Only in Bosnia

Notes from the Twilight Zone

by , September 25, 2009

Last week, a MSNBC travel writer was so impressed with this country’s hospitality and natural beauty he described it as "model for the planet." Earlier this week, Washington Post columnist George F. Will used it as an example of failed nation-building. Bosnia-Herzegovina, though, is more like a Salvador Dali painting made real — a surreal paradox somehow conjured into being, and continuing to exist even as it demonstrates its own impossibility on a daily basis.

Decision Makers

Yesterday, President Zeljko Komsic spoke at the UN General Assembly, making a plea for Bosnia’s membership on the Security Council. Perhaps it is fitting that Bosnia-Herzegovina, a ward of the self-appointed "international community" — which merely hides behind the UN, and not very convincingly — would openly advance the naïve belief that the Security Council actually decided things. It was precisely here, back in the early 1990s, that the UN was gradually sidelined in favor of "regional organizations" such as NATO, paving the way for the open declaration of the American Empire.

Meanwhile, back in Sarajevo, the ambassador of that very Empire promised his government would "react" if the Bosnian Serbs made good on their threat to boycott the joint government. The threat was made over yet another dispute with the Imperial viceroy, Valentin Inzko, this time concerning personnel issues at the statewide electric utility. Neither the Bosnian Serb government nor the viceroy’s office (OHR) — let alone the local media — have actually explained what appears to be the problem with the utility, but the spat over it is spiraling out of control.

No Facts Please, This is Bosnia

Another dispute that continues to simmer, more serious in nature and implications, is the organization of a census in 2011. The last census in Bosnia was held in 1991, when it was still a province of Yugoslavia. It was followed by a brutal civil war that resulted in almost 100,000 deaths (though for a decade the figure most often mentioned was the inaccurate 250,000), and massive displacement within the country as well as an exodus abroad. At this point, no one actually knows even the approximate number of people who actually live in Bosnia-Herzegovina, rather than those merely registered as residents in order to defend property claims.

The crux of the dispute is a typically Bosnian matter. The major Muslim parties oppose the inclusion of ethnicity as one of the census categories; Serb and Croat parties insist on it. Given that the Constitution and the laws passed to guarantee civil rights to everyone are built around ethnic quotas, leaving that information out would render the census functionally worthless. However, the Muslim parties aren’t opposing the ethnic quotas on principle; they just want them to remain based on the census from 1991!

So, this isn’t about some opposition to the "legacy of ethnic cleansing" or the alleged concern for refugees, but about power. As long as the actual number of Bosnia’s inhabitants and the actual ethnic composition of the country remain unknown, there is ample room for speculation and abuse.

The Stabber of Sarajevo

Sead Secerovic, age 24, cared nothing about ethnicity. He just liked to stab people. Wanted for seventeen stabbings in Germany and seven in Serbia, he appeared in Sarajevo earlier this month. His luck in evading the authorities ran out, however, on Wednesday night. A group of customers in a café recognized him from a photo circulated on TV, and called the police.

When asked why he had stabbed a young man in a streetcar on September 20, Secerovic answered, "He looked at me funny." 

Trumping the Donald

Secerovic came to Sarajevo because the city is home to a large population of his countrymen, Muslims from the southwestern Serbian region known as Sanjak. One of them, Fahrudin Radoncic, has become a media and real estate mogul in the past decade. As an Izetbegovic loyalist, Radoncic was at first a spokesman for the Bosnian Muslim army. Then, in 1995, he founded Dnevni Avaz (the Daily Voice), an openly partisan newspaper favoring Izetbegovic’s party. From this position of privilege, Radoncic has built a business empire over the last fourteen years. From a party mouthpiece he became a kingmaker; whichever Muslim candidate had Radoncic’s endorsement in Avaz was almost guaranteed a victory in the polls.

This week, Radoncic decided to take the next logical step, announcing the formation of his own political party. Obviously considering himself the equivalent of Donald Trump, he declared that his incredible business genius would now be in service of the people.

Radoncic obviously believes that by controlling the media, he can also control the message, and that no one will notice the incongruity of having the country’s foremost tycoon and recipient of government favors preach about fighting corruption and stimulating economic development. Besides, he seems to have a powerful backer: the country’s top Muslim cleric, reisul-ulema Mustafa Ceric.

In last week’s sermon, Ceric suggested that the ideal leader would be competent, courageous and pious — but if he were merely competent and courageous, a lack of piety might be excused. Many have taken this as an endorsement of Radoncic.

Somehow

All of this may be dismissed as "only in Bosnia," a somewhat Twilight Zone-ish oddity of modern life in a country that makes no sense. But amidst this avalanche of absurdities, it is perhaps too easy to miss the simple fact that life goes on, somehow. People may not have jobs, and no one knows how exactly they can afford to sit in the outdoor cafes all day, or feed and clothe the children they proudly parade along Sarajevo’s main pedestrian avenue — but they do it nonetheless.

No country in the world has more governments per capita. Politics hasn’t done a thing to make life better for any community in Bosnia, but it has done much to make it worse. Surely there is a lesson there.

Read more by Nebojsa Malic