Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina 2019, report #1: Why Bosnia; Exodus; protests; Scandal.

2019 Report index

Report 1 Why Bosnia; Exodus; protests; Scandal.
Report 2 Impunity, manipulation, activism
Report 3:
Aluminij conglomerate; Corruption at Gikil.
Report 4
Political charades; militarization of police..
Report 5Pride in Sarajevo
Report 6Migrants stuck in BiH on the way to Europe

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Last year I spent a good amount of time in Bosnia so that I could write the afterword for my book, later re-named the "epilogue" by the editors. This year I had occasion to visit parts of Belarus and Ukraine, and I came home via Bosnia-Herzegovina to get some fresh impressions of the country. The present and following reports will share those impressions and news.

During these last couple of visits to Bosnia, I have gotten a strong feeling that a 20-year-plus project has come to an end and that the meaning of my visits there is changing. In the future, I'll go back in a different role, not as the persistent interviewer and watcher of things for the purpose of a big book, but maybe for some other kind of research, or maybe as just a visitor of friends. And with this series, I'm thinking I should wind up the habit of writing these reports and switch to a blog. Apparently people who are getting a book out are supposed to employ a blog. So I'll keep writing—maybe more often but shorter notes—and you'll have to go to my blog, or subscribe to it, in order to see those things. I'll announce the blog when it comes into being.


Why Bosnia? That's the title of a good book that came out during the war, and it's also a question I feel that I ought to address. I have a few newer thoughts on the matter. To a large extent they have to do with the question of fascism.

For example, while I was in Bosnia in July, a parallel between Bosnia and the Spanish Civil War occurred to me, as it has before. We know that the Spanish Civil War involved a fight between the Republicans (pro-Spanish Republic, not the GOP) and the fascists, then called Nationalists. And the world not only ignored that conflict, but implemented an arms embargo against those attempting to defend democracy and pluralism in Spain. They lost, the fascists won, and then what happened? Fascism escalated in Europe and drew the whole planet into World War II.

Then in the 1990s in Bosnia-Herzegovina, there were assaults on that multi-ethnic state by fascist movements for separatism from within, crucially backed by fascist neighboring powers with plenty of arms. The outside world ignored the fight and declared an arms embargo against those trying to defend a multi-ethnic, pluralistic Bosnia-Herzegovina. (I'm simplifying matters here, obviously, and I don't mean to let the Muslim nationalists and profiteers off the hook. But they didn't start the conflict; their development was an inevitable repercussion of it.)

No one quite won or lost the war; we can argue about that. And one can also argue that although Serbia lost several wars, that country's leaders have the Republika Srpska as an ally in their virulent form of nationalism.

And what happened after the 1990s war? We can see that fascist movements are taking hold throughout Europe and beyond. That's the parallel I draw with history from the 1930s and 1940s. If the world had helped prevent fascism's victories in Bosnia, that movement would not have as much of a foothold in other parts of the continent today. Now Europe is less stable than anytime in the last couple of generations. And Bosnia is one of the least stable parts of Europe, with ordinary folks wishing to join the European Union, and Serb nationalist leaders flirting with Russia. Russia is happy to meddle in the region. So what Bismarck said more than a hundred years ago—"One day the great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans"—could come true again. What happens in Bosnia doesn't stay in Bosnia.

Another point: About 30 years ago I said that fascism was possible anywhere, including in the US. That sounded a bit outlandish, even to me. Now it's quite obvious. In this vein, I have always noted that there are great similarities between our big society and the fractured little one in Bosnia. There are the same problems with democracy, with people thinking that they can vote and that pretty much covers it. Or that their vote doesn't matter. Or that they can't do anything with their families and their communities to make any change in their lives. There's always the "big man" who speaks for you, promises to solve your problems while his hand is in your wallet pocket and while he's directing your attention towards those who are supposed to be your enemies. What's the difference between Bosnia and the US, in that light? Between Trump and Serb President Dodik, who is stealing a page from the other's playbook?

This is not to ignore the inspiration of a few good people in Kozarac, in Srebrenica, in El Paso, in Ferguson, etc., who are smart enough and brave enough to take risks to change things. They are the inspiration. Someone said that activism is the only true manifestation of hope. And if hope were an element, it would be gold.

One more point: While I was in Belarus I visited Radoshkovichi, where my grandfather was born into a thriving Jewish community. There's exactly one Jew living there now. And in Ukraine I visited Zaliztsi, a bit east of Lviv. My grandmother was born there into a long-established community. I had no expectations of finding anything there that resonated with my family history; there are no Jews there, just some friendly Catholics, Orthodox, and Uniate believers with their own contemporary problems. But when I visited the Jewish cemetery, where the bones of some of my ancestors must lie, I found that it was desecrated—and not during World War II, but around fifteen years ago. No one was able to explain what happened.

That made me sad. That's all. For me at least, it's hard to be angry about history that I've known all my life, about things that happened to my relatives before I was born. For me, processing that knowledge, knowing about the absence of that family, that culture, and that language, is something that turns around slowly in the back of your mind forever. That's just the way it is. (And it is, of course, the subject of a whole different essay.)

Maybe seeing that graveyard made me feel some dread, but not anger. But then I felt anger when I got back to Bosnia and I saw the departure of young people by the thousands because of loss of hope. When I witness the ongoing political manipulation, the profiteering, the ethnic homogenization on all three sides, and the atrocity denial and revisionism, well, that does make me angry. Because the genocide is still fresh and, really, it's still underway.

People say that "denial is the final phase of genocide," but is that accurate? It seems to me that oblivion is the last phase, when there's no one left to ask questions and not even anyone bothering to re-write history. That's pretty much the way it is in Zaliztsi, but not in Bosnia. People are still fighting for memorialization, for dignity, for survival. Less wind is in their sails each year. Whether that fight will last much longer is up in the air. But the ongoing denial, and the ongoing plunder—which was one of the motives for the genocide—that's a maddening thing to see.


I spent time in Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Tuzla, Prijedor, and Kozarac, and I talked with as many old friends and contacts as I could. People of all ethnicities are still leaving by the thousands per month, while corruption continues apace, nationalist rhetoric carries on in three directions, and refugees coming from the south and east struggle to get through Bosnia and across the next border. The mood is not so different from last year, but there's more concern for survival, a bit more resignation, and even more of a disconnect between the domestic "leaders" and ordinary people than before. Nevertheless, there are at least hints of activism here and there, and sometimes robust protests, as some of the people who remain in the country continue to struggle for decency and rights.

As I wrote last year, the long-delayed 2013 census put Bosnia's population somewhere around 3.7 million. But no one believes that now, because numbers were inflated in various ways in the first place, and since then, many people have left. People find a figure of 2.5 million much more believable. A report from the Central Bank says that Bosnia has lost 20 percent of its population in the last 20 years. Among other things, the report criticizes the educational system as inflexible and out of sync with the job market.

Germany and other countries to the north and west in Europe have opened their labor markets to educated and light-skinned Bosnians even as they are shunning and kicking out "migrants." With minimal visa restrictions, Bosnians simply pack up and head north. Where it used to be that the plan of these "gastarbeiters" was to earn enough money to resettle back home, that is no longer the case.

A waiter can earn 250 euro a month in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and 1,500 to 2,000 in Germany. There, someone can work five years and earn a pension, so even 60-year-olds are leaving Bosnia. Naturally, expenses are also higher in Germany, but not proportionately so in comparison with the difference in earnings. And there are other compelling reasons to resettle. People are fed up with having to join a political party that they don't necessarily support in order to get even a menial job. Unemployment, while decreasing because of the exodus, still stands above 400,000 as of July's figures. This puts the official unemployment rate just over 35%. And even people with relatively stable work leave for better pay; I was told that a medical technician can earn three times as much in Germany as in Bosnia. In just the last two or three years over 600 doctors left the Federation. Their average age, according to a report, was in the upper 50s. But doctors are leaving fresh out of medical school as well.

A recent survey by the daily Oslobodjenje had nearly 60% of respondents saying they were planning to leave the country. This is not only for economic reasons. People leave because they are tired of the stagnant politics (about which more later). And they want something better in the long term for their children—even if they have to struggle for it and give up their homeland and their mother tongue forever.

It's hard to know how many people have actually left, though the figure runs between 170,000 and 200,000 for the last four or five years; I have even seen much higher counts. A recent Eurostat report says that 53,500 Bosnians emigrated legally for the EU just last year. A citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina who leaves has to pay to renounce citizenship; most don't bother to do so, some 20,000 people have renounced it in the last few years. The government makes money from this, but it quickly amounts to lost income, since those people will not be paying taxes. This is a serious concern in the mid-term. Then there are thousands who do not renounce their citizenship, but just leave. But some 50,000 of these people have not renewed their Bosnian i.d. cards, so this is one way of quantifying the exodus.


What follows should provide a bit of detail and background on why people are so fed up with their country.

For example, in the spring of 2018 a young man was killed in Banja Luka, found dead in a culvert on the edge of town. His name was David
Dragičević. A variety of stories about his death circulated, most of them false, and most of them promoted by the local police department. The police also withheld and possibly destroyed some evidence in the case. Soon David's estranged parents, Davor and Suzana, organized demonstrations that turned into a sustained movement that lasts to this day. There was a long-lasting shrine to David at Trg Krajina (Krajina Square, the central meeting point in Banja Luka). And last fall, before the October elections, as many as 40,000 people attended demonstrations at Trg Krajina (Krajina Square, the central meeting point in Banja Luka), a turnout unheard of since the 1990s war.

It's not that so many people knew David
Dragičević or were especially outraged about one unsolved murder case. People latched on to this case because there have been too many mysterious deaths of students and other young people over the decades since the end of the war, with no solution. They supported the elder Dragičevićes' movement because they blame the police for their laxity and repression, the court system for its chaos, slowness, nepotism, and their leaders in general for rampant corruption.

In Sarajevo, an unsolved killing also attracted widespread attention. In spring of 2017,
22-year-old Dženan Memić was killed while riding with his girlfriend in a park on the outskirts of the city. A Romani couple was framed for having run over Dženan, but that case fell apart when it became obvious that evidence was falsified and concealed. This case, again, generated large protest demonstrations in Sarajevo. Soon, people from Sarajevo and Banja Luka were visiting each other's demonstrations, and they and the parents of the victims were expressing solidarity with each other. On a grassroots level, this is the largest inter-entity cooperation of its kind since the war.

While people are upset about the my
sterious killings and the poor judicial response, they are also upset about many other things manifested by the dysfunction of a the state. But public safety has proven to be something that people can get out and organize about, going all the way back to the 2008 case of Denis Mrnjavac (a teenager randomly killed on a streetcar in Sarajevo) and beyond.

Before last October's elections, there was an intense bout of prepucavanje, back-and-forth threats and recriminations, between Davor Dragi
čević and Milorad Dodik, then President of the Republika Srpska and running for the seat of Serb member of the three-part state-level presidency. (Since 2006 Dodik has been prime minister of the RS, and then president of the entity for eight years, and now president of the country he wishes to destroy, all without any decrease in his power. That's why I call him the King of the RS.) Dodik denigrated and trivialized the "Justice for David" movement, and Davor threatened to sweep Dodik away.

Dodik won the elections and, for the time being, he has prevailed in the fight against the movement. After the elections the Banja Luka police cleared away the shrine to David and forbade the movement from gathering there anymore. They cracked down on demonstrators and began using violent methods in their repression, imparting a tense atmosphere to the entity's capital city.

After being cleared from the square, members of the Justice for David movement continued to express themselves by lighting candles at a nearby Christian Orthodox temple. The Orthodox Church, which has often been on the wrong side of justice since the beginning of the 1990s, declared that the presence of protestors around the temple was "awkward" and requested that the police bar them. The police complied quickly and eagerly, harassing not only members of the movement but bystanders as well. They questioned one of the activists, Ozren Perduv, who commented to them that they were employing "fascist tactics." In response, the police served him an infraction notice with a 500 KM fine for obstructing an official in the course of duty.

In June a visiting Bosnian with Swedish citizenship was walking in Banja Luka, perhaps unaware of what he was walking into. When he ventured near the protests, police asked for his name. He replied that he did not have to tell them anything, whereupon six policemen knocked him down, beat him, and handcuffed him. He did not stay in his home country very long after that.

Members of the Justice for David movement were banned from holding vigils even when they promised to limit them to 50 persons, without banners or public address system. One commentator wrote, "Banja Luka today is a ghetto in which people whom the regime has targeted as its opponents are prohibited from peacefully expressing their position, to speak freely, and to move about freely."

And it goes on like this. The mysterious deaths take place in Sarajevo as well, with much less repression and violence, but with the same repressive lack of results that could lead to justice for ordinary victims. Other unresolved cases included the deaths of
Edita Malkoć and Selma Agić, run over by a careless driver in Sarajevo; a similar case in Banja Luka; the death of an eleven-year-old at school in Zenica; of another youth in Bijeljina; and even the unsolved murder of two Sarajevo policemen.

One article commented that
all of the cases "call into question the crucial problems of the Bosnian ethnopolis...: the rule of law, the low credibility of the organs of justice and security, the right to individual safety, even freedom of expression," and concluded, "People believed in everything and nothing, with a highly fragmented and ineffective judicial system, which follows the country's administrative division (municipalities, canton, entity, state) and is permanently subjected to pressure from politicians and power groups to co-opt and exchange favours...".

In that vein, the Bosnian-Herzegovinan court system has been criticized for a variety of failures, the most outstanding one concerning the state-level court, which has 800 pending cases involving some 5,000 accused war criminals, with very little progress. The OSCE recently assessed that at the present rate, it could take another ten years to process these cases.

Meanwhile, a scandal broke that involved the president of the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC), an independent body formed in 2004 to supervise the functioning of Bosnia's judicial system, to raise its standards and improve the rule of law, and to appoint competent judges and prosecutors at all levels.

The HJPC is tasked, overall, with maintaining transparency and ethical functioning in Bosnia's judiciary and prosecution. A gaping hole in the ethics of the HJPC itself was revealed in May when Nermin Alešević, a businessman from Velika Kladu
ša, secretly filmed himself bribing Milan Tegeltija, president of the HJPC, to influence a legal case that involved Alešević. Mr. Alešević was concerned that the case was dragging on too long—but apparently he was even more concerned and motivated by his suspicion that Tegeltija, who has no legal right to intervene in any legal proceedings, could be influenced by a bribe.

Alešević arranged a meeting with Tegeltija via a member of SIPA (the State Investigation and Protection Agency, Bosnia's state police force). Alešević covertly filmed the meeting, during which he appealed to Tegeltija to expedite the case, and Tegeltija, after asking for the case number and the name of the presiding judge, told Alešević, "I'll be in Sarajevo on Monday and I'll see about it." Immediately after the meeting, Alešević filmed himself paying 2000 KM to the SIPA officer, who promised to deliver the money to Tegeltija, saying that "he will take care of it."

Alešević released his covert film late in May, and then—nothing of consequence happened. Tegeltija uttered a couple of lies publicly about his behavior; the SIPA officer was suspended and investigated; Alešević appealed for immunity in the case and was denied; and the 13-member HPJC unanimously gave a vote of confidence in Tegeltija. Tegeltija even wrote a public letter to High Representative Valentin Inzko with the admonition that he had "no right to meddle" in the decisions of the disciplinary committee of the HJPC—this, after himself meddling where he had no right.

President Dodik came to Tegeltija's defense, saying that the scandal was part of an "anti-Serb plot." State-level Minister of Security Dragan Mekti
ć, a Serb member of the opposition, called Dodik and Tegeltija "brothers in crime" and called for Tegeltija's resignation. The state-level House of Representatives called for the resignation of the entire HJPC. Mektić further called for "overthrowing" the HJPC, as one article reported, "for what he deemed as criminal actions, requesting the need for an honest, fair, independent, and professional judiciary. Mektić denounced [sic] that without justice, there could be no development, stability, or security in Bosnia." Another article noted that the HJPC "has been losing credibility and legitimacy and is recognized for corrupt and nepotist practices...where officials are appointed on grounds of family, friends, and political connections."

A local commentator added, "That conformism and cowardly behavior [poltronstvo] are acute and essential sicknesses of our judiciary. And they generate illegalities such as what we have witnessed in the film, and thereupon in the inaction of the Bosnian Prosecution. Unfortunately, no one cares to cure those sicknesses, even though they are infecting this pillar of the state government, and thereby the entire state.

The corruption goes on, with judges, prosecutors, and members of the HJPC appointed on a political basis by whichever party is in power. There are honest and conscientious judges and prosecutors, especially at the lower, more local levels. But the public does not see any improvement in the ethics of this section of government, nor much if any progress in the myriad outstanding criminal cases. The public only sees privilege and corruption, and these are hard things to fight against in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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