Bosnia shivers as ghost of nationalism returns
By Jeremy Bowen
BBC News, Sarajevo, Bosnia
Published 9 February 2022
A welcome sign greets visitors on a bridge in Sarajevo
On a sunlit winter afternoon, it is easy to imagine how life can be good in Bosnia. The pitched roofs of houses on the steep slopes of Sarajevo’s valley look like stacks of snow-covered cuckoo clocks. Children skate on an outdoor rink at one of the venues built for the Winter Olympics of 1984.
In the terrible war years between 1992 and 1995, when Sarajevo was besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army, I saw how bad, brutal, and short life could be here too. Bosnia-Herzegovina experienced bloodshed, cruelty and suffering that no-one had seen in Europe since World War Two. [This was an impression created by a mass of false propaganda generated by the Croatian and Bosnian information services, guided by US public relations agencies. Ridiculous claims were made that upto 250,000 had died during the first 6 months of the war. Western journalists, few of whom spoke Serbo-Croat, took all such claims at face value. There was no siege of Sarajevo – access to and from the city was only cut off when the Bosnian Muslim government wanted to make a propaganda point. Bosnian Serb guns were placed on the hills surrounding the city to protect the Serbs who had remained in the city. Bosnian Muslim guns were also in place. The worst part of life in the city was that, on most days, there were routine exchanges of shelling between the two sides.]
The worst single atrocity happened in Srebrenica in the east, where Bosnian Serb soldiers killed more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys over a few days in July 1995. Bosnian Serb wartime leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are both serving life sentences for genocide and crimes against humanity. [Absolutely no hard evidence to substantiate this figure has ever been made available. The Hague Tribunal reached its judgements solely on the basis of verbal reports of findings delivered by managers of the organisation entrusted with the gathering of forensic and DNA evidence for Tribunal prosecutions, the International Commission for Missing Persons. To ensure that primary evidence could not be accessed by the court, defence teams or anyone else, laws were passed in both Croatia and Bosnia to give the ICMP total immunity so that it could not be forced to hand over any of the primary evidence it claimed to have.]
Ratko Mladic may be in jail but his legacy remains
Perhaps that should have been the end of it. The war ended in 1995 with an agreement thrashed out at a US Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. It froze the conflict rather than settled it. [The only good thing about the Dayton agreement was that it brought an end to fighting – ironically on terms slightly worse for the Bosnian Muslims that those they could have had two years earlier when, under US pressure, they withdrew their signature from the so-called Lisbon agreement. The US and its allies lost no time in making arrangements, through the the US organ the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), to disadvantage Republika Srpska at every turn. Successive UN High Representatives (all appointed by the US President) – withheld funds from RS, used their powers to remove RS leaders from office, and forced the RS to produce a report on Srebrenica that was written by a Bosnian Muslim to an anti-Serb prescription set down by the High Representative.]
A big force of peacekeepers, and a High Representative with powers to pass laws made sure the deal stuck, but the world moved on some time ago. [The world hasn’t moved on at all. Dayton was always doomed by the insincerity of the western powers].
The problem for Bosnia is that it did not.
On 9 January a parade in Banja Luka, the de facto Serb capital, brought Bosnia’s problems into sharp focus.
Paramilitary police marched through the streets to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the declaration of Bosnian Serb independence in 1992, as Yugoslavia was breaking up and Bosnia was tumbling towards all-out war.
Bosnian Serb police marked their national holiday last month
Presiding over the parade was Milorad Dodik, welcomed by the Americans after the war as a “breath of fresh air”, but now seen as a Serb strongman who does not hesitate to raise the ghosts of the past. [Or a leader doing his best to fight for the interests of his people against an intolerable dictatorship?] One of his close allies is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Mr Dodik emulates aspects of Mr Orban’s right-wing nationalism.
Milorad Dodik was sanctioned last month by the US for trying to dismantle the Dayton accords
The Serb parade demonstrated the instability inherent in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s split personality. [Inherent instability that was an inevitable result of the hugely biased interventions by all the US-appointed UN High Representatives who have ruled Bosnia during the 26 years since Dayton.]
The Dayton agreement divided the country into two entities, with a layer of national institutions, including a joint presidency.
With some adjustments, the border between them follows the front lines at the time the fighting stopped. The Serb entity is called Republika Srpska. The other, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is run by Bosniak Muslims and Croats.
Relations between the two entities have never been easy, but they turned critical last July when the outgoing High Representative, Valentin Inzko, an Austrian with roots in former Yugoslavia, banned the denial of genocide. [This meant anyone questioning the palpably absurd official narrative of the Bosnian war, no matter how compelling the evidence they had gathered].
The fact a foreigner can pass laws irritates many Bosnians, but the measure outraged the Bosnian Serb leader. He ramped up separatist rhetoric and stopped co-operating with national institutions, of which he is part as the Serb member of the presidential troika. [Bosnian Serbs have been remarkably restrained in the face of intolerable injustice over many years.]
The current High Representative, Christian Schmidt, a former German minister, said Bosnia was gripped by the “greatest existential crisis of the post-war period”. He said a threat by Dodik to turn his armed police into a revived Bosnian Serb army risked the prospect of a return to war. [A crisis created by the western powers by their illegal intervention into the sovereign affairs of Yugoslavia – and in particular Germany’s instant recognition of Croatia and Bosnia as independent states though neither Yugoslav republic met ANY of the basic requirements for statehood set down in international law.]
The British Ambassador to Bosnia, Matt Field, echoed condemnation of Mr Dodik’s manoeuvres, which he said were using hate speech and ignoring Bosnia’s laws to devastate security and prosperity.
In the first week of 2022 Mr Dodik was sanctioned by the United States for “destabilising corrupt activities and attempts to dismantle the Dayton peace accords”. [It is the international community, led by the US, which is now creating a crisis to enable them to impose the full creation of a Bosnian Muslim-only state of Bosnia.]
Four days later he answered his critics by marching his men through the streets of Banja Luka. He turned down our requests for an interview.
Mr Dodik has critics at home as well as abroad. One of the most vocal in the Bosnian Serb opposition is Vojin Mijatovic, vice-president of the Social Democratic Party, who accuses him of fuelling criminality and corruption.
“This is the only way that he’s planning to cover millions of millions which he took from criminal corruption activities in Bosnia… I think it’s the only way [for him] to survive. That’s why I think he’s ready to do something.”
Genocide denial is a powerful issue in Bosnia. The killings at Srebrenica are exhaustively documented but many Serbs believe that the accusation is unjust. [It is simply untrue to say that the killings at Srebrenica are ‘exhaustively documented’. No professional, independent investigation of what happened has ever been carried out. This was most clearly demonstrated by the fact that Hague Tribunal indicted individuals and took them to trial without having even the beginnings of a case against them. Trials consisted of endless attempts to create the facade of a case through anonymous testimony from carefully-schooled people who claimed to have been ‘eyewitnesses’, augmented with long interrogations of Serbian witnesses in the forlorn hope that they might reveal something incriminating. In the end verdicts were reached without evidence – the trials were a farce perpetrated by an illegal court.]
I met disabled Bosnian Serb ex-servicemen in Banja Luka who declared their loyalty to their former commander, the convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic, and claimed that Serbs were also victims.
A political ally of Mr Dodik, Ljubisa Cosic, the mayor of East Sarajevo, a suburb of the city that lies within Republika Srpska, accepted that Serbs killed Bosniaks in Srebrenica, but insisted it was not genocide. [Both sides agreed that there had been fighting between Serb forces and the column of men making their way towards muslim lines. Estimates of casualties varied, with a consensus around 2,000 lives lost on each side.]
“As a sovereign nation, we know what genocide is and we had it in in the Second World War. Germans committed genocide on our nation, and it’s totally different than the crime in Srebrenica.”
Bosnians are all hostages to the past but nowhere in the country is more locked into the terrible bloodshed of the 1990s than the small town of Srebrenica itself.
Eight thousand Bosniak Muslim men and boys died in the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995
At the former UN base, where Dutch troops failed to protect Bosniak civilians in 1995, former mayor Camil Durakovic told me about the fears the current rhetoric had unleashed. [This is absolute nonsense. There were more than 4,000 very well armed members of the 28th division of the Bosnian Muslim army (ABiH) in Srebrenica town on the days before the Serbs took over. This force could have easily defended the town against Mladic’s small force of some 200-300. But they left Srebrenica during the night of 10/11 July on orders from Sarajevo, precisely to enable the myth of a massacre to be created and developed.]
“It’s just like you still have the Third Reich and the Gestapo existing after the Holocaust. Everybody says ‘let’s negotiate with them’. Let’s not negotiate with those that did the worst crimes against humanity in this country. The problem is that Serbs are trying to legalise what was gained by war crimes.” [The propaganda continues – perhaps rather unwisely in view of the close WW2 connection between the Bosnian Muslims and the Nazis over the extermination of between 700,000 and 1.7 million Serbs in Jasenovac and other death camps.]
Mr Durakovic was 16 as the Serb army closed in on Srebrenica. With his uncle and two cousins, he joined thousands of other Bosniak men and boys who tried to break out across the mountains to safety. In a chaotic departure he was separated from his companions.
Somewhere along the way, as the columns of fleeing men were ambushed, they were all killed. Mr Durakovic, through luck and grit, survived.
The six days afterwards when I was by myself were the most terrible time in my life. Everyone was scared, the trust between people was lost. Everybody was keeping to their families
Ex-mayor of Srebrenica
He joined the exhausted lines of traumatised people I saw that summer crossing into Tuzla, territory held by the Bosniak army.
“Eighty per cent of my schoolmates pre-war were actually killed in 1995. So, I see their mothers around here now and somehow when I look at them, I see how much I lost. Not only family members, but the whole generation.”
In Sarajevo, the leading Bosniak politician, Bakir Izetbegovic, said his Serb counterpart Milorad Dodik was an opportunist masquerading as a nationalist, but he was dangerous.
“He’s a rich guy who uses that black energy of nationalism. You never know if you let that spirit out of the bottle. You cannot turn it back.”
Without question, weaponising ethnic hatred is highly irresponsible in Bosnia. But Bakir Izetbegovic, whose late father was the Bosniak wartime president, has also been accused of manipulating nationalism to distract voters in elections later this year from his own political failures. [The war in Bosnia was never about ethnic hatred. Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims have the same ethnic background. The war was fought for religious reasons – Alija Izetbegovic’s determination to create a Bosnian Muslim Bosnia, with no Serbs living there. His ‘Islamic declaration’ had made this crystal clear and he remained absolutely committed to this unit his death in 2007.]
Bosnia’s political class has failed to short-circuit dysfunctional governance. UK ambassador Matt Field posted devastating criticisms of deep-seated corruption and “consequence-free” politics in a recent blog. He condemned the way powerful individuals could steal public money, block reform, praise war criminals, manipulate elections, and deny justice. [This is what happens when the whole structure of government is based on lies.]
All that has made it impossible for Bosnia-Herzegovina to break out of the past. It is haemorrhaging young people who have had enough of graves, memories and corruption. Between 50 to 60,000 emigrate every year, mostly to Germany, Austria and Slovenia.
The UN has estimated that if that continues Bosnia’s population of just over three million could halve by 2050.
The risk now is not that Bosnia explodes into all-out war as it did in 1992. The military infrastructure for fighting on that scale does not exist. But in an atmosphere infected with fear and hate, small incidents could escalate quickly. [Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims started the war in 1992. Neither had an effective army; their aim was, through massive propaganda, to persuade the world that a humanitarian catastrophe was taking place and create huge pressure on the western powers to intervene on their sides. The risk now is that the west will use a similar excuse to impose the outcome they had promised to the Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s.]
Instability and authoritarianism have seeded uncertainty in parts of Europe. Some diplomats in Sarajevo see opportunities in the Western Balkans for Russia to make mischief. One of them told me to take this dangerous moment seriously. Bosnia, he said is a state with post-traumatic stress – and guns. [International interventions in the affairs of sovereign countries over the past 30 years have left a trail of disaster in their wake. Unsourced comments from ‘diplomats’ are simply a means of excusing further disastrous interventions.]