YUGOSLAVIA 25 YEARS ON: Past conflicts still loom large in Bosnia

YUGOSLAVIA 25 YEARS ON: Past conflicts still loom large in Bosnia
Milorad Dodik repeatedly raises tensions between RS and the state-level authorities
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia June 16, 2016

“In the USA we have Barack Obama, Stevie Wonder, Bob Hope, Johnny Cash... In Bosnia, we have Milorad Dodik, no wonder, no hope, no cash,” a popular joke in Bosnia & Herzegovina goes.

Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s smaller entity, Republika Srpska (RS), for the past 10 years, has become one of the most controversial politicians in the Western Balkans since the end of the 1991-2001 Yugoslav wars. His popularity is based on the never ending dream of many Serbs living in RS of seeing their entity independent – the driving force behind the bloodiest of all Yugoslav wars, the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.

Following the Slovenian and Croatian secessions from Yugoslavia in 1991, the multi-ethnic Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina held an independence referendum in February 1992. The result was rejected by the Serbs, some 30% of the population, who attempted to secure Serb territory by force, together with neighbouring Serbia. This sparked a war with Muslim Bosniaks, more than 40% of the population, as well as Catholic Croats (less than 17%), who also tried to carve out their own territory to join it with neighbouring Croatia.

Twenty five years later, Dodik repeatedly raises tensions between RS and the state-level authorities. Dodik has repeatedly called for independence for RS. He has twice proposed referendums, first on independence, and more recently on the authority of the state-level judiciary institutions. His political ideas are backed unconditionally by the RS government led by Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic, a member of Dodik’s Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD).

“RS is a state and [the fact] that the others dispute this shows how important it is. Without this state, Serbs in the area, who want to live in peace, have no chance… For that reason, the fight for RS is the basic interest of all of us,” Dodik said in an interview with Banja Luka-based daily Glas Srpske in January.

However, local analysts say that Dodik is just selling smoke, while his and his party’s popularity are declining. “Dodik… is saying what a large number of citizens in RS wants to hear, which is RS’s independence, RS’s statehood, Bosnia’s inability to survive [as a state],” Srdjan Puhalo, a Banja Luka-based political analyst, tells bne IntelliNews.

Puhalo says that his rhetoric is just a tool used to keep him popular in RS. Dodik is losing supporters, and ack of money and international isolation could cost Dodik his position. 

“If general elections were held tomorrow, Dodik would lose his power,” Zeljko Raljic, political analyst for the Banja-Luka based website Istinito, tells bne IntelliNews.

Coloured by emotions

The 1995 peace agreement that ended Bosnia's war split the country along ethnic lines into two autonomous regions, a Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and a Muslim-Croat Federation (comprising of the Bosniaks and Croats). They are linked by a central government, which recently applied for EU membership.

However, a large number of Bosnian Serbs still believe that RS’s independence is a far more realistic outcome than Bosnia’s entry to the EU. “This is absolutely understandable as RS is something that already exists, for which people died, and it is coloured by emotions, while the EU is something abstract,” Raljic says.

Bosnia showed its commitment to a European future after the 2014 general elections when the parliament appointed pro-EU Prime Minister Denis Zvizdic. Zvizdic and his government are pushing through much needed reforms and trying to lead the country forward on its path to EU membership. Thanks to its efforts, in July 2015 the three governments adopted a Reform Agenda, which was required by the EU.

However, the country still needs to meet several criteria to gain candidate status. In March, EU enlargement commissioner Johannes Hahn urged the country to adopt a working coordination mechanism and adjust its Stabilisation and Association Agreement in line with Croatia’s entry in the bloc in order to give its membership application credibility. RS’s government was responsible for delays in resolving both issues.

Implementation of the Reform Agenda is also a prerequisite for the country to get a much needed new loan deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has several times delayed signing a new agreement with Sarajevo, saying that it has not made sufficient reforms.

High-level political corruption is one of the most serious problems Bosnia is facing. In April, members of the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning rampant corruption and expressing concern about increased pressure on the judiciary by political players.

This article is part of a series bne IntelliNews is running to mark the 25th anniversary of the split of Yugoslavia on June 25.