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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Reaching A Breaking Point Over Srebrenica

By T.K. Vogel Can Bosnia leave its bloody past behind? (epa) July 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It may be Srebrenica's special misfortune that to the people interested in it, it has been far more than just a small town in eastern Bosnia. Its fall in July 1995 was a great military triumph for the Bosnian Serbs, but the systematic killing of thousands of Muslim males that followed forever tainted the Serbian project of creating a separate ethnic homeland by breaking up Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Srebrenica's fall signaled the end of the United Nations' ill-fated humanitarian mission in Bosnia. It also prompted the United States to come up with a strategy for a military and diplomatic endgame in Bosnia, which a few months later produced the Dayton peace accords. The Dayton accords gave the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, far-reaching autonomy and confirmed its hold over Srebrenica.

Today, many Bosnians -- though not, on the whole, the country's Serbs -- share the growing concern among international policymakers that the constitution that came as part of Dayton has outlived its usefulness. Its complex ethnic quotas and veto points have greatly complicated the country's recovery and continue to prevent closer ties with the European Union.

The demands of long-term development militate against Bosnia's division into ethnic self-rule areas -- the Republika Srpska and the 10 cantons that make up the country's other half (the confusingly named "Federation").

Bosnia's Serbian politicians, however, are unanimous in their rejection of further integration. Sensing that their project of abolishing the entity system is doomed to failure, some Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) leaders have now seized on Srebrenica as a tool to force change. Once again, Srebrenica is far more than just a small town in eastern Bosnia.

Constitutional Wrangling

The most recent campaign to scrap the entities was prompted by a judgment in February, in which the International Court of Justice (ICJ) confirmed that the 1995 killings at Srebrenica did in fact constitute genocide.

The Bosniak representative on Bosnia's three-member Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, promptly seized on that judgment to lend weight to his efforts to force Bosnia's international overseers to intervene in the ongoing struggle over Bosnia's domestic setup. He supported, and some observers say inspired, calls by Srebrenica's Bosniak returnees that Srebrenica be removed from Republika Srpska jurisdiction, knowing full well that this was a nonstarter. The only concession the movement could extract from the Bosnian Serb leadership was a pledge to turn Srebrenica into a special economic development zone, which is unlikely to have a tangible impact anytime soon.

Silajdzic is unlikely to succeed in breaking up the Republika Srpska (RFE/RL file photo)

Persuading the international community to impose a solution is the last hope of those who, like Silajdzic, reject incremental change and instead want a completely new, nonethnic system. In April 2006, Silajdzic had already engineered the defeat of constitutional amendments drafted with U.S. assistance.

To most Serbs, constitutional reform is simply code for removing protections for their community, above all territorial self-rule, and thus exposing them to domination by the Bosniaks (a plurality, though not a majority in the country).

This sentiment is skillfully exploited, and fanned, by Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik. Dodik has openly said that he would rather give up closer ties with the EU than the Bosnian Serbs' police. (Police reform remains the main obstacle to the conclusion of a preaccession deal with Brussels.) Together, Dodik and Silajdzic have led Bosnia into complete paralysis.

All of this, of course, has very little to do with Srebrenica, the small town in eastern Bosnia. Emir Suljagic, a Vienna-based journalist and analyst of Bosnian affairs, wrote in an e-mail message, "I don't think that to Silajdzic and others it matters whether it is Srebrenica or not, they would do the same thing with Brcko or Prijedor if [these towns] had what they thought they need to further their agenda." Brcko and Prijedor were also the scene of "ethnic cleansing" on a mass scale during the war, though not at the same level as Srebrenica.

Finding A Way Out

One good thing that might still emerge from the bickering is a renewed attempt to get rid of officials, especially in the police, who might have been involved in war crimes, a key grievance of the dozens of Srebrenicans currently camping out in Sarajevo in protest over their living conditions.

The international community is sympathetic to some of the protesters' demands. After its meeting in Sarajevo on June 18-19, the Peace Implementation Council -- a consortium of international governments and organizations that oversees peace efforts in Bosnia -- called on Bosnia's leadership to undertake a concerted effort to improve the situation in Srebrenica. It welcomed commitments by the authorities to deal with officials whose names appear on a list of people suspected of involvement in war crimes. "Survivors should not have to encounter perpetrators of war crimes in government positions," the council said in a statement, with reassuring common sense.

But the statement drew a line in the sand by explicitly rejecting Silajdzic's argument that the ICJ ruling somehow implied an obligation to abolish the Republika Srpska. It even pointed out, none too subtly, that the international community "retains the necessary instruments to counter destructive tendencies." (The international high representative has the authority to dismiss elected officials.) Indeed, there is almost no prospect of any part of Silajdzic's agenda, with which many Bosniaks sympathize, becoming reality.

Given Dodik's power over his constituents, the intensity of Serbian sentiment, and the reluctance of the international community to reopen issues that have been settled at Dayton, there is little chance that Silajdzic will achieve his constitutional agenda.

Ending The Politics Of Parochialism

Silajdzic will no doubt continue to make symbolic use of the Srebrenica issue. He has every right to express his view that the Bosnian Serb entity ought to go, or that it should at the very least relinquish Srebrenica, views that are most probably shared by a majority of Bosniaks and many Croats.

As one of three co-presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, he is not simply a Bosniak representative, but also bears a constitutional responsibility for the future of the entire country and all its citizens. That future is not served by his continued insistence on something that is clearly unattainable through democratic means.

Srebrenica will stay part of the Republika Srpska, and the Republika Srpska will stay part of Bosnia, and Bosnia will continue to be divided. This is the basic point of departure for any realistic attempt to improve conditions in the country. It is also a reflection of social and political reality in the country.

The main question is what specific form this division will take. Whereas the current constitution encourages it, new mechanisms should be found to dampen the politics of parochialism.

Reforming Bosnia's Constitution has always been fraught with difficulties and dilemmas. Should the charter be revised now, in which case it would have to acknowledge the continued existence of the Republika Srpska, or would it be better to wait longer in the hope that divisive agendas may lose their popular appeal? Almost 12 years after the end of the war, the answer seems clear, despite any philosophical misgivings one might reasonably entertain with regard to the country's ethnicized setup.

In the end, what truly matters is that the Dayton constitution has outlived its usefulness: the built-in incentives for parochialism hinder progress on the way to Europe, the only real perspective for long-term development. Dodik and Silajdzic owe it to their constituents to recognize this.

Srebrenica, meanwhile, has to come to terms with the traumatic events of 1995. In addition, however, it is also just a small town in eastern Bosnia whose depressed living conditions need urgent and tangible improvement.

(T.K. Vogel is a writer on Balkan affairs and author of a forthcoming study on ethnic cleansing.)

While The World Was Sleeping

While The World Was Sleeping
Sarajevo residents fetch water amid war debris in July 1993(AFP)

THREE LONG YEARS: RFE/RL correspondent Vlado Azinovic has also written a book entitled "While The World Was Sleeping," which documents the failure of the international community to respond promptly to the civilian tragedies of the Bosnian War. The book and the audio reports based on it that were produced by RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service are available online in Bosnian.