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Carl Thomson: The EU should not try to hold Bosnia together by threats and coercion

Picture 12 Carl Thomson is a public affairs consultant and commentator on Russian and East European affairs.  A former Conservative Party Parliamentary Candidate and aide to John Redwood, he is also a Woking Borough Councillor and runs his own translation and interpreting business.

As a former Parliamentary candidate for a Scottish constituency, I find the endless arguments on ConservativeHome about the state of the union and the Barnett Formula tiresome.  Even so, I would never suggest that those who call for an English Parliament should have their bank accounts frozen, advocates of Scottish independence banned from standing for office, or proponents of constitutional reform prevented from leaving the country, in the same way that dissidents in the Soviet Union were once denied exit visas.

These, however, are the punishments that Baroness Ashton, as the EU’s foreign affairs minister, has demanded the Council of Ministers should hand out to Bosnian Serb politicians who refuse to accept EU membership for Bosnia as a multi-ethnic federal state controlled primarily by Muslims and Croats at the expense of the minority Serb population.  A confidential paper tabled by Baroness Ashton has suggested that any Bosnia Serb politician who “challenges the fundamentals of the Bosnia and Herzegovina state”, should be subject to draconian sanctions restricting their ability to travel abroad or contest elections. EU diplomats have confirmed media reports that the measures could be used against Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb Prime Minister who has raised the prospect of a referendum on independence from Bosnia.

Officially, Bosnia-Herzegovina comprises two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose population is predominantly Muslim and Croat, and Republika Srpska, which is overwhelmingly Serb.  Both territories were established as part of the Dayton Agreement that marked the end of the Bosnian War in the mid-1990s, and contain a bewildering array of municipal and cantonal bodies designed to ensure that Bosnia’s mosaic of nationalities is equally represented at every level of government.

Although every Bosnian citizen holds the same passport, the reality is that the Bosnian Federation and Republika Srpska are two de facto separate and distinct countries.  Republika Srpska’s loyalties lie not with the Bosnian capital in Sarajevo, but with Serbia.  In Belgrade, the schedule for the bus service to Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, is listed in the domestic, rather than the international, timetable.  The border guards who watch over what were once internal boundaries in the old Yugoslavia might wear the blue and yellow armbands of the Bosnian government, but the flag that hangs outside every home on the route to Banja Luka is the Serbian red, white and blue.

The Serbian Government’s attitude towards Republika Srpska is more akin to a relationship between two sovereign states than between a national government and a regional entity in a neighbouring country.  The two governments signed a “special ties” treaty in 2006 pledging cooperation in economic development, defence, education policy and dual citizenship.  At the end of June an agreement was signed between Belgrade and Banja Luka to integrate Serbia and Republika Srpska’s financial and banking sectors.

Earlier this summer I travelled to the region with a colleague from the European Parliament to see the political situation in Republika Srpska for myself.  Paradoxically for a region whose people have suffered tremendous bloodshed in the name of sovereignty and territorial integrity, almost every Belgrade resident and Bosnian Serb I spoke to was adamant that their future lay in the EU.  For many Serbs, who still feel a sense of international isolation, this is understandable.  The allure of visa-free travel, recognition as a European country, and a seat at the top table is strong for a people whose reputation in the West is still primarily defined by the words ‘war criminals’.

While the prospect of EU membership is appealing to most Serbs, at least to the outside observer, there is still deep rooted resentment towards NATO.  This is not entirely the result of a misguided bombing campaign in 1999 that preceded the expulsion of Kosovo’s Serb and Roma populations and the destruction of historic Orthodox monasteries and other cultural relics under the watch of the Western alliance.

What causes the greatest resentment is the feeling that atrocities committed against Serb civilians during the Bosnian War are being excluded from the history books.  The Srebrenica Massacre is widely, and rightly, commemorated every year.  But few remember Operation Storm in August 1995, which saw approximately 150,000 to 200,000 Serbs flee advancing Croat forces in what former EU Special Envoy Carl Bildt described at the time as “the most efficient ethnic cleansing we’ve seen in the Balkans”.  Bosnian Muslims were by far the biggest victims of atrocities in the Balkans, and few could match the Serb militias for cruelty, but the personal tragedies from the destruction of established Serb communities are all too real, and they also deserve to be remembered.

It is this feeling of victimhood that in turn feeds a sense of defiance.  Bosnian and Serbian embassies may talk the talk on European integration.  Serbs in the cafes of Belgrade’s Old Town may eagerly await Serbia’s accession to the EU.  But for aficionados of Balkan politics, the graffiti in Belgrade alone is fascinating and may give a deeper insight into Serb mentality.  The legend “Kosovo is Serbia” is reproduced on almost every street corner. Stickers and posters in support of the Serbian Radical Party, which received 48% of the vote at the last presidential election and whose founder sits in the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, are prominent.  In Republika Srpska, the sellers manning the various souvenir kiosks were happy to offer t-shirts proclaiming Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic “Serbian heroes”.  The Serbian parliament’s recent apology for Srebrenica was not only qualified, but passed by the narrowest of margins.

The response to Serb political irredentism from the EU has been to stick its fingers in its ears and encourage a greater transfer of powers from Banja Luka to Sarajevo.  This may achieve some success and make Bosnia more governable in the short term, but risks turning disgruntled Serbs away from the Bosnian state even more.  The concept of territorial integrity has been a sacred cow in the EU’s approach to Bosnia, as it has been in other ‘frozen conflicts’ on the territory of the former Soviet Union.  This approach has been undermined by NATO’s connivance in the dismemberment of Kosovo from Serbia and the fact that, as in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, breakaway republics whose aspirations for international recognition are denied often achieve de facto independence by other means.

Fifteen years after Republika Srpska was born out of the genocide and ethnic cleansing of the Balkan Wars, and with hundreds of millions of pounds spent in aid and outside intervention at the highest level, the prospect of a unified Bosnia remains a distant dream.  It is clear the Dayton Agreement has outlived its usefulness, and the entire constitutional structure of Bosnia needs to be revisited.  Any union, be it formed through democratic consent or an artificial state held together by outside intervention, can only survive if it has legitimacy among its inhabitants, and if its people elect representatives who wish that union to continue.

If the EU wishes to keep Republika Srpska inside the Bosnian state, the goal must be to give that state legitimacy.  Perhaps we should ask whether arbitrary borders drawn to cut across ethnic lines by Stalin and Tito should remain sacrosanct and intact for all time.  By punishing advocates of Serb independence with draconian sanctions, the EU simply risks telling the Serb people that they can only achieve by violence what they should attempt to achieve by democracy.


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