Accessibility links

Breaking News

Balkans Without Borders

Protests in Mostar on October 11 against the election of a moderate Croat in Bosnia's tripartite presidency.

Despite long-shot hopes of a breakthrough in this month's elections, it looks more like Bosnians have to settle for familiar tribal politics and a tense calm.

Nationalist parties who agreed to end hostilities in 1995, with the signing of the Dayton Accords, have in some ways continued the war by other means. Ahead of the October 7 elections, their common approach appeared to be to spread fear that "their" respective ethnic group would be overrun by one or both of the others.

It is tempting to conclude, as a result, that this strategy is regarded as the one sure path to staying in power for the self-appointed “protectors of the 'national' interest,” whether the "nation" in question is Serbs, Muslims, or Croats.

Since the election, the fear level has remained high despite gains made by non-nationalist parties and politicians -- insufficient to upset the status quo, perhaps, but worrying for those who thrive on mutual distrust and sharp dividing lines between Bosnia’s main ethnic groups.

Here are some of the problems as embodied in the newly elected members of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency.

Zeljko Komsic

A case in point is the election of Zeljko Komsic as the designated Croat within the Bosnian Presidency. During the conflict in the 1990s, Komsic had fought in the ranks of the Bosnian Army, which defended the unitary state against ethnic division. Although he has been a member of the presidency on two previous occasions, his election has outraged the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party; its leader, Dragan Covic, is threatening to block the formation of the new government in response to this “scandalous” election result.

The HDZ has rallied its supporters in the city of Mostar, who have come out to protest Komsic’s election triumph over a more nationalist candidate. Komsic is a Croat, but many HDZ supporters appear to regard him as "not Croat enough" and overly fond of the idea of Bosnia as a country of citizens, not ethnic groups.

Nationalist Croats are suggesting that Komsic was elected thanks to votes from Bosniaks (Muslims). But if that were true, it is unlikely that Sefik Dzaferovic, the candidate of the largest Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), would have fared so well in the voting. A more likely explanation is that some Bosnians -- including ethnic Croats -- are choosing an alternative to more nationalist impulses.

But anxious Croat nationalists are demanding that a "real" Croat be installed in the presidency in Sarajevo, elected only by Croats.

Sarajevo-based analyst Emir Habul has suggested that the roots of the current political crisis lie in 2006, the last time there was any real prospect of constitutional change, when there was an unsuccessful movement afoot to make parliament responsible for selecting the central presidency's members.

Meanwhile, some Bosnian municipalities with ethnic Croat majorities have been busy announcing that the newly elected Komsic is persona non grata in their eyes.

Among those who have voiced postelection fears are Cardinal Vinko Puljic, who was long considered a moderate Catholic religious leader. After the election, Puljic implied that Komsic was a harbinger of trouble.

In a seemingly confused historical reference, Puljic appeared to compare Komsic's victory to the postwar imposition of communism and the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party.

"In 1945 there was a law to take our property away and destroy all that was Croatian and intelligent. Under that law we were expelled -- and Hitler came to power in a lawful way. But the question is: What kind of law is it if it takes away the rights of one ethnic group and that group is to be erased like it never existed, as is happening now to Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina?"

The apparent emphasis on ethnicity rather than citizenship risked sounding like a marked shift from his statements prior to the vote, when he argued that "a political party cannot be more important than people. It is unacceptable that after we are done with a one-party system and the single-mindedness of that system, we now have a triple-mindless system. We have to unite in our differences and think of those differences as our advantage in this God-given country of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Komsic was asked in a recent TV interview to respond to Puljic's statement.

“Since he has expressed an interest in criminal figures like Hitler and the history of that period, I suggest that he lose no time in planning a visit to Jasenovac" -- a reference to the site of a notorious concentration camp run by the Croatian Ustase regime that was installed by the Nazis -- "and to pay his respects to the souls of the innocent, brutally murdered victims of Hitler’s comrade [Ustase leader Ante] Pavelic and offer a prayer for them,” Komsic told TV1.

“It would be a way for [Puljic] to take a truly historic step in distancing himself from the Ustase and their crimes, which is expected from him as a cardinal."

Milorad Dodik

The perceived panic among Bosnian Croat nationalists over Komsic’s victory has overshadowed the election of Milorad Dodik as one of the other two members of the presidency.

Before the vote, Dodik's statements and successes were seen as one of the biggest sources of tension in the country.

He was running for membership of the central executive body while openly declaring that he wants independence for Bosnia's predominantly Serb entity, Republika Srpska.

His elevation to the Bosnian Presidency also means one of the country’s chief representatives is the subject of sanctions by the U.S. Treasury.

His first postelection demand, prior to taking up his duties, was that the Republika Srpska flag be displayed at the Bosnian Presidency's building in Sarajevo. Until that happens, Dodik vowed, he will refuse to attend official meetings and functions there, although he will contact his counterparts via video-link.

Even before the election, Dodik pledged that he would not sit in the presidency's offices in downtown Sarajevo at all. Rather, he intended to make use of an office reserved for Serb politicians in East Sarajevo -- suburban sections of Sarajevo that lie in Republika Srpska -- pending the construction of a new security barrier to ensure Dodik's safety.

Radio Sarajevo also reported that Dodik planned to appoint as one of his advisers film director Emir Kusturica, another divisive figure.

It is hard to discern Dodik’s motives, but he has already said he will block Bosnia's bid for NATO membership.

Bakir Izetbegovic

Finally, a term limit meant SDA party leader Bakir Izetbegovic could not stand for reelection to a third term as the Bosniak member of the presidency.

But the victory of Sefik Dzaferovic to represent Bosniaks appears to ensure that Izetbegovic will maintain considerable influence in Bosnian politics.

“Izetbegovic has done good things for Bosnia, and I will continue on the same path," Dzaferovic said. "I will be happy to be like him.”

One of the implications is that, like Izetbegovic, Dzaferovic might welcome Turkish influence in the country and lobby for investment from wealthy Arab states.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev addresses a march in support of a referendum on changing the country's name and its NATO and EU membership bids in Skopje oon September 16.

Macedonia's capital, Skopje, has been gripped by hope and uncertainty lately, with the country approaching a historic crossroads.

Macedonians vote in a referendum on September 30 on whether to change the country’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia, a possible step toward resolving a decades-old dispute with Greece, which has a province by the same name and has used the dispute as an obstacle to EU or NATO entry for its postcommunist neighbor.

A breakthrough agreement between Skopje and Athens, reached in June, hangs in the balance.

The carrot, dangled explicitly on the ballot, is the prospect of Euro-Atlantic integration.

The referendum is merely “consultative,” so a "yes" result still must be ratified by a two-thirds parliamentary majority before the country could shed the more cumbersome Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia name adopted as a compromise to join the United Nations in 1993.

The name dispute is highly divisive among Macedonians, prompting organizers to link the question on the ballot to the prospect of membership in the European Union and NATO in hopes of boosting the "yes" turnout.

But it is nearly as contentious internationally, with accusations and counteraccusations of improper meddling in Macedonia's affairs.

European leaders have visited the country in the weeks leading up to the vote to urge Macedonians to seize a "once in a lifetime" opportunity.

VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski (center) at a protest against the deal between Greece and Macedonia in the southern town of Bitola in June
VMRO-DPMNE leader Hristijan Mickoski (center) at a protest against the deal between Greece and Macedonia in the southern town of Bitola in June

Russia is said to be wary of further Balkan countries joining NATO, particularly since nearby Montenegro recently joined the transatlantic military alliance.

Russian Ambassador to Macedonia Oleg Shcherbak was quick to accuse the West of applying “very strong media and psychological pressure” on Macedonian voters. Shcherbak said nothing of the anti-referendum Internet trolls that are said to be urging Macedonians to boycott the vote.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, on his way to Skopje to urge a "yes" vote, accused Russia of financing “influence campaigns” to undermine the referendum.

Some of the unsupported claims that are circulating in apparent support of a "no" vote include speculation that Google would drop the use of the Macedonian language if the name change is approved.

Russian Ambassador to Macedonia Oleg Shcherbak has accused the West of applying “very strong media and psychological pressure” on Macedonian voters.
Russian Ambassador to Macedonia Oleg Shcherbak has accused the West of applying “very strong media and psychological pressure” on Macedonian voters.

The "no" lobby -- some of it anonymous via social media or shadowy websites -- appears to be banking on a boycott, which could render the result meaningless (it requires more than half of the country's roughly 1.8 million eligible voters to turn out) or simply create space for political elements to exploit.

The New York Times reported that new posts are popping up daily on Facebook to encourage people to boycott the referendum in a "disinformation-age battle."

Meanwhile, the nationalist opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE, has called on its supporters to boycott the vote.

Others have pointed out that refusing to vote might be counterproductive.

“The boycott only means that you leave others to make the decision for you,” the president of the National Youth Council of Macedonia, Blazen Maleski, wrote on RFE/RL’s youth online column.

Two young pro-government activists addressed passersby at the entrance to Skopje's old town on September 16, with one of them at one point explaining his trust in the prime minister, Social Democratic Union leader Zoran Zaev.

“He didn't enter politics to get rich," he said. "He was already wealthy, as he was a part of a very successful family business. His family produces the best ajvar" -- a traditional vegetable spread based on peppers and eggplant -- "and he grew up selling papers at the market.”

They said their enthusiasm for the name change was not shared by their parents, who they predicted would nevertheless reluctantly vote “yes.”

“They are not happy to be in this situation. They are attached to the name Macedonia," one said. "Their ID card would say that they are from the Republic of North Macedonia, and that sounds strange to them. They are likely to vote ‘yes’ because of us, as our future is at stake.”

Of course, negotiations with Greece will continue in the event of a “yes” vote, and Macedonia may have to make more concessions.

“The outcome of this process depends...on the negotiating and political power of the countries themselves,” academic Taki Fiti, president of the Macedonian Academy of Arts and Sciences (MANU), told RFE/RL’s Macedonian unit. "Greece has much greater negotiating power."

For many outsiders, it might be hard to understand why the addition of a simple geographic prefix (North) to a country’s name would be so problematic.

Skopje is flooded with referendum posters urging people to vote for the name change and “a European future,” but some Macedonians object to what they regard as the flip side of that coin.

“Europe wants to take away all that we have. They want to take away our name. I was born a Macedonian, and I want to die a Macedonian," Zoran Stojcevski, a Skopje cab driver in his 60s, told RFE/RL recently. "They want to erase our name. They want to ‘civilize’ us. I don't want to be civilized! I just want to stay the way I am, and they can call me primitive if they want. This government is worse than a communist government. They put people in prison if they are against the referendum.”

There has been no evidence of such cases, but the identity fears are real.

Zana, a woman in her 50s, offered a glimpse of that fear while giving a tour of Skopje this month to her British friends.

“It’s not only about the name, they want to take our past away from us," she said. "They want to say that we [Macedonians] were not there [at the time of Alexander the Great]. They are taking away our identity.”

Some things will certainly change if the “yes” vote decisively prevails in the referendum.

The currently nameless equestrian statue in Skopje’s central square has been one of the symbolic battlefields in the dispute with Greece. It was erected as a monument to Alexander the Great -- known in some quarters as Alexander of Macedon -- but many Greeks have sought to discourage Macedonians from considering Alexander to be part of their culture.

If the country’s name change is ultimately approved by both sides, the horseman will once again bear the name of Alexander but with an explanatory plaque that the ancient king is part of “Hellenic” culture.

It is one reflection of the awkward compromises that might be required of Macedonia, in particular.

But for many, that is a small price to pay, given the stakes.

“The name-change deal with Greece must not fail because that would mean a very uncertain future for Macedonia,” former Foreign Minister Professor Denko Maleski told RFE/RL’s Macedonian unit.

The failure of the referendum, among other things, would likely deepen divisions in Macedonian society, with many in its ethnic Albanian community -- around one-quarter of the country’s population of 2 million -- enthusiastically in favor of the name change and Western integration.

“The ensuing division [would] closely resemble the Ukrainian situation, which [would] destabilize the country,” Maleski said.

There is notable support for the “yes” vote within the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

Bishop Pimen, who is widely regarded as a “new wave” priest, said the September 30 that the referendum was a great opportunity.

“We are deciding the future of our country, and we must all hold hands, to overcome our differences and quarrels, and come together to choose a European future for our country. This is a historic opportunity that we must not miss,” Pimen said.

His message incurred an avalanche of insults and hate speech on social media, prompting Pimen to respond that people were free to disagree with him but that he did not approve of the way in which some were expressing their views.

“In Macedonia, we need to learn basic manners first, and only then should we have democracy,” he said.

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

Load more

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.


Latest Posts