As relations between Serbia and Kosovo improve after an agreement signed last month giving extensive rights to Serbs and their municipalities in Kosovo, there are renewed demands in the Republika Srpska for it to separate from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
On 25th April, six days after Serbia and Kosovo reached an agreement in Brussels that brings both of them a step closer to Europe, the Banja-Luka based newspaper Press, on its cover, ran the headline “Srpska heads into independence”. Press is one of the most widely read papers in the mainly Serb entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Republika Srpska.
The article referred to a recent statement made by Nebojsa Radmanovic, the Serbian member of Bosnia’s tripartite State Presidency. In an interview with the Anadolu news agency, Radmanovic said the Republika Srpska would consider its own right to detach itself from Bosnia if Kosovo was recognised as independent from Serbia by at least half of the UN member states.
Whilst genuine optimism – somewhat of a rarity in the Western Balkans – should surround the growing contentment between Serbia and Kosovo, however, concern should also be held regarding the recent rhetoric emanating from the Serbs residing in Bosnia. In truth, since the end of the three- year war in 1995, debate on independence has never been far from the surface in Republika Srpska.
The Bosnian war ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord in Paris. It was here where the two entities of Bosnia were formed. Alongside the Serb entity lies the Bosniak Federation, its population largely split between Bosniaks and Croats. To a large degree these entities are autonomous and are left to govern themselves. Each has its own president, government, parliament, police and other institutions.
At a state level, Bosnia’s institutions include a three member, rotating presidency, the national parliament, which includes both the House of Representatives and the House of Peoples, and lastly the Council of Ministers. Each of these state level institutions allows the representative of each ethnic faction the right to veto.
Herein lies much of the problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With its consociational method of power-sharing many blame the constitution for the on-going tensions in a country whose war ended 18 years ago. Critics will tell you that the entities created at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio in 1995 are too close to being states in their own right and that the arrangement has reinforced separatism and nationalism at the expense of integration.
Across the political institutions in Bosnia, there is a constant need to recognise the differences that remain between the three ethnic factions. There is no incentive for any of the political elites to find their common ground. Unlike an integrative approach to democracy, politicians in Bosnia do not need to appeal to the moderate electorate, but rather focus their attention on the more nationalistic voters.
If the political system derived in the aftermath of conflict has contributed to Bosnia’s continued nationalism, then the economic system put in place has also played its part. Most post-war countries that have required foreign intervention will soon embark on a process of privatisation; Bosnia was no different. Under the guidance of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and following in the footsteps of many other Eastern European states a voucher system was put in place. Given Bosnia’s communist background there was not a ready-made capitalist class that were able to step into the void left by the withdrawal of the state from the economy.
Bosnia’s government distributed free vouchers to its citizens. Individuals could then swap the vouchers for the shares of privatised enterprises. This system offered the quickest route of transferring public assets into the private sector. However, much of the recent nationalist rhetoric can be traced back to the distribution of these vouchers.
During the war, many people had their foreign currency accounts frozen, soldiers had gone unpaid, whilst some citizens laid claim to assets because they had contributed to the pre-war economic development of Bosnia. Many people were owed money in the aftermath of the conflict. The ruling parties, in control of the distribution of the vouchers, saw this as an opportunity to pay back those they owed for their efforts in the war. This included unpaid soldiers, war veterans and war widows’. These individuals received nearly half of the total vouchers distributed and resulted in a new capitalist class that also happened to hold the most extreme views.
Many may dismiss the discontented voices arising from the Bosnian Serb population as just the latest example of Srpska’s attempts to gain greater power in parliament. However, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s High Representative seems to disagree. Valentin Inzko, the highest international authority in the country, has been concerned enough to warn Ban Ki-moon.
In his latest report to the UN Secretary-General, Inzko highlights the continuing challenges to the country’s sovereignty from politicians in the Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska. He feels that in the past six months there has been an increase in provocative statements made by some of the post powerful officials in the Serb entity, including President Milorad Dodik.
Inzko said: “The Republika Srpska president continues to be the most frequent and vocal – although certainly not the sole – exponent of state dissolution, I am also concerned by continued assertions from senior Republika Srpska leaders — contrary to the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina — that the entities are states.”
This debate is not a new phenomenon; tension has been a common theme amongst the population of post-war Bosnia. But in the backdrop of Serbia and Kosovo’s improved relations, those discontenting voices are getting far louder, and far more political.