Through Bosnian eyes
by Valery Perry
Mirko Pejanovic, Through Bosnian Eyes: the political memoirs of a Bosnian Serb, translated by Marina Bowder, with a preface by Robert J. Donia, TKD Sahinpsic, Sarajevo 2002, 230 pp., ISBN 9958-41-058-3, 30 KM/15 EUR (paperback).
While many books have been written on the causes and impact of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (B-H), English-speakers have primarily been limited to works by outside experts who have had minimal direct involvement in the events of which they write. These books are often solid in their scholarship, but can be coolly distant in their narratives. Books that are written by the primary regional actors are often only available in the original, and even if translated run the risk of being or being perceived as biased, subjective self-serving polemics, nationalist rhetoric, or politically motivated platforms to justify past actions, present intrigue, or potential future difficulties. Although these books provide a fly-on-the-wall point of view, one must always approach them with a grain of salt, gaining from the perspective, while being prepared to question sources, fact check, and separate truth from propaganda.
As B-H proceeds through its 6th year of peace and approaches the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo, an English-language edition of Mirko Pejanovic's Through Bosnian Eyes: the political memoirs of a Bosnian Serb has been published by a Sarajevo publishing house. Much of the text of the book was compiled and published in the original language in 1999 as an extended interview with a leading Bosnian journalist. The new English edition has been revised and prepared so that it presents a cohesive set of memoirs that provide a lucid accounting of the prelude to the war, the war itself, and the diplomatic efforts to secure and implement a peace plan. It also successfully balances first-hand experience with objective professionalism, thereby making the text a welcome contribution to the literature.
Pejanovic has written a comprehensive and balanced set of memoirs that reflects his personal experience as a Serb member of the wartime presidency of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, founder of the anti-nationalist Serb Civic Council, and dedicated protector of a multi-ethnic Sarajevo and B-H. He begins the book by presenting the evolution of nationalist cleavages that emerged in Bosnia at the time of the elections in 1990, describing the process of political party development and the failed efforts to develop strong non-nationalist alternatives. The potential for peaceful political transitions was repeatedly trumped by competing political interests in Zagreb and Belgrade, lowest-common denominator nationalism and fear-mongering, and an unfortunate inability of reform-minded individuals to present a unified political and economic platform to a citizenry being courted by the simple allure of nationalism. The main nationalist parties themselves were able to take advantage of this lack of unity by agreeing to support each other: ‘They decided to cooperate for the sake of one basic goal: to keep the democratic, liberal and leftist parties out of power’ (p.37).
As the country descended into war, Pejanovic describes the government's efforts to continue to provide basic management and leadership, the development of a Bosnian army, and the ongoing
discussions with aggressors and leaders such as Radovan Karadzic and Slobodan Milosevic. He provides personal accounts of how he and his friends and colleagues were affected by the war, with a special emphasis on the Tyrian dilemma Serbs in Sarajevo faced, through both subtle discrimination and open arrest and persecution. His accounts of the rounds of peace talks and internationally sponsored negotiations presents a modest look at the behind-the-scenes diplomacy that is lacking from other accounts, and chronicles the painful process that supporters of a truly multi-ethnic Bosnia experienced as the divisive terms of the eventual peace deal became clear.
He continues to consider what he calls the ‘Serb national question’ in Bosnia by pointing out the diametrically-opposed platforms of the Serb Civic Council and the nationalist Serb party, the SDS. Whereas the Serb Civic Council continues to support those institutions and practices of a common life within a diverse society, the SDS contends that such co-existence is impossible. He quotes former Serbian politician Ivan Stambolic as saying that ‘the first thing the Serb nation should do is free itself from the fear that it cannot live together with other nations’ (p. 227). His analysis of this issue segues seamlessly into the issue currently dominating politics in B-H the issue of entity level constitutional reform that will ensure equal rights and protections of all three constituent peoples throughout the territory of B-H. This controversial and difficult process of constitutional reform will lead to important reform in the Federation, and is challenging the very existence of a Serb-dominant Republika Srpska that so many fought and died for, as aggressors and as victims. It could lead to the most significant political change since the peace was agreed in 1995, and Pejanovic clearly appreciates the importance this constitutional reform will have on B-H in the short- and long-term future.
The weaknesses of this book are minimal and primarily technical in nature. There are several places in which more specific notation of dates would be useful (the year in particular), as the complex interplay of past and present events don’t always unfold in a simple chronology. Future editions of the book would also benefit from the addition of a glossary or acronym list and an index, as such references would make the book even more accessible to the general reader.
Through Bosnian Eyes has the potential to be attractive to a wide readership. Students and specialists of the region who have been limited to English-language texts will appreciate the first hand and personal perspective Pejanovic brings to the topic. General readers will find the conversational style of the book to be a welcome change from the dense, academic style common in political histories, as Pejanovic allows the story to unfold simply yet thoroughly. The book would be a welcome addition to a course on recent Balkan history, and the first several chapters which chronicle the build-up towards war in B-H provide concise clarity to a complex period of political manoeuvring.
Pejanovic's book is a testament to all of B-H's citizens and leaders who retained their belief and faith in the potential of a united and multi-ethnic country. In contrast to writers who focus on ethnic differentiation, Pejanovic clearly illustrates the role of self-interested power politics in the political disintegration of the country. He breaks the good and bad, black and white stereotypes so common in accounts that focus on ethnicity by illustrating the complex mix of people and personalities involved in the country at all levels with an open-mindedness that more simplistic accounts fail to appreciate. While the world's attention focused (and in fact, continues to focus) on Serbs such as Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic, Pejanovic and others like him remain committed to the idea of a common, shared life among peoples in B-H. This stance came at a political and personal price, as the Bosnian Serbs and Belgrade unsuccessfully tried to attract these individuals to the Serb side, while Bosniaks and Croats often had a difficult time distinguishing from the Serbs shelling Sarajevo and those within it dedicated to her defence. However, these individuals, perhaps more than anyone else, can be held up as the best this region has to offer. It can only be hoped that men and women of similar stature and moral certitude will rise up in B-H to secure the country's future, as Pejanovic and others like him fought for the country's peace.
This review appeared in Balkan Academic News 16/2002. Valery Perry is at the European Centre for Minority Issues, Sarajevo & the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University.