Sorrow’s Home

SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA – Winter came early this year in the Balkans mountains; the first snow of the season has come and gone, leaving the streets of the capital a soggy mess. As late as last week, Sarajevo’s thousands of cafés still had their summer gardens set up, as a spell of warm weather extended into early October. All through the past weekend, café owners grudgingly packed away their parasols and lawn chairs, cursing the weather for eating into their profits.

The weather, however, had no perceivable effect on Bosnia’s continuing political crisis. Twelve years after the Dayton accords ended the brutal civil war, the country is no closer to true peace. As the U.S. and EU continue seeking to transform Bosnia-Herzegovina into a modern, centralized state, the country’s ethnic communities continue to fight for a better position under such an arrangement.

Bosnia’s Muslim community, Slavs whose ancestors embraced Islam during the long centuries of Ottoman rule, are the largest group in the country, and their leading political parties therefore advocate a "citizen state" with outright majority rule. The Serbs, who make up over a third of the population, reject this outright and seek to preserve the Dayton model that recognized their right to a territorial autonomy under a weak central government. The dwindling Croat population, which is federated with the Muslims under a 1994 treaty arranged by Washington, is almost entirely marginalized. The only place their votes count, ironically, is neighboring Croatia; most Bosnian Croats have Croatian citizenship, and their vote will most likely prove crucial in the upcoming Croatian elections.

Though officially sovereign and independent, with a constitution and elected governments, Bosnia also has an international viceroy, a "High Representative" of the countries that co-signed the Dayton treaty (U.S., UK, France, Germany, Italy and Russia), with near-absolute power. The current viceroy, Slovakia’s Miroslav Lajcak, has just availed himself of that power; on October 19, he issued a decree changing the voting procedures in the country’s parliament and cabinet. The decision drew a storm of protests from the Serbs, and escalated the ongoing political crisis.

Zero-Sum Politics

Lajcak’s October 19 decree lowered the quorum requirements in both the legislature and the cabinet, making it easier – in theory – to pass laws and make decisions concerning their implementation. Under the old system, any decision required the consent of a majority from each entity (the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic), allowing the Bosnian Serbs to effectively veto any law they disagreed with simply by not showing up.

Interestingly enough, this system was put into place in 2000, by one of Lajcak’s predecessors, as a way to improve decision-making within the central government.

Predictably, Lajcak’s measures received statements of support from the U.S. and UK ambassadors, as well as Muslim politicians. Croat leaders appeared resigned – as this had no bearing whatsoever on their situation – while the Serbs, predictably, erupted into a storm of protests. The Serb Republic’s Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, even threatened wholesale resignations of his MPs and ministers from the central government, and a boycott of state institutions at one point. By October 22, however, Dodik had backpedaled on some of his rhetoric, following a meeting with Lajcak.

Serbs’ fussing may be a substantial blunder. No viceroy has ever rescinded his own decree, and it is unlikely Lajcak will be the first to do so. Furthermore, well-informed analysts pointed out privately, Lajcak’s decision is remarkably similar to the constitutional reform Dodik and other Serb politicians voluntarily accepted in April 2006, only to see it torpedoed by Muslim nationalist Haris Silajdzic. Someone with more political savvy could have spun Lajcak’s decision as a reassertion of the April Reforms, rubbed it in Silajdzic’s face, and turned an apparent setback into a victory. As it is, Muslim nationalists now get to claim a victory on account of the same reforms they originally rejected, simply because they are perceived as a defeat for the Serbs. In Bosnia, more so than elsewhere, politics is a zero-sum game.

Junior’s Airbrush

October 19 was also the anniversary of the death of Alija Izetbegovic, Islamic revolutionary and wartime leader of the Bosnian Muslims. The occasion was marked by the opening of the Alija Izetbegovic Museum, located in two towers of Sarajevo’s old Ottoman citadel. Izetbegovic’s son Bakir was the driving force behind the museum, which is reflected in the choice of artifacts and documents on exhibit. Although the current leader of Izetbegovic’s SDA party, Sulejman Tihic, called it a "museum of truth," it is in fact an airbrushed and romanticized account of Bosnia’s recent history, arranged by Izetbegovic Jr. There is no mention in the museum of Izetbegovic’s fellow party founders, or his wartime partners in government. Anyone who fell out of the Leader’s graces was simply airbrushed from history.

Columnist Ahmed Buric of the daily Oslobodjenje noted the phenomenon in an October 23 op-ed, openly comparing this to Stalin’s infamous doctoring of Communist history. Buric also noted that "Izetbegovic’s dream was a Bosnia in which everyone would be in the service of a handful of strong Muslim families." Those families are still gathered around Bakir Izetbegovic, and his faction within the SDA.

Return of the General

One of those airbrushed from history by Izetbegovic Jr. was Sefer Halilovic, former Yugoslav Army officer who began organizing Izetbegovic’s party militia in 1991 and in 1992 became the first Chief of Staff of the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina (ARBiH). In 1993, Halilovic fell out with elements of Izetbegovic’s government (perhaps even the Leader himself), survived an assassination attempt, and was cashiered on trumped-up charges of conspiracy to launch a coup.

In 2001, the Hague Inquisition charged Halilovic with complicity in war crimes against Croat POWs in Herzegovina, on grounds of "command responsibility." He was initially acquitted, and the acquittal was confirmed last week by the Inquisition’s Appeals Chamber. Halilovic’s acquittal was quickly hailed as a wholesale exoneration of the entire Bosnian Army; for even though the general is still out of grace with the ruling Muslim nationalist establishment, his successor, Rasim Delic, is currently on trial for war crimes as well, and the Inquisition has a much stronger case against him.

However, for all his bitterness towards the people who framed him, tried to kill him, and erased him from history books, Halilovic remains loyal to Izetbegovic’s notion of a "multi-ethnic Bosnia," and considers his indictment a product of "Islamophobia" following the events of 9/11.

Foreign Affairs

For most of the past seven years, Serbia could boast it had the most embarrassing, inept, quisling-minded foreign ministers in the Balkans. Now, however, that title has passed to Bosnia. It is hard to match the utter wretchedness of Bosnia’s Sven Alkalaj, against whose antics even the disgraceful Goran Svilanovic and Vuk Draskovic seem as rank amateurs.

Alkalaj, who got the job thanks to Muslim member of the Bosnian presidency Haris Silajdzic, acts as his party boss’s personal envoy, rather than a representative of his country. Then again, what exactly is his country? Although he publicly declares himself a Jew, Alkalaj received Croatian citizenship earlier this year, citing his Croat heritage as grounds of eligibility. Furthermore, he is also a U.S. permanent resident. Confusion as to Alkalaj’s loyalties is therefore understandable.

What of his ability? One of Bosnia’s burning priorities at this moment is to stop Croatia’s efforts to construct a highway bridge between the mainland and Peljesac peninsula. The bridge would block access to Bosnia’s only seaport, whose status also remains disputed with Croatia. Alkalaj made sure to publicize that he was doing everything he could to stop the bridge project. The result? Construction on the bridge began on October 24.

Event Horizon

For all its natural beauty, good food and rich cultural heritage, Bosnia is a country in deep trouble. Despite the glittering shops and cafés, the economy is stagnant, burdened by heavy taxation and crushing – and often conflicting – regulations. Corruption and organized crime are rampant, with many political parties running their own extortion rackets. There is no desire among the country’s ethnic groups to reach a peaceful modus vivendi. So long as there are ethnic tensions, but outright warfare is prevented by international presence, politicians are more than happy to exploit the conflict to gain power and plunder. Having an international viceroy with absolute power means there is no need for a domestic compromise, and politics has become an art of manipulating the Empire to one’s advantage.

Post-Communist transition, globalization, environmental challenges, education, corruption, crime, transportation, ethnic conflict – Bosnia is beset by all of those problems, as well as many others imported from both East (militant Islam, for one) and West (welfare statism, political correctness), as it became a playground for outside powers, ranging from the American Empire and the bumbling EU to the Islamic movements. Given that this is a small country with barely four million people, that is a lot of problems in a very small space.

Any political scientist worth his or her salt can see on Bosnia’s example the failure of the current political paradigm. It is blindingly obvious that the way out of Bosnia’s black hole is to abandon the statist concept altogether, and replace it with a system in which the road to wealth would be commerce, not coercion. There isn’t a single sign on the event horizon that anyone is seriously contemplating such a solution, though.

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.