Back in sight: Deflating Genocide to Dissolve Bosnia and Herzegovina

As international attention is now slowly turning to the Balkans once more, Demir Mahmutćehajić argues that the ongoing actions of Milorad Dodik and his supporters has brought the country to the brink of dissolution. 

A recent view from the British daily The Guardian on Bosnia and Herzegovina  is very helpful.  After a very long time it once more puts Bosnia and Herzegovina back in the international spotlight.  The attention gives rise to concern however as conversations, analysis and rhetoric suggest a return to conflict.  Such is the momentum that many people in Bosnia fear that international action will be same as in the early 1990s – “too little too late”.

The wider context of various activities undertaken by high ranking actors  in the entity of Republika Srpska (RS), one of the federal entities that make up Bosnia Herzegovina, is being presented by the ruling majority in the National Assembly of RS (NARS), as a response to the outlawing the denial of genocide by the previous High Representative, Valentine Inzko. One of the first acts of incoming Milorad Dodik, the member of the BiH Presidency from the RS, was to pull Republika Srpska representatives out of central institutions in July. By October, Dodik was proposing taking back powers and transferring land owned by the central state to RS.

Dodik is still being guarded in comments about the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica: “No one denies that there was crime there,” he said. “But it’s also true that the story that was told is not the whole truth. An almost identical number of Bosniak Muslims and Serbs were killed. There is no decision there that says genocide was committed by the Serbian people.” This is neither correct nor moral, but it obviously continues the attack on the relevance of the International Criminal Tribunal rulings. Further stepping up his dehumanizing tactics Dodik is no longer using the accepted name for Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) but simply the term ‘Muslims’. The aim is to portray, again, Bosniaks as aliens in Europe, the West, and in the Balkans, invoking long running regional and current Westernised forms of Islamophobia.

Croatian president also downplays genocide in Srebrenica.

When asked by a reporter if the Srebrenica massacre was a genocide, Croatian president, Zoran Milanović said that “grave crimes with elements of genocide” were committed.

According to Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura, a genocide researcher and expert, Milanovic’s comments point to a growing trend amongst Serb and Croat nationalists in the Balkans to underplay crimes that were committed during the violent break-up of Yugoslavia.  “His (Milanovic’s) rhetoric is not much different than that of the rabid & more openly fascist genocide denialism, but it does also point to a much larger problem,” said Buljusmic-Kustura in a Twitter thread.

The problem, as Buljusmic-Kustura sees it, is that “this rhetoric is so widespread because the International Community has done its best to divorce Srebrenica from the rest of the horror that was occurring in Bosnia, making it an isolated act of genocide which is not at all the case.”

This attitude is in part reflected in Milanovic’s comments when he added that there were “different types of genocide” before putting Srebrenica at a lower level than those committed during the Holocaust.

The increasing problem of genocide denial in the region is the main factor behind Valentin Inzko, the Austrian diplomat who served as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2009 to 2021 imposing a law in the country earlier this year making it illegal to deny the Srebrenica genocide.

In a recent interview, Željka Cvijanović, the president of Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that make up Bosnia and is representative of Serbs, said that it was important to remember there were victims on both sides of the conflict. Cvijanović ‘s comments form part of a narrative amongst Serb politicians in the region that seeks to relativize the Srebrenica genocide.  The ire of Serbian figures at attempts to check this trend is evident in e.g. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, earlier this year, lashing out at Montenegro after it passed a law that outlawed denial of the Srebrenica genocide.

Multiple players, multiple poles, small playground

There are many ‘players’ in our small playground. They all have their own interests at heart in the first instance, from very unambiguous Turkish activities to deep Israeli connections with the government of the entity of Republika Srpska, all of which require focused analysis. What can be presented at this point is a very interesting interview that the president of the entity of Republika Srpska, Željka Cvijanović, gave to the Israeli news outlet Haaretz on 6 December, 2021, just four days before the special session of the NARS that set about the process of transfer of powers from the national entity to RS on 10 December. Her visit to Israel, and meetings with senior Israeli officials, including Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Housing Minister Zeev Elkin were also used to deny the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  According to Prof. Jelena Subotic, a political scientist at Georgia State University, Cvijanović and various RS officials have been consistent and instrumental in genocide denial, from outright denial to arguments over numbers: “It is specifically President Cvijanović’s position that the Srebrenica events were ‘retaliation’ against Bosniac anti-Serb violence.,” she is quoted in the article as stating.  Cvijanović’s highly controversial ‘Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Sufferings of All People in the Srebrenica’ recently published its report on the Srebrenica genocide, defying the international consensus.  The report claims that instead of the genocide of 8000 or more unarmed Muslim civilians, 3000 military prisoners had been executed by Serb forces.  The report’s main author is renowned Israeli Holocaust academic Gideon Grieff.  So controversial was this report that the German government suspended an award it had scheduled to give Grieff for his Holocaust work.  In response, Grieff raised another Islamophobic trope, namely that of ‘Muslim anti-Semitism’:

“Where did all this come from? … As far as I know, it comes from Muslim circles. Bosnia is a Muslim country and so we can say, if we analyse it, that it’s a Muslim attack on a Jewish scholar – you can find there even anti-Semitic characteristics.”

The hypocrisy of this is impossible to measure, but it is further proof for all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina that ‘our’ leaders are capable of all kinds of miserable twists and turns, lies and deceits. This realization and awareness is all the more worrying because it shows that everything is possible and that they cannot be trusted with their words and deeds.    

From genocide denial to state dissolution

In a special session on the evening of 10 December 2021, NARS passed a set of conclusions. This marked a further step towards the transfer of competencies from the state level of Bosnia Herzegovina to the entity level of Republika Srpska. These conclusions refer directly to judicial institutions, defense and security and indirect taxes.

This session of the NARS was very heated and before voting most of the opposition MPs left. At the end 52 parliamentarians (out of a total of 83) cast their votes and adopted all four conclusions. It is very indicative that these initiatives were named conclusions because as such, by law, they do not need to be approved by the Council of Peoples of Republika Srpska (the entity’s upper body), where representatives of Bosniaks, and possibly Croats, have power to block them.

Among other decisions, NARS withdrew the consent of the RS entity for the formation of central institutions in these sectors and tasked the Government of the RS to send into parliamentary procedure, law proposals that would regulate them at the entity level.  In effect the the judicial institutions of RS would no longer be controlled centrally by the federal government of BiH, but by RS. 

Similarly, the conclusions concerning the defense and security sectors tasked the RS government to send to parliamentary procedure within a six-month period a law treating these sectors at the entity level, while the Law on Defence of BiH, Law on Service in the Armed Forces of BiH, the Law on Intelligence-Security Service and the Law on State Investigation and Protection Agency would cease to apply in RS.

Finally, the conclusion on indirect taxation tasked the RS Government to draft a law on added value tax and law on excises of RS in similar fashion, making state-level laws redundant in RS.

NARS also adopted the Declaration on Constitutional Principles. The opposition MPs had left the session earlier in protest.

Demolishing Bosnia

What happened in the NARS is being presented by Milorad Dodik and his loyalists as the “peaceful and dignified demolition of Bosnia and Herzegovina”. They are taking as an example the dissolution  of Czechoslovakia – into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, as their intended path. The population of the entity of the Republika Srpska is not being informed about the consequences of these actions whose intention is to pave the path for secession.

Even though the actions of NARS constitute a direct attack on peace in Bosnia and Hercegovina the response from the international community – BiH institutions on their own are too weak to stop these secessionist activities – was, and still is, either non-existent or very lame.

Previous announcements and threats by Dodik regarding the unilateral return of competencies from the state to the entity are slowly, but surely, beginning to materialize. From those verbal threats they have moved to practical steps to create the collapse of BiH institutions. Despite numerous warnings, the ruling elites in the entity of RS do not seem to be giving up on this very clear plan. There is a general consensus in Bosnia and the region that this is a game involving the lives of the citizens of the whole country. Unfortunately, all this is not being taken seriously by the international community, the OHR and judicial institutions in BiH. More worrying is the number of voices dismissing Dodik’s secessionism saying he is not serious and that he is just ramping up the nationalism ahead of elections.

Turning down the threat volume

The first direct undermining activity was the adoption of the Law on Medicines and Medical Devices of Republika Srpska. This was presented as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic in which technical oxygen was being used for treating COVID-19 patients instead of medical oxygen. This transfer of competencies from state level to federal entity level should have been a step too far, but instead it is being presented as a political tactic. This is wrong in many ways. 

Although the adopted conclusions do not have direct legal effect, this does not mean that they are insignificant. On the contrary, they are part of a series of attacks on the state and its institutions, led by Dodik and his SNSD party. Dodik’s adoption of the conclusions in NARS was needed as proof that he is not alone in this adventure that the institutions of Republika Srpska and his political associates are behind him and prepared to accept the risk of criminal responsibility and other sanctions announced by the USA, Great Britain and many EU countries.

The fact that the opposition in the entity of Republika Srpska has decided not to follow Dodik in this adventure is encouraging, but it is neither enough to stop Dodik nor are they recognised by the public in the entity of Republika Srpska as an alternative. One of the first tests for the opposition’s public support were elections for the mayor of Prijedor. They were held just three days after the adoption of the abovementioned conclusions in NARS amid hopes that Dodik’s candidate would lose. Even though the opposition contested these elections in a united manner with a single candidate they did not manage to win. The very low turnout of approximately 30% was indicative of the lack of support for both sides in the entity of Republika Srpska.

Dodik and his SNSD, with coalition partners, have the required majority in NARS. All the threats, warnings and announcements so far have not prevented them from working on collapsing state institutions. What stands in their way to continue towards complete secession from BiH?

Kremlin involvement

In an interview with The Guardian on 29 November 2021, Milorad Dodik said he would not be deterred by the outcry at his actions from London, Washington, Berlin and Brussels. He continued by saying that sanctions and cuts to EU funding would only force him to take up offers of investment from China, and he expected to see Russia’s leader “pretty soon”. Just a few days later he met with Russian President, Valdimir Putin.

Dodik’s populism is evident in this interview:

““And I even think that I like that,” Dodik said. “When I go to Putin there are no requests. He just says, ‘what is it I can help with?’ Whatever I discussed with him, I’ve never been cheated on it. I don’t know what else to base trust upon, if not that. With [China’s leader] Xi Jinping, he also says, ‘if there is anything I can help with I am there’.”

On a visit to Moscow, Dodik said he had agreed with Putin the current price of gas for the entity of RS would remain unchanged. Also, he stressed that the Russian leader supported the idea of extending the Balkan Stream gas pipeline into the entity of RS. In the same visit to Moscow in early December 2021, Dodik also met with Gazprom PJSC Chief Executive Officer Alexey Miller in St. Petersburg to discuss cooperation, in particular over Russian gas supplies. Dodik used these high-level meetings to present the argument that he has the support of Russia for his secessionist activities. In an interview to RTRS on 3 December Dodik said: “Russia has a series of objections about disregard for the Dayton peace agreement,..” (the Dayton Agreement formally ended Bosnia’s conflict in 1995). According to Dodik, Putin prefers preserving the original provisions of the deal negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, “as opposed to liberal concepts from the West” to overhaul the arrangements.

Making Bosnia impossible

All of these activities, and many more, aim to attenuate the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In his article on the portal tacno.net, Boris Pavelić explains that this is a strategy to ‘prove’ that it is impossible for Bosnia to exist. Put simply, once the genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina is so degraded, devalued and relativized there will be no moral obligation to strive to preserve Bosnia and Herzegovina. When that happens, all those efforts will make it possible to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina between Serbia and Croatia leaving, possibly, a small central area for unwanted ‘Muslims’. 

Feminist activists Gorana MlinarevicNela Porobić Isaković wrote an analysis of the current situation on 19 November.  In it they discuss the fact that the voices of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are made irrelevant. They argue that Bosnia and Herzegovina is being used as a playground for the global geopolitical struggles between NATO/EU and Russia, US and China, and that if this is stopped war can be averted. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina do not want it. They want decent lives, clean air and water, affordable food and housing. They want to plan their vacations. They want to leave the war years behind.

Through their field work Mlinarevic and Isaković concluded:

“…if you listen closely to what some of the people of BiH are saying the few times they are given space to talk, you will hear they do not want to wage war, that Bosnians and Herzegovinians are not ever again willing to pick up a gun. But it is like the international community (along with their ethno-nationalist and regional counterparts) is deaf to what we are saying.  Instead, they keep repeating, almost chanting: war, war, war. It is deeply traumatizing. But more than that, it is deeply enraging.”

Unfortunately, in the geopolitical struggle, the reshaping of power balances, a full blown Cold war between the USA and its loyalists on one hand, and Russia, China and their allies on the other could heat up in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina. Very often direct parallels are being drawn between the situation in Ukraine and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The interests of world powers are overwhelmingly more dominant than those of ordinary people. Even though people do not want war it does not mean that war will not be thrust upon them.

Demir Mahmutćehajić is from Stolac in Bosnia.  After some years in the UK where he helped found the Islamic Human Rights Commission in 1997, and later became the president of the London Islamic Community of Bosnians, he returned to Bosnia. Since 2005 he has been constantly engaged in the civil rights movement in the Bosnia and Herzegovina, at one time leading the DOSTA! (Enough!) movement. He has written and spoken about genocide in Bosnia, its causes and consequences over the last 25 years.  Many of these speeches, reports and articles can be found on the IHRC website. Find him on Twitter @stolac92.