Bosnia: coexistence without reconciliation, by Philippe Descamps & Ana Otašević (Le Monde diplomatique

Unforgotten: protest in Sarajevo commemorating the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, April 2022

Elman Omic · Anadolu · Getty

Mujo Bogaljević heads an agricultural cooperative that grows potatoes in Janja, in Republika Srpska (RS, Serbian Republic), one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two federal entities. In the 1990s he endured forced labour, arbitrary detention, war, exile and expropriation. Being a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) he took refuge during the war in Tuzla, which is today in the other federal entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (or Muslim-Croat Federation).

Though RS is dominated by Serbs, he and his family came back to Janja in 2000 and intend to stay: they don’t believe the Western media’s talk of impending war. ‘We no longer have the means to fight. Nobody is as strong as the Yugoslav National Army was in the 1990s. Maybe a few idiots will shoot at each other, but our leaders have too much to lose. The real issue is economic migration, which is destroying the region. We’ve lost a whole generation of qualified, working-age people.’

More than 25 years after the fighting ended, there is little violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina; despite their history of ethnic cleansing, Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats and Roma live peacefully side by side (see map). Yet the ghosts of the past still cast a shadow over the future. Each of the three communities that share power has its own version of history, and each still seems to be pursuing its own war aims.

With elections due in October, politicians are all trying distract voters from their poor records by claiming that their own communities are being victimised. The Serbs assert that their future depends on restoring to RS the functions the central government has appropriated over the years, while secretly dreaming of independence. The Croats want electoral quotas to guarantee representation in national institutions, or even their own federal entity. The Bosniaks, now a majority, are trying to change the country’s destiny by replacing federalism with a unitary state.

We no longer have the means to fight. Nobody is as strong as the Yugoslav National Army in the 1990s. Economic migration is destroying the region. We’ve lost an entire generation of qualified, working-age people

Mujo Bogaljević

RS is partly bordered by the rivers Drina, separating it from Serbia, and Sava, separating it from Croatia. Yugoslav-era bridges have become heavily guarded border posts, with queues of vehicles waiting to cross and people changing currency. At the last census, in 2013, the RS population was 1,228,000; down 344,000 from that of the same areas in 1991, before the war.

‘We have no reason to fight’

Milorad Dodik, president of the (Serb) Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and an important if controversial figure in RS, said, ‘Republika Srpska wants peace, not war. We have no reason to fight — and we won’t.’ We interviewed him in a state room in the Government Building in Banja Luka, the republic’s capital. Though he’s a member of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, the room was decorated with a Serbian flag and a map of RS showing the front lines in 1995.

Foreign governments are panicking over Dodik’s stated aim of restoring to RS the functions assumed by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s central government — healthcare, justice, taxation, defence. ‘This is an assault on state institutions,’ said Johann Sattler, EU Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina. ‘It’s no longer just talk of eventually seceding, but actual decisions taken by the RS parliament.’

When Dodik first became prime minister of RS, in 1998, he was seen as a moderate because he had not been involved in the war. Then, he said, ‘We must follow the Dayton Accords to the letter’ (1). He still says that today, but now as a way of rejecting the institutional and legislative decisions made by the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (appointed by the Dayton signatories and the United Nations), who has become the real authority in the country (see Under Dayton Accords, normality is receding, in this issue). ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina is two entities and three peoples,’ he told us. ‘The high representatives have done their best to dismantle it, and if you try to resist their centralising approach, you’re labelled a troublemaker. It’s the West that’s causing all the drama by seeking allegiance instead of political partners.’

‘Bosnia-Herzegovina’s constitutional order doesn’t allow an entity to withdraw from state institutions unilaterally,’ Sattler said. ‘If you have an issue with the way an institution works, you have to discuss it in parliament.’ One problem is that each community has a veto, which paralyses parliament, and which only the high representative can overrule.

‘The Dayton Accords didn’t give Bosnia-Herzegovina authority over its own justice system, the establishment of courts or the appointment of prosecutors,’ Dodik said.‘It was Paddy Ashdown who made this control possible, as high representative, when he was given powers that were not part of Dayton.’ When asked about his plans to build an army, Dodik mentioned Dayton again: ‘Personally, I was in favour of Bosnia-Herzegovina having no army, to end the arguing about such prerogatives. That couldn’t happen because the Muslims want an army and some Western countries support them.’ He believes a peaceful separation is possible: ‘I think Bosnia-Herzegovina will collapse on its own: it’ll just be a matter of noting it.’

Bosnia-Herzegovina: three intertwined histories

Bosnia-Herzegovina: three intertwined histories

Outlawing genocide denial

Initiatives of this kind anger the new high representative, former German food and agriculture minister Christian Schmidt. His Austrian predecessor, Valentin Inzko, left him ‘a fine mess to sort out’, as one diplomat put it: in July 2021 Inzko pushed through legislation outlawing genocide denial. This led to an immediate boycott of state institutions by Serb political parties.

The term is still divisive: Bosniaks feel it should apply to all the atrocities they suffered between 1992 and 1995. Serb leaders acknowledge a degree of responsibility, but reject the use of the term ‘genocide’, especially regarding the summary execution of several thousand Muslim men after the fall of the Srebrenica enclave, partly in reprisal for other atrocities. The International Court of Justice disagreed with the Bosniaks on classifying all murders at the time as genocide, but ruled that those in and around Srebrenica from 13 July 1995 ‘were committed with the specific intent to destroy in part the group of the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina as such; and accordingly that these were acts of genocide’ (2).

Miloš will tell you that genocide isn’t the right term, while I believe it is. But we’re not going to fight about it

Safet Imamović

Dodik has tried to boost his own popularity by claiming the new legislation treats Serbs unfairly. Schmidt hopes to curb this behaviour using carrot and stick. The stick consists of putting pressure on RS by sending an extra 500 reservists to join the European Union Force Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR) or Operation Althea, which oversees the implementation of the military aspects of the Dayton Accords. In April, Schmidt suspended an RS parliament law transferring ownership of all government buildings from the central government to RS; he could do the same with other laws. The European Union has failed to agree personal sanctions on Dodik, but the US Treasury has stepped up the sanctions it imposed in 2014.

‘We have carrots, too,’ Sattler said. ‘We have put forward a €9bn investment plan for the Balkans, a large part of which is earmarked for Bosnia-Herzegovina: there will be roads, motorways, railways, and energy and IT infrastructure to help with the ecological transition.’

Jelena Trivić, an MP for the opposition Party of Democratic Progress (PDP), said, ‘Dodik’s real motive is that he’s lost control of the judiciary and he’s scared of being prosecuted.’ The PDP has been on a roll since it took control of the Banja Luka city council in November 2020. ‘Dodik is trying to portray himself as the guardian of Republika Srpska. But how is that possible when he’s robbing the people? Our economy is worse than the Federation’s: we have lower wages, lower pensions and twice as much public debt. No one’s investing here.’

Two million Bosnians live abroad

According to official estimates, as many as 2.2 million Bosnians may be living abroad (3), leaving just 3.5 million in the country. Some refugees returned in the 2000s, but the state of the economy triggered an exodus on a par with what happened during the war. Many formerly Bosniak-majority communities in the east are today dominated by Serbs, more numerous in rural areas.

By contrast, Serb villages in the Glamoč area were virtually emptied of their inhabitants during the Croat offensive Operation Tempest in 1995. There are still many ruined houses on this inhospitable plateau in the Dinaric Alps, which is part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. ‘Several people of my generation have come back to rebuild their family homes and retire here,’ said Rade Stojančević who returned to his own small farm in Šumnjaci a year ago. ‘I wanted to spend my old age here. I missed the village. Before the war, there were 35,000 sheep in this area; now there are only 3,500. In 20 years there’ll be nobody left.’

Further southeast, towards Herzegovina, the population is mainly Croat. Here too, there were no visible symbols of the state, though there was evidence of other loyalties, with red-and-white chequered flags and graffiti supporting the Dinamo Zagreb football club. Mostar, which saw savage fighting between Croats and Bosniaks, has come back to life. The famous Ottoman bridge across the Neretva has been rebuilt, as has most of the town. Wind farms now stand on the hills once occupied by artillery. Yet everyone here is conscious of the invisible line that divides the town. To outdo the tall minaret in the eastern part of Mostar, the Croats have built a 107-metre bell tower in the western part, formerly a stronghold of Herzeg-Bosnia, the unrecognised Croat republic proclaimed during the war.

‘We believe the best solution would be for each nation to have its own federal entity, as in 1993. The principle of “one person, one vote” is contrary to the founding principles of this state,’ said Zdenko Ćosić, prime minister of West Herzegovina Canton and vice-president of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ), which claims that Bosnia-Herzegovina’s state institutions discriminate against Croats. For years HDZ has been pressing for electoral reforms which will give greater weight to the Croat community. It has never been happy that the Croat member of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s three-member presidency, Željko Komšić, was elected partly by non-Croat votes. HDZ feels he lacks legitimacy because he served in the Bosniak army; supported by its sister party in Croatia, especially in the European Parliament, it is threatening to boycott the elections this October. Its leader, Dragan Čović, gets on fine with Dodik when it comes to defying the high representative’s authority.

‘There won’t be a war’

In Mostar, near the old bridge, we talked to some police who had fought in the war. One said, ‘I fought against Herzeg-Bosnia, and I’ll fight again if I have to.’ He seemed anxious. According to Slaven Raguž, president of the Croatian Republican Party (HRS), there will be no war: ‘There is no such threat; it’s just propaganda by the parties that are governing this country.’ He too is pressing for the Croats to have their own federal entity: ‘We want to give Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Croats a reason to love their country and not turn to Croatia, which gives them EU passports.’ Most Bosnian Croats have a Croatian passport, just as many Serbs in RS have a Serbian one.

A diplomat told us that Bosniak politicians often talk about how much their people have suffered to keep their Western supporters on board: they want a more centralised state, which they would govern from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s capital. For example, Haris Zahiragić, an ambitious younger member of the governing nationalist Party of Democratic Action (SDA), used the words ‘genocide’ and ‘violence’ at least 20 times during our interview.

Sarajevo, though rebuilt, has lost much of its cosmopolitan character since the siege, commemorated by countless graves on the heights above the city. The Bosniaks paid a heavy price, but were not the only victims. The most reliable studies now put the number of people killed or who disappeared between 1991 and 1996 at around 95,940, of whom 39% were civilians (4). Bosniaks (43% of the 1991 population) accounted for 64% of all casualties and 80% of civilian casualties; Serbs (31%) for 26%; and Croats (17%) for 8%. Subsequent demographic change means Bosniaks are 50.1% of the population as of the 2013 census, while Serbs are 30.8% and Croats 15.4%.

Today, only Bosniak leaders and the Western media talk of the possibility of war: ‘Sooner or later we will bring down those who use legal measures to obstruct the state,’ Zahiragić said. ‘If these separatists are determined to secede, there could be trouble. We’re counting on the international community, the European Union and the US, and also on patriots. We don’t have a spare country up our sleeves, so we’ll do all we can to defend this one, with arguments, laws, anything that may be necessary.’

The major political parties all use nationalist rhetoric. The paradoxical effect of Bosnia-Herzegovina being placed under international supervision is that there is no incentive for politicians to accept painful compromises because, in the event of disagreement, the high representative intervenes. But the more he gets involved, the further the prospect of Bosnia-Herzegovina joining the EU recedes.

Dayton’s ‘peace through fear’

‘These narratives help to cover up rampant corruption,’ said Edin Forto, prime minister of Sarajevo Canton and leader of Our Party (Naša Stranka, NS), which claims to be non-nationalist. ‘Most jobs in Bosnia-Herzegovina depend on local authorities and their associated organisations. Political parties control many business opportunities, notably through local public services such as rubbish collection and water. HDZ controls one telecoms company, and SDA the other.’

The air in Tuzla, one of the few cities not entangled in nationalist rhetoric, smells strongly of locally mined coal, used for heating and in the local power station. The powerful but short-lived ‘plenums’ (self-governed citizens’ assemblies) movement of 2014 was strongest here. One of its leaders, Damir Arsenijević, said in despair, ‘Dayton means we’re living under a regime of “peace through fear”. We have to accept the complex mechanisms of the accords, though they foster corruption and kleptocracy, or Bosnia will be divided. There’s no third option, which means there is no politics. The elite became extremely rich by buying up the stock of state-owned companies when they were privatised. They get on well with each other, and when they clash in public they’re only playing to the gallery.’

Geopolitical realities mean that Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Croats normally look to (Catholic) Croatia for support, its Serbs to (Orthodox) Serbia, and Bosniaks to the ‘international community’, which usually means the West and Muslim countries. Dodik recently upset that balance, however, by meeting with leaders from the Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim world: Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Calvinist prime minister Viktor Orbán, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist president.

Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić often visits RS and recently said that relations ‘have never been so good’, but the war in Ukraine has made his balancing act between East and West trickier, and behind the scenes he is said to be trying to moderate his ‘friend’ Dodik, or even get him ousted. Soon after a visit to Belgrade in April, Dodik postponed his plans to build an army and introduce indirect taxes, until after the October elections.

Is peaceful cohabitation possible?

Safet Imamović and Miloš Subotić, both in their 30s, have diametrically opposed views on contemporary history and support rival national football teams, respectively those of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. Yet they like to meet up at a bar in the centre of Brčko. The city is a showcase for the possibility of peaceful cohabitation. ‘Miloš will tell you that genocide isn’t the right term, while I believe it is. But we’re not going to fight about it,’ said Imamović, an SDA member of the district assembly. ‘Many Bosniaks would like to impose their laws, as they’re the majority. I think we need a balance, and here in Brčko we’re not far off finding one.’

Brčko, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s biggest port, lies on the Sava river, in a strategic corridor that links the eastern and western parts of RS and the Federation to Croatia. The borders based on the ceasefire lines fixed by the Dayton Accords put the city itself in RS and the rest of the municipality in the Federation, which caused tensions. In 1999 a court of arbitration decided that the entire municipality should become an autonomous district, with its own multi-ethnic institutions (municipal assembly, civil service, police etc.). But is it just a Potemkin village, or does it represent real hope for the future?

Subotić, a journalist for the local news website Nula49, said, ‘In Brčko we’ve brought decision-making closer to the real stakeholders. It’s not always that easy, but it works better than in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Two things have made integration easier: our budget is bigger than those of other local authorities, because we get state aid, and we have a foreign presence.’

Peaceful cohabitation has partly been made possible by a striking juxtaposition of memories. In 1997 a monument to the ‘Serb defenders of Brčko’ was erected in the city centre, near the district assembly building. After the 2008 district elections, the political parties agreed to build two other memorials of equal size to Bosniak and Croat fighters. But they couldn’t agree where to put the monuments, so the high representative’s deputy ruled they should be side by side in front of the city assembly building, around 100m from the Serb monument. In the absence of true reconciliation, this international supervision is only encouraging the different communities to maintain parallel histories. Bosnia: coexistence without reconciliation, by Philippe Descamps & Ana Otašević (Le Monde diplomatique

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