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Balkans Without Borders

Police officers of the Republika Srpska march during a parade in Banja Luka on January 9.

"Good morning. Is another war brewing in Bosnia?"

That was the opening of a Croatian state TV morning program on February 16. The Zagreb studio's question was then posed via satellite to Vlado Azinovic, a professor of political science in Sarajevo who stood outside in his winter coat as life in the Bosnian capital unfolded behind him. The show's anchor pressed Azinovic to concede that a new paramilitary formation was preparing for another conflict and that "Wahhabi-Salafi groups" enjoyed Bosnian government support.

The issue of such purported groups became a hot topic after the appearance of a YouTube video, titled Askeri Winter Camp 2018, in which children could be seen getting Islamic instruction and training.

The clip unleashed a storm of reactions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the wider region. Some of the alarming headlines that appeared in Bosnian and Serbian media included: Wahhabis Training Boys To Fight, The Military Camp For Kids, and Askeri Training Young Warriors.

Meanwhile, the leadership (Rijaset) of the Bosnian Islamic Community said in a statement to N1 TV that it had no official information of any religious education being administered by the group in question; nor had the group requested any support or input from the Islamic Community.

"The video and its publication should be placed in its proper context," Azinovic said, adding that 10 days earlier an actual, suspected paramilitary formation from Serbia had marched fully armed through the streets of Banja Luka, in Republika Srpska, during official celebrations marking that northern Bosnian entity's controversial statehood day. "And once they had changed out of their uniforms, they were received by members of the [Republika Srpska] government, before that armed group returned home to Serbia."

The Banja Luka formation was part of a group that calls itself Serbian Honor and claims to be a humanitarian organization. Some of its members, however, reportedly fought on the side of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Asked whether the purported "Askeri" training camp was evidence of rising Islamic extremism in Bosnia, Azinovic answered that "for the past 30 years, we have been seeing a rise in all forms of extremism in Bosnia." Azinovic has argued that Bosnian authorities, lacking meaningful economic or social policies, are manufacturing fear among voters -- especially on the eve of elections. "They have nothing else to offer."

He warned against underestimating the effect of what he referred to as "domestic hybrid warfare" that creates tensions that can easily escalate into bloodshed.

Thawing The 'Frozen' War?

The reports concerning paramilitary units were followed by news of major arms purchases by the Bosnian Serb police from neighboring Serbia.

There was no attempt by the Bosnian Serb authorities to downplay the purchase. On the contrary, on February 16, Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik claimed that "they have taken our military, but they won't take away our police."

Dodik also visited a police training center near Banja Luka that is due to be officially inaugurated on April 4. Local media have suggested that instructors at the center will be Russians, although that has not been confirmed, and they will be training Bosnian Serb police to "fight against terrorism." Dodik added that the purchase of 2,500 automatic rifles was legal and that all the necessary permits had been secured.

However, concern over the apparent move to arm Republika Srpska police was expressed by EU High Representative Valentin Inzko, among others. Inzko said the police in all of his native Austria have only 400 automatic rifles at their disposal.

Alex Kliment, the Eurasia Group's director of global research, also drew attention to the saber-rattling in the Balkans and its wider context to CBS. Kliment warned that the combination of "local ethnic tensions or rivalries" and "geopolitical tension" was highly combustible, especially in this region of the world. He suggested that the Bosnian government's stated desire to eventually join the EU and NATO had prompted Russia to ramp up its involvement in the Balkans, with the aim of destabilizing that country.

"It's a very dangerous situation," Kliment said. "The horrific Yugoslav civil war never really ended, it was more sort of frozen. And things like this can unfreeze that quickly." Adding more weapons to the mix only made this outcome more likely, in his opinion.

An Unwatched Pot Boils

It seems clear that the "Askeri" are not boy scouts, just as members of Serbian Honor are not humanitarian workers. Regardless of whether they are marching in the streets or gathering clicks on YouTube, both are reviving old antagonisms and feeding the narrative of an unfinished war.

Kliment suggested that neither NATO nor the United States was going "to focus a whole lot of attention on this.... There are...bigger issues playing out. This was a part of the world that spilled into civil war because no one was paying attention."

Bosnian elections are due in October. Dodik, who has already served two terms as president and two more as prime minister of Republika Srpska, is seeking to join the presidency of a country (Bosnia) that he wants to dismantle. It is unclear how far he might be prepared to go to achieve his goal, or whether he would risk another war.

He could be a nationalist or merely a pragmatist convinced that nationalism is politically expedient. But that sort of thinking was also attributed to Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, and then, too, the West was distracted elsewhere while the Balkans slid into internecine conflict.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Natasa Kandic has received more than 20 international awards, but at home she is under constant fire from nationalists.

Although the winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize won't be announced until October, the recent nomination of Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic and her Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center has brought the issues of postwar justice and ethnic tensions to the fore in Serbia.

Kandic was nominated recently by two U.S. lawmakers -- Senator Roger Wicker (Republican, Mississippi) and Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat, New York). In the nomination, they say Kandic "remains an inspiration to a new generation of young professionals who now lead the Humanitarian Law Center as it exposes those who have evaded justice and takes on the extreme nationalism and strained ethnic tensions that linger in the Western Balkans."

They add, "We can think of no person or organization more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize than Natasa Kandic and the Humanitarian Law Center and are confident that such recognition would further the cause of peace and reconciliation in this and other troubled regions of our world."

The government and state media in Serbia said nothing publicly about the nomination.

But a nationalist political group called Zavetnici, which is committed to preventing Serbia from joining the European Union and calls for closer ties to Russia, responded by organizing a protest and decking out the city in photos of Kandic accompanied by the accusation: "A Nobel Prize for the betrayal of the Serbian people!"

Kandic herself took the controversy in stride, noting that it proved that her work is far from done.

"It is a good thing it is just a nomination," she told VOA's Serbian Service. "Nothing has changed in this region over the past 25 years. [There has been] no progress, no improvement that shows we have become a better, civilized society. I think even just a nomination might be too much."

A few others have noticed the controversy around Kandic and spoken out in her favor.

"Do people think that they can intimidate Natasa Kandic? Nobody has succeeded in that yet," Eric Gordy, a sociologist at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, tweeted.

'An Honest Look At The Past'

Kandic has received more than 20 international awards, but at home she is under constant fire from nationalists. Critics frequently question her patriotism and accuse her of ignoring Serbian victims of Balkan atrocities.

If not for Kandic and her center, evidence about the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 might never have been uncovered. If not for Kandic, many crimes committed during the 1999 war in Kosovo would never have been documented and the number of people killed during the NATO air campaign against Serbia would probably never have been known. Her Humanitarian Law Center also documented crimes committed against Serbian civilians across the region by Serbian paramilitary units commanded by the infamous warlord and crime boss Arkan.

At the same time, Kandic works tirelessly for Balkan peace and reconciliation. Last year, she launched the Regional Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (RECOM), a fact-finding body aiming to name every single person killed, missing, imprisoned, or tortured during the region's 1990s wars -- regardless of ethnicity or religion.

In order for RECOM to succeed, Kandic needs the governments of all the former Yugoslav countries on board. If she can get the leaders to sign an agreement to institutionalize RECOM at a regional summit set for July, "that would be a big win for civil society across the whole region," she told VOA.

"If Serbia wants to build a promising future, it must start by taking an honest look at its past," Kandic said in a 2012 profile by RFE/RL.

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

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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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