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Bosnia In Crosshairs Of Ethnic Nationalists And Their Allies


Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik's latest gambit is his declared intention to run for the Bosnian presidency in October -- thereby becoming a member of a tripartite executive branch of a country he does not support, and from which he wishes to secede.

"Foreigners giving up on Bosnia: country close to collapse."

That's a recent headline from Sputnik, the Russian state media arm in Serbia since 2015.

The accompanying photo -- a sepia-toned panoramic shot of Muslim gravestones overlooking the city of Sarajevo, overlaid by a spectrally transparent image of a Bosnian flag -- appears likewise meant to convey imminent doom. It might not be a surprise, given Sputnik's (and Russian media in general's) vocal support for Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska who routinely predicts Bosnia-Herzegovina's demise.

The irony, of course, is that critics accuse Dodik of doing more than anyone else to impede Bosnia's central institutions and thus make his prophecy a self-fulfilling one. His latest gambit is his declared intention to run for the Bosnian presidency in the October elections -- thereby becoming a member of a tripartite executive branch of a country he does not support, and from which he wishes to secede.

But even impartial observers recognize that Bosnia is in trouble and might need urgent help from abroad. Writing in The Washington Post, Frida Ghitis voiced the fear that Bosnia may be heading back to "the dark old days of the 1990s" and that Europe and the United States, "currently distracted with other problems, must act soon to keep Bosnia from going off the rails."

Moreover, Dodik's Russian-endorsed secessionism is not the only threat to Bosnia's stability.

In the other Bosnian entity, known as the Muslim-Croat Federation, two radically opposed models of government are currently pitted against each other. One would seemingly guarantee the survival of a more-or-less democratic, if still imperfect, system; the other would appear to turn Bosnia into little more than an ethnocracy.

The latter option is being championed by Bosnian Croat political leaders, who insist on the principle that only ethnic Croats should be allowed to elect their political representatives in state institutions. They are demanding a change to the constitution that would limit voting for designated Croatian candidates to the Bosnian presidency or parliamentary committees to ethnic Croats.

Since the system already guarantees ethnic Croat representation in all government bodies, this demand appears to be based on the belief that only Croats chosen exclusively by other Croats would truly defend the interests of their ethnic fellows. It is a view that seemingly regards the idea of civic society and ethnic belonging as fundamentally opposed and unable to coexist.

Foundation Of Fear

The current dispute is only the latest manifestation of a deeply rooted problem in postwar Bosnia, where the only kind of politics is that of identity -- and fear: Each ethnic group feels, or is made to feel, that its customs, religion, and culture are not respected enough and will somehow be obliterated by the others.

Yet the Bosnian Croats, with their present demands -- like Dodik, for his part -- are merely playing by the Dayton playbook. Ethnicity is the foundation of the Dayton peace agreement; and while that was perhaps an acceptable price to pay for peace in 1995, it may no longer serve even that basic purpose. The Bosnian Croats' demands are only the latest reminder that the limits of Dayton might have been reached.

The architect of the peace accord, U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, is no longer alive. He was a pragmatist whose goal was to end a war -- one that had taken at least 100,000 lives -- and could not or did not wish to imagine that more than two decades later, nationalist leaders would invoke Dayton to wage the same war by other means. Holbrooke is no longer around to fix the flaws in Bosnia's governing charter, of course.

Meanwhile, his political master and patron at the time of Dayton, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, has just published a novel, co-written with James Patterson. It features a female Bosnian assassin code-named Bach -- a classical-music-loving, vegetarian, pregnant, cold-blooded killer who wields a semiautomatic rifle that she calls Anna Magdalena. Several reviewers have pointed out that the novel's fictional president, Jonathan Duncan, resembles Clinton's own alter ego, while elements of the plot appear to deliberately echo Clinton's time in office.

If that is so, one might wonder if the specter of Bosnia still haunts Clinton's thoughts -- a sense of guilt over a war interrupted too late and a peace that is looking increasingly like a prelude to another conflict (or far from a lasting solution) -- personified in an assassin on the loose.

Glimmer Of Hope?

Beyond the Russian spin, nationalist demagoguery, and presidential fiction, what does the future hold for Bosnia?

In a recently published book titled Hunger And Fury: The Crisis Of Democracy, Bosnian academic Jasmin Mujanovic sees hope amid the gloom. Taking aim at both local and foreign prophets of Bosnia's doom, he criticizes an "immobilizing chorus that asks when there will be another war in the Balkans. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is an act of psychological terror to hang this rhetorical sword constantly over the heads of the peoples of the Western Balkans."

Such rhetoric is a tool of the local nationalist elites who use it "to terrorize and thus pacify the impoverished and traumatized masses over which they rule," Mujanovic argues.

Since the signing of the Dayton accords, the West has facilitated the entrenchment of these "ethnic entrepreneurs" in power in exchange for vague and grudgingly repeated promises not to start another war, he says. According to Mujanovic, the growing desperation and feeling of impotence might lead to the unleashed fury of the hungry masses -- with unpredictable consequences.

Mujanovic also expresses hope for what's on the horizon, based on his study of grassroots movements throughout the region committed to social justice and civic democracy.

But the case of Security Minister Dragan Mektic, an ethnic Serb seemingly committed to serving all of Bosnia's citizens and tackling corruption, suggests there are also advocates of change among serving politicians in Bosnia.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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    Gordana Knezevic

    Gordana Knezevic writes the Balkans Without Borders blog for RFE/RL. She was the director of RFE/RL's Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016.

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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