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Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik's latest gambit is his declared intention to run for the Bosnian presidency in October -- thereby becoming a member of a tripartite executive branch of a country he does not support, and from which he wishes to secede.

"Foreigners giving up on Bosnia: country close to collapse."

That's a recent headline from Sputnik, the Russian state media arm in Serbia since 2015.

The accompanying photo -- a sepia-toned panoramic shot of Muslim gravestones overlooking the city of Sarajevo, overlaid by a spectrally transparent image of a Bosnian flag -- appears likewise meant to convey imminent doom. It might not be a surprise, given Sputnik's (and Russian media in general's) vocal support for Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska who routinely predicts Bosnia-Herzegovina's demise.

The irony, of course, is that critics accuse Dodik of doing more than anyone else to impede Bosnia's central institutions and thus make his prophecy a self-fulfilling one. His latest gambit is his declared intention to run for the Bosnian presidency in the October elections -- thereby becoming a member of a tripartite executive branch of a country he does not support, and from which he wishes to secede.

But even impartial observers recognize that Bosnia is in trouble and might need urgent help from abroad. Writing in The Washington Post, Frida Ghitis voiced the fear that Bosnia may be heading back to "the dark old days of the 1990s" and that Europe and the United States, "currently distracted with other problems, must act soon to keep Bosnia from going off the rails."

Moreover, Dodik's Russian-endorsed secessionism is not the only threat to Bosnia's stability.

In the other Bosnian entity, known as the Muslim-Croat Federation, two radically opposed models of government are currently pitted against each other. One would seemingly guarantee the survival of a more-or-less democratic, if still imperfect, system; the other would appear to turn Bosnia into little more than an ethnocracy.

The latter option is being championed by Bosnian Croat political leaders, who insist on the principle that only ethnic Croats should be allowed to elect their political representatives in state institutions. They are demanding a change to the constitution that would limit voting for designated Croatian candidates to the Bosnian presidency or parliamentary committees to ethnic Croats.

Since the system already guarantees ethnic Croat representation in all government bodies, this demand appears to be based on the belief that only Croats chosen exclusively by other Croats would truly defend the interests of their ethnic fellows. It is a view that seemingly regards the idea of civic society and ethnic belonging as fundamentally opposed and unable to coexist.

Foundation Of Fear

The current dispute is only the latest manifestation of a deeply rooted problem in postwar Bosnia, where the only kind of politics is that of identity -- and fear: Each ethnic group feels, or is made to feel, that its customs, religion, and culture are not respected enough and will somehow be obliterated by the others.

Yet the Bosnian Croats, with their present demands -- like Dodik, for his part -- are merely playing by the Dayton playbook. Ethnicity is the foundation of the Dayton peace agreement; and while that was perhaps an acceptable price to pay for peace in 1995, it may no longer serve even that basic purpose. The Bosnian Croats' demands are only the latest reminder that the limits of Dayton might have been reached.

The architect of the peace accord, U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, is no longer alive. He was a pragmatist whose goal was to end a war -- one that had taken at least 100,000 lives -- and could not or did not wish to imagine that more than two decades later, nationalist leaders would invoke Dayton to wage the same war by other means. Holbrooke is no longer around to fix the flaws in Bosnia's governing charter, of course.

Meanwhile, his political master and patron at the time of Dayton, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, has just published a novel, co-written with James Patterson. It features a female Bosnian assassin code-named Bach -- a classical-music-loving, vegetarian, pregnant, cold-blooded killer who wields a semiautomatic rifle that she calls Anna Magdalena. Several reviewers have pointed out that the novel's fictional president, Jonathan Duncan, resembles Clinton's own alter ego, while elements of the plot appear to deliberately echo Clinton's time in office.

If that is so, one might wonder if the specter of Bosnia still haunts Clinton's thoughts -- a sense of guilt over a war interrupted too late and a peace that is looking increasingly like a prelude to another conflict (or far from a lasting solution) -- personified in an assassin on the loose.

Glimmer Of Hope?

Beyond the Russian spin, nationalist demagoguery, and presidential fiction, what does the future hold for Bosnia?

In a recently published book titled Hunger And Fury: The Crisis Of Democracy, Bosnian academic Jasmin Mujanovic sees hope amid the gloom. Taking aim at both local and foreign prophets of Bosnia's doom, he criticizes an "immobilizing chorus that asks when there will be another war in the Balkans. It is not an exaggeration to say that it is an act of psychological terror to hang this rhetorical sword constantly over the heads of the peoples of the Western Balkans."

Such rhetoric is a tool of the local nationalist elites who use it "to terrorize and thus pacify the impoverished and traumatized masses over which they rule," Mujanovic argues.

Since the signing of the Dayton accords, the West has facilitated the entrenchment of these "ethnic entrepreneurs" in power in exchange for vague and grudgingly repeated promises not to start another war, he says. According to Mujanovic, the growing desperation and feeling of impotence might lead to the unleashed fury of the hungry masses -- with unpredictable consequences.

Mujanovic also expresses hope for what's on the horizon, based on his study of grassroots movements throughout the region committed to social justice and civic democracy.

But the case of Security Minister Dragan Mektic, an ethnic Serb seemingly committed to serving all of Bosnia's citizens and tackling corruption, suggests there are also advocates of change among serving politicians in Bosnia.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) presents a state award to film director Emir Kusturica at the Kremlin in 2016.

Soccer's World Cup kicks off in Russia in less than two weeks, and one of the warmup acts is the Art-Football festival from May 25 to June 3.

That latter Moscow event -- staged to raise funds for seriously ill children -- is in its eighth year. Artists and performers slated to appear include award-winning director Emir Kusturica, in his roles as both a humanitarian and an unapologetic supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He featured on a Serbian soccer team that defeated its German counterpart on May 27, having already taken the stage with his band, No Smoking, and attended a special event in his honor at the Moscow Conservatory titled Vivat Kusturica.

The Serbian director has twice been awarded the main prize at Cannes, the Palm d'Or (in 1985 for the film When Father Was Away on Business, and in 1995 for Underground).

However, before Kusturica was a Serbian director and a champion of Serbian and Russian brotherhood based on shared culture and history, he was much more closely associated with his native Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Born into a Bosnian Muslim family in Sarajevo, Kusturica chose to be baptized Orthodox Christian in 2005. He attended Putin’s third presidential inauguration in 2012 and attributed his lack of success at Cannes in more recent years to his support for Putin.

It seems that he reached a crossroads in 1992 with the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kusturica almost instantly went from hero to zero in his hometown when he gave his backing to the Serbian-led Yugoslav Army, which was then besieging Sarajevo and waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the rest of Bosnia.

Film director Emir Kusturica performs in Crimea’s Black Sea resort of Yalta, July 23, 2017.
Film director Emir Kusturica performs in Crimea’s Black Sea resort of Yalta, July 23, 2017.

He was a vocal supporter of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and reinvented himself as a Serbian director in subsequent years, endearing himself to nationalists in Belgrade. His endorsement of Putin’s Russia appears to be an extension of this adopted world-view and identity, as Kusturica considers the Russian president as not only the champion of Pan-Slavic Orthodox Christian culture but a bulwark against the West.

But for a brief moment in the midst of the Bosnian War, Kusturica seemed to waver between his commitment to the Serbian cause and the suffering of his Bosnian compatriots.

Kusturica was still revered in his native city when the war began -- he was in Paris at the time -- and so the disappointment was profound when, in a telephone interview with Sarajevo TV, he urged people to support the Yugoslav Army. This was the same army that -- as everyone could see -- was killing civilians and keeping Sarajevo under siege. Later, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Kusturica claimed that the European Union was responsible for the shelling of Sarajevo and he blamed Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic for starting the war.

It was beyond comprehension to many that Kusturica, who was worshiped by most people in Sarajevo before the war, had turned his back on his city. Many held out hope that it wasn’t true -- that it couldn’t be true. Perhaps, being so far away, he was simply unaware of what was happening on the ground.

And then, suddenly, confirmation arrived that the hope may have been justified.

It was March 1993, and Sarajevo had been under siege for almost a year. My newspaper, Oslobodjenje, was continuing to publish under the barrage of Serbian artillery, but paper supplies were running low and we were continually being forced to reduce the page count of our daily edition. We reported on the war and the events in the city, but all news from abroad was brought to us by foreign journalists. One day, the Oslobodjenje news desk received a fax from Paris: Kusturica had sent a story that he wanted to be published in our newspaper.

It was a cold March day, and every member of our wartime editorial board was bundled up to stay warm, as there was no heating. Kusturica’s piece was on the table in front of us. The title of the article was Rasim’s Horseshoe. It was about his random encounter with a Bosnian refugee, a miner from the village of Lopare, who had been tortured by Serb forces. They had nailed a horseshoe onto his foot. Kusturica had written a passionate account of his meeting with Rasim at the airport in Amsterdam. Rasim was on his way to some European hospital for surgery to repair his foot.

Around half of my colleagues were against publishing Kusturica’s piece, citing his earlier statements about the war and his public support for Milosevic. I was with the other half, as I believed -- or wanted to believe -- that after meeting Rasim, Kusturica perhaps finally understood that Muslims in Bosnia were seemingly being targeted -- killed, tortured, expelled from their homes -- simply because they were Muslims. I defended his right to have a late change of heart, faced with such compelling evidence. We prevailed, and Kusturica was published in Oslobodjenje. Here's an excerpt from Kusturica’s story:

“I had to see the sufferer Rasim from the [concentration] camp to reach that emotional tipping point, and to forget in an instant all the politics and history of the world.... I had to look into those gentle eyes that were asking me, 'Why, Emir?' to understand that there is no historical or other justification for nailing a horseshoe onto a man’s feet.”

However, although we were under siege, the story eventually made it to the outside world, and provoked immediate reaction from Belgrade. Kusturica, as a film director acclaimed throughout Europe, was a useful propaganda tool for a regime that was widely condemned for its actions and atrocities in Bosnia. The horseshoe story thus upset Milosevic’s backers in Serbia; Kusturica furiously backtracked, even denying that he had written the story in the first place.

That story is still invoked in regional media as a turning point in Kusturica’s affiliations. Since then, that narrative goes, the director has only redoubled his political commitments to Serbian nationalism and, by extension, Putin’s Russia.

In 2016, Putin presented Kusturica with the Order Of Friendship for his contributions to strengthening the friendship between the peoples and for the promotion of Russian language and culture abroad. Kusturica thanked Putin in Russian, recalling that at their first meeting he did not speak Russian:

“Dear Mr. Putin, when we met for the first time, I did not speak Russian; the second time, very little; and now I would like to thank you [in Russian] for this award.”

As Kusturica sings and plays in Moscow this month in the name of charity and humanitarian causes, and to lend his fame to Russia and its president, will he also recall the story of Rasim’s horseshoed foot?

(The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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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