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Two Anniversaries, Two Legacies -- Which Will Bosnia Choose?

  • Gordana Knezevic

A cemetery for those who died in the siege of Sarajevo, built on a football pitch in front of the Zetra Olympic hall in Sarajevo (file photo)

A cemetery for those who died in the siege of Sarajevo, built on a football pitch in front of the Zetra Olympic hall in Sarajevo (file photo)

In Sarajevo, February is not the shortest month. At least it doesn't seem that way. There are simply too many anniversaries to honor, mourn, or celebrate.

It's been 25 years since the 1984 Winter Olympics, when for a fleeting moment the entire city was transformed into the world's sports capital. That February, every citizen of Sarajevo seemingly believed he or she had personally contributed to each medal won in the giant slalom, bobsled, or ski jump, or simply felt immeasurable pride at being a perfect host.

Eight years later, Sarajevo was back in the world's headlines when it was attacked by Serbian artillery forces. One of the worst massacres of the war that ensued took place on February 5, 1994, when a single shell killed more than 60 people and severely wounded 200 more in what came to be known as the Markale market massacre. February 5 was declared a day of remembrance for victims of the war, including 12,000 Sarajevans, many of whom are buried at former Olympic sites hastily converted to graveyards during the conflict.

The defense of Sarajevo was heroic. People of different ethnic backgrounds fought side by side to protect their right to live together -- only to see their country divided, once the war was over, into an ethnically identified Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and a Muslim-Croat Federation.

Undoing Dayton?

The U.S.-brokered Dayton peace agreement in 1995 was praised for forcing all sides to the table to end nearly 3 1/2 years of fighting. But it was a shotgun wedding that failed to deliver the constitutional framework needed for Bosnia's future.

A Sarajevan family mourns a victim of the city's February 1994 marketplace massacre. The shelling, which killed 68 people, did not discriminate between Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats.
One of Dayton's legacies is the Office of the High Representative, an international post established to supervise the postwar normalization. Since December 1995, the world has sent six of its most prominent diplomats to babysit the fragile Bosnian peace. The post came with almost unlimited powers. But each time, the high representative left Bosnia frustrated at his inability to move the country forward, toward real stability.

The latest such case is High Representative Miroslav Lajcak, who is leaving in favor of a post as Slovak foreign minister. Lajcak signaled his intention to leave in late January; his successor has yet to be named. Local political leaders, reasoning that Lajcak is unlikely to use his final weeks in office to play disciplinarian, have seized on this window of opportunity, using the current power vacuum to propose that Bosnia be divided into four separate regions.

Despite the locals' protestations that the plan would create "sustainable economic units," this is hardly regionalism as it is understood in Europe. Rather, it is a throwback to the early 1990s, when Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic presented a scheme to divide Bosnia into four cantons -- one Serb, one Croat, and one Muslim, with Sarajevo thrown in as a separate entity to convince the international community the division was truly administrative in nature, and not a split along ethnic lines.

In the months leading up to the war, the leaders of Bosnia's three national parties secretly drew and redrew the maps in an attempt to formalize Karadzic's proposal. Many of those maps ended up in the dustbin; but psychologically they laid the groundwork for the ethnic cleansing that followed.

Old Goals

Once again, the maps are being privately redrawn. History does not repeat itself, and the current four-unit proposal does not mean Bosnia is once again teetering on the brink of war. If anything, the leaders of the three major national parties believe the time has come to achieve their wartime goals -- albeit through peaceful means.

Even Dayton, the treaty that brought peace to Bosnia, has become a weapon in the mounting tensions. It has been nearly 14 years since the ink dried in Paris, but Bosnia's national leaders have yet to comply with one of its basic demands -- that they sit together and produce an official constitution. Without that step, Bosnia cannot move ahead on European integration or NATO membership.

But attempts to introduce a new constitution have failed repeatedly. When a preliminary document was finally cobbled together in 2007, Haris Silajdzic, the Bosniak member of the country's tripartite presidency, blocked the deal, saying it didn't go far enough. In truth, he has called for the dissolution of Republika Srpska, and has no inherent interest in carrying out Dayton to the letter. (Silajdzic was one of the key Bosniak negotiators in the Dayton talks but is now its chief critic inside the Muslim-Croat Federation.)

What has been completely lost in Bosnia is a sense of reality. Each ethnic group clings to its own narrative of the recent past.
Similarly, Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Republika Srpska, have no personal stake in seeing a constitution approved. Officials in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, are pushing for secession from the Muslim-Croat Federation, and have traditionally refused to countenance the three-party negotiations prescribed by Dayton.

Dodik has hired an American law firm to advise his government on any further negotiations with the international community and on other legal issues. As Russia's money and Belgrade's influence in the region grow, Dodik is increasingly flexing his muscles. He is ready to use any legal loophole or marketing trick to block constitutional changes.

In Dodik's view, the future of Republika Srpska is safe -- it is Bosnia that will not last. His arrogance is not simply poor manners. It is an intentional jibe meant to annoy his political partners and force Muslim and Croat leaders to ask for an ethnic "divorce" -- a division of the country along ethnic lines.

New Element

To add to the turmoil, the religious head of Bosnia's Islamic community, Mustafa Ceric, last week defended the country's Wahabbist movement during Friday prayers. He rejected any division between "old" and "new" Muslims, invoking specters of "Islamophobia" and "genocide" that haunt all of Bosnia's Muslims.

The appearance of religion in an already tumultuous ethnic debate is a bad sign. And as long as politicians hold the people of Bosnia hostage to their ethnic or religious identities, no one will be asking the questions that really matter: Why are more than 40 percent of Bosnians unemployed? What is the average salary still below $600? What has happened to the millions of dollars and foreign aid that has poured into the country since the end of the war? Why have reforms aimed at European integration not been introduced?

What has been completely lost in Bosnia is a sense of reality. Each ethnic group clings to its own narrative of the recent past. Most Muslims consider Republika Srpska an entity created through genocide. Many inhabitants of Republika Srpska, meanwhile, deny that events like the Markale massacre ever happened.

Nationalism in Bosnia is a strong drug that keeps the country deeply divided.

Independent voices are not being heard.

Where is the global city of Sarajevo that hosted the Olympic Games?

Gordana Knezevic is director of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Services. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Sarajevo's Brightest Days

For a fleeting moment 25 years ago, the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo transformed the city into the international sporting capital of the world. Just a few years later, the region would be engulfed in war and Sarajevo would never be the same. Video courtesy of TV Liberty. Play

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