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2016 in review 09 Jan 17

Bosnia 2016: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

A year of diverging narratives saw Bosnia’s communities pulling further apart - despite the submission of an application to joint the EU - while cultural life remained as vibrant as ever.

Eleanor Rose
Fahrudin Radoncic. Photo: Anadolu

Wrangling over Radoncic

In January, the arrest and trial of Fahrudin Radoncic, a tycoon who leads the Alliance for a Better Future of Bosnia and Herzegovina, SBBBiH, sent shockwaves through politics as his party is a key member of the coalition government in the country’s Federation entity, led by the Party of Democratic Action, SDA. 

The indictment said Radoncic had ordered pressure to be put on a witness, Azra Saric, to make false testimony during the trial in Kosovo of the alleged drug baron Naser Kelmendi, who is accused of running one of the biggest drug trafficking rings in the Balkans. 

The SBBBiH condemned the arrest as representing “abuse of the rule of law by some individuals from the prosecution mafia”. In Radoncic’s televised testimony at Kelmendi’s trial in November, the tycoon also struck back.

He said that before, during and after the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia, the Bosniak political leadership and its secret service had used the contract killer Ramiz Delalic “Celo” – who was murdered in 1997 – when the SDA was led by the current leader Bakir Izetbegovic’s father, Alija.

Radoncic said the Bosniak leadership ordered Celo to assassinate a member of a Bosnian Serb wedding party in Sarajevo, on March 1, 1992 – a dynamite claim, since the killing was one of the events that triggered the war in Bosnia.

He also said “Celo” was later killed on the orders of “the Bosniak state mafia”, apparently meaning the SDA leadership and Alija Izetbegovic himself.

SDA-SBBBiH relations chilled to freezing point, but the coalition survived intact despite the turmoil.

Are EU ready? 

February saw Bosnia looking towards the bright lights of Europe when it presented a formal application for EU membership.

“This is an important day for all us,” the Croat member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Dragan Covic, said. 

“Bosnia and Herzegovina wants to follow its neighbours on the European path. This year we will try to improve our economic and social conditions and be credible on our way to the European Union, to which there is no alternative,” Covic added. 

As EU officials made positive noises and as EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn delivered the EU’s questionnaire to Bosnia on December 9, experts wondered about the disconnect between their positive reactions and reality on the ground.

With its complex government system often failing to deliver consensus on how to move forward with any reforms, many deemed Bosnia incapable of delivering the promised changes.

Some noted that the first page of the  3,000-question survey, aimed at assessing Bosnia’s preparedness to align with the EU framework, contained questions about the functionality of the country’s Constitutional Court.

Question 11 asks: “How are the decisions of the Constitutional Court implemented?”

That was clearly a tricky question for Bosnia, especially after Milorad Dodik, President of the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska flouted a Constitutional Court ban to hold a divisive referendum in September on the entity’s statehood day (see September).

Mostar denied elections, again

The democratic rights of the people of the southern city of Mostar were once again denied in October’s local elections after negotiations for a solution failed in May.

On May 4, the Central Election Committee announced elections in all municipalities except Mostar, which has held no local polls since 2008.

Mostar was the only municipality in Bosnia not to organise local elections in 2012, after the Constitutional Court declared its electoral statute unconstitutional.

Power in the city of about 120,000 people has long been contested between Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks [Muslims] - but where it is thought that Croats now make up the majority.

In April, the House of Representatives had met in last-ditch efforts to discuss three proposals to reform the city's electoral statute, presented by the Croat-led party HDZBiH, the two main Bosniak parties, the SDA and the Alliance for a Better Future, SBBBiH, and the Social Democratic Party, SDP.

However, none of them was approved.

One of biggest shocks in the October local elections was the victory of a Serbian candidate for the post of mayor in Srebrenica – the first time this had happened since the 1992-5 war.

Bosniaks were dismayed by this development given the sensitivity of the Srebrenica issue. The victor, Mladen Grujicic, did not help matters with previous comments saying that the infamous Bosnian Serb massacre in the town in 1995 did not amount to genocide. 

Census causes divisions

In June, Bosnia's State Statistics Agency released the long delayed results of the 2013 census, providing the first complete picture of the population of Bosnia 25 years after the last census conducted in 1991 during the Yugoslav era.

The results were sensitive in a country whose institutional framework, as a result of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, rests on the principle of the equality of the three “constitutive peoples” - Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

According to the results, Bosniaks now make up 50.11 per cent of the population, Serbs 30.78 per cent and Croats 15.43 per cent of the population.

The census confirmed that the two entities have a clear ethnic structure, with 92.11 per cent of all Bosnian Serbs living in Republika Srpska, and 91.39 per cent of Bosnian Croats and 88.23 percent of Bosniaks living in the Federation. 

Representatives of Republika Srspka reacted angrily to the publication of the results ahead of an agreement among all the three statistical agencies of the country on the methods by which it was obtained.

“These results … cannot by accepted by the RS,” Dragan Cavic, leader of the National Democratic Movement of RS, said on TV, adding that the RS would withdraw its representatives from the State Statistical Agency.

Liquidity problem solved … for now

The year saw Bosnia’s political leaders finally make the agreements necessary to draw down essential funding from the IMF, which had been on hold since September 2014.

Bosnia’s last agreement with the IMF expired in June 2015, when the fund froze the disbursement of new loan instalments due to the non-fulfilment of conditions.

However, in the cold light of October’s impending local elections, politicians put their heads together in July and a new deal pulled the country back from the brink of a liquidity crisis in September, when the IMF finally approved a three-year 553.3-million-euro loan.

The deal gave the country immediate access to about 79.2 million euros. The remainder was to be available in 11 instalments subject to quarterly reviews, and experts warned that if concrete proof of reforms failed to materialise, the next instalments would likely be cancelled.

Liquidity problems in Bosnia are a serious issue in a weak economy that experts say has a long way to go before it could be called healthy.

During previous discussion of IMF deals, analysts warned that Bosnia’s two entities would struggle to implement their budgets, leading to blocked salaries, pensions, and other social benefits.

A referendum to remember

The single most destabilising event in 2016 was the referendum which Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik held on September 25 in defiance of a ban by the state-level Constitutional Court.

The referendum was a reaction to an earlier decision by the same court, which ruled that holding the annual Day of Republika Srpska on January 9 was discriminatory against non-Serbs in the entity because it was also a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday. 

January 9 was also the day in 1992 that Bosnia’s Serbs declared the foundation of Republika Srpska, which Bosniaks see as a precursor to the war that broke out soon afterwards. 

Serbian politicians insisted it was their right to celebrate their statehood day whenever they wanted.

The go-ahead given to the referendum was seen as a clear sign of the obsolescence of the protective mechanisms built into Bosnia’s Dayton peace accord, which ended the 1992-5 war.

It suggested that the EU and US were no longer willing to step in to solve quarrels but would leave Bosnia’s fragile state institutions to stand up for themselves.

After the vote, Bosnia’s state prosecution announced an investigation into Dodik’s violation of the Constitutional Court ruling, but the Republika Srpska leader declined to come to Sarajevo for a hearing. 

Along with the election in October of the first Serbian mayor of Srebrenica since the war, the referendum ushered in a new era of heightened anxiety.

Brighter spots in the arts

Fortunately, not everything in Bosnia revolved around its tortured political system in 2016. Murals sprang up around the capital, Sarajevo, as artists added to the cultural life of the city.

One was a spectacular painting of David Bowie, unveiled in May by a group of artists to honour the late musician’s humanitarian concerns for Bosnians during the war of 1992 to 1995.

Bowie had bought a painting of a Bosnian Muslim woman being raped during the conflict – the work of artist Peter Howson. 

A new generation of Sevdah musicians also fought hard to save the traditional Balkan folk music form from dying out. 

And, in August, Sarajevo’s world famous film festival – which screened a total of 222 films from 61 countries this year – drew visitors from around the globe and was seen as further evidence of the country’s strong artistic life.

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