In favour of a new Serb policy for Bosnia-Herzegovina

Author: Bojan Bajic
Uploaded: Saturday, 29 December, 2007

A rare attempt at independent analysis from within RS, which argues that the true interests of the Serbs of B-H lie not in blind defence of entity prerogatives, but rather in coming to see all Bosnia as the country also of its Serb population.

The question of the dissolution of the former state is one of the most difficult questions of our modern history. If for no other reason than the number of victims the dissolution has produced, it deserves to be considered with a view to the future. These days we see that this question is still actual, as much on the Kosovo battlefield as in our public sphere, confused and frightened of possible correlations, parallelisms and analogies. We have not yet, it seems, found answers that are civilised and civilisational, and in their absence we are being threatened with misfortunes and wars - all in the name of realisation of some ‘final and fateful’ solutions, which as a rule do not care for the lives and needs of individuals, irrespective of their religion, race or nationality.

I am deeply convinced that in the given Dayton constellation the answer to the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina - European and any other - lies with its Serb people: that is, with their perception of their own interests and the political aims that need to be achieved, if these are to be realised. The answer depends on whether there exists a logical sequence - beginning with an understanding of what these interests are, and leading to realisation of the desired aims by way of political action - that would allow the people to grasp the historical chance and become the motor of development and prosperity; or whether, on the contrary, the people will end up in the wilds of an uncertain and murky future.

Đinđić’s prophecy

It often happens that political aims do not in any way aid the ‘national’ interest, but on the contrary lead to the above-mentioned wilderness, despite the fact that such aims most often win plebiscitary support from the people concerned. Hence, without a critical analysis of political aims and an openly argued re-examination of the same, the likelihood that the policy would bring benefits to the people is practically impossible. A classic, one might say textbook, example of making political mistakes by adopting wrong political aims relates to ‘the Serb issue’ in Croatia. The true interest of the Serb people in Croatia was ‘defence’ of their constituent status, and popular mobilisation came in response to the fact that the Serbs had been ‘ejected from the constitution’, which threatened their collective rights. But Serb political aims did not correspond to the interest to regain constituent status, but focussed instead on achieving statehood, which led to the practical political action of rejecting the Z-4 peace plan. Though this plan fully corresponded to the interests of the people, in the sense of the collective rights and the constituent status of Serbs in Croatia, it did not correspond to the adopted political aims. Now, at the end of this sad story, all that is left to us is to analyse the result of the adopted action in the form of rejection of Z-4, which as everyone knows has cost the Croatian Serbs dear.

Zoran Đinđić wrote in Novermber 1989 that ‘the Serbs outside Serbia are beginning to play an important role’. Although by definition they find themselves in the same aggregate situation in regard to their ‘central mass’, that is not so in regard to their own environment. From the start of the Serbian wars against Turkey in the second half of the nineteenth century, Belgrade politicians counted on the mobilisation of Serbs outside Serbia, but as a rule without bothering with what would happen to them in the eventuality of failure of the joint project. The initiator of ‘the great liberation’ might end up in a mess, argued Đinđić, but ‘the Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo would end up in an even greater mess’.

Of this very precise prediction, only one ‘mess’ remains: the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the other two having already been finished off. But the threat to the Bosnian Serbs has not passed yet, because Belgrade is forever playing an irresponsible game with the future of nearly two million Bosnian Serbs, treating them as pawns in a ‘winner-take-all’ game of poker with the whole world.

Because of the unfavourable historical times, which irresistibly recall similar events in the past, and the unlearned historical lessons, it is absolutely necessary to undertake a cool-headed critical analysis of the interests and adopted political aims of Serb policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in order to prevent wrong political actions with catastrophic consequences for the Serb people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The best way to test the current positions is to identify possible options for Serb policy in this country in the coming period, and to elaborate a scenario for each of them. Only in this way will it be possible to decide whether the Serb political aims are correctly defined, and where they lead to. In my view there are only three options:

Option 1: Referendum and independence of Republika Srpska - a path to uncertainty

An eventual decision on the independence of RS - regardless of how it is made, by way of a referendum or through some other form of expression of will - would be a unilateral move that would gravely violate the Dayton Agreement. One can be sure that the Bosniaks and the Croats would reject such an act as anti-constitutional and invalid at all levels of decision-making, and the same would be done by the relevant international instances. Such a response would cause chaos, panic and fear on the Serb side, leading Bosnia-Herzegovina to the point of conflict. First, the question of Brčko would have to be solved in confusion and on the principle of first come, first served, with the likelihood of thousands of SFOR troops concentrating there in good time and with unlimited authority. Secondly, traffic communication between the entities would be dramatically reduced, maybe cease altogether, with police blocks probably emerging at every inter-entity crossing point. Various dubious groups would be formed on both sides, sowing fear among stranded visitors from the other entity, I am sure of that. It would be logical in this atmosphere that the entity governments would knife each other in the back.

In such a scenario the Banja Luka region would fare worst, because it would become an isolated enclave, fed by convoys. Why? In contrast to the start of the 1990s, we now have a (financially, militarily and with influence) powerful Croatian state north of the Sava, which as a guarantor of the Dayton Agreement would most likely condemn such an act by RS and, also most likely, promptly close off all border crossings into RS. The Federation for its part would also undertake restrictive measures, probably in coordination with Croatia. I am not sure what the western part of RS could do in such a situation. The eastern part of RS, which faces complete disaster already in the present, normal conditions, and from where hundred of families are leaving for Serbia, would most likely in such a situation lose even more people to Belgrade and Novi Sad. From the strategic point of view, therefore, thanks to the unsustainable geography of RS, to our immediate neighbours, and to the presence of the international community, recognition by Serbia would be of no help whatsoever in this situation.

This leads us to the conclusion that the holding of a referendum on the independence of RS is an absolutely impossible mission; that it would be political suicide; that it would cause an international diplomatic offensive, from New York to Brussels, accompanied by measures against the Serb political establishment; that an urgent decision would be made to send tens of thousands of soldiers, with some American general given dictatorial powers for a five-year transitional period (as happened in Japan after the Second World War). Although the referendum path towards independence could not be realised solely by political means, one should not even think of doing it through war, because this would be the worst possible option for the Serbs, catastrophic indeed for Serb interests.

For these reasons I am quite convinced that those who advocate a referendum are either bluffers or madmen.

Option 2: Consistent application of Dayton - a dead end

What is the main obstacle to the normal functioning of Bosnia-Herzegovina? Why are we making no progress on the European path? Why do Serb political leaders believe that they are always being asked to make concessions? Is there a worldwide plot against Bosnian Serbs?

In order to find answers to these questions, one must analyse the above-mentioned logical sequence: peoples’s interests, political aims, political actions, results. The proclaimed interest of the Serb people of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the start of the 1990s was to remain in Yugoslavia (complete or in part), but actually in union with Serbia. Given that the Croats and Bosniaks collected enough votes in the referendum in favour of an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina, thus rejecting both the whole and a partial Yugoslavia, the Serbs initiated political actions against independence. These included withdrawal from the institutions, and proclamation of the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (later Republika Srpska), which during the war functioned as an independent state having all the prerogatives of statehood with the exception of international recognition.

This was a time when Bosnian Serb interests and Serb political aims changed and adapted to the situation in an ad-hoc manner and in an absolutely undemocratic atmosphere, i.e. as the leaders saw fit. This involved proclaiming initially Bosnia-Herzegovina to be 100% Serb (at the time of the proclamation of the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina), then 70% Serb, and finally 49% Serb. Between the 70% and the 49% , to take one example, Sarajevo Serbs and many others became collateral damage. Then came Dayton. This was a difficult moment for Bosnian Serb policy, when all that before the war was not to be recognised was now recognised. The Serbs agreed that Bosnia-Herzegovina was an independent and internationally recognised state, just as they agreed that Republika Srpska was not a state. This was signed, and remains the case. Ever since that time, the Serb political elite have instigated among their voters a mythical defence of the entity’s ‘state’ prerogatives, even though everyone knows that the entity is not a state. One need only remember the circus surrounding the issue of passports, a first-class example of how the political leaders tricked the Serb people into believing that the entity was a state. Another example of the fact that the Serbs failed to get at Dayton what they had expected was the denial of Dayton in the first years after the war.

We now approach the answer to the question posed at the start of this option. Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina might have functioned without any intervention or change but for that major event in world history: European unification. This process was reaching a high point around the time of the signing of the Dayton Agreement. The unification of Europe is a powerful political process, not unlike a tsunami in character: it is not wise to swim against it. What does this involve, and how does it affect Serb policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina? The answer is simple: the current Serb policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina is unsustainable solely because of the rise of the phenomenon of European unification. If, instead of integration, Europe had undergone a process of general state fragmentation, it would have been the Bosniaks who would appear to be resisting Bosnia-Herzegovina’s disintegration, while the rest of Europe together with the Bosnian Serbs would have believed the latter to be perfectly in order and OK, and that it was the Bosniaks not the Serbs who for some irrational reason were always rebelling. Since, however, the process has gone the other way, Bosnian Serb policy must critically re-examine its goals. A firm commitment to defence of the entity’s prerogatives is bound to block the Bosnian path to Europe, with all the negative consequences for the image of this policy. This policy will experience its heaviest defeat at the hands of Serbia itself, in fact, because Serbia will unstoppably pursue the European road and in doing so render the current Bosnian Serb policy meaningless.

Since the unification of Europe is the given framework, leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina with little possibility of choice given its geographical position, to insist on the preservation of entity prerogatives (i.e. on conducting a passive policy) means to be in constant opposition to the need to adapt to the European Union, so that the Serbs will on every issue be ‘in conflict’ with the whole world, because of their ‘constant trouble-making’. It is as if we were driving the wrong way down a motorway, facing at every second the danger of a crash; it makes no sense to hope that cars will stop coming in the opposite direction and every sense to proceed in the more secure one. If we insist on continuing in the same direction, it is highly likely that we shall end up pulverised by an articulated lorry.

Current Serb policy, committed as it is to this option, follows a morbid logical direction, with negative political results in relation to the basic interests of the Serb people of Bosnia-Herzegovina . It is said that the basic interest of the Serb people in RS (nominally in Bosnia-Herzegovina) lies in maximising the entity’s ‘state’ prerogatives; and the preservation of these prerogatives has become the only aim of Bosnian Serb policy. Consequently, anything that clashes with that aim, regardless of whether it is the European road, the application of the European convention on human rights, or anything else of that nature, is rejected outright. This approach is quite uninterested in whether the European road might actually correspond to the interest of the Serb people.

It is necessary to examine here the consequences of such insistence on preservation of the entity’s prerogatives for the Serb people and their basic interest to survive and develop in this part of the world.

Obeying its political elite, the Serb people has come to believe that the question of all questions is to preserve as many as possible of the entity’s prerogatives, and to qualify its acceptance of the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina with the continuing existence of the entity. It thus obvious that we love ‘our’ entity, while ‘our’ state is treated as a ‘necessary evil’. Not loving your own state is the same as not having one, because you do not build it in order to derive from it potential benefits. The entity cannot, however, compensate for non-utilization of the Bosnian state’s potentialities, because it lacks even theoretically crucial prerogatives. The absence of ‘our state’ is a space which many Bosnian Serbs fill with hopes and desires directed at the Serbian state - something that, after all, is encouraged by the official and unofficial Bosnian Serb policies. With what results? The Serbs in their majority have their entity, the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as a source of passports and identity cards, and the Serbian state which they cheer on. This means that the Serb people with their entity sit on two stools in regard to the choice of state. It automatically means also a diminished motivation to fight for their interests within Bosnia-Herzegovina. This fully explains why Serbs are massively emigrating to Serbia, especially from the eastern part of RS. It is estimated that 100,000 Bosnian Serbs are living in Novi Sad, having moved there during the past fifteen years. A main pastime in the municipalities of eastern RS is counting the families that have moved to Vojvodina, Š umadija, Novi Sad, etc. during the past month, six months, year. Thus, for example, during the past two years one per cent of the 8,000 inhabitants of Rudo have moved to the wider Bijeljina area (10-15%) or to Serbia. A far higher percentage would like to move to Serbia in the right conditions, while hundreds spend several months each year as seasonal workers in Serbia (building, harvesting olives, etc). This year only 27 children were registered for the primary school in Rudo, and for the first time the second shift has been cancelled in the secondary school because of the lack of pupils. Such trends are present in practically all municipalities in eastern RS. What does this mean? It means that the referendum on separation is being held every day, and that a family moving, say, from Višegrad or Foča to Vojvodina makes clear what its primary interest is. These people hold their own referendum, and leave. Their basic interest is decent living conditions and standards, not territory; for if territory were their basic interest they would stay at home.

If we actually look at the basic interest of the Serbs in regard to survival and development, it is soon clear that its foundations are crumbling. Every family that has moved away and every one that wants to leave shows that in actual fact it does not agree with the existing Serb political aims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, concentrated as they are on ensuring a maximum of prerogatives for the entity. During the past twenty months the ‘protection’ of the entity’s prerogatives has been very effective, in that not one has been transferred to the centre; but why then are the Serbs unhappy and why are they leaving, despite the fact that the aims of Serb policy are being realised?

This all goes to show that it is vitally important to produce an urgent critical analysis of current Serb political aims, in order to make them conform better to the true needs of the people. If Serb policy continues to ‘collide’ at every step along the ‘European motorway’ with each and every of the 80,000 pages of laws and decrees that Bosnia-Herzegovina has to adopt, then one can be sure that this will cost the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina dear. It is high time that the myth of the ‘holy’ prerogatives be brought down and replaced by a considered and rational policy.

Option 3: The road of reform and integration - B-H is a state of the Serbs too

This option stands for a new Serb policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Such a policy would promote the interests of the Serb people throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, since it is based on the premise that historically and practically Bosnia-Herzegovina is a state also of the Serb people, who together and on an equal basis with the other two peoples constitute a progressive Bosnian and European society. The new policy would also argue that the current Serb generation does not have the right to renounce the living history of the Serb people in Sarajevo, Mostar, Zenica, Drvar, Livno, and other villages and towns with numerous Serb cultural and historical monuments. The current Serb generation does not have the right to renounce and reject Bosnia-Herzegovina, because the Serbs are an inseparable segment of this state’s thousand-year-old history. The new policy would advocate prosperity and advance for the Serb people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, based on a full participation in and promotion of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a state of equal peoples and citizens. For any renunciation of Bosnia-Herzegovina serves only to direct the eyes of ordinary people towards Serbia, thus further encouraging the emigration strongly evident already in the eastern part of RS. Given that Belgrade itself has more inhabitants than Bosnia-Herzegovina has Serbs, continued reliance on that side cannot but marginalise the interests of the population over here. As seen from Belgrade, Banja Luka or Trebinje are something like Zaječar, Bujanovac, Užice or Novi Pazar - unimportant places on the periphery of events.

It follows that the Bosnian Serbs have a great opportunity to make their aims consonant with the needs of ordinary people, and to contribute vitally to reforms and to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s speedy entry into the EU. The new policy would also define qualitative instruments for the protection of collective rights at the level of the state, and would support such constitutional solutions as would prevent them from being outvoted at national level for a long time to come. The new policy would bring about an increase in living standards and a closer approximation to the European quality of life, without constant conflict and confrontation with the rest of the world. In such surroundings the Serb people would be able, together with the other peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to build themselves a better future.

If, however, one chooses to maintain a stance of mere protection of the entity’s prerogatives, blind to the key processes taking place in the world, then one will have to accept the paradox that the more successful this policy is, the more dangerous it is to the interests of the people, as we have seen happen already elsewhere. The new Serb policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, by contrast, may now appear marginal and in a phase of elaboration; but it is the only possible one both for the Serb people themselves and for the general well-being of all of Bosnia-Herzegovina. So we can expect a stronger articulation and further consolidation of this front in the future.


Regardless of which of the three options presented here the Bosnian Serb people may choose, it is vital that we have a prior democratic debate and critical analysis of aims, involving the broadest public. It is right and proper that every individual should be made aware of the consequences that each of the three options entails, and this can be achieved only in an open democratic debate, never in a totalitarian regime. The mythological approach to politics ends miserably as a rule - only a sober-minded and rational and pragmatic policy can offer the way out of this complicated situation. The Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina have the opportunity to adopt a rational policy, a far greater one than the Serbs in Serbia now have.

Translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 23 November 2007.

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