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Bosnian Serbs March On Controversial 'Statehood Day'
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A Bosnian military regiment has been caught in an ethnically charged tug-of-war over how to regard that Balkan country's recent history and what that means for its increasingly fractured present.

The 3rd Infantry Regiment's attendance at a public ceremony in Banja Luka is at the heart of a dispute between Bosnia's central authorities in Sarajevo and the government of Republika Srpska, the predominantly Serbian entity that along with the Muslim-Croat federation composes Bosnia.

Tensions have been rising since November 2015, when the Bosnian Constitutional Court ruled that any official commemoration of January 9 as Republika Srpska statehood day was unconstitutional; they have been stoked nearly continuously ever since as Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik insisted on holding a referendum on the issue -- also declared illegal.

The fact that the army has become embroiled in the standoff further raises the stakes between Banja Luka and Sarajevo.

On January 8, wreaths were laid at a memorial for soldiers of Republika Srpska who lost their lives in the 1992-95 war that followed Bosnia-Herzegovina's declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

At the same event, the current president of the three-member Bosnian Presidency, Mladen Ivanic, used -- some would say misused -- his position to order the 3rd Infantry Regiment to attend the statehood-day ceremony the following day in Banja Luka. So on January 9, the regiment took part in a short ceremony on Banja Luka's main square and reported to Ivanic before withdrawing and avoiding participation in the parade.

It might seem simple enough. But this is the Balkans, where few things are ever as simple as they appear.

Polarized Memories

The unification of the Bosnian armed forces in 2006 -- effectively amalgamating what had been two warring sides only a decade before -- has been one of the success stories of post-Dayton Bosnia. Troops who had spent almost four years shooting at one another came together to form a unified military structure. Since then, several ethnically mixed Bosnian units have served in international missions.

Both Bosnian entities -- Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation -- are entitled to use military regiments in public ceremonies.

However, January 9 is a day that evokes highly polarized memories. It not only coincides with an Orthodox religious holiday, but also marks the day when a group of renegade Bosnian Serb politicians -- many of them later convicted of war crimes -- proposed the division of the country along ethnic lines in a move that paved the way to war. Because that date is seen as discriminatory against other ethnic groups, mainly minority Croats and Muslims who also live in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Constitutional Court demanded that Republika Srpska pick another day to mark its foundation.

Republika Srpska President Dodik nevertheless ignored the court and organized a referendum on the issue -- presumably so the choice of January 9 could be presented as the will of the people -- throwing down the gauntlet to the authorities in Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Defense Ministry initially approved the use of the regiment in the events on January 8 but not its participation in the parade of January 9. However, the ministry issued a total ban on the use of Bosnian military forces in either event following a statement from NATO headquarters in Sarajevo.

Brigadier General Giselle Wilz, NATO Headquarters commander, rejected the use of any part of Bosnia's armed forces in the Banja Luka celebrations. NATO Headquarters made it clear that the presence of even a single Bosnian soldier in Banja Luka on January 9 would constitute a violation of the Bosnian Constitution as well as the Dayton accords, which all of the country's soldiers have sworn to respect.

Yet despite the looming threat of disciplinary proceedings and discharge, Dodik had urged the soldiers to attend, saying, "We will celebrate Republika Srpska statehood day, and I am convinced that the members of the 3rd Infantry Regiment will be present at Krajina Square, which no one has a right to deny them, and Republika Srpska stands behind their decision [to attend.]."

Dodik's closest ally, Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic, has questioned why NATO's pronouncement should worry anyone in Bosnia, given that the country is neither a member nor a prospective member of the alliance. The NATO mission in Bosnia is to assist with defense reforms, and its role is defined within the Dayton peace deal.

'At The Point Of A Sword'

Republika Srpska as it exists today -- an autonomous entity within Bosnia -- was formally established and recognized internationally only with the advent of the Dayton accords, signed in December 1995.

What took place on January 9, 1992 -- and which Dodik appears intent on celebrating today -- was an illegal proclamation by a so-called republic of Bosnian Serbs with Radovan Karadzic as its first president. Speaking at the time, Karadzic vowed that no one would separate Bosnia from Yugoslavia and that Pale -- which would serve as his wartime headquarters, 20 kilometers north of Sarajevo -- would forever be part of Yugoslavia.

After years in hiding, Karadzic was extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague in July 2008. Last year, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide.

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (file photo)
Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (file photo)

​Another prominent speaker at that notorious 1992 gathering was Radoslav Brdjanin. Brdjanin advised Muslims and Croats to form their own breakaway assemblies and abandon the Bosnian parliament, as Bosnian Serbs had just done. Of the Muslims, he also said: "They are so blinded by their desire to have their own state that they would have it even if it only stretched as far as Trebevic Mountain [near Sarajevo]. They do not want to stay in a common state that extends to Moscow." Brdjanin was sentenced to 32 years in prison for crimes committed during the war, and is serving his sentence in Denmark.

The January 1992 meeting, which took place at the Sarajevo Holiday Inn hotel, is also remembered for the threatening language used by Biljana Plavsic, a member of the Serbian Democratic Party who would become a leader of the self-proclaimed, pro-Belgrade Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. She said at the time: "All those trying to get international recognition for Bosnia and Herzegovina should know that no state is made at a negotiating table. States are made at the point of a sword."

Plavsic was indicted to the ICTY in 2001. There, she agreed a plea bargain under which she became the only Bosnian Serb official to have admitted guilt for war crimes. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison. Plavsic was released in 2009 after serving two-thirds of her sentence.

The declaration of January 9, 1992, was thus a crucial and dramatic step toward the bloody conflict that began less than three months later in Sarajevo. It is a symbolically charged date that marked a prelude to war and the ethnic cleansing that followed.

Over the past 15 months, it has also turned into a cause for which Dodik has chosen to challenge the authority of the Bosnian Constitutional Court -- and which some have chosen to celebrate in Banja Luka.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Are Montenegro's pro-Western leaders, including former Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic (pictured), trying to "drag" the Balkan country into NATO against public opinion, as Moscow claims?

Montenegro and Serbia are Russian President Vladimir Putin's "red line" in Europe, judging by year-end headlines in Belgrade's tabloid press.

Drawing on unnamed diplomatic sources, those stories in the Serbian capital claim that Putin has a plan for a new "world order" in which Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- designated "militarily neutral states" -- would serve as buffers between NATO and Russia and its allies. The same sources are quoted as saying, in line with this vision, that Putin had advised U.S. President-elect Donald Trump not to "force through" Montenegro's membership in NATO.

The details of Putin's grand strategic plan may or may not be entirely accurate, but the extent of Moscow's hostility to Montenegrin NATO ambitions has been clear for some time. Podgorica has been under intense pressure from Moscow to drop its EU and NATO membership bids.

Given questions about the future direction of U.S. policy vis-a-vis Russia, there have been expressions of growing concern in Montenegro that its steadfastly pro-Western stance might go unrewarded.

In that context, a prospective visit from a "troika" of U.S. senators was seen as a welcome show of support. John McCain (Republican-Arizona), Lindsay Graham (Republican-South Carolina), and Amy Klobuchar (Democrat-Minnesota) were expected to stop over in Montenegro on January 3 on their way back from a tour of the Baltics, Georgia, and Ukraine. As it turned out, the visit was postponed at the last minute, although McCain thanked Montenegro for its assistance in the global fight against terrorism and reiterated his support for Montenegro's NATO hopes.

For some in Montenegro, NATO membership increasingly looks like a question of political life and death, as that small Balkan state finds itself on the front lines of what could become a new Cold War. Recent reports suggest Russia has applied pressure to derail Montenegro's NATO accession or EU integration.

For years, Russia's "new rich" have been investing in and acquiring property in Montenegro. In popular coastal resort towns like Budva, Russian is a second language, enjoying parity with Montenegrin.

But relations have begun to sour. A case in point is Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska, once seen as a potential savior of Montenegro with his investment in local aluminum production, who is now suing the Montenegrin state over purported losses. Many Russians seemingly believed that their investment in Montenegro would be repaid in political influence.

Yet Podgorica remains stubbornly committed to forging ties with the West. This year Montenegro could become the 29th member of NATO, a process that could conclude with a ratifying vote in the Montenegrin parliament in the spring. (So far 19 of 28 NATO members have approved Montenegrin membership, which was endorsed in Warsaw in July, and the U.S. Senate could vote later this month on ratification.)

Moscow has responded by ratcheting up the pressure.

Sergei Zheleznyak, a senior official within Russia's ruling United Russia party, issued a warning to the Montenegrin government on December 26, during his most recent visit to Belgrade. "The Montenegrin authorities are making a mistake in trying to speed up the country's entry into NATO, knowing that the majority of their people are opposed to this. An attempt to force through NATO membership is not in Montenegro's or NATO's best interests, and it can easily lead to instability in the country, in the Balkans, and inside NATO," Zheleznyak said after talks with officials from the Serbian ruling party.

His statement echoed Moscow's official line. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed recently that "frantic attempts are being made to drag Montenegro into NATO" before the handover to the Trump administration in the United States in January. At a recent OSCE meeting in Hamburg, Lavrov said, "We are not interfering in this process, but I think that the unattractiveness of these frantic efforts is clear to everyone."

But reports of a botched coup in Montenegro in October could put a real dent in Lavrov's charge.

Montenegrin authorities last month issued international arrest warrants for Russians and Serbs accused of involvement in that purported plot, which allegedly sought to assassinate the Montenegrin prime minister and take over parliament on election day.

Podgorica has said it has no evidence of high-level Russian official involvement in the abortive coup, and the Kremlin has denied involvement. But it could not have been reassuring for Montenegrin officials to see one of the suspects in the coup plot practically rubbing elbows with Russia's Lavrov last month.

Russia's line about a lack of support for NATO membership in Montenegro also might not reflect reality.

"The official invitation to join NATO and signing of the Accession Protocol were the best things that happened to Montenegro in 2016," Darko Sukovic, a prominent Montenegrin journalist, has said.

Former Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic, meanwhile, said he was anxious for the country to find a way to secure NATO membership while preventing the deterioration of relations with Russia. "We're entering a dramatic finale. To use a chess analogy, Montenegro only needs a draw in this historic chess match with Russia," he said. "The main thing is not to lose momentum and to finally seal the deal [NATO membership] while avoiding direct conflict with the Kremlin -- with a little help from our [Western] allies, of course."

Edward P. Joseph of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in an article co-authored with Sinisa Vukovic, argued recently that Montenegro represents "a litmus test for Trump's Russia policy."

And a recent Wall Street Journal editorial*, titled Patriot Games In The Balkans and published last month, accused "pro-Kremlin forces" of trying to sabotage Podgorica's NATO bid, warning: "Western security is best served by supporting democratic governments of any size facing pressure from regional bullies. The alternative is to deliver another country into Moscow's grip, and whet its appetite to take another."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

CORRECTION: This article has been amended to correctly attribute quoted text to a Wall Street Journal editorial, rather than to Mssrs Joseph and Vukovic. RFE/RL regrets the error.

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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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