Bosnia-Herzegovina: 25 years after Dayton

Submitted by martin on 8 December, 2020 - 2:50 Author: Len Glover
Tuzla 2014

Protest in Tuzla, 2014, for jobs and economic justice and against communalism


There is a film nowadays rarely seen which was once, perhaps surprisingly, the most popular foreign film ever shown in China: Walter Defends Sarajevo (directed by Hajruin Krvavac in 1972) is a Yugoslav film, set in the Second World War, telling the story of the Nazis’ attempts to eliminate the mysterious Walter — based on a real person — who is the leader of the Sarajevo Partisans and a master at disguise and intrigue.

No-one, even his own fighters, know what this Balkan Scarlet Pimpernel looks like. Despite bringing in the infamous Colonel von Dietrich and sending an agent to infiltrate the ranks of the Partisans the Nazis fail to capture or kill Walter as they are constantly thwarted and ultimately defeated by the Partisans. At the end of the film von Dietrich stands on a hill overlooking the city and says “Sehen Sie diese Stadt? Das ist Walter” (“You see that city? That’s Walter!”). The city’s inhabitants are as one, regardless of ethnicity or religion, united in struggle and they ultimately prevail. It was a film metaphor not just for Sarajevo but for Yugoslavia and over the years has become a cult film in the region and beyond. In the very early days of the Balkan war there were some unity demonstrations in Sarajevo and people were heard to shout — alas to no avail — “We are all Walter!”

Fast forward to 2006 and another film, Grbavica (director Jasmila Žbanić — the title comes from a district of Sarajevo), captures a very different Sarajevo, where a traumatised Muslim mother hides a terrible secret from her daughter — her father, who she thinks died a hero’s death in the siege of Sarajevo, is actually a Serb militiaman who raped her mother. From a city once united against fascism Sarajevo is now in ruins, bitterly divided, crime-riddled, with many rape victims and thousands dead or missing. The “two” Sarajevos and, by extension Yugoslavia (by now defunct), are totally different places: where once unity and a sense of community prevailed now there is only discord and division.

The war in Bosnia, the centre-piece of Europe’s most bloody conflict since World War Two, was brought to an end — twenty five years ago — on 21 November 1995. That was followed by the pomp and circumstance of the obligatory ceremonial signing on 14 December in the Ballroom of the Élysée Palace in Paris, when the leaders of all the main governments involved — Croatia (Franjo Tudjman), Bosnia-Herzegovina (Ilija Izetbegović), and the Federation of Yugoslavia (Slobodan Milošević; in reality the Federation was just Serbia and Montenegro) — signed a peace agreement devoted to solving the question of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH as it is now called): where its boundaries should be drawn, its governmental structures, implementation schedule and so on. The outline of the peace agreement was actually decided beforehand in the White House and then thrashed out in the unlikely setting of the Wright-Patterson Airforce Base in Dayton, Ohio. The 21 days of negotiation were presided over by US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, once described by Henry Kissinger as “… the most viperous character I know” (well, it takes one to know one), and the agreement has henceforth been known as the Dayton Peace Accord (DPA).

The DPA has been hailed either as an utter failure or a great diplomatic success — and everything in between. However, before discussing the DPA we need to go back, briefly, in history (for further analysis of the historical background see the interview with Sarah Correia in Solidarity 562, 9 September 2020).

Josip Broz “Tito”, Communist Party President and the “strongman” of Yugoslavia, died on 4 May 1980. In the years immediately following, the Yugoslav Federation rapidly fell apart. Under Tito, Yugoslavia successfully (for a time at least) brought together the patchwork quilt of disparate groups of Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Jews, Magyars, Kosovo Albanians and Muslims in the Balkans into one state. However we may assess Tito’s politics, this was a major achievement.

World War Two had found Yugoslavia deeply divided. Tito’s multi-ethnic Partisans pitted themselves against the Nazi occupiers but also had to fight the Chetniks (right wing nationalists who favoured a return to the monarchy) and the Ustashe (Croatian fascists), while some Bosnian Muslims fought with the Nazis. For the peoples of the Balkan peninsula the Second World War was a war of anti-fascist resistance and a civil war and a killing field.

All sides committed atrocities during and after the war. According to the Hungarian Tibor Cseres (an eyewitness), Tito’s Partisans killed 34,491 ethnic Hungarians around the town of Novi Sad in reprisal for atrocities committed by Hungarian troops in 1941. Fatalities at concentration camps run by Croatian Ustashe, such as the notorious Jasenovac complex, were appalling. Anything between 750,000 and 1,000,000 Jews, Gypsies and Serbs were killed. To his dying day Franjo Tudjman, President of Croatia, denied the scale of the killing.

To create a workable federation out of this butcher’s block was a remarkable achievement, even though Tito’s hands were hardly free from blood. Such was the strength of his Partisan movement that Tito was able to resist incorporation into the Stalinist eastern bloc and its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. Later on Tito established the “non-aligned” movement along with Ethiopia and Indonesia.

The state that was created after World War 2 actually bears some resemblance to the state of BiH created by the DPA. It was heavily decentralised (in some ways the most decentralised state in the world at the time) and strenuous efforts — complex and often convoluted — were made to ensure that no one ethnic group was overrepresented in the governmental structure. Chairs of government bodies and presidencies etc. were regularly rotated and there was a considerable degree of autonomy for the six Republics (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia) and the two so-called Autonomous Provinces (Vojvodina and Kosovo — both within the boundaries of Serbia).

That looks very neat and tidy but the lines drawn on maps hide a complex reality. In many areas of the former Yugoslavia, Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims and others lived in mixed communities where, very often, close neighbours were from different ethnic groups or religious persuasions. Tito’s dominant personality was, in part, responsible for the relative peace that prevailed in Yugoslavia, but, although Tito stood up to Stalin he was not averse to borrowing his methods when so inclined. The notorious labour camps at Goli Otok and Mitrovica, to just name two, were rarely short of inmates. Tito, of course, made sure his position was never rotated.

One concern of Tito (who was of Croatian and Slovenian descent) was to prevent the dominance of Serbia in the new Republic. Hence the complicated rotating of key political and civil positions and his particular attention to the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), where Serbs tended to dominate the officer caste.

After Tito’s death it was primarily a resurgence of Serb chauvinism and nationalism that led eventually led to war and the break-up of Yugoslavia. It is a complex story probably best told in Branka Magaš’ book The Destruction of Yugoslavia (first published in 1993) and Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia (third edition 1996).

There are a couple of key dates. The first was April 1981, when Kosovo, with its large ethnic Albanian (Muslim) population was placed under martial law, the first time that had happened in Yugoslavia since the end of WW2. During the clampdown, which lasted about two months, twelve Albanians were killed and over 150 wounded. (Those are the official figures. The real totals are almost certainly higher). Another key date is 27 April 1987, when Slobodan Milošević made an infamous Serbian-chauvinist speech at Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Field).

Leon Trotsky, at the time a war-correspondent for a Vienna-based newspaper, recounts how, while marching with the Serbian army in 1913, he noticed that the soldiers became agitated and started talking among themselves. On enquiring he discovered that the column was approaching Kosovo Polje, the site of a major battle between a Balkan Christian army and the invading army of the Ottoman empire back in 1389. The Christian armies were routed. The battle has, over the years, become part of a history which has defined the region and its resistance to Ottoman rule. Today, the legend has been shaped in such a way that the resistance to the Ottomans is seen as a solely Serbian struggle, but that is not true.

Kosovo Polje is now identified with Serb nationalism and shamelessly exploited by Serb nationalists, none more so than Slobodan Milošević. The painting, The Kosovo Maiden, for example, typifies the romanticised image of sacrifice in the service of nationhood.

All nation states have their myths which play a role in defining them. They may be found on canvas (Washington Crossing the Delaware) or in drama (Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth) or in the glorification or even deification of certain individuals (Joan of Arc, Simon Bolivar). Literature and even films can play a role in this process.

Whether or not the myths are true is not so important as the fact that they are often believed and become dangerous and threatening — as opposed to a mere curiosity — when politicians exploit the often latent feelings that these images and narratives evoke. Slobodan Milošević proved himself to be a past-master at this dark art, aided and abetted by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Kosovo Polje is in the Autonomous Province of Kosovo, home to a large Albanian majority (1,277,000 compared to 210,000 Serbs: 1982 figures). After the death of Tito tensions between Serbs and Albanians increased as Milošević’s government in Belgrade began to increase pressures on the Albanians, who had long standing grievances over their lack of democratic rights and cultural freedoms. As tension turned into violence, Serbs started to move out of the province. Fears increased and Milošević seized his opportunity to play the nationalist card. The 28 June 1989 commemoration of the 600 year old battle turned into a stage-managed jamboree of Serb chauvinism.at

Something like one million people, almost all of them Serbs, attended the rally. Although Milošević was careful to couch his language in terms of unity and peace, the dreary rhetoric always used by party leaders, his theme was, in effect, “Serbia first”. “Six centuries later, now we are being again engaged in battles and facing battles. They are not armed battles although such things cannot be excluded yet.”

Many commentators noted how Milošević’s stress — however controlled or muted — on nationalist ideology was a decisive break with the past of Tito. The appeals for unity (a sham unity — he was really talking about Serb unity) could not help but be contrasted with the harsh treatment being meted out to the Kosovo Albanians. Kosovo would become the next flashpoint after Dayton as the Serbs fought to keep the province within their control. After war which claimed 13,000 lives, Kosovo broke away and eventually declared its independence in 2008, although it has never been recognised by Serbia.

Under Milošević the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (as the Communist Party of Yugoslavia had been named since 1952), which he and his cronies dominated, began to exert pressure on other areas of the increasingly unstable and disintegrating Yugoslav Federation. In 1990 the LCY dissolved and most of its membership was absorbed by the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) with Milošević still at the helm.

In 1991 Slovenia became the first of the Republics to declare itself for multi-party elections, followed soon by Croatia. Both republics were operating totally within the constitutional framework of the Yugoslav Federation, which allowed a Republic to decide its own internal affairs, yet Milošević responded by sending in the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). A short war ensued (often referred to as the “Ten Day War”) in which Slovenian forces held their ground against the JNA. After than, largely mono-ethnic Slovenia was left alone and played no further part in the drama that was to follow.

War ensued between Croatia and Serbia, with particularly fierce fighting around the Croatian towns of Vukovar and Osjiek. Bosnia was pulled into war with Serbia after it voted for independence in 1992. The other Republics, Montenegro and Macedonia, managed to stay out of the fighting. In order to do that Macedonia had to agree to Serbia stripping its entire stock of military hardware. Montenegro became part of the so-called Federal Republic of Yugoslavia along with Serbia, a partnership for which it displayed diminishing enthusiasm. Following a referendum it would eventually break away and declare independence in May 2006.

From June 1991 the region was plunged into a civil war which, including the 44 months of the siege of Sarajevo, lasted through to the DPA in November 1995.

The destruction was enormous. All the mosques in and around Banja Luka were destroyed and, in an act of cultural barbarism, the famous footbridge in Mostar, built during the days of the Ottoman Empire, was also obliterated. Far worse than any destruction of buildings was the human death toll. The human death toll is estimated by the Humanitarian Law Centre as, at least, 130,000 dead. There were horrific massacres, at Srebrenica in July 1995 (8,000 dead) and elsewhere, where unarmed Muslim boys and men were shot and then buried in mass graves. The UNHCR estimates that 12,000 women, mainly Muslim, were raped.

An uneasy ceasefire managed to hold after NATO airstrikes against Serb military positions in August 1995. Later the same year the Dayton talks produced the settlement and the map we have today.

What did the Dayton talks decide? Before considering this, it should be made clear that the DPA was hardly a victory for diplomacy over war.

Holbrooke was no angelic neutral arbitrator and was quite prepared to use force when he felt it necessary (and when he could persuade the sometimes reluctant US military to agree). In that he followed the advice of the early 20th Century US president Theodore Roosevelt — “speak softly and carry a big stick.” With a US aircraft carrier in the Adriatic and US bases in Italy and nearby Hungary, Holbrooke was not short of big sticks.

It was agreed that Bosnia was to be divided into two “entities”: the Republika Srpska (RS), mainly Serb, with its capital Pale in the south east (later moved to Banja Luka), and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiHFed), mainly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) or Croat, but with a minority of Serbs.

Both the BiHFed and RS are, in effect, highly autonomous. The curious term “entity” was employed to avoid any suggestion that Bosnia was being partitioned into separate states. A number of commentators have argued that really it was.

According to the 1991 census, that is before the war and four years before Dayton, Bosnia consisted of:

• 1,905,270 Bosniaks, 43.65% of the total population

• 1,369,883 Serbs, 31.39% of the total population

• 755,883 Croats, 17.32% of the total population

• 239,857 “Yugoslavs”, 5.5% of the total population — people who didn’t identify with any of the ethnic groups.

After the displacements of populations during the war those figures changed drastically.

The DPA did not envisage the two entities as separate states. The RS and the BiHFed were, supposedly, integrated. It was very different on the ground.

In order to achieve some level of integration the government structures of BiH were devised so that none of the three groups (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs) could gain ascendancy. Each entity has its own president, and a new president for BiH is elected every eight months, rotating between a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak. Similar complex structures can be found in the judiciary, with the added complication that the Constitutional Court (the supreme legal body) has nine judges, three of whom are non-Bosnians appointed by the European Court of Human Rights.

This is an international arrangement, in effect, imposed on Bosnia, primarily by the USA, with the European Union running behind. The whole structure is topped by a High Representative (an official from an EU country) and a deputy (from the USA) with large powers.

Has the DPA succeeded or failed? This discussion revolves around the attitude you must take to either partition or integration. Should Bosnia have been partitioned, creating three independent states — one for each group of people? Then the Bosnian Croats would opt to join Croatia and the Bosnian Serbs would opt to join Serbia, thus leaving a rump Bosnia surrounded by a Croat state and a Serb state, with a great risk of conflict erupting again.

Many Croats and Serbs would find themselves adrift in the Bosnian Muslim state and would thus want to move out, and the same for the many Bosniaks who would themselves be in either the newly consolidated Serb state or the Croatian version. The result would be yet more displaced persons, and those would need to be protected, fed, re-housed and re-integrated. In an area with already high unemployment jobs would need to be found or created. It would, in effect, be a variant of ethnic cleansing all over again.

Partitions are sometimes just another way of saying that the people of a certain area should be free to separate from a larger unit they find oppressive, but there is no doubt that history provides us with many examples where they have been fraught with huge difficulties. The partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947 led to widespread bloodshed (over 500,000 dead) and some of the largest population movements in a very short time ever seen in human history, over 16,000,000.

In 1923 the decision of the Lausanne Convention (approved by the League of Nations) to move the entire Greek population of Turkey to Greece and the, smaller, Turkish population from Greece to Turkey no doubt saved thousands of lives. However, those population exchanges did not resolve the territorial conflicts between Turkey and Greece which have flared up periodically over the years, most notably in the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus.

Romanian governments of the Second World War period devised a number of schemes to transfer sections of its multi-ethnic population of Magyars, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Russians and others in “exchange” for “ethnic” Romanians in neighbouring countries. Romanian Jews were a different consideration. They were brutally treated, although after the collapse of the fascist Antonescu dictatorship in 23 August 1943 their situation improved drastically.

These often highly complex schemes never produced meaningful outcomes. People sometimes just ignored the orders emanating from Bucharest or moved where the authorities didn’t want them to. It was a total mess and brought to an abrupt end by the invasion of the Russian Army in August 1944. Often the people concerned had little feeling for their supposed ethnicity and, not unreasonably, wanted to stay where they had been born.

Given the recent history of BiH and the complexity of the human geography involved, a policy which involved population movements would run enormous risks of even a small incident igniting a larger conflagration. It would also assume a degree of co-operation between the two entities and between neighbouring states which has, so far, been marked primarily by its absence. A policy of partition into three separate nation states would involve a negation and abandonment of the basic principles of internationalism and would solve nothing — the region would still be prey to a resurgence of nationalism and border disputes flaring up.

That has been the case with India and Pakistan. If anyone harboured the idea that once partition and the population displacements had finished then everything would settle down, they were to be sorely disappointed. Full-scale war between the two countries broke out in 1947-8, 1965, and 1971, with a more limited two month conflict in the disputed border region of Kashmir in 1999.

So there was a rationale to refusing partition. In any case, any movement now must start from the existing boundaries and governmental set-up, from what exists on the ground. That is the reality that has to be faced and cannot be wished away by a few slogans. There are a few signs that some progress is being made towards the integration of the two entities, though it is painfully slow.

At the time of the signing of the DPA there was a requirement that the armed forces of the BiHFed and the RS merge into one body. That was finally achieved in 2005. There have been no major confrontations between the three constituent groups in BiH. There have been some flare-ups, but brief and contained locally.

Some progress has been made in bringing war criminals to trial. By November 2017, 83 had been convicted, including sentences of life imprisonment for both Radavan Karadžić (President of RS) and Ratkó Mladic (Chief of the General Staff of the RS army). Slobodan Milošević was also brought to trial, but died of a heart attack before that was concluded.

Last year the streets of Sarajevo echoed to very different slogans and new flags were seen. 8 September 2019 was the first ever Pride March in the city. Unfortunately, the projected 2020 march was cancelled due to the Coronavirus epidemic, prompting the Imam of the central mosque in Sarajevo to claim that as God’s judgment. Various online events have been organised instead. Another tiny “candle” was lit this year when the “Walter Defends Sarajevo Museum” opened its doors for the first time.

The main problems facing BiH are:

Unemployment: This is possibly the major problem. And being unemployed in Bosnia-Herzegovina leaves you vulnerable to exploitation by criminal gangs. At times the unemployment rate has been astronomical. In 2005 it was 35%. By 2019 it was down to 18.4% (World Bank data), but that figure hides more than it reveals: BiH has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Although legislation passed in 2003 outlaws workplace discrimination it can still be hard to find a job with the “wrong” ethnicity or religion.

Thousands of people have left BiH to work abroad. Accurate figures are hard to come by, but as much as 20% of the pre-war population could now be living and working abroad in Scandinavia, Germany, France or elsewhere. They return only briefly in the summer to visit their families. A UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) survey found that 62% of young Bosnians simply want to get out.

With its porous borders, the easy availability of arms, its central position in the Balkans, its record of corruption at many levels of society including government and the police, BiH has become a haven for criminal gangs, and is a key staging post for drug-running, money-laundering, gun-running and people trafficking.

If a new BMW disappears from the streets of Berlin or Paris it is likely to end up — with new number plates and documentation — somewhere in Bosnia. Organised crime in BiH is not just a post-war phenomenon, but the war and the dislocation that followed it have made the task of the criminal easier. For obvious reasons reliable figures are hard to come by.

Many people have tried to return to their old homes, having originally fled because of the fighting or hostility from neighbours. The war destroyed some 400,000 homes and displaced 2.3m of Bosnia’s 4.4m citizens, of whom 1.3m became refugees outside Bosnia. Annex 7 of the DPA calls for the “right of return”, but implementing it has not been easy. Returning to a pile of rubble is not an attractive proposition.

Up until July 2001 approximately 231,000 had returned to their original homes and there are schemes to help rebuilding such as contained in the Integrated Area Programme (IAP). Compared to the overall numbers involved this is a trickle, yet all moves to a more mixed population and a breaking down of entrenched ethnic enclaves must be welcome. More are essential if BiH is to become a viable functioning state. The number of returners from abroad has fallen over the years, which is only to be expected, and according to figures from the European Council on Refugees and Exiles published in July 2019, just 2,680 returned to BiH in 2017.

Since the DPA there have been seven elections. The election results have usually been so close to the ethnic composition of BiH — Bosnian Serbs tend to vote for the Bosnian Serb nationalist party, etc. — that one commentator has suggested that adding up the votes for the various nationalist parties could remove the need for a census.

Bosniaks have tended to vote for the SDA (Muslim Party for Democratic Rights), Bosnian Serbs vote for the SDS (Serb Democratic Party), and Bosnian Croats tend to vote for HDZBiH (Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina). There have been changes in voting habits, but often that is one nationalist party being ditched for another of more or less similar nationalist persuasions. In the 2014 elections the SDS was pushed out of top place in the SR by the emergent Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD, founded in 1996). Some western commentators saw this as a step forward, but the politics of the SNSD and its leader Milorad Dodik represent little improvement on those of its rival, the SDS.

Dodik has become increasingly nationalistic and separatist and has denied that ethnic cleansing ever took place during the war. He downplays the severity of the Srebrenica massacre, he has been implicated in various cases of corruption (in this respect he is hardly unique), and his assets in the USA have been frozen. In the 2014 elections the SNSD won 255,156 votes in the SR. In 2018 the party increased its vote to 368,210 (53.9% of total vote in the SR).

A full analysis of electoral trends in BiH is impossible here, given the complicated system that is used. Here are the basic figures for 2018, the last time presidential elections were held.

Presidency (3 elected, to hold office in rotations of 8 months)

Elections held on 7 Oct. 2018. 3,352,933 registered to vote. Turn out was 53.6% (slightly down on the previous election in 2014).

Bosniak

SDA, Šefik Džaferović, 212,581, 36.6%

SDPBiH, Denis Bećirović, 194,688, 33.5%

Croat

DF, Željko Komšić, 225,500, 52.6%

HDZBiH, Dragan Čović, 154,819, 36.1%

Serb

SNSD, Mlorad Dodik, 368,210, 53.9%

PDP, Mladen Ivanić, 292,065, 42.7%

The candidates in bold typeface were elected as the three presidents.

DF is the Democratic Front, one of the few parties which claims to be multi-ethnic, with “social liberal” politics. PDP, Party of Democratic Progress, established in Banja Luka in 1999, is national-conservative in outlook and claims to have good links with the British Conservative Party.

The 2018 election was controversial as Croats were outraged that a number of Bosniaks voted for the DF candidate in what appeared to be tactical voting, thus boosting DF at the expense of the nationalist HDZBiH. With the probable exception of that vote for the DF, the voting still tends to follow national-ethnic lines.

The political and economic prospects for BiH are daunting. Given the war and the attendant problems issuing from it, the workers’ movement has had a hard time. Unemployment and privatisations, the lure of competing nationalisms, and the utter bankruptcy of the existing political parties have left “a power vacuum at the base of society” in BiH and much of the former Yugoslavia (to borrow a phrase from Branka Magaš).

Yet the region has a fighting history of working-class militancy. That has not simply evaporated. In the mid-1980s the whole of Yugoslavia was convulsed by strikes, rising from 696 in 1985 to 1,685 in 1987. In March 1991 there were mass demonstrations in Belgrade against the increasing hardline Milošević regime and media censorship. The demonstrators were met with the full panopoly of state repression including tear gas, rubber bullets and then live ammunition — two demonstrators were killed.

Small farmers set up a camp in Sarajevo in 2004 protesting at food prices which were jeopardising their livelihoods. In February 2014, there were strikes and protests against privatisations, unpaid salaries and reductions in pensions in Sarajevo, Zenica, Mostar, Bihać, Tuzla and Brčko (all in BiH) and protests in Banja Luka in RS.

More recently, in 2019 there were waves of protest manifesting a general discontent with the existing political status quo, particularly the widespread and increasing evidence of corruption, a teachers’ strike ,and a strike by medical workers over the lack of extra pay to cover the expanding workload due to Covid 19. Anger over corruption is growing, particularly in Montenegro where the President Milo Djukanic was secretly filmed receiving a “bung” from a business tycoon. That “envelope affair” provoked outrage and demonstrations.

This year in Belgrade there were attempts to storm the Parliament building as discontent at the President Aleksandar Vučić’s handling of the Covid 19 crisis boiled over.

There is widespread discontent, yet without any political organisation that can articulate and channel this discontent there is every chance that the anger will dissipate. At the moment it is difficult to see where that organisation will come from. To gauge that you need to be “on the ground” talking to people and contacts, and I haven’t been in Sarajevo since 2004. My last trip to the region, which took in Slovenia and Croatia, was in 2009.

A genuine workers’ party needs to be built, one which can shake off the past, including any lingering Tito “legacy”, resist the forces of the free market (which have wreaked so much economic havoc in the region and across the whole of Central and Eastern Europe) and create solid links across ethnic and religious lines, reversing the drift towards what some have called “Muslim communalism” in BiH. It would be presumptuous and arrogant to lay down what such a party’s program should offer. Here are a few suggestions for discussion:

In order to deal with the unemployment problem there needs to be a programme of public works which would include: house and apartment building, road improvements, other work on infrastructure and training programmes for the young unemployed. These measures could partly be funded by money sequestered from convicted gang leaders who use BiH as their base.

At some point BiH needs to bring an end to foreign (e.g. UN) involvement in the country. There should be a timetable for this to happen and it must include the withdrawal of any remaining foreign troops and the termination of the Office of the High Representative, whose powers resemble those of the Viceroys of colonial India. While BiH still relies on outside control it can never really achieve self-determination and be truly independent.

It is of paramount importance that measures are put in place to ensure that women take a more active role in the political life of the country.

A secular approach to all aspects of society is essential, particularly in education, where the practice of “two schools under one roof” must be phased out.

Pension cuts to be restored, and wage levels pegged to inflation.

War veterans, regardless of which side they were on, must receive a war pension sufficient to meet their needs.

A Workers’ Charter needs to be drawn up. This would include trade union rights and the right of unions to veto any further privatisations or takeovers.

There was a time when Bosnia was considered the “showcase” state in the former Yugoslavia, the place where all the various constituent groups of the Balkans’ ethnic tapestry lived in harmony. That can be rebuilt. If BiH disintegrates, for whatever reason, the consequences will be grim. □


Spilling over into Hungary?

There were a few close calls. A Yugoslav airforce bomber flew over Hungarian airspace and dropped its bombs on the small town of Barcs. Around the same time the Hungarian airforce nearly shot down a Yugoslav aircraft. The pilot had his finger on the button to launch his rockets and was a few seconds from doing so. It took the direct intervention of a high-ranking airforce commander to prevent him.

I heard all this, from the "horse’s mouth" as it were, as I taught an English language class to a group of Hungarian helicopter pilots and air traffic controllers who were always eager to impart any news or gossip they heard. The Hungarian army, in part or whole, mobilised at least once and reservists were called up. My landlady came round one evening and told me to destroy any letters addressed to her husband (I lived in her old flat) as they might be call-up papers.


A book launch in Slovenia

On a visit to Slovenia’s capital Ljubljana I found myself, by chance, invited to attend what was referred to as a "launch" of the Slovenian President’s latest book. I arrived, along with the person who invited me, to a glorious feast on a terrace overlooking the city. At some point in the proceedings I was approached by a tall, rather elegantly dressed man who began talking to me. It turned out he was the President. I asked about the subject of his book, expecting yet another paean of praise for the delights of the free market, standard fare in the publishing world of Central and Eastern Europe around this time. His reply rather floored me, "Oh, I’m a Buddhist, and my book is an introduction to Buddhism". I thought that was a typically Balkan paradox. Just a few miles away armies had been killing each other until fairly recently but here was a man, and the President to boot, who writes about Buddhism. Without causing too much embarrassment, I hope, I managed to evade procuring a copy. In another Balkan paradox I learned, much later, that the small Slovenian Buddhist community (all 200 of them) had been trying unsuccessfully for months to register with the authorities.


Memories of Tito

In 2008 I visited a Slovenian friend, Igor, who was the director of the Slovenian Film Academy in the capital, Ljubljana. During my time there we drove out to the countryside to visit his mother. During dinner, which in true Balkan fashion consisted of huge quantities of meat, vodka and wine, she took a framed photo from the sideboard and showed it to me.

It was Tito, and there was a message from him and his signature in one corner. With tears in her eyes she recounted – Igor translated – how as a young girl she had been a messenger for the Partisans. This was dangerous work, moving across the countryside taking messages from one Partisan group to another (presumably there was a danger radio messages would be intercepted). It was obvious she adored him.

Tito had died over twenty years ago but, she told me, hundreds of people still congregated outside the Ljubljana hospital where he died on the anniversary of his death and on his birthday chanting "Tito, Tito, Tito!" endlessly as if it were some kind of ritual. Of the present leaders of the now long-gone Yugoslavia she had little if anything to say.


You don’t have to be an idiot to be a nationalist but it helps

How many readers have heard of the pyramids of Bosnia? If you haven’t you are not to blame, for the simple reason that they don’t exist. Despite this, certain individuals in BiH and elsewhere (the main advocate is a Bosnian-American businessman, Sam Osmanagic, who is based in Houston, Texas) claim that there are pyramids in BiH, northwest of Sarajevo in the area around the small town of Visoko.

No sensible archaeologist or historian believes this nonsense. As any geologist will tell you, the sharp angular hills which bear a passing resemblance to pyramids (particularly if you have been imbibing too much of the local plum brandy) are a geological formation known as "flatirons" formed when volcanic activity thrusts up huge thick sheets of strata such as conglomerate making these well-defined geometrical features in the landscape. They can be found in other parts of the world such as Boulder, Colorado, Ethiopia, and Vladivostok, and are not in any sense exceptional.

The belief that they are pyramids is an example of what some historians have called the "Myth of Antiquitas" (in other words we were here first and everyone else is a Johnny-cum-lately). The "discoverers" of the pyramids claim they are 5,000 or more years old, making them older than the pyramids in Giza in Egypt and evidence that the descendants of Bosnian people have lived in this region for thousands of years (long before the Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins etc.). In this way the legitimacy of the Bosnians and the state of Bosnian Hercegovina is given a spurious precedence over all others.

In fact, the ancestors of the Bosnians arrived in the region around 500 CE. The "pyramids" have been good for the local economy – as they are now visited by hundreds of New Age devotees – but not for much else. You don't have to be foolish to be a nationalist, but it helps.


An ethnic Hungarian ex-soldier in the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) speaks

In the late 1990s I met a Hungarian from the Hungarian ethnic minority in Vojvodina. He had been conscripted into the JNA and was stationed in Kosovo along with a group of other ethnic Hungarians. Unsurprisingly, neither he nor his mates were overly enthusiastic about their situation. None of them were prepared to get their heads blown off just for the sake of Slobodan Milošević’s political ambitions.

Meeting in secret, they devised a plan that if they were sent into combat they would desert en masse and cross the border into Bulgaria and claim asylum. Although this has never received any publicity, as far as I know, this was a common tactic of disaffected soldiers in the JNA, particularly the Hungarians who never felt that the conflict in Kosovo had anything to do with them.

He never had to flee and having served his time in uniform went to live in Hungary. His parents still lived in Vojvodina so I never used his name. He spoke highly of the Albanians he met while in Kosovo, saying that the Serbs underestimated their intelligence and resilience, thinking of them only as ignorant peasants. He was sad however at the disappearance of his Yugoslav identity which he valued as much as his other, Hungarian, identity.

To him life in the old Yugoslavia was something he valued and cherished and now it had simply disappeared, sentiments I encountered on a number of occasions.


Suggested further reading:

Bose, Sumantra. Nationalist Partition and International Intervention. Hurst and Co. 2002.

Glenny, Misha. The Fall of Yugoslavia. Penguin Books, third edition 1996

Magaš, Branka. The Destruction of Yugoslavia. Verso, 1993.

West, Richard. Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia. Faber and Faber, 2009.

Kolstø, Pål. Myths and Boundaries in South-Eastern Europe. Hurst and Co. 2005.

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