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The president of the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik (left), and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet near Moscow on September 22.

Reality has been hijacked. Facts are twisted. Confusion reigns. Welcome to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A referendum called by the president of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, over a seemingly innocent question -- whether January 9 should be celebrated as the entity's Statehood Day -- is set to take place on September 25.

Many observers in the Balkans see it as a dress rehearsal for an attempt to secede -- and thus the opening of a Pandora’s box in the region. The Bosnian Constitutional Court has asked Republika Srpska to reconsider the choice of January 9, because it excludes the entity’s non-Serbian population. It is not only an Orthodox holiday but marks the day in 1992 when a renegade Bosnian Serb assembly declared an independent Serbian state in Bosnia. Ignoring that recommendation, Dodik has decided to proceed with the referendum. He confirmed as much in an interview with RFE/RL.

In a video clip aired on Banjaluka TV, a young man named Stefan says that he was born during the war, that his father was killed, and that all he has left is his faith, his Orthodox holiday, and his homeland. The message is emotionally charged, but it strays from reality. In the clip, Stefan's Serbian father is a victim and a freedom fighter. Yet by far the biggest victims of the war were Bosnian Muslims. It appears that no one ever told Stefan who was responsible for wartime concentration camps, who engaged in systematic ethnic cleansing -- including the genocide at Srebrenica -- or which side took UN peacekeepers hostage.

However, Dodik's referendum was pushed out of the headlines this week by an interview given by Sefer Halilovic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Army, that was being portrayed by some as the biggest threat to peace in Bosnia.

Talking to TV 1 in Sarajevo, Halilovic said the subversion of the Dayton peace accords -- for instance, through Dodik’s defiance of the Constitutional Court or his insistence on holding a referendum over January 9 -- was dangerous. Halilovic even suggested that Republika Srpska could disappear as a result (its existence being guaranteed by Dayton).

“We are not threatening anyone, but we will not allow anyone to break off a piece of Bosnia without trouble.... I am asking for them to think carefully [about what they are doing]. Milosevic is dead, the Yugoslav Army is no more, along with its thousands of tanks, armored vehicles.... Serbia cannot help Republika Srpska. We will not allow anyone to break up this country."

Sefer Halilovic is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament, yet his incendiary comments have made news..
Sefer Halilovic is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament, yet his incendiary comments have made news..

Halilovic is a retired general. He is running a fringe political party that has a single deputy in the Bosnian parliament. Even the Belgrade-based newspaper Blic admits that he is marginal character. Yet the Serbian foreign minister has chosen to make waves over Halilovic’s irresponsible comments, while Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was considering cutting short his visit to the United States.

Bosnian professor Enver Kazaz explained the storm over Halilovic’s comments in an interview:

“Dodik provoked Sefer Halilovic and exposed his political immaturity, which was then seized on by militant voices in Serbia as if the Bosnian Army was already massing along the border. In short, the current political establishment in the entire region is not to up to the job [and] is incapable of providing a vision of peace or contributing to the institutionalization of democratic practices.”

Vucic told B92 on September 22 that he had been receiving private messages from (unnamed) world leaders urging him "not to react to the rhetoric coming out of Bosnia-Herzegovina." Vucic, speaking from New York, claimed that he had been told to ignore Halilovic, who is "irrelevant" and "a madman," but that he remained worried by the lack of public condemnation of Halilovic’s comments and "because there are more than a few who share his attitude."

Vucic added that Serbia "respects Bosnia-Herzegovina’s integrity" but will "not allow Republika Srpska to be destroyed."

It is not clear how his comments might have been meant to be construed any differently -- or as any less as a veiled threat -- than Halilovic’s controversial remarks about protecting the integrity of Bosnia.

Meanwhile, Emir Kusturica, the controversial film director, wants to be sure that all the dirty laundry of the 1990s has been aired. In an interview with Srna, published by Nezavisne Novine, he said that the Bosniak member of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, is following in the footsteps of his father, wartime Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic.

Bakir Izetbegovic
Bakir Izetbegovic

Kusturica claims that Alija Izetbegovic’s rejection of the "Cutileiro plan" -- the Lisbon agreement that proposed the division of Bosnia into ethnic (Muslim, Serbian, and Croat) districts -- allegedly on the urging of U.S. Ambassador Warren Zimmermann, was responsible for the outbreak of the war in Bosnia in 1992. "The same is true now. Everything that Bakir Izetbegovic is doing is aimed at destroying peace in Bosnia." He also called on all Serbs to come out to vote on September 25.

Half-truths are sometimes worse than lies.

In April 1992, Izetbegovic rejected the plan to divide the country along ethnic lines, but the war was started by the Bosnian Serb leadership -- including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic -- backed by the Yugoslav Army. What Kusturica did not say is that once Izetbegovic returned from another round of peace negotiations in Lisbon, on May 2, 1992, he was kidnapped by the Yugoslav Army at Sarajevo airport, the city was sealed off, and a full-scale war was unleashed by the Serb-led Yugoslav Army.

Kusturica, a Sarajevo native, was once celebrated as an award-winning film director. When he openly declared his support for Milosevic during the war in Bosnia, a former screenwriter, Abdulah Sidran, was under siege in Sarajevo. When people approached him to get his reaction, he stayed silent. When news arrived that Kusturica had been given a villa on the Montenegrin coast by Milosevic, Sidran was once again asked about it. His response was pithy: “The man is crazy. He gained a house and lost a city.”

Arguably, the storm over Halilovic's statement is entirely artificial. The September 25 referendum, on the other hand, is very real -- and potentially a real threat to Bosnia’s survival and to regional peace. Since the outcome is not in doubt, the choice of January 9 as Republika Srpska’s official Statehood Day -- a red-letter day in the Serbian nationalist calendar -- will increase the gap between Serbs and non-Serbs in Bosnia.

Also real is the fear deliberately being sown by politicians -- fear that could stalk voters in the local elections on October 2.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Fikret Abdic is welcomed by supporters after serving his sentence and leaving a prison in the northern Adriatic Croatian town of Pula in March 2012.

After serving time in a Croatian prison for war crimes he committed during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Fikret Abdic has returned to the scene of those crimes and is running for mayor. (The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

Fikret Abdic is back.

After serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence in a Croatian prison for war crimes he was convicted of committing during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Abdic has returned to the scene of those crimes. He is running for mayor of Velika Kladusa in an October 2 election.

Abdic remains a brand name in this region in Bosnia's extreme northwestern corner: He was a controversial socialist businessman before the war. In 1990, he was briefly elected a member of the Bosnian Presidency. During the war, he was a collaborator of both Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

Now Abdic, who will be 77 when the election is held, is trying to make the jump from prison cell to political office. His daughter Elvira Abdic-Jelenovic, meanwhile, is running for a post in the Velika Kladusa municipal government.

Abdic was born in 1939 in what was then the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. During the communist period, he made his reputation during the 1970s and 1980s running an extremely successful food conglomerate called Agrokomerc. The company was the engine of the entire region's economy at that time.

Agrokomerc's success was partly due to the patronage of high-ranking Bosnian politician Hamdija Pozderac. That connection contributed to Abdic's rise -- but it was also the cause of his downfall. When Milosevic wanted to change Yugoslavia's constitution and strip the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina of their autonomy, Pozderac opposed him.

Abdic and Agrokomerc became the center of a corruption scandal and a lengthy and highly publicized court case in 1987. Abdic was accused of "undermining the economic system of Yugoslavia." Both he and Pozderac were the target of relentless media attacks. Pozderac was forced to resign and died in 1988.

Abdic and Agrokomerc became the center of a corruption scandal and a lengthy and highly publicized court case in 1987.
Abdic and Agrokomerc became the center of a corruption scandal and a lengthy and highly publicized court case in 1987.

Many still believe the entire case was politically motivated, engineered by Milosevic supporters to bring down Pozderac by targeting his protégé, Abdic. Milosevic subsequently changed the constitution, and Kosovo and Vojvodina were both declared integral parts of Serbia.

In 1993, with war raging across Bosnia, Abdic made a bid to carve out his own fiefdom by proclaiming the Velika Kladusa region's autonomy. He entered into an alliance with Croatian President Tudjman, only to later turn against the Croats and make a deal with what was left of the Yugoslav Army.

In his last act of the war, he turned his forces against the Bosnian Army. Although himself a Bosniak, Abdic accepted arms and ammunition from Belgrade to wage war against the Bosnian Army's 5th Corps. A tragic civil war -- a war within a war -- ensued in the Bihac pocket. Many families in Velika Kladusa had one son in Abdic's armed units and another serving with the Bosnian Army.

Abdic was later convicted of running detention centers in which at least 5,000 of his opponents were imprisoned, and many of them tortured.

Reopening Old Wounds

Nonetheless, there are no legal obstacles to prevent him from running for mayor now.

Rifat Dolic, a former close associate of Abdic's and leader of the Democratic People's Alliance, is concerned that Abdic's election will reopen war wounds.

"If someone with so much baggage related to the war -- and so clearly arrogant, vain, and prone to intrigue -- is running for local office and at the same time wants his daughter in the same municipal office, I can only feel sorry for him and his supporters," Dolic told RFE/RL in Sarajevo.

"[Abdic] belongs to the past -- and what kind of past that is is a matter of opinion," Dolic concluded.

Dolic still has great respect for Abdic's achievements in running Agrokomerc. And nostalgia for that time of prosperity and rapid development is the dominant emotion among Abdic's supporters. However, many cannot forget his actions during the war, his opportunism, or his divisiveness.

"If elected, Abdic will make the divisions among people in this region deeper," Dolic said. "He will push our municipality toward isolation. We will become like a medieval township."

"We seem to have a special moral code here in Bosnia -- one ethnic group's heroes are another's war criminals," analyst Ivana Maric told RFE/RL in an interview. "Our system of values is broken."

Ramo Hindic, a local expert and publicist, also suggested Abdic's run could reignite tension. "The most painful thing here in Kladusa is that our wartime wounds have yet to heal completely. Every now and then someone picks at them, adds salt," he said.

"The process of reconciliation, which was a local initiative coordinated through civic associations, has made some progress, and we were on the point of signing a memorandum on mutual understanding and reconciliation. However, all that has been put on hold now, or has come to a halt."

Sarajevo professor Esad Bajtal is not surprised by Abdic's candidacy -- and won't be surprised if he wins. Bajtal said that the old Agrokomerc boss always had his supporters in Velika Kladusa, and while he may not be to everyone's taste, given his controversial background, Abdic has the law on his side.

But while that may be Bosnia's current reality, he said, it has to change. "In order to avoid these situations in the future, the state has to take the appropriate legislative steps and clear up all political, moral, and other concerns raised by Abdic's candidacy," Bajtal said.

His remarks suggest that Bosnia should have a law against convicted war criminals running for public office -- or its bloody recent past will continue to haunt the country's politics.

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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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