Bosnia – the path to sustainable peace runs through Banja Luka

The Canadian experience suggests that sustainable peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina can only be achieved by treating the Republika Srpska as a political player with legitimate fears and concerns.

By Graham Day

Since the intervention of Europeans into the lands of the First Nations centuries ago, Canada has had an “ethnic” issue with its constituent people. Whilst there are many historical and human relationships within the Canadian equation, the currently accepted ‘key’ issue is the relationship between the two biggest European constituent peoples – the Anglophone Canadians and the Francophone Canadians. Centuries of abuse by the majority Anglophones has lead to deep-rooted and widespread mistrust in the Francophone community; a situation has been addressed recently in a constitutional deal. It is now time to do the same in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Without stretching the analogy too far, the demographically larger group – Anglophone Canada – has had to grant Francophone Canada almost all their requests to safeguard cultural and physical security, thereby making it safe for Francophone Quebec to stay within a political system within which it will never command a simple majority. Within the provincial framework of Canada, Quebec enjoys special privileges not granted to the other provinces.

The problem in Bosnia and Herzegovina is almost identical – how to make the Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Serbs (Bosnian Croats would most likely ‘piggy back’ on any assurances given to the Bosnian Serbs) feel culturally and physically safe, within a political system within which they will never command a simple majority?

One of the key obstacles to any solution in BiH, however, is – and has been for some years now – the international community. The international community has been plagued by incoherent, “lowest common denominator” policy-making, divided aims, and inconsistent approaches by the various high representatives to interference with local politics. During my time as Deputy High Representative in Banja Luka some years ago, I was briefing a senior ambassador one evening on the local situation, when I remarked that calls within the Republika Srpska for a referendum were a response to calls for the abolition of the Republika Srpska by politicians from the Federation. Over his drink the Ambassador said to me that privately that he would not mind at all if the Republika Srpska was abolished. I told him that in the lead-up to 1992, it was exactly this sentiment that had fuelled Serb paranoia and given credibility to the nationalist pipe dream of the SDS and Karadzic; in short it was ‘causus belli’. He looked at me in stunned disbelief.

The international community must instead start dealing with the Republika Srpska as a political player with legitimate fears and concerns, as well as a tragic and violent past. Whilst it is essential that individuals be brought to book for crimes committed during the war, ending the demonization of one million-plus Bosnian Serbs is long overdue. The attitude still prevalent in many Embassies and amongst many senior diplomats is that ‘privately’ they would be happy to see the Republika Srpska abolished. This misconception must be expunged if the international community wishes the Bosnian Serbs to be serious at the negotiating table.

Next, and less important than the attitude change mentioned above, the international community must stop shifting the goal posts with respect to European Accession. An EU which contains the Bulgarian police (with their empirical inability to deal with organized crime-related murders etc.) and the Romanian judiciary (with its appalling track record of abuses against the substantial Roma population) has never had the moral authority to add law and order demands to Bosnia and Herzegovin’s accession list. Shifting the goal posts gives hope to hard-line Bosniaks and proves to middle ground Serbs that you cannot trust the international community.

One institutional avenue which has not yet been explored by the international community is the devolution of various government functions. Whilst initially apparently messy and inefficient, how much more efficient and straightforward has the centralization of State functions in Sarajevo actually been? Instead of shoe horning more and more State Institutions into Sarajevo, they must be shared around the country. The reason is quite simple – there is no desire for labour mobility by the current work force in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnian Serbs simply do not want jobs in Sarajevo; nor many Bosniaks in Banja Luka. No one can blame them for that; it is about schools and communities, not just jobs.

One more short story. Some years ago, during a lunch hosted by the Canadian Ambassador, I recall talking with the Registrar of the State Court, who was adamant that there could not be a chamber of the State Court in either Banja Luka or Mostar as Sarajevo was the capital and other venues undermined the Capital’s function. It was not possible to convince this international expert that the State trying cases in Banja Luka was exactly what was needed to pull BiH together. Today, the State Court stands tall in the eyes of some of the Bosniak community, but it is despised and distrusted by the Bosnian Serbs when it could have been a key part of the path to reconciliation. Decentralization of State institutions has to be revisited in a serious and timely way. It has to be made to work using computer networks and distributed systems. In Canada, each province hosts substantial parts of Federal Ministries, which encourages local ownership and buy-in on Federal issues.

Finally, the international community must get more serious about reconciliation issues and initiatives. Bosnia and Herzegovina needs a simple mechanism to allow a common dialogue within and between communities. It needs a ‘Peoples History’. When a truth commission was first suggested, the then Chief Prosecutor in The Hague vetoed the idea as it would possibly divert scarce resources and muddy the water with local amnesties. Since that time, the international community has flirted with – but not committed to – such a project.

Fortunately, much similar work has already been done by the Documentation Center in Sarajevo. This work now needs to be adopted in the main stream by entity governments, with vigorous backing by the international community and sanctions if opposed. It must be incorporated into history books and social studies classes. This is a local product which deals extremely well with the plain facts of the last conflict, propaganda free. Entity education ministries need to be challenged by the international community as to why they are not using this data. Reconciliation is vital yet still missing in BiH; without reconciliation the prospect of future violence cannot be ruled out.

Whilst this piece has only focused on what the international community can and should do – most importantly, only by changing emphasis, not by pouring in new resources – clearly, the local leadership must also play their part. The international community, however, has little credibility criticizing the local leaders when its own expert leadership has been so consistently poor and confused. Treating the Republika Srpska as a political player with legitimate fears and concerns is key to bringing the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table; a step that must be supplemented by devolving various government functions and taking a stronger stance on the issue of reconciliation. The Canadian example provides many clues as to how such progress can be successfully realised.

Graham Day is a former Deputy High Representative and Head of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Banja Luka. He was also a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace.

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  2. julian harston

    A nice piece by Graham.

    Almost exactly the same arguments can be applied to Serbia. The US, UK, and France among others have consistently failed to understand the need to recognise that a strong consistent and helpful policy toward Serbia, friendly constructive in public, and critical in private if necessary, will bring far better results than the self righteousness and grumpiness exhibited by the recently departed French ambassador and his UK colleague. Serbia is and will remain the key to regional development and stability. It is ridiculous to go on treating those who have championed democracy and the European cause in Serbia as though they were responsible for the disasters of the 1990s.


  3. Carlo

    Mr. Graham, for all his expertise, fails to see the disconnect in comparing the Canadian situation with that present in Bosnia. In Canada, Quebec has, basically, two options: It can remain an autonomous part of the Canadian Federation or it can go it alone as an independent state. There are no other contiguous majority French-speaking areas with which it can align. The Serb Republic, however, physically sits next to the Serb homeland, to which it is tied ethnically, culturally, religiously, and linguistically. In fact, the whole construct of the former Yugoslavia was an effort to work out something near the Canadian model and that failed. Now that NATO/EU have created the monster of Kosovo, it should accept the union of all Serb areas into a unitary state. If one plays with fire, one can expect to be burned!

  4. Peggy

    Carlo, I agree. Seems like everyone else has options excet the Serbs.
    Only the Serbs have been split up while everyone else gets their mostly pure ethnic country, at the expense of Serbs who were so violently expelled from them.
    Operation storm is a prime example. Kosovo another and why is Sarajevo almost pure Muslim these days? Nobody seems to want to know or answer these questions.

  5. ZERB

    In the last 150 years Serbia has fought the great powers numerous times. In each instance, Serbs have been so hatefully detested as a people and some of the most brutal crimes against it cost dearly to it in lives. The second uprising against the turks in the late 1800’s, the Turkish war in early 1900’s, the First world war against Vienna, the Second world war against Nazi Germany, and 1999 against NATO, in all cases Serbia the clear “small fry” was attacked by a significatly larger enemy…the all the said countries plus the US, UK, France and all of western europe attacked Serbia…not the other way around. Serbia has never invades its neighbours or dropped bombs on them or killed their women and children…all these war crimes were committed against it. Not one of these nations show any remorse or have given any reparations to Jugoslavia or Serbia as a successor state.

  6. Mickey

    Graham Day has been on the payroll of the Republika Srpska Prime Minister for years as an advisor… and this has to be mentioned in his brief bio at the end of the article! He is paid to advocate for Republika Srpska.

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