Bosnia: fix thyself

Sead Numanovic of Dnevni Avaz, a Bosnian daily, has suggested I address the question I asked Friday about the Arab protests–how long can this go on?–about Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The “it” I take to be President Milorad Dodik’s threats to take Republika Srpska (RS) in the direction of independence, whether by referendum or other efforts to assert that the Bosnian state and the international community have no say in how the RS is governed, denying in particular that jurisdiction of the Bosnia and Herzegovina judicial system extends to RS.

This has already gone on for a long time.  Dodik has been unequivocal in his assertions of RS’s defiance of the High Representative–the international community’s designated guarantor of Dayton agreement implementation–for a couple of years now.  He has made it absolutely clear that he rejects any constraints imposed by the High Rep or by the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, thus asserting de facto independence of an entity that in the international community view gave up any chance of independence at Dayton, in return for international community acknowledgement of its existence and authority within the limits imposed by the Dayton constitution.

But the international community has foolishly disarmed itself and no longer possesses the tools required to enforce its decisions on the RS.  It has become a paper tiger, and Dodik is calling its bluff.

So what are the remaining limits on Dodik’s push for RS independence?  There are three:  the presumably limited patience of the majority of Bosnians, the financial resources at the RS’s disposal, and the unwillingness of other states to recognize an independent RS.

I am no expert on either of the first two limits, but people who are tell me that the crunch is coming.

Republika Srpska got 49 per cent of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territory at Dayton.  This was a dramatic increase from the territory it actually controlled at the end of the war, which was down to 34 per cent and shrinking rapidly as Croat and Bosniak (aka Federation) forces advanced towards Banja Luka.  The Federation forces gave up 15 per cent of the territory to RS at Dayton, in exchange for RS’s incorporation in the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

If RS is now trying to leave that state–whether de facto or de jure–I would expect a substantial number of people, especially in the Federation, to oppose its effort.  It is clear enough to me that a majority of Bosnians want to continue to live in a single Bosnian state:  best guesstimates put the percentage of Muslims and “others” in Bosnia and Herzegovina today at over 50 per cent.  They favor a single Bosnian state by a wide margin.  Substantial numbers of Croats in Central Bosnia and Serbs wherever they live in the Federation also favor a single Bosnian state, since partition would mean they would likely have to move.

If a majority of Bosnians favor a single state, some percentage of that number will be prepared to take up arms to oppose Dodik’s attempt to walk away with 49 per cent of the territory.  Their focus will be Brcko, which links the two wings of the RS.  So long as it is not in his hands, Dodik cannot hope for independence.  That is why he is aiming to squeeze Brcko dry, hoping to preempt his opponents by ending the multiethnic administration there.

Before it gets to violence, RS may well run out of money.  Its finances are far from transparent, but those who study them tell me they can’t last long.  The belt-tightening measures instituted so far are unlikely to buy the RS much time.  This is one reason why Dodik so aggressively pursues state and defense property, which he hopes to sell off to refill his coffers, as he has done previously with other state assets.  We are talking here about no more than a year or so more before the RS faces the real prospect of going to Sarajevo for help.  Obviously that help would come only if Dodik abandoned his push for independence.

The third limit is the one I know most about:  the prospects for international recognition of the RS as an independent state.  Here I can be unequivocal:  unless there is a dramatic change whose cause I cannot imagine, few sovereign states will recognize an independent RS.  While there are people in Belgrade egging on Dodik, including Foreign Minister Jeremic and sometimes President Tadic, even Serbia would have to think three times before recognizing the RS, as doing so would end Belgrade’s hopes for EU membership for the foreseeable future.  Serbia absorbing the RS would have the same result.

So Dodik’s best bet is to achieve as much autonomy as possible, desisting from a formal move towards independence until the moment is ripe, while trying to raise the funds he needs to keep the RS going and stopping just short of provoking Bosnians committed to the current state of Bosnia and Herzegovina from taking up arms.  That seems to me an accurate description of what he is up to.  I can’t tell you how long the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina will put up with this, but they should not rely on the international community to take action.  It figures there is no need, as it has the final say by withholding recognition.

If Bosnians want to save their state, they’ll need to do it for themselves, either by cutting a financial deal with Dodik or enforcing the bargain made at Dayton.  Dodik is serious about seeking independence for RS.  How serious is the rest of Bosnia about preserving the Dayton state?  If it is, it will need to do something definitive within the next year.


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One thought on “Bosnia: fix thyself”

  1. Dear Daniel Serwer,

    Serbs do not deserve 49 percent of Bosnia.

    Among many false Serbian claims in connection with settlement negotiations was the statement that “according to the registry, Serbs own 64 percent of the land of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but they are prepared to return 15 percent of its territory to the Bosniaks out of the total 70 percent which they have captured.”

    This is certainly not their only fabrication, but it is nonetheless a very significant one. It can be clearly and quickly disproven by checking any geography textbook from before World War II. This will show that 51 percent of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina was classified as forested, whereas 49 percent was either tillable or used for raising livestock. Of the forested area, 95 percent was owned by the state, meaning it was the communal property of all its citizens, while only 31 percent of the land classified as agricultural was privately owned, by Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. Thus, only about 15 percent of the land of Bosnia-Herzegovina was in private hands, which cannot bring the Serbs the total that they claim, except through mythology and imaginary history.

    The “1910 Census of Population and Property Ownership,” the last census accomplished by the very careful and accurate Austro-Hungarian administration, records that of the privately owned land in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Orthodox Serbs owned 6 percent, Catholic Croats owned 2.6 percent, Muslim Bosnians owned 91.1 percent and others had 0.3 percent.

    However, after the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Allied powers, who supported the Serbs, the newly formed and Serb-dominated Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes initiated the “first agrarian reform” in 1918 and 1919. It took away a total of 2.66 million acres (1,076,675 hectares) of land from the Muslim Bosnians. As a consequence, a huge number of Muslims were left without property and sought economic asylum, going primarily to Turkey.

    According to the latest census of 1991, the Muslims [Bosniaks] and the Croats made up a total of 61 percent of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina. If one takes into account the fact that there also was a reasonably large number of Muslims and Croats who called themselves “Yugoslav” (reflecting either their status as participants in or offspring of mixed marriages or their objection to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia into separate republics), the Bosniak and Croat total in the population is probably closer to 66 percent.

    On the other hand, out of the 31.3 percent of the population in Bosnia-Herzegovina who declared themselves Serbs in the 1991 census, about 10 percent were army officers and their families who came mostly from Serbia and Montenegro. Since the outbreak of the war, they have returned for the most part to Serbia and Montenegro.

    The real percentage of Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina is therefore approximately 28 percent, or significantly less than one-third of the 1991 population.

    Thus the contact group proposal awarding them 49 percent of the land gives them a far greater percentage of the territory than is warranted by their percentage of the population of Bosnia.

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