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A Day Of Reckoning For Bosnia?

  • Gordana Knezevic

A Bosnian military regiment has been caught in an ethnically charged tug-of-war over how to regard that Balkan country's recent history and what that means for its increasingly fractured present.

The 3rd Infantry Regiment's attendance at a public ceremony in Banja Luka is at the heart of a dispute between Bosnia's central authorities in Sarajevo and the government of Republika Srpska, the predominantly Serbian entity that along with the Muslim-Croat federation composes Bosnia.

Tensions have been rising since November 2015, when the Bosnian Constitutional Court ruled that any official commemoration of January 9 as Republika Srpska statehood day was unconstitutional; they have been stoked nearly continuously ever since as Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik insisted on holding a referendum on the issue -- also declared illegal.

The fact that the army has become embroiled in the standoff further raises the stakes between Banja Luka and Sarajevo.

On January 8, wreaths were laid at a memorial for soldiers of Republika Srpska who lost their lives in the 1992-95 war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

At the same event, the current president of the three-member Bosnian Presidency, Mladen Ivanic, used -- some would say misused -- his position to order the 3rd Infantry Regiment to attend the statehood-day ceremony the following day in Banja Luka. So on January 9, the regiment took part in a short ceremony on Banja Luka's main square and reported to Ivanic before withdrawing and avoiding participation in the parade.

It might seem simple enough. But this is the Balkans, where few things are ever as simple as they appear.

Polarized Memories

The unification of the Bosnian armed forces in 2006 -- effectively amalgamating what had been two warring sides only a decade before -- has been one of the success stories of post-Dayton Bosnia. Troops who had spent almost four years shooting at one another came together to form a unified military structure. Since then, several ethnically mixed Bosnian units have served in international missions.

Both Bosnian entities -- Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation -- are entitled to use military regiments in public ceremonies.

However, January 9 is a day that evokes highly polarized memories. It not only coincides with an Orthodox religious holiday, but also marks the day when a group of renegade Bosnian Serb politicians -- many of them later convicted of war crimes -- proposed the division of the country along ethnic lines in a move that paved the way to war. Because that date is seen as discriminatory against other ethnic groups, mainly minority Croats and Muslims who also live in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Constitutional Court demanded that Republika Srpska pick another day to mark its foundation.

Republika Srpska President Dodik nevertheless ignored the court and organized a referendum on the issue -- presumably so the choice of January 9 could be presented as the will of the people -- throwing down the gauntlet to the authorities in Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Defense Ministry initially approved the use of the regiment in the events on January 8 but not its participation in the parade of January 9. However, the ministry issued a total ban on the use of Bosnian military forces in either event following a statement from NATO headquarters in Sarajevo.

Brigadier General Giselle Wilz, NATO Headquarters commander, rejected the use of any part of Bosnia's armed forces in the Banja Luka celebrations. NATO Headquarters made it clear that the presence of even a single Bosnian soldier in Banja Luka on January 9 would constitute a violation of the Bosnian Constitution as well as the Dayton accords, which all of the country's soldiers have sworn to respect.

Yet despite the looming threat of disciplinary proceedings and discharge, Dodik had urged the soldiers to attend, saying, "We will celebrate Republika Srpska statehood day, and I am convinced that the members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment will be present at Krajina Square, which no one has a right to deny them, and Republika Srpska stands behind their decision [to attend.]."

Dodik's closest ally, Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic, has questioned why NATO's pronouncement should worry anyone in Bosnia, given that the country is neither a member nor a prospective member of the alliance. The NATO mission in Bosnia is to assist with defense reforms, and its role is defined within the Dayton peace deal.

'At The Point Of A Sword'

Republika Srpska as it exists today -- an autonomous entity within Bosnia -- was formally established and recognized internationally only with the advent of the Dayton accords, signed in December 1995.

What took place on January 9, 1992 -- and which Dodik appears intent on celebrating today -- was an illegal proclamation by a so-called republic of Bosnian Serbs with Radovan Karadzic as its first president. Speaking at the time, Karadzic vowed that no one would separate Bosnia from Yugoslavia and that Pale -- which would serve as his wartime headquarters, 20 kilometers north of Sarajevo -- would forever be part of Yugoslavia.

After years in hiding, Karadzic was extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague in July 2008. Last year, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide.

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (file photo)

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (file photo)

​Another prominent speaker at that notorious 1992 gathering was Radoslav Brdjanin. Brdjanin advised Muslims and Croats to form their own breakaway assemblies and abandon the Bosnian parliament, as Bosnian Serbs had just done. Of the Muslims, he also said: "They are so blinded by their desire to have their own state that they would have it even if it only stretched as far as Trebevic Mountain [near Sarajevo]. They do not want to stay in a common state that extends to Moscow." Brdjanin was sentenced to 32 years in prison for crimes committed during the war, and is serving his sentence in Denmark.

The January 1992 meeting, which took place at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn hotel, is also remembered for the threatening language used by Biljana Plavsic, a member of the Serbian Democratic Party who would become a leader of the self-proclaimed, pro-Belgrade Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She said at the time: "All those trying to get international recognition for Bosnia and Herzegovina should know that no state is made at a negotiating table. States are made at the point of a sword."

Plavsic was indicted to the ICTY in 2001. There, she agreed a plea bargain under which she became the only Bosnian Serb official to have admitted guilt for war crimes. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Plavsic was released in 2009 after serving two-thirds of her sentence.

The declaration of January 9, 1992, was thus a crucial and dramatic step toward the bloody conflict that began less than three months later in Sarajevo. It is a symbolically charged date that marked a prelude to war and the ethnic cleansing that followed.

Over the past 15 months, it has also turned into a cause for which Dodik has chosen to challenge the authority of the Bosnian Constitutional Court -- and which some have chosen to celebrate in Banja Luka.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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