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Elections and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Election season has a sinister twist in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska.  Erasure and ethnic cleansing carried out during the war is re-enacted through obstacles on the right of refugees to return.

In October, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) will hold its sixth general election since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in December of 1995. In the Republika Srpska (RS) entity, the smaller of the two primary administrative units of the post-war BiH state, election season has a sinister twist. Rather than offering a concrete program to deal with chronic unemployment, poverty, corruption, a precipitously declining birthrate and correspondingly alarming emigration patterns, the government of RS, headed by President Milorad Dodik, is instead ratcheting up a years-long voter suppression campaign targeting the entity’s Bosniak and Croat minorities.  Nearly twenty years since the end of the Bosnian War (1992-1995), a slow, bureaucratic but determined campaign of ethnic cleansing, orchestrated by local Serb nationalist authorities, has continued here.

Voters and Victims  

Numbers are difficult to come by, but by some estimates as little as 30% of the pre-war Bosniak and Croat population has returned to what is now known as the RS. Seemingly dissatisfied with the war’s unfinished business, authorities persist in making life as difficult as possible for those who have returned. In the 2012 municipal elections, despite a concerted campaign of voter intimidation and suppression, Ćamil Duraković, a genocide survivor, still managed to win the post of mayor of Srebrenica, on the back of a large Bosniak returnee vote. Infuriated by these pockets of resistance, the Dodik administration has promised to do everything in its power to prevent what it refers to as “electoral engineering” in 2014. In contrast, the murder, plunder and persecution used to establish Serb majorities in the RS in the first place is actively denied.  

The RS authorities’ campaign has been documented by local filmmakers. The routine is familiar and recalls the worst aspects of apartheid-era South Africa or the Jim Crow laws. Police harass residents in their homes, municipal authorities refuse to issue documents and purge voter rolls. Individuals who commute to other cities for work, especially anywhere in Federation entity, are accused of not being permanent residents and denied access to local services, including health care. According to Bosniak and Croat returnees, thousands of their friends and neighbors have already left the area, fearing that intimidation could soon give way to violence as it has before.

Meanwhile, authorities in the majority Bosniak-Croat Federation entity have passed a series of laws expanding social service coverage to returnees in the RS in response to the Dodik administration’s virtual blockade of non-Serbs from local government resources. Yet, cynically, this has only been used as further proof by the RS authorities that Bosniak and Croat returnees are not actually RS residents and can thus be purged from voter rolls.

In response to the attempt by the RS government to officially codify these practices last week, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) – the internationally appointed body overseeing the peace implementation process in BiH, with the authority to strike down laws, push through legislation and sack obstructionist officials – has only expressed “concern.” But Dodik has since 2006 incessantly threatened secession, blocked legislation and reforms and denied the credibility of local and international court decisions concerning genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in the RS with virtually no practical response from the OHR. Ahead of the RS parliament’s recent vote, Dodik boasted triumphantly that not even the OHR would be able to halt his legislation. Such acts and declarations are flagrant violations of the Dayton order but many Bosnians and observers fear that the OHR, headed by Austrian Valentin Inzko and lacking concerted international backing, has now become an increasingly toothless body.

The irony is that in reaction to three days of protests in February, widely supported by members of all three of the country’s primary ethnic communities, as a result of the catastrophic socio-economic situation in the country, Inzko floated the idea of deploying EU troops in the streets of BiH. Yet actual threats of secession and the denial of basic democratic and human rights guaranteed by the peace agreement Inzko and his office are meant to uphold are only met with “concern.”

A History of Violence

Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement clearly established the rights of the displaced “to return to their homes of origin. They shall have the right to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities since 1991 and to be compensated for any property that cannot be restored to them.” Moreover, the Agreement obligated the local authorities to “ensure that refugees and displaced persons are permitted to return in safety, without risk of harassment, intimidation, persecution, or discrimination, particularly on account of their ethnic origin, religious belief, or political opinion.”

But legal obligations are a fickle thing in BiH. From the beginning of the post-war period, various attempts to re-integrate displaced communities were met by obstinate, often violent, refusal on the part of the RS authorities. Weeks after the war had concluded, the Ilidža suburbs around Sarajevo were to be handed over to the Federation authorities in accordance with the commitments made at Dayton. In response, Serb paramilitaries engaged in what is considered the war’s last act of ethnic cleansing: forcing the area’s Serb residents to flee to the RS at gunpoint, looting their apartments and torching entire residential blocks—as international observers and peacekeepers stood by. The logic had been simple: large Serb “exclaves” outside of the RS would severely compromise the claim(s) of the nationalist authorities to be the sole representatives of the Serb people in BiH, especially if, as many have, these people chose to stay behind, willingly reintegrate with their former neighbors and, subsequently, to vote for non-nationalist parties.   

In 2001, at the ground breaking ceremony for the rebuilding of the 16th century Fehadija Mosque in Banja Luka, which had been dynamited along with all sixteen other mosques in the city during the war, militant Serb nationalists attacked the gathered dignitaries and guests as the local police refused to intervene. Sporadic vandalism persists against Muslim and Catholic religious and cultural objects to this day, the perpetrators most often youths born after the war but since indoctrinated by an officially sanctioned climate of intolerance and fear.

In the city of Višegrad, the authorities are still attempting to destroy every shred of evidence of their crimes and the crimes of their predecessors—even going so far as to physically remove the word “genocide” from a local memorial marking a series of war-time massacres, rapes and expulsions. In Prijedor, the mayor openly mocks attempts to mark the murder and disappearance of thousands of the city’s former inhabitants. Nearby, exhumations continue in one of the largest mass graves discovered since the end of the war.

Opposition

But Dodik does have reason to fear. His ability to distract even his most loyal supporters from the disastrous state of the economy has come under tremendous stress since the popular protests in February. Veterans of the former Army of the RS (VRS), ostensibly his base, have increasingly come to rely on donations from their erstwhile foes in the Army of the Republic of BiH (ARBiH) and the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) for basic subsistence, and have now taken to the streets against the government. The opposition parties have officially formed a coalition ahead of the October polls and the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), Dodik’s one-time allies in the BiH parliament and the second most popular party in the RS, have broken all ties with the President’s own Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD). Despite their marriage of convenience, the SDS has long sought the President’s ouster and with good reason: it is returning the favor.

Dodik made his first big play on the BiH political stage as a Western-backed moderate in 1998, who promised to purge the RS of the Radovan Karadžić hardliners assembled in the ruling SDS. Though he today portrays himself as the very incarnation of all things Serb, Dodik began his national political career in the anti-nationalist Union of Reform Forces (SRSJ), headed by the then-Prime Minister of Yugoslavia Ante Marković. Once the shooting began, Dodik switched to the opposition in the RS but, in reality, spent the war as a cigarette smuggler, earning himself the nickname “Milo Ronhill.” Despite receiving millions in aid from the US and the EU, his brief tenure as Prime Minister of the RS was over by 2001.

Dodik spent his time in the political wilderness, between 2001 and 2006, aggressively rebranded himself as an ardent Serb nationalist and was rewarded at the 2006 polls with large majorities. In 2010, he assumed the post of President and has spent millions at home and abroad elevating his stature as the “glavna baja” (head honcho) of the RS. But for all the slick PR, international lobbying, and macho posturing, analysts believe that Dodik has mostly dedicated his energies, like other BiH political oligarchs, to looting public coffers and should his political career ever end, it will likely be followed by a lengthy jail term.      

But, in the meantime, Dodik’s biggest threat, arguably, comes from an association of genocide survivors and returnees, the “March 1st Coalition” founded in 2013, that has since engaged in a mass voter registration drive. They have also managed to seemingly do the unthinkable and have united all but one of the non-Serb parties in the RS on a “pro-Bosnian” electoral list, numbering nine Bosniak and Croat parties in all. Only the Social Democratic Party (SDP) has refused to join, a party that if the pre-election polls are accurate, will all but disappear after the October vote, anyway. The “Homeland” coalition (as it is officially known) has no chance of forming government in the entity, of course. But with a strong showing they could end up winning enough seats in the BiH state parliament, as representatives from the RS, to finally move forward crucial reforms that have been stalled for years, thanks largely to the efforts of existing RS MPs.  

If Dodik and his officials manage to effectively strip the Bosniak and Croat population in the RS of their franchise, however, not only might he weather his most serious political trial yet but the genocide begun by Karadžić and Milošević will have seen its last chapter written. Once again, under the watchful and apathetic eye of the international community. 


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