Bitterness, Irony, and Hope

Bosnia, Year 11

Eleven years since the Dayton Accords were finalized at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not at peace. Though military operations stopped in 1995, hostility among the country’s ethnic communities – Muslims, Serbs and Croats – has not diminished much. Politics turned out to be the continuation of war by other means.

Six weeks after general elections in October brought to power Serbs determined to preserve their autonomy and Muslims determined to destroy it, and divided the Croats, the country has a new presidency and one chamber of the parliament, but a new cabinet (Council of Ministers) still has to be appointed. The outgoing PM, Adnan Terzic, chose to end his tenure with a denunciation of the country’s Serbs to the UN General Assembly. Local authorities throughout the Muslim-Croat Federation are also slow to emerge, and when they do it is usually at the expense of constitutional requirements for ethnic representation. Corruption is endemic and widespread, while a crushing value-added tax, levied even on charitable donations, is bleeding the fledgling economy dry. Few things are left unsullied by politics. But when humanity does assert itself, it shines so much brighter against the oppressive drudgery of statism.

A Functioning Government

By Nov. 10, the Bosnian Serb Republic (RS) had convened its new parliament. All the seats set aside for Muslims and Croats under a constitutional quota system were filled. The only exception was the position of deputy speaker, since the largest Muslim party refused to nominate a candidate. (The party is Haris Silajdzic’s Party for Bosnia, which advocates the destruction of the RS.) The new president of RS took office as well, and since Milorad Dodik remained prime minister, his cabinet will likely undergo only minor changes.

On the other hand, in the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, there was a chronic deficit of Serbs and Croats in Muslim-majority areas. According to the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, three Serb seats in cantonal parliaments were left vacant (out of 17), and the House of Nations in the Federation parliament had only 12 out of 19.

On Nov. 15, a report in Oslobodjenje about the innumerable difficulties in setting up the new governments in the Federation actually used the phrase “a better system of government” to describe the RS arrangement. This is unprecedented. For, while it’s obvious to everyone that the Federation is a cumbersome, dysfunctional, wasteful, and prohibitive arrangement, Muslims and Croats persist in blaming the RS for Bosnia’s troubles, and demanding centralization as a way to resolve inefficiencies of government.

The outgoing PM of the joint government, Adnan Terzic, did just that at the UN General Assembly, earning a tongue-lashing from Dodik, who called him an “ordinary fool.” When he appeared as a guest in a news program on Nov. 13, Terzic proved Dodik right, by rambling incoherently and using “logic” that would embarrass kindergartners.

Conspiracy Theories

On Nov. 20, members of the new national parliament were sworn in: 28 from the Federation, 14 from the RS. The session was adjourned almost immediately, as there had been no agreement on electing the speaker or the Council of Ministers.

One of the MPs is Sefer Halilovic, retired general and wartime chief of staff for the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, established by the Izetbegovic regime in 1992. Before that, Halilovic was the military commander of the Patriotic League, a Muslim militia organization supporting Izetbegovic’s drive for independence.

As part of a series of interviews conducted with high-ranking ARBH officers, shown on Federal TV for the past month, Halilovic has spoken in detail about his role in the early days of the war, including disagreements with Izetbegovic and people around him. Not surprisingly, he credits the Patriotic League with a key role in “defense from genocidal aggression from Serbia,” while accusing Izetbegovic’s party cronies of “betraying the Bosniak people.”

Halilovic’s tale, pitting him and a faction of the Bosnian Muslim “patriots” against both the “genocidal Serbian aggressors” and “back-stabbing traitors” in the SDA party, is falling on fertile ground among the Bosnian Muslims. Persistent cronyism, corruption, venality, and incompetence have soured many on the SDA, but Izetbegovic’s historical and political framework of the Bosnian conflict – as a war of Serbian aggression and genocide against the peaceful, defenseless Muslims, which the West observed but did not intervene until much too late – remains absolutely dominant among them.

As a result, in today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Muslims overwhelmingly believe the Dayton agreement shortchanged them and “rewarded genocide,” demanding its revision and establishment of a centralized state in which they would be dominant (on account of their plurality). This idea is as unacceptable to Serbs and Croats today as it was in 1992, and attempts to impose it can only lead to renewed bloodshed. By nurturing the fiction about “back-stabbing and betrayal,” Sefer Halilovic is basically laying the groundwork for more young Bosnian Muslims to become “shaheed,” as most of the 28,000 soldiers who died in the last war are labeled.

Consider just this quote:

“There is no Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina today, unfortunately. Bosniaks are in one big Srebrenica … only 25 percent of Bosnian territory. The rest is practically Serbia and Croatia.” (from the November 12 show)

Givers and Takers

Many soldiers that Halilovic and his successors sent in human waves into a hail of shot and shell stayed alive, but at a great cost. Tens of thousands of people in Bosnia today are missing limbs because of shrapnel injuries or land mines. Some of them defy that disability by playing Paralympic sports – such as the men of Spid, a Sarajevo-based sitting volleyball club.

The men of Spid have traveled to tournaments in ordinary buses they chartered; because most buses in Bosnia still lack wheelchair-accessible technology, this involves a fair bit of discomfort. Earlier this year, the club received a donation from the EU: two handicap-accessible vans.

Unfortunately, Bosnia’s legislation demands that they pay the import tariffs and VAT for the donation, for a total cost of some 14,000 Bosnian marks (KM) – almost $10,000. The club does not have that kind of money. The 17 percent VAT established this year, as part of centralization reforms, was supposed to provide funds for social welfare programs. One should ask the men of Spid how that has turned out.

Humanity Prevails

Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina, got its name from an old Ottoman bridge spanning the churning waters of the river Neretva. During the war, its Serbs were expelled, while Muslims and Croats battled over the city, reducing large portions of it to rubble.

The Old Bridge, destroyed by Croat artillery, was restored in 2004. But the city remains divided into Muslim and Croat halves, separated by an invisible wall of hatred.

One resident of Mostar, a young man named Sanel Hrnic, was badly injured earlier this year in a car crash. He is no longer comatose but needs therapy soon if he is to regain higher brain functions. His parents can’t afford the treatment. Sanel is Muslim.

His plight drew the attention of Nada Zovko, who owns a small business. She launched a campaign “Today we work for Sanel”: on Nov. 21, every participating business in Mostar would donate one day’s worth of proceeds to Sanel’s therapy fund. Zovko is a Croat.

Following Zovko’s appeal, residents of Mostar, regardless of their ethnicity, joined together to help a young man recover his life. Countless attempts by politicians, both domestic and foreign, to bring about this sort of unity have failed over the years. Once politics was removed from the equation, though, divisions disappeared. Perhaps that is a lesson for Bosnia as a whole.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.