Worrying developments in Bosnia

[Updated version with links]

Last week I edited the draft of a report in which the author had written of "deteriorating political trends" in Bosnia. The donor wanted to have this changed to "worrying political trends." Whichever it is, it's for real. Until recently, for example, I'd have been inclined to dismiss calls for a referendum on independence for RS -- the miserable statelet ("entity") the Serbs carved out of Bosnia by killing, raping, looting, and shelling -- as mere campaigning. (Bosnians will vote for central and entity parliaments on 1 October.) The SNSD, a nominally moderate party with good links to the RS business community and a history of antagonism towards the RS' "natural" government party, the SDS of Dr. Radovan Karadzic, wanted to prop up its nationalist credentials, on this reading, and that's certainly part of the story -- but not all of it. RS prime minister and SNSD leader Milorad Dodik is very close to certain circles in Belgrade -- the very same circles that pay a lot of money to Washington lobbying firms to place well-written and superficially reasonable op-ed pieces in U.S. papers, pieces that nonetheless are full of threats if one reads between the lines -- and it's obvious to assume that he's not doing this for purely opportunistic, or indeed domestic, reasons (unless one has a rather big house). Indeed, after spending years denying that what happens in Kosovo would resonate in Bosnia, Western diplomats are getting *really* worried at the precedents they're setting in Kosovo.

But it's not just the Kosovo repercussions. Police reform -- a key prerequisite to conclude the first association steps with the EU -- is stalled, with the Serbs very openly obstructing talks. The international proconsul has announced he'd close shop by end of June 2007, so all they need to do is sit him out. The Serbs are now also second-guessing the distribution key for fiscal revenue and are being difficult on a number of other fronts.

Perhaps there's really no point in trying to keep them inside Bosnia if they really don't want to be there, as folks like David Chandler and Robert Hayden have long argued? Aren't they just a millstone around the necks of those who want to build a *real* state in Bosnia, and not just a conglomerate of self-ruling ethnic territories?


WARchild said...

Isn't SFOR (or whatever they call it under EU) staying though?

I'm not surprised that there are such hopes. If Bosnian Serbs could wait 10 years, sure they can wait until the end of this year. On the other hand the exit of the internationals explains why the Federation is so adamant lately on a stronger central government. It seemes that the return of the the refugees on both sides is the only interest that will provide a reason to both sides to stay together. That means that both sides must make their minorities feel welcome and hope that they stay.

Anonymous said...

both sides must make their minorities feel welcome and hope that they stay.

I don't have the impression this is happening.

Doug M.

Ali da Hodza said...

If the current OHR does anything useful, it should be to plant the seeds of an EU-compatible post-Dayton settlement rather than watch as RS plans stage two of its secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This was always on the cards after Dayton. Recognition as an "entity" was always going to beg the question of why this "entity" should not be able to choose to leave BH.

There is no BH without RS. We should not allow it to happen.

Also, as warchild implied, where does this leave Serbs in the Federation?

Please don't depress me like this - it's summer for God's sake!

I can't imagine how the Bosniak returnee communities feel about this.

Bg anon said...

Good grief TK had no idea you were so dead set against the idea of RS.

Lobbying is as you know a common tool and an 'accusation' often used by Serbs against Croats, Bosnian Muslums et al from the 1990's period. It may be odious but its legitimate - that was my view then and it remains the same.

T K Vogel said...

I have not much against the idea of RS but I sure don't like what it looks like in practice. Same with lobbying -- nothing wrong with it, really, if Kostunica can scrape together the money from his budget, no problem. I think a more promising avenue to deal with Serbia's image problem might be to abandon the ideology that Kostunica stands for, but that's just a thought. And yes, it's true, I don't appreciate op-eds by prime ministers that threaten neighboring countries.

Bg anon said...

Thanks for the reply TK. My own position on RS doesnt differ much from any other situation where a given majority apparantly has the right to self determination.

I mean by that in my book that there should be strictest conditions imposed before new states are created - even if its the fashion these days to just throw the arms skyward with a 'what to do, we must respect what the majority wants'. Well no, if that majority doesnt respect its minorities the right to an independent state should be far from automatic. That includes RS, Kosovo, Croatia in SFRJ or Montenegro (had there been any violations but thankfully there are very few). Goes without saying that had Serbia in 90's sought independence because of human rights violations against Kosovo Albanians that this also should have been halted.

As for what RS looks like in practice, there arent many, scratch that, there arent any governments I like the look of including RS. Then again if we are talking about not liking the look of governments I'm even less inclined to like one that consists of suspected war criminals and paramilitaries.

Kostunica may be a nationalist but that doesnt invalidate most of the points he made in that letter (somehow I think if Jatras had written the letter it would have raised the spectre of muslum fundamentalism and terrorism).

I dont agree with you that the letter threatens neighbouring countries. It seems to me to argue for consistent principles. If somebody other than Kostunica had written it then you might not read so much between the lines. What if the letter had been written by Mesic, Terzic or another Bosniak who cautions against the independence of Kosovo? Would that be a threat too?

Its like judging a painting on who its drawn by rather than looking at the painting on its own merit. The judgement we bring is our own predjudice - or bias.

Anonymous said...

It seems as though the desire to keep Bosnia together come hell or high water is starting to fade in a number of quarters. I was interested to hear TK make the point he did concerning letting the Bosnian Serbs go their own way, as I am hearing more and more people voicing exactly the same thoughts; especially now that Kosovo does seem to be moving along the path to independence. I was over in RS recently and everyone there sees it as opening the way for their own exit from a state they have no loyalty towards, especially as this is the argument Pristine keeps making. Interestingly, no one I spoke to saw Montenegro as setting some sort of precedent. In any case, the idea that somehow Kosovo can be regarded as sui generis is laughable.

I also agree with the points made by bg anon concerning Kostunica. I was at the lecture he gave in the UK last month and he was quite clear in his position. As a lawyer, he stated that he fully respects international law and believes that it should be followed to the letter. However, if the international community chose to abandon long-standing legal principles and set a new precedent in the case of Kosovo then the Serbian Government would be justified in reconsidering its own views. It was a reasonable point, reasonably made. What else do you expect from a man who is now under pressure to sign away a part of his country for the actions of a deposed leader; especially when all over the world we are encouraging groups that have previously been in conflict to reconcile and remain together.

T K Vogel said...

Anonymous, if your point about Kosovo not being sui generis refers to the political situation rather than to principle, I fully agree. It was naive of some people to believe that independence for Kosovo would not have any implications for Bosnia. However, let me point out a few differences that make Kosovo a bad precedent for RS.

Kosovo has a long history of resistance against Yugoslavia and Serbia. Except for a brief period couple decades ago, it was never given a chance at self-rule. Then, in the 1990s, came brutal repression by Belgrade. Kosovo's Albanians resisted peacefully only to realize that in international diplomacy only raw force counts (the example being RS at Dayton). So, there's a history of escalation; violence was a last resort (and will now be rewarded, as it was in the case of RS).

The Bosnian Serbs, by contrast, never tried to make an independent Bosnia work. They were pawns in Milosevic's Greater Serbia project, instruments of an international aggression, and in the process killed and expelled scores of non-Serbs. It is not surprising that under such circumstances, their claim to be a persecuted minority inside Bosnia, a situation that can only be remedied through independence or union with Serbia, falls on deaf ears: it's nonsense, and they know it. What kind of right is there that the Serbs, as a group, don't enjoy inside Bosnia? Where exactly is their oppression by Sarajevo? The RS is as self-governing as it can possibly get, so I simply fail to see the need to break up Bosnia (something which should always be only a last resort).

There's also a conceptual incoherence in the Greater Serbia project: it always wanted to keep Kosovo as part of Serbia (on account of inviolability of borders and all that sovereignty stuff) while simultaneously denying the same right to inviolable borders and full sovereignty to Bosnia and Croatia. It is only now, after Kostunica realized that Kosovo was lost, that he's using the Kosovo "precedent" to make similar claims for RS. He may be a constitutional lawyer or whatever, but he sure knows a good opportunity when he sees one. None of this has anything to do with principle.

Anonymous said...

The point is well made. However, the fact nevertheless remains that while in scores of other places, including Bosnia, the international community has proposed reconcilliation in the case of Kosovo it has not. Faced with this situation, I think that the Serbian Government has a right to use whatever arguments are at its disposal to fight their corner. Any government in the same position would do so.

However, I think we can all agree that any fight by Belgrade to retain full sovereignty over Kosovo is misguided and ultimately pointless. Let's face it, the best outcome for all concerned is partition. Let Serbia keep the northern tip in return for legitimising the independence for the rest - 15 per cent for 15 per cent. Quite apart from anything avoiding the sham of having to pretend that Kosovo is a ever going to become a multiethnic state, this will prevent a rather worrying precedent from being set in terms of international law. Needless to say, all this would be a powerful argument that can be used against RS.

Why the idea of a territorial adjustment has been rejected beats me! I can only assume it is being held back and will be the historic 'compromise' eventually reached between the two sides at some point, albeit with the judicious use of pressure and incentives from the EU and US.