undeniable fact that the Serb populace west of the river Drina (Border river between Serbia and Bosnia) has been subjected to several attempts of genocide and ethnic cleansing. These atrocities occurred at the hands of the Austrian Schutzcorps and regular army units during WWI, the German and Nazi puppet forces during WWII and most recently during the events in the 90, with the ethnic cleansing in Croatia during operation storm. This trauma has left the Serbs in general and Bosnian Serbs in particular anxious over being a minority (given the population losses and outright genocide attempted at the hands of the Ustase regime this is really not that surprising.) in a border country with Serbia. The establishment of Republika Srpska brought that security blanket. As flawed as the Dayton Peace accords were, they brought real understanding and compromise to the table. The fact that nobody walked away completely satisfied marked a remarkable success for everybody involved. The peace that has followed is now marking its second decade and we should all be content in regards to it. Going forward the Serbs in Bosnia need to find a framework in which they can cooperate with the Federal authorities in Sarajevo without weakening the entity rights of Republika Srpska. This fine balancing act has already been announced by the Serb co President of BiH and his Alliance for Change coalition members in Srpska. The current SNSD government in Srpska led by Srpska President Dodik is largely playing into the nationalist trumphed because it has nothing to show on the economic and domestic front after 8 years in power and widespread ruin in that arena.
The Bosniak parties in Sarajevo are largely divided and without clear leadership that can take them on this path. The wartime Washington Agreement bound the Bosniak and Croats together in a cantonal arrangement with a straight jacket approach of 10 cantonal governments, 10 different sets of laws and procedures with entity and federal laws and legislatures coming on top this. Their Croatian junior partners are very unhappy due to the inability of electing representatives into the government that would represent their interests. The current dilemma has been created with certain Croatian politicians being elected with the help of Bosniak votes into positions that should be reserved for Croats. And here the mess that is Federation of BiH gets really bogged down. On the one side we have real concerns of the Croatian populace about being able to elect their own representatives and the advocacy of numerous individuals pointing rightly out that in a modern European values based society there is no place for ethnically based positions and voters. Is a Croat, a real Croat or is he a Croat in name only. The wish of many Bosniak politician and citizens towards a modern plurality based system is drawn out of this morass with some justification. Calls for a 3rd entity that would give the Croats the same security blanket that the Serbs have is an anathema to most if not all Bosniak politicians. With the entry of Croatia into the European Union the question of 3rd party interference is however now throwing this entire situation into uncertainty. After all the new HDZ government in Croatia has clearly indicated that it will pay special attention to the diaspora and the position and rights of Croats in Bosnia. Bosnia’s EU prospects therefore could be conditioned on the change of status and arrangement within Bosnia and the FBiH entity in particular. This difficult situation is even acknowledged by the EU which has delayed its more critical approaches and instead is focusing on improving the economic situation inside Bosnia. This deliberate change of tactics is partly in recognition that current carrot and stick approaches have not borne fruit, and that while Bosnia flounders without progress its economy and people suffer the most.
As mentioned earlier the Croatian political forces in Bosnia are continuing their fight to achieve the nominal level of representation within Bosnia. HDZ with Dragan Covic at the helm have allied themselves with Srpska president Dodik and are hoping with the support of Croatia proper to resolve this problem. The easiest and most unlikely scenario is that a new international conference would change their status and give them the third entity that would be their own. This however is meeting stiff resistance by the Bosniak body of policy who are adamantly against any further “partitioning” of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Croatian unhappiness at current arrangement however is undermined by the fact that they are least numerous ethnic group in Bosnia. Continued migration into Croatia and the west now that their homeland is part of the EU only aggravates this problem.
The future of Bosnia and Hercegovina
The future of BiH depends on many external and internal factors. However there are define steps that could be taken to improve the long term odds of this small Balkan country. The major issue framing Bosnia of course is the “Croat question”. Should the Bosniak leadership end up with a major agreement that would satisfy the Croatians it would transform the current situation into something that could be built upon. Bosniak-Serb relations have been improving partly due to the efforts of SDS led moderates in Bosnia itself and partly due to the push by the current Serbian government to reconcile with it neighbors and put the ugly events during the Wars of the Yugoslav succession behind. This effort, currently let by Prime minister Vucic, has borne some fruit however issues over war time crimes continue to muddy the waters, the arrest and subsequent release of Naser Oric being only the latest incident.
The basic problems can be summed in 3 steps. Equal, fair and comparable representation for all 3 ethnic groups is the first step towards a better future. Strong, independent and equitable pursuit of wartime truth and reconciliation strategy (so that non Bosniak ethnic groups can get the impression that it not only jailing their wartime veterans) and Reform and joint effort at improving the economic and Social problems Bosnia is facing. It is an open question whether the local political forces will have enough strength and foresight to answer all of these challenges. The current political elite is entirely focused on their own personal gain and is completely disinterested in addressing the real and difficult problems facing Bosnia.
It is to be expected that foreign actors like the EU and the United States continue to meddle and impose their own ideas and solutions and of course the renewed cold war between Russia and the West could bring new problems and challenges that could not only have a severe impact but also seriously endanger the current fragile peace and existence of Bosnia.
Putnik was born in Sarajevo, he later emigrated to Europe and the USA.