Bosnia's Divides, Still Unbridged

On a recent hot summer day on the way to the Adriatic coast, I stopped in the Bosnian city of Mostar, 80 kilometers south of Sarajevo. There, spanning the emerald green Neretva River, looms the high-arched Stari Most, the Old Bridge. It’s largely a replica, though. The magnificent original, built in 1566, was a masterpiece of Mimar Hayruddin, the legendary Ottoman craftsman and builder. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, during the Bosnian War, it was replaced ten years ago by the new Old Bridge visitors see today.

For those who knew Mostar before the war broke out, when Bosnia was a paradigm of tolerance, the Old Bridge is no more. Far more than a triumph of Turkish engineering, the Old Bridge connectedpeople of different religions and ethnic groups. The new Old Bridge, with the same elegant arch, separatesrather than joins the people on opposing banks of the Neretva, where suspicion and mistrust now dominate postwar relations between Croats and Bosniaks.

When the war started in 1992, many of the local Serbs left, and the major conflict was between ethnic Croats and Muslims. One of the legacies of the war in Mostar is that the city feels “betrayed” by Sarajevo, because during the 1992–95 war, the local enemy—the Bosnian Croat military—was seen to be friendly and allied with the Muslims in Sarajevo.

“This is not peace, it is just a cease-fire,” Mirsad Behram, a correspondent for the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Balkan Service, tells me while pointing out what used to be the front line, or the line of demarcation between Bosnian and Croat forces during the war. I happened to be in Mostar during the Muslim holiday of Eid, which meant that all the stores were closed on the left bank of the river, so we had cross to the other side to find an open pharmacy. Bosnian flags, including the wartime one with the fleur-de-lis, and other symbols of the Bosnian state are displayed only in one half of the city. The absence of dialogue between the two parts of Mostar is only partly covered up by the growing number of tourists.

The most popular getaway location for the inhabitants of Mostar is still Vrelo Bune, the source of the Buna river. On typically hot summer days, the nearby town of Blagaj feels a few degrees cooler, not least thanks to the refreshingly cold water of the Buna. The Blagaj tekke (dervish monastery) was built here in the 16th century, to take advantage of the sheltered location and clement natural conditions. The complex has been meticulously restored and leased by a Turkish company, and it now rivals nearby Medjugorje (a Catholic pilgrimage site) in attracting streams of religious tourists. Turkish investment is more than welcome in the region, but the problem is how Turkish influence is perceived and presented by local politicians. While many Bosnian Croats still look to Croatia as their “motherland,” and Bosnian Serbs see Belgrade (in Serbia) as their capital, Bosnian Muslim politicians have reciprocated by turning their attention to Turkey.

At a rally following the recent elections in Turkey, Bakir Izetbegovic, son of the wartime president Alija Izetbegovic and member of the three-person Bosnian presidency, spoke via a video link, stating that the newly elected president (formerly prime minister), Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is carrying the same banner that his late father had carried during the war, in other words that both men were “defenders of the Muslim faith.” He declared that Erdogan’s win was “a victory of all Muslims around the world.” This type of rhetoric is calculated to make Bosnian Serbs and Croats anxious, and as a result the distance between the country’s ethnic groups keeps growing.


Last spring, widespread popular protests erupted in various Bosnian cities and towns. Citizen assemblies were formed. Endemic corruption was denounced and incompetent politicians were publicly mocked. There was a surge of hope among ordinary people and outside observers that sweeping changes were about to overtake Bosnia’s moribund political system, and the foundations laid for the country’s long-term stability and prosperity. As soon as the protests ebbed, however, some of the popular leaders were detained and accused of disturbing public peace and order. In fact they had threatened a system in which power is—by design—divided up between ethnic political parties, with no real competition, or impetus to formulate agendas or policies that would improve the lot of all of the country’s citizens.

This is partly the oppressive legacy of the Dayton Accords, which officially ended the war in 1995 but have otherwise proved to be one of the main obstacles preventing Bosnia from shedding its wartime divisions and general impoverishment. It means, among other things, that virtually the entire political class is drawing its salaries for doing precisely nothing. All that is required to maintain the status quo is to issue a statement from time to time demonizing one or both of the other ethnic groups, posing as a defender of one’s “own people”—whether Muslims, Croats, or Serbs. This attitude of the current political establishment is most to blame for the current situation, and the nearly hopeless outlook. For in spite of Dayton, in the years following the war relations between different ethnic groups were actually improving. Among other things, a number of joint projects between Sarajevo and Banja Luka (the capital of the Serb entity in Bosnia) were set in motion. With the required will and determination among those in power, it seemed possible for Bosnia’s fractured society to set course for a better future. For the past decade, however, Bosnia has not merely been freely sliding back toward the darkest chasms of its history—rather, it is being actively pulled in that direction by the weight of a corrupt, or simply torpid and venal, political class.

The already dire situation has only been exacerbated by the ongoing crisis in the Ukraine, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s game of brinkmanship with the West. As former high representative in Bosnia Wolfgang Petritsch recently said in an interview, Bosnia has become “a ground through which Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to weaken the influence of the EU.”

“Putin also acts in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and via the Serb Republic [RS], using the simple logic that if he cannot influence the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then he will at least make life miserable for the EU by manipulating the RS, with the support of provincial leader [Milorad] Dodik,” the Austrian diplomat added. Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska, has repeatedly undermined Bosnia’s bid for NATO membership, which Russia officially opposes. During the Bosnian Serb leader’s recent visit to Moscow, Putin advised him that instead of participating in a proposed IMF loan to Bosnia, the Serbs should borrow the money from Russia.

Two countries in the Balkans are perceived by Putin as “Western projects,” and as such he does not want to see them succeed. Since NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, which subsequently declared independence, Serbia—with unwavering Russian support—has managed to keep Kosovo out of major international institutions such as the UN and FIFA, even blocking the assignment of a unique telephone country code for Kosovo. Bosnia is another “Western project” in Putin’s view, due to the fact that the much-maligned Dayton Accords, although perpetuating internal ethnic divisions, paradoxically ensured that Bosnia would stay intact, thus frustrating the separatist designs of Serb nationalists and their Russian allies. Both Serbia and Russia have done everything to encourage those among the Bosnian Serb politicians, President Dodik in particular, whose goal is the partition of the Bosnia. The same blueprint—and the same rhetoric—is currently being implemented in Ukraine, including public denials of involvement, and insistence on the right to protect ethnic Russians beyond the country’s borders. Putin is clearly reading from Slobodan Milosevic’s playbook.

The Austrian diplomat may therefore be right in his observation that Russia is also fighting the West in the Balkans. Given Bosnia’s dysfunctional political system—with politicians on all sides of the ethnic divide who are uninterested, to say the least, in building a stronger common society—and the clanging of weapons echoing once again in the neighborhood, Bosnia is under increasing pressure precisely when it is more vulnerable than at any time since the war. As a result, foreign influence is on the rise, Turkish, and, most disconcertingly, Middle Eastern and Russian. The West needs to get its hands dirty again in the Balkans, to protect its own interests as well as Bosnia’s future—because the Bosnians are unable to drag themselves away from the precipice on their own.

Gordana Knezevic is the director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Balkan Service.

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