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Bosnia: A Kind of Progress

25 November 2005

Bosnia: A Kind of Progress

 By Gwynne Dyer

Now that I am in this crazy fervour of mine

 I could do just about anything

So your stupid, rotten, vain souls

Wouldn’t stare at me with their stupid peaceful eyes

Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs during their 1992-95 attempt to cleanse the areas where they were a majority of all other ethnic groups, destroy Bosnia and unite with Serbia, is a rotten poet, but his recently published volume of poetry shows that, after ten years as a fugitive, he is still filled with rage and hate. Unfortunately, so is the Bosnian state he tried to destroy.

Things have been looking up recently in the “west Balkans”, the phrase that European Union bureaucrats use to describe the space occupied by Albania and the splintered remains of former Yugoslavia. The prospect of eventual EU membership has drawn the various successor states into reforms that are gradually transforming them from chaotic post-Communist autocracies into democratic states under the rule of law. Slovenia was actually admitted to the EU last year, and the others are rapidly joining the queue.

Furthest along are Croatia, which began entry talks last month, and Macedonia, which will probably become an officially recognised candidate for membership next month. Albania is well along in the process of negotiating a “Stabilisation and Association Agreement” with the EU, the essential precondition to candidate status, and Serbia and Montenegro began SAA talks with Brussels last month.

Bosnia, however, is bringing up the rear, mainly because of the physical and moral devastation inflicted on the country by the Balkan wars that began when Slobodan Milosevic, an ultra-nationalist Serb, achieved near-dictatorial powers in Belgrade and launched his project to unite all the Serbs of former Yugoslavia within one country. There was no fighting in Serbia itself, but Croatia, with a relatively small Serb minority, endured years of war — and Bosnia, where Serbs are 40 percent of the population, was virtually destroyed.

By 1995, when international intervention and a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia ended the slaughter in Bosnia, a quarter-million of its 4.5 million people were dead and almost half had been driven from their homes. Even now only a half-million of the two million refugees have dared to return to the homes from which they had been “cleansed,” and the country’s Gross Domestic Product is only 60 percent of what it was when the fighting began. At the current rate of growth, it will not return to the 1992 level until 2015.

The reason for such slow growth, as for much else that plagues Bosnia, is the peace agreement that was more or less imposed on the local factions by the United States at the talks in Dayton, Ohio in1995. It stopped the fighting, but at the cost of carving the county into two “entities”, one for the Serbs who had been responsible for most of the cleansing and other atrocities, and the other a shotgun marriage of the Croats and the Muslims of Bosnia (who had also been fighting each other).

Republika Srpska, as the Bosnian-Serb entity is known, has generally elected governments made up of ethnic nationalists who openly say they would rather unite with Serbia than stay in Bosnia. The Muslim-Croat federation has two separate ethnic governments, but is also divided into ten cantons with populations that are dominated by one group or the other, each with its own parliament and government. Counting a very weak central

government (with a three-man presidency that rotates between a Serb, a Croat and a Muslim every eight months), Bosnia has a total of fourteen governments. No wonder it’s stuck.

The old, tolerant, ethnically integrated Bosnia is gone forever: every municipality save one has a population that is 90 percent or more from a single ethnic or religious group. But EU membership is a great carrot, and Brussels and the United States are both using that prospect to push Bosnian leaders into a new constitution that would strengthen the central government greatly at the expense of the ethnically defined “entities” and simply eliminate the ten cantons.

Since most of Bosnia’s multitudes of politicians have strictly ethnic political bases, it’s a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, but last week, at a meeting in Dayton to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the peace accords, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice extracted a commitment from Bosnian leaders to create a single presidency and strengthen the central government by next March. At the same time, the EU rewarded them by agreeing to open talks on an association agreement — and the two separate “entities” have already agreed to integrate their separate armies next year. Genuine reconciliation is still a long way off, but there is some progress.

As Lord Paddy Ashdown, who leaves Bosnia this January after three and a half years as the international community’s High Representative, recently told the Guardian: “This country is about history, and unless the Serbs in particular — although terrible things were done by the (Muslim) Bosniaks and the Croats too — come to some understanding of this history, we cannot build a stable state. The major burden of guilt is on them, and they have to acknowledge it, just as the Germans acknowledged it….I don’t think Bosnia is ready for reconciliation, but I do think it is ready for truth.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Furthest along…month”; and “Republika Srpska…stuck”)

Srebrenica: Justice at Last?

9 July 2005

Srebrenica: Justice at Last?

By Gwynne Dyer

Sometimes diplomats can be very stupid. Right through late June and
early July, British diplomats in the Balkans pushed the notion that
Monday’s commemoration of the massacre of almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Serbian and Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica ten years ago was an ideal opportunity for everybody there, including Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian
Muslim leaders, to issue a joint declaration of “reconciliation and apology.” To their surprise, the victims didn’t think this was such a good idea.

What happened at Srebrenica on 11 July, 1995 was an act of
genocide, carried out with meticulous attention to detail by Serbian and
Bosnian Serb troops after the Dutch military force that was supposed to
defend the UN-declared “safe area” delivered almost the entire Muslim
population of the town into their hands without a fight. Neither Muslims
nor Croatians had any reason to apologise for the horrors at Srebrenica.
It is the Serbs and the Dutch who need to apologise — but most Serbs are
still in deep denial.

In recent weeks, both the Serbian parliament in Belgrade and the
Serbian caucus in the Bosnian parliament have refused to adopt or voted
down proposed declarations that would have denounced the Srebrenica
massacre. Somebody even planted two very powerful bombs near the memorial
centre in Srebrenica, although they were discovered and disarmed in time.
The reformist Serbian president, Boris Tadic, insisted on showing up for
the ceremony, but his presence was condemned equally by Muslim survivors
and by his own fellow Serbs.

Forgiveness and reconciliation must happen one day, but it cannot
even get onto the agenda while the chief organisers of the Srebrenica
genocide, former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karazic and his
military chief General Ratko Mladic, are still free and still seen as
heroes by many other Serbs. Both men have technically been on the run
since NATO forces imposed a ceasefire and a kind of UN trusteeship on
Bosnia in 1995, but they moved freely around Serbia until their patron,
Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, was overthrown and delivered into the
hands of the UN in 2001. Even now, they are hidden and protected by many
willing Serbs.

Although they were both indicted for genocide, war crimes, and
crimes against humanity by the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague ten
years ago, they have thumbed their noses at international law for a decade
because NATO troops either couldn’t find them, or didn’t try to break
through their rings of bodyguards and arrest them because the casualties
would be too high.

Now, however, the tectonic plates are finally beginning to shift in
the geographical space that used to be Yugoslavia — now splintered into
Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and
Kosovo — because the European Union has finally started to use its
leverage. It’s more carrot than stick: the real inducement for these
countries to turn themselves into law-abiding democracies is that they have
been led to believe that they might then qualify for EU membership, with
all the prosperity and security that that would imply.

But law-abiding democracies hand over indicted war criminals to
international courts when requested to do so, so suddenly the mass
murderers who carried out atrocious acts of “ethnic cleansing” become a
liability for the governments that had hitherto been protecting them as war

In 1998, five years after the war crimes tribunal was created the
detention centre in The Hague only held five inmates. Now there are 62
detainees, including a former president, a former prime minister, a former
defence minister and a former interior minister. Eighteen more are out on
bail pending trial, and 56 others have already been convicted and moved to
other prisons to serve their sentences.

“This is without doubt the most active and productive period in the
life of the tribunal thus far,” Judge Theodor Meron, president of the
tribunal, wrote to the UN Security Council last month. Twenty men, some of
them very senior officials, have surrendered to the tribunal in the past
six months, cutting the list of those still wanted to only ten. The
missing ten still include all three of the biggest fish — Karadzic, Mladic
and Croatian General Ante Gotovina — but even they may soon be arriving in
The Hague.

The EU’s refusal to continue with Croatia’s entrance negotiations
has transformed Zagreb’s willingness to cooperate with the tribunal. Its
refusal even to open talks with Serbia-Montenegro until Belgrade stopped
stalling has had a similar result: in April General Nebojsa Pavkovic,
former head of the Serbian army, surrendered himself in The Hague. There
is suspicion that his and other recent wave of “surrenders” was eased by
large cash payments by the Serbian government to the families of the
indicted men, but the point is that it is actually happening at last.

There is even hope that Karadzic and Mladic may soon be delivered
to the tribunal. Last Thursday Karadzic’s son Aleksandar (Sasa) was
suddenly arrested by NATO troops in the Bosnian Serb town of Pale, his
father’s former capital, and taken away for questioning. Nothing will
bring the victims of the genocide back to life, but the hunt is closing in
on the killers.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 7. (“Although…high”; and

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journal whose articles
are published in 45 countries.

Croatia’s Missing General

17 March 2005

Croatia’s Missing General

By Gwynne Dyer

The British, Dutch and German governments finally got so fed up with Croatia’s failure to deliver General Ante Gotovina to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague — “I’ve been travelling to Zagreb for four years getting promises on Gotovina and we’re still not there,” said Denis MacShane, Britain’s minister for Europe — that they decided to block Croatia’s bid for European Union membership. Croatia was due to start EU entry talks this month, together with Romania and Bulgaria, but it is now on hold until it can convince Brussels that it really is trying to find Gotovina.

The Croats are furious, and much of the Croatian media is insisting that it’s all a British plot to keep their country out of the EU. Exactly why Britain would have it in for Croatia remains unclear, but nationalists in smallish countries with turbulent histories often believe that people elsewhere stay up late at night plotting against them.

And just when you thought that it couldn’t get any stranger, here comes the ghost of the Austro-Hungarian empire, shambling out of the shadows to declare its solidarity with Catholic Croatia. Other EU members that also once belonged to that officially Catholic empire — Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia — still see the Balkans south of Croatia as a wilderness full of Muslims and Orthodox Christians who cannot be trusted, and don’t really care if Gotovina ever faces trial for cleansing Croatia of its Orthodox Serbs. So they have warned the EU that if Croatia doesn’t get in, neither does Turkey.

Asked directly if Austria was prepared to block the scheduled start of Turkey’s accession talks in October, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said: “I won’t answer on that. The topic is Croatia right now.” The threat was clear enough, but it probably won’t end in a crisis that splits the EU, because in the end Croats really do want to obey the law.

The Croats are very upset about their entry talks being suspended, but it’s not only the promise of prosperity that attracted them to the EU. Like most prospective new members in eastern and southern Europe, they have lived for many decades under arbitrary and lawless governments, and now they want to live in countries where human rights are protected and everybody must obey the law.

Croatia’s difficulty is that, unlike other EU candidates, it has recently been through a war. Much of Croatia was occupied by Serbian troops for over three years, and hundreds of thousands of Croats were driven from their homes in border areas that they had shared with the local Serbian minority for centuries. Emotions run high after something like that, and even sensible, law-abiding people can lose their balance.

General Ante Gotovina commanded the Croatian army in the 72-hour blitz that won the war with Serbia and recovered the lost territory in 1995. Some 150,000 Croatian Serbs fled or were driven from their homes, and some were massacred. Gotovina may or may not be a war criminal, but he had command responsibility during the operation, and there is certainly a case to answer.

The Hague tribunal has been seeking Gotovina’s arrest for years, but he is a war hero to most Croats, and no government until the present one was willing to him up for trial (though they pretended to be looking for him). Perhaps the current government, led by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, is willing to hand him over in principle, but in practice it has been unable to get its own intelligence and police apparatus to help in the search.

There is no doubt that large parts of the Croatian military, intelligence and police establishments have been actively trying to thwart the search for Gotovina, and so far the Croatian government has not felt strong enough to take them on in a direct confrontation. Many people in the EU have sympathy for the Croatian government’s plight, but nobody is willing to set a precedent by overlooking such open defiance of the rule of law, so Croatia will have to wait outside the door.

It may not be for a very long time. Carla del Ponte, the UN’s chief war crimes prosecutor, will report again to the Security Council in June, and if she says that Zagreb is now really trying to find the missing general (who is not believed to be hiding in Croatia) then the bar will be lifted. “None of us are making (the surrender of General Gotovina) a precondition,” explained British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. But the Croatian government must face down its own security forces and start cooperating in the search, or it cannot join the club.

As the EU expands to the south and east — Serbia and Bosnia will be joining the queue one of these days — this sort of thing will arise again, and it’s important to get the rules clear. Wise Croatians will welcome the pressure that Brussels is exerting on their government, as it is their best chance to normalise their country and fully restore the rule of law after the nightmare of the Balkan wars. They will probably sort things out in time to catch up with Romania and Bulgaria and join the EU in 2007.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“Asked…law”; and “It may…club”)