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Bosnia and Herzegovina Still Struggling


In The Hague, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has resumed his own defense in his war crimes trial for what he called Serbia’s “just and holy cause” against Muslim aggression during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s.

But nearly 20 years after it gained its independence from the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still struggling to overcome the political and economic legacies of that split.

Political Backsliding

Bosnian journalist Kemal Kurspahic, war-time editor of the Bosnian daily newspaper Oslobodjenje, says that in recent years Bosnia and Herzegovina has actually slid backwards in its efforts to join European institutions such as the European Union.

“Over the last four years, we had paralyzing policies in place, and I think Bosnia was left behind [by] its neighbors, both Croatia and Serbia, in their efforts to join the European Union,” Kurspahic said.

The Parliament of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity that under the terms of the 1995 Dayton Accords is part of a multiethnic state, has passed a law making it easier to hold referenda on national issues. In fact, some analysts see Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Milorad Dodik’s move as a possible step toward an independence referendum.

But Kurspahic is not so sure. “Dodik is on the record as stating that his goal is the weakening of the state and the strengthening of his entity,” Kurspahic notes. “He even talks about the dissolution of Bosnia in a few years and that is his ultimate goal.”

However, the major international players – including NATO, the United States, and the European Union – have stated repeatedly over the past couple of months that they will never recognize any movement to a further partitioning of the country, according to Kurspahic.

Bosnian Serb Sentiment in Conflict with Political Reality in Serbia

Ljiljana Smajlovic, president of the Serbian Association of Journalists, suggests that whatever the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska may say publicly, Bosnia is unlikely to be dissolved.

“The Prime Minister is saying that he wants to have a referendum on his interpretation of the Dayton Agreement,” Smajlovic said. According to Mr. Dodik, Smajlovic said the Dayton Agreement never intended to give the U.N. High Representative the powers he has reserved.

“So that referendum – if it takes place, and I suspect it will take place – is not about breaking away from Bosnia,” Smajlovic explained. “It’s about reaffirming the rights of Republika Srpska.”

Nonetheless, the critical factor is that Boris Tadic, the President of Serbia, believes that any attempt to upset the Dayton Agreement would be detrimental to Serbia, Smajlovic emphasizes. “It could threaten Serbia’s European perspective, which really is Serbia’s top priority.”

Above all, President Tadic is trying to present himself as a regional leader who is indispensible to both Brussels and Washington, Smajlovic said.

“In exchange for Washington and Brussels allowing Serbia to try to thwart U.S. ambitions to make Kosovo a member of the United Nations, our Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic is trying precisely to do that – to thwart U.S. ambitions in the region,” she explained.

And Serbia is taking this diplomatic tack, Smajlovic suggests, because “Kosovo is far more important to Serbia than Republika Srpska is.”

Economic Issues Ascendant

Bosnia and Herzegovina has serious economic problems regarding its membership prospects in the European Union, Smajlovic notes.

“It has not even gotten on the Schengen List,” Smajlovic observed. In fact, Republika Srpska is doing much better economically than Bosnia and Herzegovina. “I think it has to do with the fact that the Muslims and Croats have divergent ends,” she suggests.

“I don’t see how the Bosniaks and the Croats can legitimately and seriously blame the Serbs or Republika Srpska for their economic problems,” Smajlovic said. “I think it is simply easier to make decisions in Republika Srpska than in the Bosniak-Croat Federation because they are at cross-purposes and because there is not much trust,” he adds.

Democratic Institutions at Issue

“The Muslim-Croat Federation has not recognized its potential for economic development, partly because of its disunity and partly because of its lack of central institutions,” said Balkan expert Daniel Nelson, author of many books on the region. He noted that, if an investor goes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, he doesn’t know whom to talk to.

“But in Republika Srpska, decisions are easier because it’s a dictatorship,” Nelson said. “It’s not a democracy, and they [the Bosnian Serbs] are impeding the creation of a Bosnia and Herzegovina that would be unified; they are trying to torpedo it and destroy it.”

“We should never forgive the Bosnian Serbs for abrogating the Dayton Accord,” said Nelson. “Dodik and his sycophants have done that repeatedly, and they – not the Federation – have destroyed the possibility for a unified, multiethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina,” he added.

Nelson said he agrees with Dennis Blair, the director of U.S. national intelligence, who recently warned that Bosnia is “Europe’s biggest security threat.” So, the international community needs to take a stronger role, Nelson argued.

“If it does, there is a possibility that Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state could be that multiethnic example for the world. But, if it doesn’t, and if Bosnians want to go their separate ways, they are going to remain poor and conflict-ridden,” said Nelson.


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