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Yugoslavia: Kostunica Remarks Unleash Wave Of Criticism At Home And Abroad

  • Jolyon Naegele

An off-the-cuff remark by Vojislav Kostunica at a recent campaign stop in Serbia has unleashed a wave of criticism of the Yugoslav president in Serbia and Bosnia. As RFE/RL reports, Kostunica expressed the hope that one day Serbs in Bosnia and Serbia will live again in the same state.

Prague, 13 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica seemed to speak from the heart during a campaign stop last Saturday in the Serbian town of Mali Zvornik on the Drina River border with Bosnia, but his remarks stirred emotions of their own from Belgrade to Brussels.

In the incident, Kostunica, the front-runner in Serbian presidential elections set for 29 September, was asked by a member of the crowd how he views the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska. Kostunica seized the opportunity to speak his mind. "I can tell you that I'm watching Republika Srpska the whole time, as a member of the family which is dear and close to me, temporarily separated, but always ours, in our hearts," Kostunica said.

Kostunica soon departed for New York to attend 11 September anniversary ceremonies and to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. So it was left to his campaign chief, the deputy chairman of his Democratic Party of Serbia, Dragan Marsicanin, to explain what Kostunica had meant.

After initially declining to comment, Marsicanin tried to play down the significance of the remarks, but that only made matters worse. "It could be Serbia's objective as some sort of goal or ideal that one strives for, as East and West Germany strove once to be united, so [the unity of Serb lands] is in the long-term interest of the Serbian nation. If and when this will be realized is another question," Marsicanin said.

Within hours, Marsicanin, along with Kostunica, had become the target of criticism in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Brussels.

The international community, having spent the past seven years trying to nurture a single Bosnian state and overcome years of separatist nationalism, did not welcome Kostunica's comments, which in effect called for an end to a single Bosnian state.

European Union foreign-policy and security chief, Javier Solana, said yesterday that "the future for Bosnia and Herzegovina lies in a unified and stable state, within its internationally recognized borders.... This will be a state based on democracy, rule of law, and prosperity."

Solana added that Bosnia's future "will, however, not be decided in Brussels, Belgrade, or Zagreb. That is the responsibility of the citizens of Bosnia."

In Sarajevo, Julian Braithwaite, the spokesman of the international community's high representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, denounced Marsicanin but stopped short, apparently for diplomatic reasons, of criticizing Kostunica directly. "We consider this to be the worst form of cheap and irresponsible electioneering," Ashdown said.

Braithwaite pointed out that Kostunica on a recent visit to Sarajevo foreswore all Serbian territorial claims toward Bosnia.

The criticism is perhaps sharpened due to imminent elections, not only the Serbian presidential elections at the end of the month but also Bosnia's presidential elections on 5 October. Serbia may still hold early parliamentary elections later this year. Nevertheless, much of the criticism has come from individuals not running for office but rather monitoring political developments.

Two Belgrade-based human rights groups, the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia and the Humanitarian Law Center, denounced the remarks by Kostunica and Marsicanin as "impermissible." The two nongovernmental organizations described the remarks as "a throwback to the [former Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic era."

In a joint statement, the two groups said called the remarks "contrary to the Dayton accords" and said they "confirm the perpetuation of the policies of Slobodan Milosevic and [Bosnian Serb wartime leader] Radovan Karadzic." "The statements are a warning that some circles of the Serb political elite have not yet renounced the concept of a Greater Serbia," the statement read.

A member of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindic's cabinet, Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic, chided but also defended Kostunica. Covic said Serbia should never again let itself be the generator of crises in the region. "The Dayton agreement must be the foundation. These are questions of relations of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Serbia with Bosnia-Herzegovina, because that is how it is said. But I know it has been pinned on [Kostunica] and taken out of context," Covic said.

Covic warned against letting the dispute spiral out of control, saying "one myth leads to another and can lead to renewed conflict."

Aleksandar Nenadovic is a member of the Forum for International Relations, a Belgrade-based foreign-policy think tank. He said that, although Kostunica's remarks should be seen in the light of the election campaign, they nevertheless threaten to derail Serbia's political progress. "I'm afraid that the manner in which the election campaign is currently being conducted, the way that those who are likely to win the elections say they will solve issues, does not bode well and will result in the turning away from reforms and democratic change, which are only just starting," Nenadovic said.

Bosnia's ambassador in Belgrade, Zeljko Komsic, said he has delivered two formal protests to Yugoslav authorities about Kostunica's and Marsicanin's remarks but has yet to receive an official response.

Bosnian political leaders were equally incensed. The head of Bosnia's Presidency, Beriz Belkic, said, "I can say that this is [like poking] a finger in the eye of the whole relationship, which over the last few years we have been really building with Yugoslavia through interstate consultations, and a bilateral agreement and so on."

But the Serbian member of Bosnia's Presidency, Zivko Radisic, took a more defensive stand, arguing that the remarks do not constitute a change in the status quo. "I know one thing, that the Bosnia-Herzegovina established by Dayton of two entities, of three equal constituent nations, is not now nor has it been in question. On the other hand, I believe there is no dispute over the strategic, current and long-term interests of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or Bosnia-Herzegovina, expressed in their good neighborly, bilateral relations," Radisic said.

Nevertheless, former Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic, the presidential candidate of the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, is not convinced. "[Kostunica's] long-term goal is to take territory from Bosnia and Herzegovina. We know how it is done. He knows that this is to threaten the peace through [claims of] new territories and, by this, take a step toward declaring war," Silajdzic said.

The ruling Socialist Party of Republika Srpska responded that it is "extremely immoral" of Silajdzic to accuse Kostunica of taking a step toward war.

For his part, Kostunica was aware of the controversy he had unleashed. In his address to the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday, he sought to disperse concern that he is seeking a Greater Serbia, noting the European Union's assistance in redefining the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro in a future common state while accelerating the common state's integration with the rest of Europe. "Our success requires the success of our neighbors. When it comes to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Yugoslavia is a fervent advocate of full implementation of the [1997] Dayton accords. In fact, we are a guarantor of these accords. As in all other cases, our goal is to open borders, not to change them. We want to promote the flow of people and goods, thus restoring the broken ties that bond us to each other," Kostunica said.

Kostunica also told the General Assembly that Yugoslavia, in cooperation with Croatia and Bosnia, "will continue to do its part in establishing the trust and cooperation between our three states that will benefit our citizens."

In a subsequent interview yesterday with the official Yugoslav news agency Tanjug, Kostunica accused Bosnian officials of "wrongfully and maliciously misinterpreting" his remarks in Mali Zvornik. "My statement was aimed at global efforts of integration, nothing beyond that," Kostunica said, adding that he was speaking out of concern for the "destiny of divided families, divided nations."