Title: Message

Depletion in the Srpska Republic

Growing Bitterness Among Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Martin Woker

Each trial at the UN tribunal in The Hague increases the pressure on the Bosnian Serb Republic to finally hand over accused war criminals Karadzic and Mladic. The politicians claim that as yet there is no legal basis for doing so. Meantime, there is growing bitterness among the populace of the Republika Srpska about the catastrophic economic situation.

It is hot in Banja Luka. People seek the shade in the downtown pedestrian zone of the Republika Srpska's capital, a city of something over 200,000 souls. The terraces of the coffee houses have plenty of customers on this afternoon. The almost exclusively male clientele, ranging from young to middle aged, are drinking beer and harder stuff. Traffic is sparse; occasionally, a yellow post bus - on loan from the Swiss Postal Service, without the proverbial three-toned horn but now embellished with Cyrillic script - stops at the curb. In the large department store on the square, the saleswomen stand idly in front of half-empty shelves. A couple of children amuse themselves on the escalator. Customers have been scarce for a long time now, and not just because of the heat. Officially 170,000 people are unemployed in Bosnia's Serb Republic; in reality, the unemployment rate is running at about 60 percent.

Strict Separation

"Many people were materially better off during the war than they are today. But now at least the terrorism against minorities is over," says Miljenko Anicic, the energetic head of the local branch of Caritas. The Catholic aid organization is under the aegis of the bishop of Banja Luka. As laid down in the Dayton Accord, Bosnia-Herzegovina is divided into the Bosnian-Croatian Federation and the Republika Srpska. According to Anicic, this arrangement is a disaster. Before the war, he notes, about 80,000 Catholics lived in the diocese of Banja Luka. By war's end, the number was barely 9,000. Of the roughly 200,000 Muslims in the same region, roughly 90 percent were expelled. Of the expellees, according to the Caritas Legal Counseling Center, only 1,500 persons have returned, and many of them have not been able to reoccupy their former homes, because the buildings are now inhabited by Serbs expelled from elsewhere. Anicic says that expellees from Banja Luka wishing to return face enormous legal hurdles, because at war's end the politicians decreed that the proportion of non-Serbs in the city should be limited to 5 percent. Nothing has changed since then, he claims; the political will to coexist is lacking. And the longer this separation continues, he adds, the more people believe that coexistence is truly no longer possible - even though this war was brought to Bosnia-Herzegovina from the outside.

With the Dayton Agreement, the results of the so-called ethnic cleansing that had been carried out during the war were in fact fixed by treaty. At that time the Serbs, who before the war had comprised barely a third of the roughly 4.3 million inhabitants of the country, appeared to be the winners. Being held out to the approximately 1.2 million inhabitants of the Republika Srpska is the prospect of their own state on 49 percent of the territory of a federated Bosnia-Herzegovina, with its own authorities, its own airline, university and border crossings marked with signs in Cyrillic script. And yet, there is a lack of everything here in what is supposedly their own land. Says one local woman journalist, "Whoever can, heads for the nearest big city, whether for shopping or just to breathe some air for a change." That city is neither Sarajevo nor Belgrade, but the Croatian capital of Zagreb, just two and a half hours away by car. During the high season for travel, all anyone needs is a personal ID. And a young local representative of an international organization confirms: "Whoever can find the ways and means, gets out of here - forever." He is the only member of his old middle-school class to remain in Banja Luka. All the others have gone, a few expelled by force, most of them voluntarily emigrated to Western Europe, North America or Australia. The woman journalist adds: "The ones who've stayed are those no one in the rest of the world wants. They can find a place only here among us - as government experts."

A Rear-Guard Action

It is a good thing that Strahinja Curkovic did not overhear that devastating judgment. He is the deputy minister of justice of the Republika Srpska and has just come from (of all things) a meeting of legal experts who are preparing draft legislation on cooperation with the UN tribunal in The Hague. "As it turns out," the deputy minister says in an interview, "the Republika Srpska has the obligation to cooperate with The Hague." There is nothing new in this statement, the sense of which is actually contained in the Dayton Accord. A detailed draft of the new law is to be presented to the republic's parliament in September, and in all likelihood it will pass. After that, the minister is asked, will the police of the Republika Srpska change their behavior and in future arrest and hand over all the accused offenders sought by The Hague? The political will is there, responds Curkovic, and the justice system will act accordingly. The next question is: And will that also apply to accused war criminals Karadzic and Mladic? "Since I don't know where they are, I cannot speak about their arrest," says the minister, in a tone indicating that he has used this response dozens of times to fend off foreign snoopers.

An independent local observer tries to evaluate Curkovic's diplomatic words. He reckons with a wave of arrests in the fall, and a possible division of labor between the international SFOR troops and local authorities, with the locals dealing with the little fish and the foreign troops worrying about the big boys. This division of labor would allow the politicians to save face, says the observer, since people like Mladic and Karadzic are still very popular among the people. No serious resistance is expected, he adds, but the people expect the principle of mutuality to be observed when it comes to arresting war criminals. That is, arrests must also take place in the Bosnian-Croatian Federation. Of course, it can have escaped no one in the Republika Srpska that early this month two retired Muslim generals and a Muslim colonel were arrested. The Hague tribunal has charged the three officers with responsibility for war crimes against Serbs, carried out in 1993 in central Bosnia, partly by foreign volunteers from Islamic countries, so-called Mujahedin.

Little Sensitivity in Sarajevo

After the arrests of the three, the Foreign Ministry in Sarajevo publicly declared that the state would pay the costs of their defense. That declaration triggered a storm of indignation, especially in Banja Luka. The Serbs rightfully objected that the Foreign Office in Sarajevo is there to represent the interests of the entire country, and such a one-sided intervention on behalf of the Muslims is simply unacceptable. It took two days for word to issue forth from the remote capital that the whole thing had been a misunderstanding. In reality, however, the controversial statement by the Foreign Ministry was officially withdrawn.

Is that a sign that the two parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina - that is, the Bosnian-Croatian Federation and the Republika Srpska - are slowly drawing closer together? That would be an overly optimistic prognosis at this point. As long as progressive, Western-oriented forces have not really gained a foothold in Serbia itself, Bosnia's Serbs are unlikely to budge from their nationalistic position. There is still a dim hope in Banja Luka that one day the old boys will again assume power in Belgrade. As clearly demonstrated by the latest spats between reformers and nationalists there, the power struggle in the Serbian capital is still far from over.

31 August 2001 / First published in German, 27 August 2001 http://www.nzz.ch/english/background/2001/08/31_bosnia.html

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