Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina 2021, Journal #2

2021 Journal index

Journal 1: Returning to Bosnia with books; protests; population count; Vesna
Journal 2Inzko's laws; "Hospice care"; Activism vs. emigration
Journal 3: Pandemic; Mostar and corruption; Emptying Kozarac
Journal 4: Visiting Kevljani; Talks with Ervin; Mom
Journal 5Folie ŕ Deux; Zulfo

Previous journals and articles

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Inzko's laws; "Hospice care"; Activism vs. emigration

Soon after I arrived in Sarajevo, I met with my friend Jadranka, a tireless activist for human rights and women's rights—one of the few who has never given up, and has stayed in the struggle for the long haul.

Barely had we sat down to coffee in the Baščaršija, when
Jadranka asked me, "Where in the world is there a country where the prime minister is on trial in the morning, and runs the country in the afternoon? Maybe Botswana? If he had any decency at all, he would resign. We're in the twilight zone here."

Jadranka was referring to Federation Prime Minister
Fadil Novalić, who was arrested in the late spring of 2020, not long after the advent of the Covid pandemic. He was suspected of having a hand in murky dealings that involved the purchase, via a raspberry cultivation firm, of a hundred Chinese ventilators of questionable quality at inflated prices. The raspberry company had no license for the importation of medical equipment, and it appears that the overcharge on the ventilators was connected to a kickback scheme. The trial of Novalić and his confederates has gone on in the most lethargic way.

There has been precious little outcry about what is at the very least a strong appearance of cronyism and graft—probably because the 10.5 million KM is small potatoes compared to other instances of runaway corruption in the country. So Novalić carries on, occasionally going to trial in the morning, and running his entity the rest of the time.
This is just one of many reasons why so many people I talk to start many discussions with the phrase, "In a normal country..."

In this not-normal country, as in so many others, it is hard to get to the bottom of a murky scandal to find out what has really happened. Rumors and theories abound, but facts are in short supply. The much more long-lasting and disturbing scandal is that of the widespread mystery of the killings of
Memić and Dragičević, which I mentioned in the first report of this series.


I talked with Kurt and Valery of the Democratization Policy Council. Both expressed consternation (particularly at the timing), some six weeks after the fact, at the former High Representative Valentin Inzko's decree of new laws outlawing genocide denial and glorification of convicted war criminals. These laws and the sentiments behind them are needed, of course. They are the result of ongoing agitation on the part of anti-denial activists in Bosnia, and probably of quite some sleepless nights for the well-meaning Inzko. But a week after the decree, he was on his way out, leaving the new HR Christian Schmidt holding the bag.

One question is whether Inzko even had any support from the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the international structure holding up the office of the HR under Dayton. It is very doubtful. This is just another manifestation of the weakness of the PIC over the last years. Inzko was a placeholder for an international community that had lost interest in Bosnia-Herzegovina. So when he took the initiative—with remarkably bad timing—to act on his conscience, it was as if he had swatted the proverbial hornet's nest. What happened next, and has been ongoing since late July, is called a "crisis," and you can read all about it

One reason for the consternation with Inzko's move is that it gave Dodik an excuse to make a crisis. But wasn't that ruckus always happening, and eventually going to come to a head? Now it looks like it's coming to a head. What is certain is that everyone in the country is more nervous and fearful than before, and that Dodik continues to manipulate that fear in an expert manner. But there are two more sides to the dynamic of instability. After Dodik, the second side is the response of the "pro-Bosnia" actors, that is, the political leaders in the Federation.

The third side is the international community. I have heard from a number of people in Bosnia about their view of the internationals. Valery and Kurt, for starters, were not impressed with Schmidt's capabilities; he was still overly involved with politics in his home country of Germany, and he didn't know much about Bosnia. Likewise, they were understandably gloomy about the American and European envoys who have been sent to negotiate over an "electoral reform" that looks to set up a gerrymandered system that will entrench the reactionary and corrupt Croat nationalist HDZ in power forever.

I commented that the internationals appear to be comfortable with "stabilocracy" (stability over justice and recovery). Kurt responded, "I call it 'hospice care.' Except with hospice care, you at least worry about the comfort of your patient. Here, we [the international community] are worried about our own comfort."

I asked my friend Jakub if he thought that the internationals really understand what kind of a person Dodik is. He said, "Maybe they know, but they don't care. And maybe they think that we are just the 'Middle East—oriental, and all that,' even that maybe we'll start killing each other again. They are, after all, observing the arming that's going on in Serbia. What is worrisome is that the international community has been so passive, and there are new trends from Western Europe that are supporting Serbian policies. Or is that even new? Unfortunately, in geopolitics, Bosnia-Herzegovina is not that important. The international community behaves as it's New Zealand, or Nepal. They've more or less washed their hands of our situation."

Jakub asked me if I expected a new foreign policy from Biden. But I don't expect anything. I watch and observe that Biden is, naturally, concerned with Russia and Ukraine, and that appears to be a much bigger problem than what's going on in Bosnia. Biden inherited a declining empire that had been kicked down the road by his predecessor, coming out rather the worse for wear.
In 1995, Biden was valiant on the question of genocide (and his Secretary of State is familiar with Bosnia as well), but a generation later, he is continuing Trump's policies in the Balkans—passively, if not actively. This has already turned out to be a big mistake, as it's giving away the store to Dodik (For more on this, read the last six months of my blogs).

So no, I don't expect new ideas from Biden. I expect relatively refined behavior compared to that of his predecessor (not a hard thing); not much imagination; and much bumbling.

Jakub responds that some people hope Biden will intervene: "We often think that we are the center of the world, and that Biden thinks of Bosnia-Herzegovina as soon as he gets up in the morning. Whenever we are in good relations with America, it's good for Bosnia. It would be good if we could strengthen the relationship."


I talked to Nermina and others about domestic politics. She was evaluating the drama of the past few months: "People say it will be better in Bosnia. No, it will not be better, not by itself, and there aren't people who will make it better. People think Schmidt will do something, but it is like a chess game. The worst thing is to underestimate your opponent. Or to have all your pieces in the wrong positions, and you think that some judge will help you and solve your problem. No, why should people think that some judge will come and solve things, an artificially-concocted crisis?

"The international officials will employ appeasement to solve the artificial crisis that was created by the Serbs. The crisis was coming; Inzko knew that it was coming, and Dodik knew it. Still, Inzko made it happen. If I were Dodik, I would give Inzko some kind of award."

I said, "We call it Christmas in July."

Nermina: "With this totally artificial crisis, Schmidt's hands are tied. And Dodik is leading the performance, completely undermining his opposition in the Republika Srpska. He is dominating the narrative."

I asked my friend Damir if he saw prospects for change among any of the political parties in either entity. Of the opposition, "pro-Bosnia" parties in the Federation, he said, "All of them have betrayed any trust they may have deserved, because they had a chance to make a difference. They made promises that they did not keep. A politician from Na
ša Stranka came into power in one municipality of Sarajevo and promised that he would help develop parks—something that has been taken away in so much of Sarajevo. Then he was elected, and now there are fences around Crni Vrh, above Ciglane, and they are preparing to build 7-floor buildings; they are pushing out the Romany population that lives there. There are people who are investing money, and they don't want the Roma around.

"If you have that
kind of fascism in a progressive party, that racism, then imagine what NiP will do! And we've known about the SDP (Social Democrats) for 20 years. Naša Stranka is even worse: they are just a clique. It will be ten years before some reasonable new party will arrive."

I asked Damir if upcoming elections would bring a change, perhaps take Dodik out of power? He said, "No, they need to arrest him, and not just him. The population could live so much better if we just arrested around 10 people."

I asked how much change that would really make, given the deep entrenchment of the corrupt system. Damir: "All of those organizations are very centralized. If you pull out the main operator, they will just collapse. Maybe there are some honest people in some of those organizations; maybe those people can change something. But there is no genuine opposition in the RS, and in the Croat-controlled areas, there is no other party than the HDZ. Here in the Federation, we have a hundred nuances of the SDA [splitoff parties such as the NiP]. And in the SDA, you can't find five honest politicians.   

"Now we are one of the poorest countries in Europe. Not just in our pockets. We lost not only money, but ideas. You can see that by looking around you. Now the calculation in Sarajevo is how many KM, what percentage you will take from any transaction. Everything is monetized; it is really neo-liberalism now. The wife of Bakir Izetbegovi
ć (leader of the SDA), Sebija, is director of the hospital. If this kind of situation happened in a normal country, it could not be possible. You can't do that in Bahrain, or the US. It is the Balkanization of an institution."

Activism vs. emigration

Damir continues, "There are two styles of 'democracy' in Bosnia-Herzegovina. One is the Republika Srpska. There, it is in the style of Belarus. You cannot talk about problems. In Bosnia, it's the Ukrainian style: you can talk, but no one gives a damn. You can talk about everything."

I told Damir a joke this reminded me of, that I had heard in Yugoslavia about 40 years ago, before the end of the Soviet bloc. A dog from Czechoslovakia goes up to Warsaw, Poland, to check out the dog scene. He meets some kindred dogs. Warsaw dog complains, and says "Rowr, we can't go anywhere, have anything, nor do anything here! How is it by you, down there?" Prague dog: "It's great! We can bark as much as we want."

Damir: "It is true, that is the situation. But if the cases of Memić and Dragičević could be concluded, it would help things."

I commented that it was good that there was some solidarity among ordinary people between the entities. Damir: "There is a little bit, but the Covid pandemic makes things harder. It is harder to move. And in the RS, the police beat activists on the street. They beat them like cattle.

"We have a real problem now, in that we are having a hard time finding activists, even to do ordinary logistical work. Everyone has left for Germany. It is really tough to organize anything. If you want to generate any kind of activity, people expect money. In the years after the war, you could find people to do volunteer activities for free. We would spend some of our own money, for example, to get books for a school. Now, people are not willing to spend a couple of hours a week in their own neighborhoods. All there is is Facebook, 'click-tivism.'

"And it is a shame, because this is potentially such a rich country. We could produce enough to feed ourselves, and we could generate enough energy. We have plenty of sun, plenty of water. But nobody is talking about this. We're talking about flags, 'constituent nations.' Who should really give a damn about those things? There is no education. That's why we have vaxxers on one side, anti-vaxxers on the other; it's just one more issue to divide people."

"Not to be completely negative," Damir continues, "there are some good things going on in Bosnia-Herzegovina. People are organizing locally around environmental issues, for example, about setting up mini-dams, about garbage and pollution. The first step is picking up garbage; there are tons of it close to the roads. People are volunteering, cleaning up, going to the riverbanks, to the woods, taking away tons of garbage. And there is communication across entities, among people from Fo
ča, Konjic."

On this score, Nermina was characteristically unhopeful. "All the young people, a few years older than me, and a couple of years younger than me, are leaving. And the biggest question is, who will go to war? Only the guys who are paid to go. Nobody should go to war, but still, nobody should have gone to war in Yugoslavia, in that nice, socialist country where everyone had a guaranteed future. There was free education, health care, a decent retirement fund; they threw it all away. So, why wouldn't they throw away this dysfunctional Bosnia?"

In this same dark mode, Riza asserted that on the Bosniak side, there's a lack of concern about what's happening outside of Sarajevo: "We are not aware as a people, a nation, that we have lost half of our country, demographically. We look at the map: there's no Bosnia there in Gacko, for example. It is now Serbian land. We have to come to terms with the fact that we have lost our territory. The only people who can get anything back in a city like Vi
šegrad, Zvornik, or Foča, are the Bosniaks who have been able to become local officials. They're not able to achieve anything for the rights of returnees or the displaced.

"So there
's not really a reaction from Bosniaks in Sarajevo to much of what's going on elsewhere. What if Dodik declares independence, what will happen? I don't think Bosniaks here will react...people will continue drinking coffee in the kafanas. Even if someone burned down Višegrad, nobody would care. They didn't care in 1992, so why should they care now? And if Dodik declares independence, and there are no shells falling around Sarajevo, they won't care. And Dodik is quite smart; he knows that any armed conflict will be bad for him. So he is probably going to keep saying, 'Ok, let's just divide the country.'"

This, of course, is the "non-violent" route to secession, and it's a real scenario. I can't say it's optimistic, but it's less pessimistic than the war option. This is the direction things are going in Bosnia-Herzegovina today. There is some possibility that either the pro-Bosnian leaders, international officials, or ordinary patriots will react in time to prevent it. But I'm not making any predictions.

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