Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina 2019, report #4: Political charades; militarization of police.

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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If you try to observe the chaos and dysfunction of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state—and all you can do is try—you will probably first notice two things. One is that even though the nationwide parliamentary elections at all levels (state, canton, and entity) were held back in October of 2018, now, a year later, the state-level government has not been formed. Nor have most of the different levels of government in the Bosniak/Croat-led entity, the Federation. Caretaker governments leftover from 2018 continue to rule.

Secondly, you'll notice that the leaders of the three ethnic elites don't appear to get along well. Every month or two there's a new "crisis," in which rhetorical rocket-propelled grenades fly back and forth across inter-ethnic borderlines, much ink is spilled, international officials get nervous, Dodik threatens a referendum, and ordinary people continue to look for visas. It looks like there's a new crisis. But in fact, it's the crisis created in November of 1995, and it's called the Dayton arrangement. The ethnic elites perform to the Dayton score with symphonic accord.

Hoping not to belabor the scenario—though it's all a bit laborious—I will try to describe some of its manifestations here.

When I was visiting Bosnia in July, I asked everyone what was holding back the formation of a new government. I got a lot of partial answers, with nothing leading to a clear picture. Some people said that there was disagreement about patronage, that is, who would inherit the directorships of the big state-controlled companies. This is plausible. Others said there was disagreement about how to "go to Europe," i.e., how to join the EU. This is certain.

But these and the rest of the roadblocks are abstract. I'm inclined to conclude that there's no new government because, among other things, the present situation works just fine for the elite. Their rhetorical wars are just part of a kind of dynamic equilibrium wherein they appear to be fighting, and the vision of this conflict keeps their respective constituencies herded up in ideological corrals where the only people they can support are their own corrupt ethno-nationalist leaders.

The static nature of Bosnian politics thus reminds me of the very sarcastic slogan uttered here and there by activists: "Ako ti je dobro, onda ništa"—"If everything is ok for you, then never mind." Well, pretty much nothing is ok for the ordinary honest citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, so the message is that they should mobilize. But everything is pretty much ok for the elite, so...nothing changes.


In early August the heads of the three most powerful ethno-nationalist parties met and came up with a plan to form the new state-level Council of Ministers, equivalent to a governing cabinet. The three were Milorad Dodik, Serb member of the state-level presidency and head of the Serb nationalist SNSD; Bakir Izetbegović, Bosniak member of the state-level presidency and leader of the Muslim nationalist SDA; and Dragan Čović, head of the Croat nationalist HDZ. While there are other contending ethno-nationalist parties, these are by far the strongest ones.

The plan, set to be implemented by September 5th, comprised a dozen points that included election reform, anti-discrimination measures, aligning domestic laws with EU regulations and, critically, "advancing" Bosnia-Herzegovina's relationship with NATO. This immediately proved to be a stumbling block, because Izetbegović and Croat member of the state-level presidency Željko Komšić called for the submission to NATO of an Annual National Program (ANP), a requirement for joining NATO. Well, the Serb nationalist leaders of the RS reject the idea of joining NATO—even though they had earlier approved this idea, but they changed their minds. Although the RS politicians oppose joining, they do not reject collaborating with NATO in Bosnia, which has already taken place.

Politicians for and against submission of the ANP argued militantly over the next few weeks. Those in favor noted that submission of the ANP was not equivalent to joining NATO, and those opposed disagreed. It became clear that September 5 would come and go with no progress, just the customarily heightened sense of mutual grievance.

It's worth noting that the Republika Srpska adheres to neighboring Serbia's policies faithfully—and Serbia practices close collaboration with NATO. In several ways, Dodik's expression of nationalism on behalf of his Serb constituency is, at least in appearance, more zealous than that of Serbia's leaders. Dodik travels to Russia and visits Putin more often than does Serbian president Vučić. It is Dodik's habit to appear more pro-Russian than Vučić.

For that matter, it has been noted with great irony that Dodik is probably the only president of a state who argues for the abolition of his own state. Dodik regularly finds occasion to promise that the RS will one day break away from Bosnia and become independent. He calls his entity—deceptively named a "Republic"—a "state," and in April he proclaimed that "the RS is already separate; it has just not been declared as such." There are numerous examples of Dodik's rhetorical and concrete moves to assert the RS's independence and, at times, to cleave to Serbia. In May he announced that he opposed the formation of a Bosnian state-level military academy, and declared that his officers would be trained in Serbia. Around that time he also announced that soldiers in one army unit based in the RS would wear the uniforms of the former RS army, which was disbanded when the entities' armed forces unified into an all-Bosnian army in 2005.

The RS also moved closer to Serbia in the educational sphere in July, when the respective ministers of education signed an agreement about joint activities. Going behind the backs of Bosnia's state-level ministries, the agreement promised mutual recognition of accreditation of institutions of higher education between the RS and Serbia, as well as cooperation in development of curriculum. And in high school curriculum, it was also announced in July that in the coming school year RS schoolbooks would teach the same wartime history as is taught in Serbia.

In April, Dodik engendered a great deal of sustained hyperventilating in the media and on the part of politicians in the Federation when the RS Parliament voted to form a reserve police force with more than a thousand members. The draft law also gave police the ability to arrest people without a warrant. In response, Federation officials declared that they would add 2,500 members to that entity's police department. A rhetorical arms race was thus underway.

Analyst Jasmin Mujanović noted that the RS was already setting up "random checkpoints" along the soft border between the two entities, and has run "provocative war games" in cooperation with Serbian police units. Meanwhile, a Sarajevo-based journalist pointed out that the RS in fact lacked the funding to support an increased police budget—and that in recent years hundreds of RS police have been leaving the force. But in June, the RS police force added two APCs (armored personnel carriers) to its arsenal—this, after having purchased over 2,000 rifles for the force last year.

Neighboring Serbia is participating in a manner of one-sided arms race as well, with the help of Russia and China. In recent months it acquired 30 tanks and 30 APCs from Russia. Russia attempted to ship these vehicles through Romania, but the EU member turned them back. Then Hungary, also an EU member, allowed them through. Russia and Belarus also donated 14 MIG-29 fighter jets to Serbia. This month, China has promised to sell Serbia nine armed drones. And Serbia has declared interest in joining Putin's answer to the EU, the Eurasian Economic Union (an economic alliance including Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and others). While Serbian officials assert that membership would not pose an obstacle to joining the EU—their professed goal—the EU's executive commission warned Serbia that it would have to cancel trade agreements with the bloc if it joined Putin's contraption.

I mention these developments in Serbia because, as a supporter of the RS, Serbia's policies resonate in the RS and exert influence. Both actors profess the goal of joining the EU—with which both the RS and Serbia have far greater trade than with Russia—but both flirt with Russia, as a way of gaining gifts and benefits. Russia has its own designs on the Balkans, seeking ways to meddle and exert influence wherever they can. That's another whole story, though an important one in the long term.

The controversy over the RS's plan to add a reserve police force lasted through June, with reproaches and recriminations flying back and forth between Banja Luka and Sarajevo. The RS police force purchased new flak jackets and helmets. The SDA noted that developments in the RS were similar to those in 1991 and 1992 leading up to the war. RS spokespersons justified their buildup saying that they needed to beef up security in the face of an influx of migrants from the Middle East, and such a buildup was no threat to anyone's security. But it seemed more apparent that, among other things, the buildup was part of increased repression in Banja Luka against protestors in the "Justice for David" movement that was so turbulent about a year ago.

One member of the Federation parliament characterized the RS's moves as the transformation of the police into a military formation, changing the balance of arms in Bosnia. This, he noted, was a direct violation of the Dayton agreement.

Around the time of the announced buildup of RS police reserves, Dodik also announced in an interview that the RS would, one day, be in one state together with Serbia. He added that "a little of Montenegro" would also be included, and that this was "a natural thing, that some kind of integration must exist." Coming from Dodik, this was not a new approach, but it added a sense of dire threat to the tempest going on around the police buildup, with Željko Komšić repeating the warning that the Federation would add officers to its police force. The international community weighed in as well with mild criticism, saying that the reason for the creation of a reserve police force was "unclear" and that it "does not contribute to peace and stability..." Meanwhile, ordinary Bosnians who had been the victim of war crimes by Serb reservist police during the 1990s war were suffering a re-traumatization.

Ultimately, in the face of increasing criticism from abroad, in late June the RS withdrew plans to create the reserve force, saying that it would cost too much and take too long. The Federation canceled similar plans in response. The RS announced that it would create a "gendarmerie," without defining this body.

Fears were expressed that it would constitute a form of military police—in other words, the same thing that had just been cancelled. On the other hand, it was speculated that the announcement of a gendarmerie was just a "climbdown." 

One Sarajevo journalist speculated that the SDA and the SNSD, and Izetbegović and Dodik, have a secret agreement about the continued maintenance of instability and fear among their own people, so that their constituents would be distracted from the worsening living conditions for which the two leaders themselves are responsible. But leaders do not need to have a secret agreement in order to understand that this is the effect of their policies and provocations.

After a three-month pause, with no news about the gendarmerie, it turned out that the new police body was indeed formed and it lined up for a formal manifestation in front of the RS's high officials just the other day, on September 24. News reports did not specify how many police were on display, but the appearance of the new body was heralded by RS politicians as a mobile force that was prepared to enhance the security of the entity's citizens.

RS opposition figures mocked the gendarmerie as merely a reassignment of policemen in a new format—with new uniforms—in order to fool the citizens and to compensate for the failure to form a robust reserve police body. An opposition politician also said it would be a waste if the police force spent its time harassing old women selling untaxed cigarettes on the street, when they really needed to be arresting more formidable criminals and Mafiosi.

In a comment that revealed just how backward the opposition is, one politician complained that Dodik should be sending the gendarmerie to the hills near Banja Luka to block military exercises that NATO was conducting, inside of the RS, right at that moment. Meanwhile, Bosniak officials within the RS and in the Federation criticized the establishment of the gendarmerie as a development that threatened escalation to violence and that re-traumatized wartime victims.


After the early August announcement of the SNSD-HDZ-SDA agreement on formation of the government, the nationalist opposition in the RS criticized Dodik for "capitulating" to the pro-NATO Croat and Bosniak politicians. Dodik rebuffed this criticism, saying that he did not have to justify his behavior to the ("disloyal") opposition, and that all elements of the agreement were in harmony with the interests of the RS. He recalled that the RS parliament had earlier enacted a resolution about military neutrality, and that in any case there was no chance that he would allow Bosnia to join NATO. Dodik declared that he would not allow Bosnia to send an ANP to NATO—while Komšić declared that if the ANP were not produced, the Council of Ministers would not be formed.

The three ethnicities take turns as president of the Council of Ministers, and the next Council president—equivalent to a prime minister—is due to be a Serb. Dodik was proposing Zoran Tegeltija, no relation to the ill-reputed Milan Tegeltija of the previously mentioned High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council. No relation, that is, other than corruption: Right around the time he was nominated to be head of the Council of Ministers, Zoran Tegeltija was sentenced to five months in jail for corruption. As head of the Banja Luka customs administration, he had intervened against the Bosnian import company Kondor-šped, which had somehow garnered his disapproval, and caused the company to be prohibited from operating.

Bosnian law has it that if an official is sentenced to nine months or more for a crime, he or she is barred from holding office. But since Tegeltija's sentence was less than nine months, his eligibility was not in question. However, it followed that in the course of some conflicts within Dodik's party, Tegeltija found himself in disfavor with Dodik, and his name was dropped.

As August wore on Dodik began to threaten that if the Council of Ministers were not formed by the set date of September 5, he would urge the RS parliament to withdraw Serb troops from the Bosnian army. He also threatened to withdraw from the state-level tax administration and, for that matter, from the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council. These and some 80 other state-level functions, according to Dodik, were competencies that the international community, in the person of the High Representative, had transferred from the entities to the state level in earlier years after the end of the war.

Dodik regularly asserts that these transfers were violations of the Dayton agreement. In the midst of his threats in August, he also warned that the RS would redraft its entity constitution along the lines of what he called the "original Dayton." Meanwhile, Dragan Čović warned that if the Council of Ministers were not formed, Bosnia would be facing a new "constitutional crisis" of "incomprehensible proportions." He blamed the Bosniaks for stalling the formation because they did not want to agree to the appointment of a Serb prime minister.

September 5 came and went, without any of Dodik's threats enacted. He would certainly have liked to establish the new government, gaining power by replacing the old opposition Serb officials with members of his own party. But it is clear that he appreciated the opportunity to rehearse the story of "stolen competencies," to emphasize the victimization of the RS, and to pander to his own constituency. President Dodik's colleagues President Komšić and President Džaferović took advantage of the same opportunity.


And so it goes. The most recent "crisis" kicked off with the Bosniak nationalist SDA's mid-September 7th Congress, during which members selected party officials and unanimously reaffirmed Bakir Izetbegović as head of the party. In addition, the party adopted a declaration whose sentiments are in harmony with those of the most progressive institutions of Europe, and which nevertheless (or therefore) set off the next round of rhetorical warfare between Bosnia's political parties.

SDA's declaration named as long-term goals a change of the country's name to the "Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina," the "affirmation of a ‘Bosnian language’ as the ‘common identity of all of Bosnia’s citizens,’" a reform of the police force, and establishment of a supreme court. The declaration identified as party goals the adoption of a new constitution that would define Bosnia-Herzegovina as a "democratic, regionalized, legal and social state with three levels of government: state, regional, and local."

In other words, the declaration espouses the abolition of the Dayton straitjacket and the establishment of a civic state with a structure that would at least have a chance of functioning. So far, so good. Now, why would SDA, a powerful ethno-nationalist party that has thrived through ministry to its own ethnic corral of constituents, propose to shoot itself in the foot like this, advocating an arrangement that would banish the kind of ethnic-based infrastructure that has worked so well for the profiteers ever since late 1990?

It is hard to say, but I would propose to look at what the parties do and what they say. Because the SDA declaration is only that, an abstract proposal for the future; no one is doing anything differently, but everyone is saying a lot. For example, President Dodik immediately responded to the declaration by saying that the SDA has an "illusion" that they can set up "some kind of Islamic state in which they are supposed to be the majority, so they can introduce sharia law." Looking at the actual declaration, this sounds like Dodik is hallucinating, but he knows what he's doing: he's taking advantage of the opportunity handed to him by the SDA. He added, "Bosnia was set up as a disfigured state which should never have survived the year 1996."

A few days after the SDA declaration, Dodik announced that the RS will "seek affirmation of the right to self-determination" (meaning secession), as if his "original Dayton" granted this right. He again threatened to propose that the RS withdraw from the Bosnian army and to annul other state-level competencies.

Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić weighed in saying that the SDA declaration was "very dangerous, opening yet another Pandora's box." The Office of the High Representative declared, "Every change in the internal organization of Bosnia requires broad support," as if this essential function of Dayton were not already clear to everyone. The Russian ambassador to Bosnia declared that the SDA's initiative was a "dangerous thing that could destroy the system of ethnic balance."

HDZ leader Dragan Čović asserted that the civic state model that SDA proposed proposing was "absolutely inapplicable.” He called the SDA's intentions a "game based on numerousness in order to secure the domination of one nation."

One commentator, Đorđe Krajišnik, wrote, "It didn't take long for the insane machinery of idiocy to start percolating again. It is time to start chopping up rationality again and to pull on the masks of ethno-nationalist lunacy."

Journalist/editor Vildana Selimbegović responded to Serb and Croat comments that the SDA program advocated violations of the Dayton constitution. She pointed out the various occasions in which the RS parliament threatened to call a referendum for secession, and she mentioned the times when Bosnian Croat representatives rejected decisions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) that did not go in the Croats' favor. Selimbegović evaluated the SDA's goal as garnering the votes of Bosniaks in next year's local elections, and in this way, compared the SDA's behavior with that of the Serb and Croat nationalist parties. She lamented the fact that the leftist parties of Bosnia-Herzegovina—the real anti-fascists in Bosnian politics—are so divided and self-confounding as to be unable to provide an answer to all this manipulation.

Journalist Gojko Berić was easier on the SDA, saying that "everyone has the right to think deeply and to express their vision of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and this is just one of those. And nothing more...If there were wisdom and political culture, which there is not, the SDA declaration would be studied with a cool head and then left in the shadow of a series of more pressing problems," mentioning the construction of roads, unemployment, bringing electrical connections to returnees, repairing flood damage, and more. He concluded, "If nothing else, we have confirmed that the boogeyman called the civil state drives the Serb and Croat nationalists insane."

In an example of what is either a delusional state among RS politicians, or ordinary scare-mongering, Dodik proclaimed, "We can say with certainty that the Democratic Action Party's (SDA) programme declaration is aimed at destroying the Republika Srpska (RS) entity and that they have some support from foreigners."

In a telling development, Dodik and several other high RS officials traveled to Belgrade last weekend (September 21) to discuss the purported threat to the Serb-controlled entity. Dodik employed rhetoric alluding to an attack by Bosniaks against the Republika Srpska, speaking of the need for Serbia to stand by in defense of the RS and to supply it with weapons.

In an unusual turn, Serbian president Vučić responded that they "must do everything to preserve peace and stability in the region," and that "any conflict would mean economic collapse and the end of us all.” Commentators described Vučić's reception of Dodik as "the coldest ever," and that Dodik is behaving like someone who has lost his mind and who is prepared to trigger conflict not only in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but to involve the entire region in his problems.

It is early to analyze thıs at length, but Dodik has problems. The above-mentioned friction within his SNSD party is a new thing. One Federation politician commented, "Dodik has become an isolated phenomenon on whom even his closest collaborators are turning their backs," and "The policies that Dodik is implementing stem from a complete loss of rationality." As if to prove this point, Dodik recently announced, "I will call on Serbs in the US to vote for Trump. Trump is realistic and rational, a great leader who has returned economic stability to the US and who has the greatest growth of popularity.

As of early autumn, Dodik has failed to establish a Council of Ministers with his own man at the top, and his closest confederates are teaming up against him. Dodik could falter at this point. But he has been in a weak position before, and as arguably the most skilled politician in the country, he has prevailed. So there's no percentage in predicting what is going to happen with Dodik. But one thing is certain: that there will be more political charades between the three leading ethno-nationalist parties, and those charades will only serve to protect their power and position.


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