Frozen sectarian divisions heat up in Bosnia
On the drive from Trebević, a mountain on the outskirts of the capital where Serb snipers shot at Sarajevans brave enough to cross ‘snipers’ alley’ during the war, stands a plaque memorialising a visit from Radko Mladić, the genocidal general of the Serb forces during the war who was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes in November last year.
It’s emblematic of the fact that, a quarter of a century since the war’s onset, Bosnians possess vastly different understandings of what happened during the conflict. An exceptionally complicated peace treaty, enshrined at Dayton air base in Ohio in November 1995, has since kept the peace – no mean feat.
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Over the past 100 years, Bosnians have lived under five different rulers, within five different sets of boundaries; but it was the US-brokered Dayton agreement that struck a border straight through the Balkan nation, skirting around the outskirts of the national capital Sarajevo, separating the two entities that comprise Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The peace came at the cost of dividing the country into two largely autonomous entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, which comprise 51 and 49 per cent of Bosnia-Herzegovina, respectively.
It left the powers of central government diluted to a huge extent, in order to appease all three previously-warring parties (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats), while the nature of the agreement has entrenched the ethnic divisions that were ruthlessly carved out during the war. This has left political parties with little incentive to appeal beyond their ethnic base.
Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, last month rebelled against a ruling by the Bosnian constitutional court to hold a military parade in Banja Luka to commemorate the autonomous republic’s controversial national holiday. And last week he confirmed that while next year he will stand for a place as part of the Bosnian presidency, if elected, he would refuse to work from the country’s capital, Sarajevo – and instead would take part in discussions via video link.
Meanwhile, it was reported in the Bosnian press that Russian-trained mercenaries are helping to set up a militia group named ‘Serbian Honour’ that Dodik will use to attack his opponents.
‘Bosnia’s complicated constitutional framework, along with unresolved internal tensions, make it susceptible to Russian efforts to wield its influence to transform Bosnia-Herzegovina,’ says Edina Bećirević, an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo and author of the book Genocide on the Drina river. ‘Political and intellectual elites in the [Republika Srpska] have served Moscow’s cause by promoting Russia within the entity as an alternative pathway to development. This has so far made Euro-Atlantic integration impossible for Bosnia-Herzegovina.’
‘Reform processes are completely blocked, and secessionist rhetoric has become a staple of speeches by politicians from the leading party in the [Republika Srpska], the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD),’ says Bećirević.
This feeds into a growing nationalist school of thought that existing regional borders in the Balkan region are temporary. According to Bećirević, these frontiers are presented by nationalist politicians as a threat to ethnic Serbs and a product of geo-political interference during the breakup of Yugoslavia and the wars that followed.
‘What state of Bosnia-Herzegovina?’ queried Dodik, in October 2017. ‘The state of Bosnia-Herzegovina does not exist. Bosnia-Herzegovina exists as foreseen in Dayton. That is not a state, it is a state union, or union of states. It is no kind of state.’
Earlier in the year at the Day of Remembrance of the Suffering and Persecution of Serbs in Croatia he stressed how the natural kinship of ethnic Serbs transcends borders and will inevitably lead to the creation of a single state.
‘I believe that in this century the Serb people will have the right to be one, because of their suffering in the past,’ said Dodik in August. ‘And that it is completely natural for us to be together. And when I say together, that means together in the territorial and state sense, to avoid any doubts. Because we are together anyway.’
‘It is the dysfunctional Dayton model in BiH that has empowered such openly exclusive rhetoric,’ concludes Bećirević.
The country’s political system is incredibly complicated: 84 municipalities compose Republika Srpska, while 10 cantons in the Federation are divided into 79 municipalities. Bureaucratic dysfunction and an acute lack of funds mean that decisions from the top are often unlikely to be implemented at a local level.
Both the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska have their own parliaments, government, army and police, and conduct most typical state functions. This has created what are, in many respects, two hugely different states, with at times opposing world views, within the same set of borders.
For instance, children are taught mutually exclusive histories – crucial because stories about the past play a central role in nation-building and identity. In separate curricula, Bosnian, Croat and Serb children are told stories that blame the other side for the Bosnian war.
Bosniak students are taught that Serb aggressors ‘attacked our country’, sparking the conflict; Croats are told that their forces repelled Serbian and Bosniak invaders; and young Serbs are inculcated in the belief that a foreign-backed mujahideen attempted to commit genocide against their people. Meanwhile, ethnic Serbs in Bosnia are told that their capital is are Belgrade and that Bosnia-Herzegovina is not, in fact, even a separate nation.
This is reinforced by each entity’s respective media, which are heavily under the influence of government, and often project conflicting narratives and world views. Meanwhile, constant political gridlock has hindered development and reconciliation.
‘We can hate the Dayton agreement but it won’t change anything,’ says a Bosnian citizen I met when our flight to Vienna was cancelled. ‘People struggle to regain each other’s trust because hungry people are still fed by corruption and nationalism. Unfortunately, I think the segregation and hate will continue for the next fifty years. it's starts at early age and grows on like a cancer that kills our logic, love and humanism towards the same people who were once upon a time the same tribe.’
Reuf Bajrović, the country’s former energy minister, believes that although the timing of the agreement was shaped by American domestic politics, it was the best possible deal at the time.
‘It was a diplomatic and political butchery where there was not much foresight about the consequences. It was about stopping the war before the 1996 presidential election in the US,’ he said in comments reported by the Guardian. ‘However, it was by far the best option available at that particular moment in history.’
Some however are even more scathing. Julian Borger, the Guardian’s World Affairs editor, previously a Balkans correspondent, argues that Bosnia’s division was ‘created by “ethnic cleansing” through mass killings and deportation… The territorial gains made though [repeated atrocities] were carved in stone at Dayton, while Republika Srpska was given international recognition.’
Today, the unjust peace that established political entities following campaigns of genocide and ethnic cleansing, looks increasingly fragile.
The central Bosnian government and Serb civil society activists, as well as western diplomats, fear that the increasingly militarized police force in Republika Srpska could be employed to promote Dodik’s independence cause.
If a referendum, oft-threatened, on the territories’ independence went ahead – which would almost certainly result in unilateral secession – it is likely a war would ensue, taking the country back to April 1992. Indeed, Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of the country’s tripartite presidency, has already said he would be willing to go to war to defend the country’s ‘territorial integrity’.
With so much at stake, Bosnia cannot afford renewed strife but the current arrangement does little but promote division.
Photos: Mattha Busby; Sean MacEntee, CC-BY-2.0