Bosnia-Herzegovina Journal #1: Sarajevo By Peter Lippman
September 25, 2012
2012 Journal index
Sarajevo. September 25 Journal 2:
Tuzla. October 11 Journal 3: Srebrenica. October 13 Journal 4:
Bratunac, Višegrad, Elections. October 26 Journal 5:
Banja Luka. November 6 Journal 6:
Krajina - Kozarac, Prijedor. November 12 Journal 7:
Guilt, Responsibility, and
Politics. November 20 Journal 8:Travnik,
Mostar, Animal Farm. December 13 Journal 9:
Activism in Sarajevo, Return to
Srebrenica, Prijedor Revisited,
December 19 Journal 10:
Nade; The Missing; Tycoon Arrested; March 1st Coalition,
December 26 Journal 11:
Macedonia and Kosovo, January 2, 2013 Journal 12:
The Roma of Kosovo, January 11, 2013 Journal 13: A
Visit to Germany, January 29, 2013
To contact Peter
in response to these reports or any of his articles,
I have been in
Bosnia-Herzegovina about ten days. Here are some notes on
what I’ve seen, observed, heard, and thought.
Note: some of the names are changed to protect people’s privacy.
I will try to
modulate between personal notes and political explanations in
the hope that my story doesn’t get too dense for those less
familiar with Bosnian politics, while trying to share
information with those who, like me, are obsessed with this
place. This posting will be a little longer on background for
the benefit of those who are less familiar. The situation here
is not so complicated, but there are a lot of details.
I arrived in Bosnia and settled in Sarajevo
in time to experience the change of weather from summer to fall.
These days are sunny and beautiful, a time to enjoy before the chill
sets in. A cooling brings relief to the people who lived through a
historic drought lasting most of the summer and killing much of the
farm production. There was a rather horrific spate of wildfires as
well, in many parts of the country. So Bosnia is looking forward to
higher food prices in the upcoming season.
In this and in other things
there are clear parallels with what we experience in the United
For me, Sarajevo is a walking city; in a day there I walk as much as
I walk in a week in Seattle. I walk along Ferhadija, the pedestrian
zone leading from the old Ottoman quarters to the Austro-Hungarian
section. In the early evening, throngs of people come out, because
walking is their pastime too. I am captivated by the looks
people: the rugged faces, the classically beautiful ones, the
sophisticated ones, the over-privileged ones (just a few). The
magnetically attractive young people, hard not to look at. On some
faces you can see all of Bosnia’s history; on others, you can see a
city that feels like it’s Europe.
Men relaxing in Sarajevo
Now, seventeen years after Dayton, some of these people have grown
up without a war. But it is not yet peace. You may or may not feel
that on the streets, depending on what you know.
Other than the fascination of the people’s faces, the salient visual
thing at present is the riot of posters plastered all over town,
from the airport to the Bas
Čarsija (the old Ottoman core), and on
up into the hill neighborhood of Vratnik, where I stay. These posters
promote candidates for the upcoming nationwide municipal elections
on October 7th. “Naprijed Stari Grad!” (Forward
Old Town) exhorts a poster of the SDP, the entrenched (pseudo-)
Social Democratic Party. “Krajnje je Vrijeme!” (It’s High
Time!) shouts another poster, from the newer SBB, Party for a Better
Future. That party’s posters also sport the slogan, “Seventeen years
of bad government is enough” - leaving me to think, “now it’s high
time for a worse government.”
War hero Dragan Vikić, running for mayor of one municipality on the
SBB ticket, declares, “Nikad vas nisam iznevjerio” (I have
never deceived you)…so far. I am ambivalent about these elections. In a way, they seem
nothing more than a colorful exercise in the use of surplus ink and
paper. The chance that something will change afterwards is small.
The 28% unemployment (43% if you count those who have given up or
are working off the books) won’t be affected. A new government will
have a hard time reversing the astronomical trade deficit. A new
city council won’t change the fact that the average consumer's
monthly expenses far surpass the average income. A new garnitura (political
clique) will continue the plunder.
By way of illustration, here’s what one of my current favorite
columnists, Asaf Bečirović, wrote in the Sarajevo daily
Oslobodjenje on September 21st: “The people we voted
for [in the last election] did all kinds of things, just not what
they promised us. One immediately employed his brother in a state
company; the brother immediately bought a Tuareg on state budget for
120,000 KM [about $80,000]. Another hired a driver who had beaten up
a policeman. A third employed his wife as a teacher in a school
whose director is a member of the same political party. A fourth,
who was elected as deputy mayor, employed his wife in the post
office, and the wife of the fifth gained employment as an advisor in
the office of the director of the state electrical company, who is
also in the same political party. They also employed the wives and
brothers of compliant journalists as advisors!”
Anti-corruption billboard in Sarajevo
This nepotism and the entire repertoire of corruption is present at
every level of government, and there are fourteen governments in
Bosnia-Herzegovina: two entities, ten cantons, one District, and the
state level. And I should add the municipal governments as well.
My landlady tells me that her heating bill is as much as her
pension. Of the people who visit Bosnia and fall in love with it,
she recommends, “They should try living here for a few months - on
our income, not theirs.” She contemplates going to the polling
station in the upcoming elections just to invalidate her ballot,
because none of the candidates can be trusted.
Sometimes the political drama is entertaining, and sometimes it’s
appalling; let me tell you the story of the SDP. The SDP is the heir
to the pre-war Communist Party, renamed. Its chairman, Zlatko
Lagumdzija, was a member of the wartime presidency and wrote good
articles about the wartime aggression against Bosnia and about the
struggle to save Bosnia. The West, and progressive people, admired
him. After the war we admired his party because it was the only hope
for anti-nationalists. The SDP consistently ran a multi-ethnic list
of candidates and, for all but two of the first fifteen years after
the war, it was in the opposition throughout the country except for
A few years ago it started to become clear that the SDP was an
opportunist outfit and not so free of corruption. It became clear
that it was an entrenched party that was more concerned about power
than about justice or about promoting independent thinking on the
part of its members. The party was often described as a “party of
one person,” that being Zlatko Lagumdzija. Most of the best party
activists gradually left, leaving only those who were compliant with
Lagumdzija’s autocratic party rule. The SDP was just another
dishonest power-monger. This didn’t make it any different from any
other party, but the disappointment was greater because the party’s
promise, its rhetoric, had been better.
But the SDP was still a powerful party with a base. And in the 2010
national elections the SDP won a plurality of the votes among many
parties, thus gaining the right to form the government at the state
level and in the Federation (one of Bosnia’s two “entities” along
with the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska, or RS). This can be seen
as a revolt, especially on the part of voting Muslims, against the
other entrenched and corrupt parties, particularly the SDA (Party
of Democratic Action).
And then - nothing. For almost a year and a half no new government
was formed, while the SDP fought it out with the leading nationalist
parties of the Croats and the Serbs. The old prime minister and his
cabinet remained in office as caretakers and no significant
legislation was passed throughout that time. The SDP formed a
coalition with the SDA, the powerful Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim)
nationalist party, together with a couple of less-significant
parties, but they did not succeed in forming a new government until
earlier this year.
Not long after the new government was finally established, wham -
the SDP broke up the coalition with the SDA and announced a new one
with the SBB and with the prominent Croat nationalist parties. The
force of the SDP’s move was astonishing, because it was equivalent
to a demonstration that Bosnia could go to hell: no more
multi-ethnicity, no more citizen-based politics (as opposed to
ethnic-based), and not even a pretense of principles.
Hypotheses about the reasons for the SDP’s ultra-sellout are
plentiful but let me say something about its new partner, the SBB.
In the run-up to the 2010 campaign, the SDP and the SDA declared
that they would cooperate with anyone in politics except the
SBB. That was reasonable, because the SBB was clearly a
reactionary Bosniak nationalist party, run by another corrupt autocrat.
Parties that rest on the personality of one figure are common in
Bosnian politics; the SDP is one, and Haris Silajdzic’s old Party
for Bosnia-Herzegovina was another. The SBB is
People like to say that the SBB’s founder, Fahrudin Radončić, came
to Sarajevo (he was from Montenegro) carrying only two plastic bags
of his belongings. I don’t know, maybe they were filled with money.
Radončić was a journalist who during the war received hefty start-up
funding from the SDA - then headed by now-deceased Alija Izetbegović
- to start the newspaper Dnevni Avaz (Daily Voice or just “Avaz”).
For a long time Avaz was the mouthpiece of the SDA, save the period
between 2000 and 2002 when Avaz conveniently had a falling out with
Izetbegović in time for the SDP to win a rare victory in the
Then Avaz swung back to the SDA. For fifteen years Radončić was
content to work as kingmaker in the media without directly
participating in politics himself. Along the way he became one of
the richest men in Bosnia, a few years ago erecting a domineering,
phallic tower across from the main bus station. Rumors swirled
around to the effect that Radončić was involved in corrupt deals and
that he was cozy with various gangsters, particularly with the
Albanian drug-runner Naser Kelmendi, originally from Kosovo.
This is more than rumor, in fact; the Sarajevo-based Center for
Investigative Journalism (CIN) listed Radončić as Kelmendi’s main
In June, US intelligence agencies published a blacklist of one
hundred of the world’s top narco-dealers, signed by President Obama.
It included Kelmendi as one of the largest drug smugglers in Europe.
To quote one article: “A 2008 report by the Bosnian State
Investigative and Protection Agency, SIPA, which CIN used in its
research, described Kelmendi as the head of one of the best
organized criminal organizations in the region, allegedly smuggling
drugs and cigarettes, trafficking in people and laundering money.” (BIRN
news agency, June 5, 2012)
Kelmendi is highly-placed in the Albanian mafia in these parts. This
being a multi-ethnic region where there is equal opportunity in
crime, each ethnicity has at least one mafia that it can call its
own. The different crime organizations sometimes cooperate like good
old Yugoslavs, but usually they balkanize, resulting in a record of
gangland murders going back to the immediate postwar years. A few
years ago someone from the Albanian mafia killed Ramiz Delalović
Celo, leader of a relatively home-grown outfit with roots in
Montenegro. “Investigation in that case is still underway,” but
Radončić has been accused of complicity in that operation.
Another unsavory alliance of Radončić’s involved dealings with the
Serbian supermarket magnate Miroslav Mišković. People in Sarajevo
mounted a rebellion when Mišković, who had been a financier to
Slobodan Miloševic in the 1990s, proposed to open a supermarket in
the Bosnian capital.
All of which is to say that Radončić is a very scary character. To
me he is, potentially, the ultimate counterpart - a collaborator in
the final destruction of Bosnia - to Milorad Dodik, president of the
Serb-controlled entity and literally a sworn enemy of the existence
of Bosnia as a unified state.
This is to illustrate just how rock-bottom disgusting the SDP’s
sellout was, and how upsetting the prospect of their encouraging a
Trojan horse in the form of the SBB into Bosnian politics is. And
the SDP has proposed that Radončić, pal of Kelmendi, become the next
Minister of Security.
A few weeks ago there was a series of raids on the mafias, the
biggest crackdown in postwar Bosnian history. Police were looking
for drug-runners, extortionists, traffickers, money-launderers, and
more than a few murderers. Kelmendi and his sons Besnik, Liridon,
and Elvis narrowly escaped arrest, going on the lam in Montenegro
(or Kosovo, depending on which rumor-mill newspaper you believe).
One theory has it that the raid was mounted on the prompting of the
SDA - still in power in many places - in retaliation for being
dumped by the SDP. Another plausible theory has it that Radončić
tipped off the Kelmendi clan before the raids.
Here’s another fascinating detail about Radončić. There is an
awareness in this country of the problem of conflict of interest,
and relevant laws exist, though they are not consistently enforced.
A prominent politician who holds office should not be manager of a
state-owned company, for example. And it is, at the least, unseemly
for a Minister to own a high-circulation newspaper.
Radončić has a history of suing people for libel, going back to the
immediate post-war years. Recently Radončić took the present
Minister of Security to court for accusing him, as owner of Avaz,
essentially of misusing the newspaper for demagogic purposes during
the present electoral campaign,
in which Radončić has a high stake.
Well, in court Radončić’s lawyer asserted that Radončić was no
longer the owner of Avaz. It came out that he had recently divorced
his wife and sold the paper to her for 200 million KM (konvertabilna
marka), i.e. about $140 million. His ex-wife, a hairdresser who had
never paid taxes, paid a 500,000 KM down payment for Avaz and is due
to pay the rest by the end of 2015.
It’s a remarkable move: Radončić divorced Azra so that she could
become owner of his companies (there are more than one, an empire
involving hotels, real estate, restaurants, printing, and
more). If she were still married to him, this would constitute
a conflict of interest.
With Bosnia-Herzegovina slouching towards the elections, Srebrenica
is a special case. Like almost all of the other towns in Podrinje
(the eastern Bosnian region alongside the River Drina, Bosnia’s
border with Serbia), before the 1995 genocide Srebrenica had a
majority (around 70%) population of Bosniaks. That population was
decimated and the town was destroyed. “Recovery” has been slow and,
without benefit of a census (the last one having taken place before
the war in 1991), the rough estimate of Srebrenica’s current
population is around 5,000 or 6,000 in the entire municipality, with
that population estimated as half Serb and half Bosniak.
Since the end of the war surviving Srebrenicans have had the right
to vote in that municipality’s elections regardless of where they
live, be it Vogosca (a Sarajevo suburb) or St. Louis. This voting
right, established in weak compensation for the genocide, ensured
that Srebrenica would be the only municipality in the RS entity to
be politically controlled by the Bosniaks. That arrangement has
lasted until this year, when the Bosnian electoral commission, in
the face of great protest, removed Srebrenica’s special status. In
response, activists mounted a campaign to register as many as
possible Bosniak voters as residents in the municipality. This
campaign lasted until a recent deadline; simultaneously, Serbs from
other areas were also registering their residency in Srebrenica as
well. To some extent these activities looked like a competition for
the listing of dead souls; the Bosniak-led campaign published a list
of registered Serbs who do not live in Bosnia, and who perhaps do
not live at all.
Soon the result of all this finagling will be clear. Who rules
Srebrenica politically is significant, but it is not the only thing,
and probably not even the main thing, as long as the municipality is
part of the RS. And it is going to remain part of the RS for the
foreseeable future, despite the wishes of many people to see it
turned into a special district. Meanwhile, the municipality is
economically suffocated. To some extent this is a result of the
worldwide economic crisis, but it is also arguably a result of a
conscious policy by the highest echelons of RS politics to
discourage a postwar revival in the Srebrenica.
In any case, Srebrenica will be the location of one of the few
really interesting elections this season.
When I arrived in Bosnia I met with Hasan Nuhanović, an activist for
justice for the Srebrenica survivors. He is a survivor himself,
having lost most of his family upon the fall of the enclave. Some
years ago he wrote the book Under the UN Flag, detailing the
behavior of the Dutch battalion of UN troops, for whom he had been a
translator in the enclave. There are many books about Srebrenica,
but this one is
indispensable because, having been a first-hand
observer, Hasan was able to relate damning evidence about how the
Dutch not only failed to protect Srebrenica, but also actively
collaborated with the Serb forces that were besieging the enclave.
Now Hasan has written a new book, yet to be translated, titled Zbijeg.
The title is related to the words for escape and for flight, or
fleeing. The book covers an earlier period than Hasan’s first one,
describing the onset of the war and the early period. I look forward
to reading it.
Hasan took me to the new memorial gallery for Srebrenica in the
center of Sarajevo. The gallery features the photography of Tarik
Samarah: photos of mass graves, survivors, and artifacts from
Srebrenica’s past. There was a whole wall with a list of the names
of the massacre victims. I found Hasan’s family. There were
films and a set of interviews of survivors who told their stories.
There, Hasan introduced me to a photographer, originally from
Visegrad, who had survived a firing squad in Visegrad and somehow
There’s no end to such stories here; each person carries a book
within. This may all seem sad and gloomy. But in it all I see that
people have the will to survive and carry on, and to seek out
justice. I think this resilience and innate sense of justice is the
essence of life and a miraculous thing. That’s why I consider it a
privilege to know people like Hasan.
I received an e-mail from my old friend Agron, whom I hadn’t seen in
six years. He had moved to southeast Asia to get a job, and I never
expected to see him again. It happened that a friend of his had
spotted me at a kafana, and although he did not greet me, he did
report my presence to Agron.
Agron is one of those people who is always growing. The signposts of
his life have to do with employment. He studied in Sarajevo but was
not able to get a job here. It would have been easier for him to get
work if he had been willing to join a political party, as patronage
is still the way things work here. But Agron stuck to his principles
and thus became an expatriate. It is a sad thing to lose your
homeland in that way, but Agron has been spiritually enriched
through the experience.
Agron calls the political parties here “employment bureaus.” And he
describes to me the experience of being “ironed” (peglati, to
jerk around) by the university here, where the professors only give
top grades to the children of politicians or other highly-placed
officials, and to the children of their colleague professors. Out of
a possible grade of ten, no one else gets more than an eight.
There are other ways to get along as a student; the appearance of
scandals involving sex or money for grades is common (I wrote about
some of this extensively in 2010; see my journals from that year
here. Agron says, “Then, these students grow up and
become employed in the same institutions. Some of them have spent
tens of thousands to get there. So it is only natural that they will
then abuse their privilege and behave the same way.”
I ask Agron, “If the students are guilty for acquiescing to this
system, and the professors are guilty for implementing it, then
where can the cycle of corruption be broken?” Agron replies with the
oft-used old Eastern European saying, “The fish stinks from the
head.” Which I interpret to mean that, until there is rule of law in
Bosnia-Herzegovina - and for that, there must be a functional state
- nothing will change. Finally, Agron says, “I would not recommend
the universities here to anyone.”
I take this comment with
reservations. There are many well-educated people in
Bosnia-Herzegovina, and some world-class professors. Unfortunately,
corruption in academia is proverbial, and some professors, with
their truly scandalous behavior, have given the universities a bad
Main street, downtown Sarajevo
I went to visit Drew Sullivan, local director of the international
Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), affiliated
with the Center for Investigative Journalism. I asked whether the
OCCRP focuses strictly on crime, or pays attention to corruption at
the state level as well. Mr. Sullivan said, “We keep it vague.
Organized crime is a fuzzy term.” In other words, the organization
observes the behavior of politicians as well. In Bosnia and
vicinity, there is no way to talk about organized crime without
“We define organized crime as a group of people working to hurt the
larger group,” Mr. Sullivan said. (That sounds to me like a
description of the Bosnian government.) He noted that many of the
crime organizations often work through tycoons or oligarchs.
(Remember here what I wrote, above, that “there are clear parallels
with what we experience in the United States.”)
Sullivan put his finger directly on the problem when he commented
that “there is a weak government.” Referring to the drug smuggling
that uses the Balkans as a crucial transit route, he said that “the
amount of money involved dwarfs the governmental budgets.“
I mentioned to Sullivan that I get most of my in-depth information
about corruption in this country from the independent weeklies,
Slobodna Bosna and especially Dani. He responded, “Those
two magazines are right about seventy percent of the time. That is
not enough. We are more conservative and only use quotable sources.”
Many prominent politicians were managers of state enterprises under
the “old system,” as they call the socialism of the Tito era. Others
are former dissidents who gained popularity by virtue of having been
persecuted by that system. Others are lone operators who, through
connections, enriched themselves and went into politics as a
lucrative field of operations.
RS President Milorad Dodik is one of the latter. Sullivan recalled
that Dodik got rich through cigarette smuggling. He said, “Now,
Dodik and his ilk have stolen all they can steal, so they have to
look for new avenues of profit.” Regarding Radončić, he commented
that “the SBB is not an organized criminal group, but Radončić, yes,
he is involved in organized crime.”
Describing Bosnian politics, he said, “In Bosnia-Herzegovina there
is a patronage system, where every contract goes through a political
party. The tenders are fixed, and the contractor returns the favors.
For example, by staying loyal during the elections.” Hefty kickbacks
are customary. Sullivan continued, “The top ministers take a ten
percent kickback off of each contract. Their corruption can triple
the cost of a project. There is gross malfeasance and no
competition…they are all crooks. What you would call ‘corruption,’
they would call ‘the political system.’
“This is the fundamental issue. This has destroyed the economy
because it is not functional to do business in Bosnia, which has the
lowest rate of small businesses in Europe outside of Belarus. Small
businesses are being destroyed, and poverty is increasing. The money
is in drugs.
“For things to improve, it takes the leaders wanting Bosnia to
become a real country. But the politicians believe that if the
Dayton constitution is changed, “we” [any political party] may
I visited with my old friend Dino who, as usual, said “They are all
lopovi (thieves).” It’s a safe bet that, even with such a
broad brush, he nails it ninety-nine percent of the time.
My friend Marc is familiar with the compulsory auditing operations
visited upon most companies. He told me that the state auditors come
and check the books of a company for a couple of days, and the
company is expected to feed the auditors lunch during that time. I
knew that if you hire a majstor (craftsman…carpenter,
bricklayer, etc), you have to feed him lunch every day, but this was
news to me.
Marc told me the story of one company that played strictly by the
rules. When the auditor failed to find any trace of malversation, he
dinged the company 2,000 KM for having “outdated labels” on its
Referring to the corrupt politicians and other operators, Marc told
me, “They should all be hanged. I won’t wind the rope, but put them
on a chair, tie the rope, and I will push over the chair.”
I asked my first cab driver if there was anyone worth voting for. He
said no. My second cab driver said, “These are the worst elections
These are not very good elections. One candidate for mayor in Zenica,
a city in central Bosnia, posted some pornography on his campaign
web site. People could watch the porn after affirming their age.
Then the candidate appeared in a video clip saying, “If you liked
this footage, vote for me.” It was announced yesterday that he was
disqualified, but he vowed to appeal.
And in the RS one on-line daily announced a competition for the
“prettiest female candidate”; you could send in your vote via cell
phone message. Women’s advocacy organizations have not commented.
The Baščaršija in Sarajevo
I met with the writer and activist Vuk Bacanović. He has been
working with a new group, the United Organization for Socialism and
Democracy. We had a good talk about activism here, and
everywhere. Vuk used to write for Dani. There are some very good
writers and analysts in the media in general in this country, but
they don’t cultivate a strategy for grassroots activism. Vuk
expressed positive feelings about some activity going on lately in
Banja Luka - about which more later. Speaking of the progressive
party Nasa Stranka, (Our Party), he said, “Nasa Stranka is
not a serious organization. It’s the SDP that has had the
And I met with Darko Brkan, former leader of the grassroots
organization “Dosta!” (Enough!). That group is presently
inactive, and Darko works with the group “Zasto ne?” (Why
not?). He too felt hopeful about the actions in Banja Luka.
Regarding the present pre-election acrobatics, he felt that the SDP
should have remained in the opposition. He noted that one prominent
SDP defector said, “Lagumdzija still has the same values that he had
before, but other values have become more important to him.”
Which is to say, profiteering has become more interesting.
Cooperation between the SDP and the SBB can result in some very
lucrative dealings including privatization of the more profitable
state-owned companies. Darko emphasized that “in the previous
coalition, the SDA was not prepared to get up off of its large
number of seats. The SBB would demand less. That is the whole reason
for SDP’s change of coalition.”
Darko talked about the idea to vote with invalidated ballots as a
protest. Ever the campaigner, he started brainstorming about a
campaign: Form the “Stranka nevazecih listica” (Party of
invalid ballots); raise 30,000 KM, enough for 100 billboards around
the country. Don’t vote, wreck the ballot. But: “People must go to
the polls, so that it doesn’t look like they are just apathetic.”
Vratnik neighborhood, Sarajevo
Every year or so there is a governmental crisis and everything
stops. Commentators regularly say that “this is the worst crisis
since Dayton.” The implication is that these are episodes. In fact,
the Dayton constitution is the crisis, and the political
crisis has lasted since the war ended. The non-stop functional
corruption works for the Dodiks, the Radončićs, and the Lagumdzijas
(and the rest of them). These things won’t stop without massive
pressure from below and, one hopes, from outside the country.
Meanwhile, the leaders will continue to generate these distracting
crises that resemble a soap opera, only they are more original.