news 23 Nov 16

Bosnian Military Property Dispute Bars Way to NATO

A Constitutional Court ruling on a property dispute over military facilities could help Bosnia move towards membership of NATO but also spark a new showdown between the country’s Serbs and state institutions.

Danijel Kovacevic
Banja Luka
Bosnian soldiers. Photo: Vanessa Vilarreal/Wikimedia.

Bosnia's Constitutional Court on Wednesday debates an appeal from Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, RS, which insists that it, and not the state, owns the military facilities on the Veliki Zep mountain near the town of Han Pijesak, 70 kilometres north-east of Sarajevo.

If the Constitutional Court, as expected, confirms previous decisions made by Bosnia's state court in the first instance and the state court’s Appellate Council in the second instance, the RS authorities will have no more legal remedies and will be obliged to register the military facility in Han Pijesak as the property of the state.

This decision would also give the state prosecutor the legal basis to press charges over all other such military locations currently registered as the property of RS.

This ruling should legally put an end to years of political bickering related to the ownership of the 63 military facilities previously owned by the former Yugoslav People’s Army in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which NATO has showed an interest.

Their proper registration in the cadastre as state property has been the last remaining condition for Bosnia’s NATO Membership Action Plan, which has been on the table since 2009, to finally be activated.

Throughout this period, the RS authorities have been claiming that military facilities that are located in RS are its property and do not belong to the state.

Bosnia's defence ministry has prepared and processed the documentation for registering the 63 locations, and those that are located in the country’s other entity, the Federation, are already in the process of being registered.

But the RS authorities have so far refused to agree to the registration of the 23 locations in the Serb-dominated entity.

This case was eventually put before the state court, and its Appellate Council in August this year ruled that the military property belongs to the state. However, RS still refused to allow the Han Pijesak military facility to be registered to the state.

RS's Public Attorney’s Office rejected the decision and said it would ask for it to be revised, announcing it would file an appeal to the Constitutional Court.

RS's President Milorad Dodik and Prime Minister Zeljka Cvijanovic also publicly rejected the court’s decision.

“They want to seize the property of Republika Srpska,” Cvijanovic said.

“We are approaching a moment when RS will pass its own law and say that it will no longer the implement decisions of the Bosnian state court, as it did not turn out to be a place of justice, but a place of injustice,” Dodik told media on August 27.

Nikola Kovacevic, a member of the RS's Commission for State Property, told BIRN that with the second instance verdict, the state court violated RS’s constitution, according to which the territory of RS is unique, indivisible and inalienable.

RS officials, while publicly showing optimism that their appeal will be accepted, are privately saying that they suspect that the Constitutional Court will reject their appeal, a source told BIRN.

“We have yet to decide what to do with the decision, but it is certain that the RS authorities will undertake some measures,” the source said.

Danijela Novakovic, the head of the RS Public Attorney’s Office, has already said that RS will do anything it can to protect its property.

“If it is necessary, we will go to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg,” Novakovic said.

Local and international experts expressed concerns that the RS leadership could use this issue to raise political and ethnic tensions and undermine state institutions again.

“I think that we will see a similar scenario like we witnessed in the case of the court ruling on the Day of RS and the referendum that followed,” Srdjan Puhalo, a political analyst from Banja Luka told BIRN, referring to the referendum in RS on September 25 that challenged a decision by the state Constitutional Court to ban the entity’s annual ‘statehood’ holiday.

“This case is ideal for media spin. The RS authorities will use this for another attack on the Bosnian Constitutional Court. But what we don't know is how the opposition in RS will react,” Puhalo said.

Bosnian Defence Minister Marina Pendes has said she believes that the verdict will be an important step towards meeting conditions that will enable the activation of the NATO Membership Action Plan.

The rejection of the RS appeal by the Bosnian Constitutional Court makes the activation of Bosnia’s Membership Action Plan possible at the next NATO summit, which will open the road to membership of the Western military alliance.

But Puhalo believes that the RS authorities, who oppose NATO membership, could call another referendum in a bid to further their aims. “I would not exclude a call for another referendum,” Puhalo said.

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