Bosnia in flux

Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite state presidency, sits down for a wide-ranging interview covering relations with Israel and the future of the Balkans.

Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite state presidency, sits down for a wide-ranging interview covering relations with Israel and the future of the Balkans • MICHAEL FREUND Over the past few weeks, Bosnia has been swept by civil unrest as anti-government protests have brought (photo credit: REUTERS)
Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite state presidency, sits down for a wide-ranging interview covering relations with Israel and the future of the Balkans • MICHAEL FREUND Over the past few weeks, Bosnia has been swept by civil unrest as anti-government protests have brought
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Over the past few weeks, Bosnia has been swept by civil unrest as anti-government protests have brought thousands of people into the streets in dozens of cities.
Amid high unemployment and a stagnant economy, a growing number of voices are beginning to question the complex government structure that runs the country.
Under the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia, the presidency of the country was divided among the three largest ethnic groups: Croats, Serbs and Bosniak Muslims, with each community having one representative.
In recent years, Israel has developed an increasingly close and valued friendship with the Republic of Srpska, one of the constituent parts of Bosnia- Herzegovina. This arrangement took on major diplomatic significance in November 2011, when the Palestinian Authority sought UN membership as a state and the deciding vote on the Security Council belonged to Bosnia. The Croat and Muslim members of Bosnia’s presidency both supported the Palestinian position, but thanks to the Republic of Srpska’s opposition, a consensus could not be reached, which led Bosnia to withhold its support for the Palestinian cause.
On a recent visit to Israel, Nebojsa Radmanovic, who is serving his second term as the representative of the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, sat down for an exclusive interview with the Magazine to discuss matters ranging from relations with Israel to the future of the Balkans.
How would you characterize the relations between Israel and Bosnia?
They are complex because of Bosnia-Herzegovina, not because of Israel. Our system requires that there be a consensus among the three members of the Bosnian presidency. This in and of itself would not be problematic, but one of the presidents is a Bosniak Muslim, and he a priori has a certain leaning towards the Palestinians as well as the Muslim world, which does not exactly coincide with Israel’s interests.
But as a constituent part of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska has nonetheless been cooperating very successfully with Israel, and we hope that after my visit, these relations will grow even stronger.
Israel and the Republika Srpska have developed close ties. To what do you attribute this?
It is, first of all, a matter of the goodwill that exists among various people on both sides, out of which emerged the idea to establish a representative office for the Republika Srpska in Jerusalem. This office has helped to developed very fruitful relations between us and Israel in a number of fields. In Republika Srpska, we have been able to influence the foreign policy of Bosnia-Herzegovina, such that it will not support various international resolutions that would harm Israeli interests. Likewise, Israel sent experts in various fields who are assisting with the development of Republika Srpska.
Of course, I have been focusing on the present and the future, which are of special interest to me, but unfortunately there are a number of sad, shared things from the past upon which our special relationship can be based. The Jews were slaughtered during the Holocaust, while the Serbs at that time were also targeted for genocide by the Nazi Germany-allied Croatian state. Until today, these two nations – Jews and Serbs – find themselves under threat, to some extent. But it is also clear that these two peoples are struggling for peace and freedom wherever they reside.
Many Bosnian Muslims supported the Nazis during World War II; thousands of Bosnian Muslims fought for Hitler. In 1947-1948, the Yugoslav government tried and convicted a number of their leaders for war crimes. Since Bosnia is an independent country, shouldn’t it apologize to the Jewish and Serbian communities for the persecution they endured?
The history of the Balkans is very complex and is reflected in the political relationships among the different Balkan groups, and this is also true in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Today... very little is said [in the country] about the crimes that were committed by the Bosnian SS Handschar Division.
Moreover, in one of the cantons of the entity Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is a school which proudly bears the name of an SS officer from the Handschar. How is it even possible to think about an apology when [people] do not even have an understanding of what happened there? The current Bosniak Muslim leadership blames the Serbs for everything, including the past, and even for things that occurred during the rule of the Ottomans.
No one forgives... and there are no requests for forgiveness. [In the] past three years there were some narrow requests for forgiveness and... they all related to the most recent war. But we did not feel any positive results from this... People need to relate to their responsibility for what happened 60 to 70 years ago in a completely different manner. But to our regret, we have not succeeded in advancing this subject, not even among historians.
There have been growing concerns expressed about an openly anti-Semitic, Bosnian neo-Nazi group, the Bosnian Movement of National Pride. Will Bosnia take any steps to ban neo-Nazi groups?
For a long time now, there have been discussions in Bosnia-Herzegovina about how to outlaw certain groups. No conclusions have been reached because these groups are very different from one another.
What I mean is that people always seek to ban such organizations that belong to another ethnic group, but not their own. I think that the group that you mentioned is still not well-established, but it is dangerous, perhaps heralding the beginning of something else.
But what is most certainly felt on a much wider and more dangerous level is what is happening in neighboring Croatia, with neo-Ustashe movements. Pro-Nazi salutes that were common during the period of the Croatian fascist state in World War II have once again become openly and shamelessly popular. If a Croatian soccer star in the middle of a game can lead 30,000 fans in a Nazi chant, then that is something that clearly touches on more than just a handful of people.
What is worrisome is not only the reaction of the Croatian authorities, but also that of the European Union. Croatia should have been the first to respond to this, and they need to distance themselves from their past and embrace an anti-fascist and anti-Nazi tradition.
To an outsider, Bosnia’s political structure, which was created under the Dayton Accords, seems to be dizzyingly complicated and virtually impractical. How is it working out in practice?
It is very difficult. Had the Dayton peace accords been implemented according to what was agreed upon, then it would have been much easier.
The authors of the accord created a kind of pact between two small states – the Republic of Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Federation of Bosniaks and Croats) – by attempting to unite them in a limited manner under one roof, taking into account the complex relationship that exists between them.
Had this path been followed, had two small countries been established which were effectively independent in all areas except for three that would have been run jointly, such as foreign affairs, then it would be possible to continue.
But the international community, in a heavy-handed fashion, altered the accord and imposed its will.
This has brought about the situation that you described: one that is functionally impossible. The solution is to return to the original terms of the Dayton Accords, or to simply dismantle the country.
Have the Dayton Accords been implemented fairly and fully by all sides?
The implementation of the Dayton Accords has not been done in accordance with what was signed and agreed upon in Paris. There were four sides to this agreement, none of which acted in coordination with the other.
One side was the Bosniaks, who have always sought maximal centralization of the state. Another is the Serbian side, which has demanded that Dayton be observed to the letter, because this is what the majority of Serbs believe will preserve their rights within Bosnia- Herzegovina. The third is the Croatian side, which seeks equal status with that of the other two. And the fourth is the international community, which was busy trying to impose its will in the country, in particular through the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which was tasked with overseeing Dayton’s implementation.
But instead of doing so, the OHR toyed with Bosnia by changing its constitution, punishing its leaders even though they had no right to do so, and even enforcing legislation as if the OHR was a representative legislative body.
So one cannot help but conclude that the Dayton peace accords were not administered or implemented in accordance with the text that was agreed upon. And the ones setting the tone for this are the high representatives of the international community, and we are trying to grapple with this.
In November, on the 18th anniversary of the Dayton Accords, Milorad Dodik, president of the Republic of Srpska, suggested that it might be best if Bosnia were to split into two countries. Does Bosnia have a future in its current configuration?
One of the potential solutions, which I mentioned earlier, is for the country to be dismantled. According to every public opinion survey in the Republic of Srpska, between 80 percent and 90% support such a measure. If you were to ask the Croats in Bosnia, the percentage in favor of splitting up the country would be even greater.
In other words, the possible break-up of Bosnia-Herzegovina is something that has been, and continues to be, a possibility, since the creation of the state.
If the Bosniaks, who make up the largest population group, really want to preserve Bosnia and Herzegovina as a country, they need to be conciliatory towards others.
But if they persist in striving for a more centralized government, as they have been doing, then the natural reaction of the Croats and the Serbs will be to simply break away. The international community, whether in the form of the OHR, or the US or EU, do not even permit this matter to be discussed openly. But their threats can only delay the discussion, not silence it.
Despite being sovereign Serbian territory, Kosovo has unilaterally declared independence and been recognized by dozens of countries around the world. Doesn’t this set a precedent for the Republika Srpska to do the same and withdraw from Bosnia?
Or for the Serbs in Kosovo itself to break away? When Kosovo did so, it appeared to the people in the Republic of Srpska that in effect they too could attempt something similar, because there is no doubt that what happened in Kosovo is a precedent. But the leadership of the Republic of Srpska thought it best not to do it in a hasty or unwise manner, because that could have unwanted ramifications.
In the case of Kosovo, the move had the support of the US and many European countries, whereas the Republic of Srpska does not. But the National Assembly of the Republic of Srpska did pass an important resolution on the matter. It said that if more than half the countries in the UN recognized Kosovo as an independent country, then that would signify that the world order and international legal system has effectively changed. And in such a case, the Republic of Srpska would voice its opinion and also take a similar step. Today, close to 100 countries have recognized Kosovo, which is about half of the world, so this could have ramifications. The resolution by the National Assembly of the Republic of Srpska was greeted by threats from the international community. But we are not exactly frightened. We are not among those who scare easily.
The Sarajevo Haggada is a priceless manuscript dating back to the 14th century that is part of the Jewish people’s heritage, yet it is currently owned by Bosnia’s National Museum. Is there any chance that Bosnia would give it to Israel, where it belongs?
It is difficult to say. The Sarajevo Haggada is of course a document of great historical importance for the Jewish people, but it also contains within it much that is of value beyond just one nation. It is something that is of importance to the entire world. It therefore must be accessible to members of all nations who want to marvel at its beauty.
It is very difficult to imagine that Sarajevo would give it to someone else, even to Israel. One conclusion that has been reached is that as long as the museum in Sarajevo is not fully functional, then let’s exhibit the Haggada in another place where it will be accessible to everyone, such as in New York. But this, too, is not simple.