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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.

People pay their last respects to the Bytyqi brothers -- Ylli, Agron and Mehmet -- whose bound bodies were found in a mass grave in 2001.

It's a crime that won't go away.

During the past 17 years, Serbia has changed governments, presidents, and war-crimes prosecutors. But the 1999 killings of the Bytyqi brothers -- three twentysomething Albanian-Americans who left the United States to fight in Kosovo and whose bodies were found, bound execution-style, in a mass grave -- remains unresolved.

According to Praveen Madhiraju, a legal adviser to the Bytyqi family, the case is likely to be raised during U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden's August 16 visit to Belgrade, probably behind closed doors. That likelihood has brought the issue back into focus among Serbian media.

"In the Bytyqi case, Serbian political leaders have repeatedly failed to deliver on promises made to U.S. officials," Madhiraju told RFE/RL's Balkan Service via Skype.

When asked by reporters about the case on July 13, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that some people in Serbia might wonder "why we should investigate, if the victims were Albanian." But he added that "we should not cover up any crime" and made yet another pledge that the Bytyqi brothers' case would find its closure.

The bodies of 21-year-old Mehmet, 23-year-old Agron, and 25-year-old Ylli Bytyqi were found in 2001 in a mass grave in Petrovo Selo, near Kladovo, in eastern Serbia.

The brothers are believed to have been killed at a training compound in Petrovo Selo of the Serbian secret police in July 1999, shortly after the end of the war in Kosovo.

They had fought in the Atlantic Brigade, a volunteer branch of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) that reportedly included hundreds of Albanian-Americans. All three were Chicago-born New York residents and U.S. citizens.

Soon after the July 1999 peace agreement that ended the Kosovo war, the three reportedly promised to escort several Romany neighbors to join relatives in Serbia. But when they crossed an unmarked boundary near the Merdare border crossing, they were detained by Serbian police for illegally entering what was then Yugoslavia and sentenced to 15 days in jail.

Near the end of their sentences, they were reportedly taken to the police training compound and held in a warehouse. On the evening of July 9, 1999, they are believed to have been bound with wire and driven to a garbage dump, where they were summarily executed with shots to the back of the neck.

The Serbian war-crimes prosecutor indicted two police officers suspected of transporting the brothers from Prokuplje prison to Petrovo Selo, but both men were acquitted in 2012. During the trial, the defendants claimed that they had received the order to drive the brothers to Petrovo Selo from Vlastimir Djordjevic, Serbia's assistant interior minister at the time.

Goran Radosavljević
Goran Radosavljević

The initial investigation into the killings, launched by the Serbian war crimes prosecutor with assistance from the United States, focused on three people: Djordjevic; Vlajko Stojiljkovic, a former interior minister who committed suicide in 2002; and Goran Radosavljevic, the former commander of a special police unit who was in charge of the Petrovo Selo training center.

Djordjevic was indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague for participation in the 1999 Serb crackdown on Kosovar Albanians. After the war, he went into hiding in Russia but was arrested in Montenegro in June 2007. He was later sentenced by The Hague tribunal to 18 years in prison for war crimes committed in Kosovo.

Radosavljevic is now a retired police special forces commander but remains active in politics as a member of the executive board of Serbia's ruling Progressive Party. He has been questioned in relation to the Bytyqi brothers' deaths, but no indictment has been issued. He denies any involvement in the crime.

In the decade since the investigation began, a number of witnesses have claimed that they were threatened to prevent them from testifying. One witness, Miroslav Mitrovic, died in Kraljevo, in Serbia, in 2004, where his family lives in fear of revenge.

Despite the fact that the crime is thought to have taken place while the Bytyqi brothers were in Serbian police custody, it remains unclear who killed them or who ordered the killings.

Milica Kostic
Milica Kostic

Milica Kostic, head of the legal department at Belgrade-based Center for Humanitarian Law, told RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau in an interview on August 15:

"The case cannot be resolved without addressing the wider issues [related to the Serbian state and the army's conduct of the war in Kosovo]. Three individuals were detained. Someone drove them, someone fed them, and moved them from one location to another. [We know that] they ended up in a mass grave.... There were clearly more people involved. The U.S. will continue to ask questions, and that may sour relations between Belgrade and Washington. [U.S. pressure] may eventually force Serbia to give up one of its retired police commanders. But we have to ask for more. We should demand to know precisely how that state functioned, how it was possible for a crime of this nature to occur. After all, the chief of staff of our armed forces is suspected of a war crime."

We would probably never have known about the Bytyqi brothers if they had not had U.S. passports, underscoring questions about how many others suffered a similar fate and how many such killers will go unpunished.

Kostic is aware of claims that the Bytyqi case is an exception, but argues that it points to systemic problems.

"The case is exceptional, but the reasons why it has not been resolved in court are not exceptional. This is a type of case that Serbia does not want to deal with. Radosavljevic is a person against whom Serbia does not want to lay charges. In this country, we do not take high officials to court. Any investigation in which members of the police or the army are implicated faces obstructions of justice. There is no political will to open up the archives of the Ministry of Defense, or of the Ministry of Interior. People are afraid to speak out. There is a code of silence.

"This case is also a problem because it involves mass graves; there were more than 900 bodies of Albanians in [such] graves. No government -- neither this one, nor any of the previous ones -- wants to deal with the issue of mass graves."

With Biden's visit looming, the proverbial passing of the buck began in Serbia -- although it did not appear to be connected to any sense of justice over the deaths of the three brothers' deaths. On August 11, Dragan Jocic, the former Serbian interior minister, publicly called on Radosavljevic to help solve the Bytyqi case "because the U.S. administration is putting pressure on Serbia over the issue." For his part, Radosavljevic has accused Jocic of responsibility in the setting alight of the U.S. Embassy during protests in Belgrade in 2008 against Kosovar independence. It appears that as far as both men are concerned, the problem is not what happened to the Bytyqis but the fact that the United States is demanding an investigation.

The Bytyqi case implicates more than just formerly prominent -- and still influential -- individuals. As Kostic points out, it is also a signpost to other graves and other crimes whose perpetrators were deeply embedded in the state and military apparatus of the late President Slobodan Milosevic's state. A culture of impunity still prevails in Serbia, and there is little desire among politicians to confront the pall still being cast by the 1990s.

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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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