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Foerm Croatian Prime Minister and Social Democratic Party leader Zoran Milanovic did his best to pour cold water on the spy affair. (file photo)

With relations between Belgrade and Zagreb already at a new low, Serbia last week arrested a wartime officer in a rebel Serb army in Croatia on espionage charges. On September 5, 57-year-old Cedo Colovic reportedly accepted a plea bargain of a three-year prison term in exchange for his confession to spying for Croatia.

The daily Informer, which has close links to the government in Belgrade, described the suspected Croatian spy in the following terms:

"Cedo Colovic (57), retired major of the Army of the (self-proclaimed) Republic of Serb Krajina, has for years been selling confidential army and intelligence information to Croatia. Colovic, a Serb from Drnis (in Croatia), was arrested on Friday, September 2, in an attempt to flee to Croatia. Based on information supplied by him, Croatia has issued indictments for nine Serbs accused of ‘war crimes'(!)”

Zagreb, meanwhile, says it received no official confirmation of the arrest of Colovic, who is a dual Serbian and Croatian citizen.

Croatia is in the midst of an election campaign that culminates in voting on September 11.

So Social Democratic Party leader and former Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic took the time to pour cold water on this bizarre affair. He quipped that if there was any secret worth stealing in Serbia, it might be the recipe for the famous spiced Balkan burger known as pljeskavica.

Croatian Foreign Minister Miro Kovac said on September 4 that despite attempts to establish a line of communication with the Serbian side, Zagreb has yet to receive any official notice of the arrest of the alleged spy, adding that he is very much in the dark about the case.

"As much as I try to engage my brain, I cannot fathom what this is all about. This is all very amateurish. It's clearly all for show. It's not working, and it doesn't lead anywhere,” Kovac told N1.

The Croatian portal net.hr has suggested that Covic might be a double agent, working for both the Serbian and the Croatian sides, but also asserted that he was not employed by either country's security agencies.

The same source offered a reminder that there is an ongoing leadership struggle within the Serbian Information Agency (BIA), making it plausible that someone is hoping to boost their chances of emerging on top by arresting a "Croatian spy" at a particularly sensitive time in Serbian-Croatian relations.

However, Croatian analysts agree that relations between the two countries are currently in such a poor state that this "spying” affair is unlikely to make things worse.

Not long before the incident, EU member Croatia did its best to block Serbia's accession talks. Zagreb insists that Serbia must renounce its role as the "regional policeman” and has called for curbs on Serbia's practice of issuing arrest warrants at its own discretion for those suspected of war crimes on any of the territories of the former Yugoslavia.

In any case, according to the Veljko Dzakula, president of the (Croatian) Serb Democratic Forum, if Colovic was indeed guilty of passing secret information on war crimes, then he was right to do so.

"If he was exposing those who committed war crimes, then I think he was performing a public service, as we are all obliged to do what we can to ensure that those guilty of war crimes are brought to justice. I don't consider this espionage. There should be nothing to hide,” Dzakula told RFE/RL.

Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska (left), and Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency (combo photo)

Bosnia is currently facing its biggest existential crisis since the end of the war in 1995. The president of Republika Srpska, one of the two constituent entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina established by the Dayton agreement, has perhaps finally dared to reach for what many have long suspected was his ultimate goal -- secession, and the breakup of the country. Milorad Dodik is now actively pursuing the creation of a state within the state. To make matters worse, there is nobody in the other half of Bosnia (the Muslim-Croat Federation) to stop him, or even to make a sober political statement.

The immediate cause of the current crisis is the looming referendum on the entity’s Statehood Day, set for September 25 in defiance of both the country’s constitutional court and the international community. Each year, Serbs in Republika Srpska have been celebrating January 9 as Statehood Day. However, this is not the date when the Dayton peace agreement was signed and when the Serb republic was officially recognized as a constituent entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Rather, January 9 marks the day in 1992 when a self-proclaimed assembly unilaterally declared the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia. The leader of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) at the time, and the man behind the proclamation, was Radovan Karadzic, later sentenced by The Hague tribunal for war crimes, including crimes against humanity and genocide.

On behalf of non-Serb inhabitants of Republika Srpska who felt that January 9 -- also an Orthodox religious holiday -- was not inclusive, and therefore inappropriate as Statehood Day, the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, brought the case to the Bosnian Constitutional Court. In November 2015, the Constitutional Court concluded that celebrating on January 9 was not constitutional and the authorities in Republica Srpska were duly required to change the day. In response, Dodik decided to call a plebiscite on a simple question: Do you consider January 9 suitable as Statehood Day for Republika Srpska?

As the majority of Republika Srpska citizens are Serbs, the outcome is easy to predict. So “the will of people” will override the constitutional court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The gap between two entities -- the Serb and the Muslim-Croat -- will be wider. Even worse, many observers see the poll as a dress rehearsal for what would be an even more inflammatory referendum on secession.

Bozo Ljubic
Bozo Ljubic

Taking advantage of the brewing crisis, some among the Bosnian Croats see it as a chance to create a separate Croatian entity and thus achieve their own wartime goals in Bosnia. Responding to Dodik's referendum, Bozo Ljubic, president of the main board of the Croatian National Council in Bosnia, said that Dayton has to be revisited to answer the needs of Bosnian Croats. Talking to the Croatian newspaper Vecernji List, he said that Herceg Bosna is not dead. Herceg Bosna was a little Croatian parastate during the war (1992-95).

Meanwhile, Bosnian Muslim politicians are seemingly more concerned with what is happening in Turkey than in their own country. In the middle of the growing crisis in his country, Izetbegovic took part in the opening ceremony of a bridge over the Bosphorus in Turkey. He is using each and every opportunity to stress the importance of the friendship with Erdogan.
They are relying on the international community to stop Dodik’s referendum and failed to make meaningful comment on his meeting with the Serbian leadership on September 1.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, probably the only politician with some influence over Dodik, gave only a cryptic statement on August 29 that his government would react “responsibly and seriously” if the international community’s high representative in Bosnia, Valentin Inzko, were to block the referendum in Republika Srpska. This is scarcely meant to deter Dodik.

“Serbia and its leadership neither supports nor opposes the referendum,” Dodik concluded and added: “That’s quite enough for me.”

The plebiscite is supposed to take place on September 25. Even a ban from the high representative, if issued, would not stop it under the present circumstances.

In theory, Inzko has the power to block Dodik’s referendum. His job is to safeguard the Dayton peace agreement and his intervention in this case would seem fully justified. Ignoring the Constitutional Court by going ahead with the referendum is a clear and direct challenge to the Dayton arrangement.

However, any move by Inzko has to be approved by the Peace Implementation Council, which has 55 member countries and was established in 1995 to provide international support to the Dayton agreement. Russia is a member of this council and it is blocking any firm decision on the coming plebiscite. It has consistently and deliberately played the role of spoiler in the last few years, doing everything to undermine Bosnia’s fragile stability.

In a parallel development, the Republika Srpska police forces held a joint exercise with their Serbian counterparts at the end of August. In response, war veterans in Bosnia asked to be issued live ammunition for their own war games, code-named “Freedom For All.” The demand came from former members of a wartime unit of the Bosnian Army named the “green berets.” The mere idea of the “green berets” exercising with any kind of ammunition is spreading fear among ordinary citizens.

Ignoring calls from some foreign diplomats to give up on his referendum, Dodik continues to push the boundaries. He is all set for another piece of political theater on September 11, the date of a ceremony to mark the opening of a section of the highway between Doboj and Prnjavor. The project was financed by loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and is supposed to provide a better link between the towns of Doboj to Banja Luka. Controversially, the highway will be named “January 9” -- a sign of Dodik’s determination to promote the day he considers crucial to the identity of Republika Srpska.

Dodik’s moves are nothing new, although he is now attempting to formally enshrine the most virulently nationalist and divisive version of the recent past -- with little resistance home or abroad. September in Bosnia could be a dangerous month.

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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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