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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Serbs Protest Imposed Reforms, But Is It Smoke Or Fire?

A Bosnian Serb holds a banner saying "Lajcak is a Bosnian Muslim lobbyist" at a protest in Pale on October 29 (AFP) October 30, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The Bosnian Serbs' parliament voted overwhelmingly today to condemn administrative reforms introduced on October 19 by the international community's high representative as contravening the 1995 Dayton peace agreements, which ended the 1992-95 conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The 12-point parliamentary resolution also called for sharply curbing Miroslav Lajcak's powers.

On October 29, the Serbian Movement of Nongovernmental Organizations (Spona) organized demonstrations of several thousand people across the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity, against the Slovak diplomat's reforms. In addition to carefully printed signs, some of the protesters in Banja Luka carried portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lajcak's reforms are aimed at speeding up the decision-making process in the Bosnian government and parliament and invigorating the reform effort. The measures are also designed to stop politicians from blocking the functioning of institutions by not showing up. His move comes shortly before two potentially important events: the October 31 meeting of the Peace Implementation Council, the large international grouping that oversees Bosnia's postwar recovery and which appointed Lajcak; and the publication in early November of the EU's latest annual report on Bosnia's progress.

Blocking EU Membership

The high representative introduced the changes in response to the repeated failure of Bosnian politicians to agree on police reform, which is the main obstacle to launching a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU, which has otherwise been ready since 2006. The SAA is the first step toward EU membership and the possible easing of visa requirements for travel to EU member states, which is of central importance to most ordinary Bosnians. Furthermore, many Bosnians see EU membership as essential for their country's economic development.

On October 28, Bosnian Muslim, Croat, and Serb leaders agreed in principle on a police reform, which would meet EU requirements for a single force, financed from the central budget and ostensibly free of political interference. Currently, the two entities -- the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation -- each have their own force, which many consider to be successors to the often shadowy security bodies that date from the war over a decade ago. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said on October 28 that "we agreed that a reformed police force must reflect the constitution. This is an attempt to unblock the process of EU integration." After 30 days, the leaders will meet again to discuss constitutional reform and the "details" of establishing a "functional, multiethnic, and professional police force," as Dodik put it.

But the devil is in those details. At stake are the power relationships between the weak central authorities on the one hand and the two entities, especially the Republika Srpska, on the other. When the Dayton agreements were signed, then-Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic convinced her followers that Dayton guaranteed the "sovereignty" of the Republika Srpska -- and Bosnian Serb leaders have operated from that premise ever since.

The international community and Bosnian Muslim leaders, however, viewed Dayton as a stop-gap measure necessary to end the conflict and certainly not intended to be permanent. Western and Muslim authorities foresaw the evolution of Bosnia into a democratic, multiethnic state with an effective central government. Ethnic-Serbian and Croatian politicians feared just such a development, because the Muslims are the largest single ethnic group and could possibly outvote the others. The Serbs accordingly became suspicious of any move that threatened to undercut the sovereignty of their entity, while many Croatian leaders sought in vain to replace the federation with two distinct entities, one Muslim and one Croatian.

Police reform is central to these power relationships and hence has been so difficult to achieve. One model of reform suggested setting up new police districts that crossed the boundaries of the two entities. This proved anathema to the Serbs, who saw that model as a blow to their sovereignty as set down in Dayton. Another question involves defining the multiethnicity of the police: is a force multiethnic just because it has a joint overall command like the Bosnian military, even though in reality individual units and their commanders are still determined on an ethnic basis?

Obstructionism With Russian Backing?

Meanwhile, much attention is centered on Dodik. If Lajcak does not withdraw his governmental reforms, which Dodik says will undermine the authority of the two entities, Dodik has threatened to withdraw Serbian officials from all central institutions and take his Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) into the opposition. For his part, Lajcak has suggested that he might use his authority to sack Dodik if the Bosnian Serb leader continues to obstruct. For the international community, much has indeed changed since U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said about a decade ago that Plavsic and Dodik were "a good ticket" because they were considered a sound alternative to politicians loyal to wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic in Bosnia and Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia.

Milorad Dodik speaking in Banja Luka on October 29 (AFP)

On October 22, Dodik and Lajcak held a meeting that seemed to ease tensions. But shortly afterwards, the Bosnian Serb leader met in Belgrade with nationalist Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov, who has acted as Moscow's diplomatic point man in obstructing moves toward independence for Kosova. Following that meeting, Dodik's rhetoric became tough again. Britain's "The Economist" on October 27 quoted Lajcak as saying, "They should either stop [threatening to paralyze the government] or reveal their real intentions." Meanwhile, Dodik has called for Lajcak to go and for his office to be abolished.

Much of the recent discussion hardly seems new. Several informed observers from the region told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on October 29 that Dodik and his followers are displaying familiar obstructionist tactics aimed at keeping non-Serbs from having a say in the affairs of the Republika Srpska and holding up Bosnia's European integration. Eastern Sarajevo's "Dnevni list" of October 30 quoted Rear Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer, commander of the EU's EUFOR peacekeeping force, as saying that "if we look into these problems and events, I believe the international community is well advised to keep its hands on the western Balkans."

One aspect that seems to be new is the possible Russian factor. Are Titov (and the Kremlin) encouraging Kostunica and Dodik to stonewall Western diplomatic efforts aimed at promoting the Euro-Atlantic integration of the former Yugoslavia? Does Russia have great-power ambitions in the region that go beyond nay-saying and obstructionism? What lies behind the appearance of the Putin portraits in Banja Luka, which were probably the first pictures of a Russian leader carried by demonstrators in former Yugoslavia in decades?

Despite Soviet leader Josef Stalin's expulsion of Yugoslav communist chief Josip Broz Tito from the Soviet-led bloc in 1948, many Yugoslavs, particularly those from a Serbian Orthodox background, maintained an uncritical admiration for Russia that sometimes bordered on awe. This complex phenomenon is still present and could provide a political basis for expanding Russian influence in much of former Yugoslavia.

It may also be, however, that Dodik's meeting with Titov and the appearance of the Putin portraits are simply aimed at providing some psychological support for Serbs who consider themselves embattled, even if there is not much substance behind the Russian "presence." Reassurance and support are part the aura surrounding Russia among many Orthodox of former Yugoslavia. According to a 19th-century British joke, an English traveler once asked a boastful Montenegrin exactly how many Montenegrins there are. The response was: "with the Russians, 120 million."