bosnia report
New Series No: 53-54 August - December 2006
Fifteen years a-dying
by Nenad Canak and Tonino Picula - interview

Fifteen years a-dying

Nenad Čanak, speaker of the Vojvodina provincial assembly, and Tonino Picula, former Croatian foreign minister, in conversation with Omer Karabeg of Radio Free Europe

Karabeg: Why is Yugoslavia’s break-up taking so long? Fifteen years have passed since the start of the war in the former Yugoslav area, yet the dissolution of the once common state is not complete.

Picula: This is a question that even we who are concerned with foreign policy often ask. My impression is that we are facing the last chapter in the protracted disintegration of a complicated state union, which evidently could not be preserved. But I also think that running parallel to this process of Yugoslavia’s disintegration we also have the process of European integration, which will replace the old Yugoslavism. The brutal collapse of the old state, on the other hand, has left behind deep political, economic and psychological problems, which will affect the region for a long while to come.

Milošević is a monster, Koštunica a pollution

Čanak: In my view Yugoslavia’s dissolution will not end even with Kosovo becoming independent, which is of course inevitable. I would say that what we call the Yugoslav question is a matter of how Belgrade feels. This Belgrade-centrism, namely a feeling of superiority in regard to the whole region, is a main cause of what happened in the 1990s. We had Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s, and now broadly speaking we have Vojislav Koštunica, although he represents only a particular way of thinking, a glove drawn over the iron fist of various [state- security] services. So we had Slobodan Milošević as a monster, and now we have Vojislav Koštunica as a pollution. It is easy to fight a monster: he has a face, he has a name and a surname. It is far more difficult to locate the source of a pollution - whence it comes and how it works. Yugoslavia’s break-up was provoked by Belgrade’s desire to make itself the centre of the world; and since this was impossible it wished to be the centre of Yugoslavia; and since this proved impossible then perhaps it could be the centre of a truncated Yugoslavia; and if even this could not be, then perhaps it could be the centre of Serbia, or of Serbia without Kosovo; but what will remain forever is the idea that Belgrade and Serbia have been unjustly deprived of something. Until this state of mind changes - which I must say is looking increasingly more difficult, for the simple reason that in the 1990s there were more people in Serbia than there are today who opposed that way of thinking, which is promoted also by the current Serbian government - Serbia will continue to behave like a fox which wants to chew off its leg caught in a trap, and which by now has chewed off three of its legs and still remains trapped. The trap in question is a way of thinking that has remained unchanged since Ilija Garašanin.

Mr Picula, do you think that Yugoslavia’s dissolution will be completed with Kosovo’s eventual independence?

Picula: When I said that we are looking at the last chapter of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, I had in mind the possibility that Kosovo’s acquisition of independence in some form might indeed lead to a lasting peace in this part of Europe. I am not sure, however, that this will come easily. I can only say that this is just a stage in the solution of the Albanian question in the Balkans. Whether it can be accomplished peacefully as a result of the advancing process of European integration remains to be seen.

Mr Čanak, do you think that the eventual proclamation of Kosovo’s independence will remove the Albanian issue from the list of burning Balkan problems?

Čanak: Of course it will not, for the simple reason that no proclaimed solution solves anything. It is impossible to imagine that this issue can be solved so long as there is an Albania surrounded on all sides by other Albanian-inhabited areas. I wish to add something. What worries me is that after Kosovo’s acquisition of independence we shall have a situation in which the rhetoric which until a few months ago we heard in connection with Montenegro, and which is now directed at Kosovo, will be transferred to Vojvodina or the Sandžak or somewhere else, because Belgrade as it is today cannot live without problems. We have today the same matrix of clericalization and fascization of society, and the same total refusal to accept what is happening in Serbia’s neighbourhood, as we had in the 1990s. But the state of Serbia is not a state - it is Belgrade. It is not even Belgrade, nor even the second district of Belgrade, but a few kitchens in which the fate of millions is being cooked. This where the tragedy lies, the tragic fate of our region.

What about RS?

It would appear that the debates on Kosovo’s independence are impinging directly on Bosnia-Herzegovina. The leading politicians of RS have never since the war been advocating so openly RS’s right to independence. What is your view, Mr Picula?

Picula: The problem with Bosnia-Herzegovina, in my view, is that it is more of a process than a completed state. One can say after a decade since the signing of the Dayton accords that, while they may have ended the war, they have not provided a basis for the establishment of an ordered and orderly state. Within the Federation, Bosniak and Croat politicians fight over the distribution of the powers granted it by the Accords, while the people in RS are afraid of losing acquired elements of statehood. The White House, as we have seen, has failed to alter the unhappy status quo, because of resistance on the part of RS. No one wishes to see Bosnia-Herzegovina become the source of a fresh war, which could once again drive thousands of refugees in the direction of Western Europe. We can describe RS as a kind of Bosnian DDR, i.e. a postwar formation that political developments will make irrelevant, but not right now. It is obvious that the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina lies in new constitutional provisions, but this will not come from within it. For it to happen, it will be necessary for the international community to act decisively.

Čanak: I very much agree with this comparison of RS with the DDR. There is a difference, however. It is true that the war had created a border between the DDR and the German Federal Republic, but the same people lived on both sides of the border. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the border was created by genocide, by so-called ethnic cleansing.

It is the case, however, that neither the EU nor the US is greatly concerned about the tensions in Bsonia-Herzegovina caused by talk about self-determination coming from RS. Some see that as confirmation of the view that Serbia will be compensated for the loss of Kosovo by being allowed to absorb RS. Is there any truth in such speculation?

Picula: If it were true, then this would bring into question not only the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also the stability of the whole of southeastern Europe. Contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina is a collection of asymmetries. There is the violent division into two entities. Then the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina is divided into cantons enjoying great powers, which is not true of RS. Then there is obstruction on the part of the domestic politicians, who resist every advance because they are themselves the product of wartime; and on the other hand there is great opportunism on the part of the EU and international-community bureaucracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is doing very well for itself. This bureaucracy views the announcements about secession coming from RS as a form of electoral rhetoric. Such a prospect is indeed unlikely. Serbia does not at this moment have the political, economic or any other capacity to undergo the necessary transformation even within its own body to rid itself of defects from the past, let alone to support a secessionist movement in its immediate neighbourhood. We are dealing here, in my view, with the usual obstructionism on the part of RS politicians and a continuation of the equally standard opportunism on the part of the international community. I do not see anything here that should worry us, although Bosnia-Herzegovina does remain an unresolved problem for the international community.

Mr Čanak, do you think that Serbia could be compensated for the loss of Kosovo by the adhesion of RS to its territory in some form?

Čanak: I do not believe that is possible, for the simple reason that official Washington has only one word for the whole Balkan story, which is stability. Such a thing would undermine stability. Neither Washington nor the EU would accept it. RS would not have emerged, had it not been financed by Serbia. The same was true for the RSK. None of this would have happened without the involvement of the Serbian security services. We all know that. And it has also been proved in the trials held at The Hague. But no one in Serbia wants to acknowledge this. In 2001 I asked Vojislav Koštunica to explain why 1,600 RS army officers were on FRY’s payroll, although at the time Milošević was already at The Hague. I never got an answer, and instead became persona non grata in the coalition of which I was a member after Milošević’s fall.

Serbia, the main source of regional instability?

Mr Picula, do you think that after the solution of the Kosovo issue, Bosnia-Herzegovina will become the main source of instability in the region?

Picula: That is an open question. Dayton did half the job, while the other half remains to be done, despite a claimed 65 billon euros invested in Bosnia’s future. The international community itself has no idea how to solve this problem. There is no longer a threat of impeding war, hence no longer the pressure that led to ending the war. I fear that this opportunism, this neglect, will bring nothing good to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Čanak: I have always felt that Serbia and not Bosnia will remain the main cause of instability in the region, for the simple reason that in all former Yugoslav republics there have been changes and efforts to adopt European standards, but that has not happened in Serbia. It is only in Serbia that the old architecture is still in place, and I fear that after Kosovo’s departure Serbia will become what can be described as ‘a small pond with many crocodiles’: i.e. a small space with many pressures, which will continue to affect - if not quite with the same effect as before, but certainly with much danger - the neighbouring countries, especially those with a Serb minority population. Here I have in mind particularly Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro - one must not forget Montenegro here, because the story is not yet over in Montenegro.

Croatian-Serbian relations

What do you think of the thesis that was dominant during the time of Yugoslavia’s existence, that Croatian-Serbian relations are the key to stability in the Balkans?

Čanak: I believe that was true in Yugoslavia, but that on the whole it no longer holds today, for the simple reason that Serbia [proper] no longer borders with Croatia. The absence of a common border means the absence of the problem, because as cynics would say the favourite neighbour is the one with whom you do not share a border. The southern extension, along the littoral, was cut with Montenegro’s independence. Vojvodina is an inseparable part of Serbia, but with its autonomy - and the possibility of cross-border cooperation that since 2000 we have been fostering with the Croatian border area - this issue will no longer be a problem.

Picula: One has to face the fact that relations between Croatia and Serbia were not, and will never be, simply their own concern. It is precisely because of their complex and at the present time difficult relationship that one should welcome every progress in the relationship between Zagreb and Belgrade, because this contributes to improvement of the situation as a whole in southeastern Europe. It is true, on the other hand, that times have changed. I myself favour a polycentric policy. It would not be good for the stability of the area if it depended on only one axis, in this case the Zagreb-Belgrade axis.

The struggle against spiritual pollution from the 1990s

Do you think we could have another serious crisis in this area?

Čanak: I do not think there could be a repeat of what happened in the 1990s, for the simple reason that the conditions for it no longer exist. At this moment, thank God, there is no one who could cause it. On the other hand, however, the problem lies in the manner in which the war in the area of the former Yugoslavia was ended. War did not end because peace won, but because the oil for tanks ran out and the guns got rusty. That is what is frightening about this whole thing. I am speaking from the perspective of Vojvodina and Serbia, i.e. from the perspective of a country in which what led to war remains in place. We in Serbia are now engaged in a struggle with a kind of intellectual and spiritual pollution, deriving from the events of the 1990s and continuing to this day unfortunately, under different names. I think that this is a sacred undertaking, which must be completed in order to detoxify Serbia from the nationalist and clerico-fascist evil that has become embedded in it during the past fifteen years.

Picula: I do not believe we shall see conflicts and wars on the scale we saw in the 1990s. I fear, however, something else: the possibility of conflicts within certain states, particularly those that are not as yet fully formed, insofar as - thanks to their dysfunctional governments - they may create conflicts among their own citizens. I have in mind Bosnia-Herzegovina, in particular. Mr Čanak’s analysis of the situation in Serbia, which we have just heard, suggests there is a real problem there too.


Translated from Vijenac (Zagreb), 7 September 2006


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