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The Waiting Game in the Balkans

In Bibici, a small Bosnian Serb village near Srebrenica this June, I met Radivoje Bibic, the local bus driver. He told me that from the beginning of the Bosnian war in 1992, Muslims from Srebrenica had occupied the village, from which the Serbs had fled. Only after Srebrenica fell in July 1995, and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander, proceeded to slaughter up to eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys, were the Serbs able to return to Bibici. When I asked Bibic, “Was what happened in 1995 revenge for 1992?” he replied, “Kind of. What they asked for they got. They deserved it.”1

Walking and driving around Bosnia, I, like so many others who used to report on Bosnia, still have clear memories of the war. Going down a Sarajevo street I remember a dead man hanging out the window of his car; on another I remember flames bursting from a building hit by shells. When I drive past the village of Hranca, a few miles from Srebrenica, I think of the dead body of seven-year-old Selma Hodzic lying on a sofa in a small house there. She had been killed the day before by Serb paramilitaries. “In people’s heads,” the Bosnian Serb journalist Tanja Subotic told me, “the war is not over.” What Ms. Subotic was saying seemed important, not just for Bosnians but even more so for foreigners, particularly politicians from EU countries. The Yugoslav wars are long over, but politics and life in Bosnia, in Serbia, in Montenegro, and in Kosovo are still dominated by the traumatic memories of the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia. Most people in all these countries feel they need the security of membership in the EU to keep them from slipping back into violence and hatred; practically all their leaders say that their future lies in the EU and that they must do everything they can to make sure that their countries will eventually join.

Earlier this spring, many people told me they hoped that by 2015 their countries would be firmly anchored in European institutions. Now the referendums in France and Holland rejecting the European constitution have cast doubt on all prospects of future enlargement. If the hope of future membership is dashed, in some parts of the Balkans conflict may well flare up again, while throughout the region its endemic poverty will grow worse. The instability of the Balkan countries will become of greater concern to Europe as they export more and more illegal immigrants, prostitutes, and drugs.


When I went to Srebrenica in June to see what had happened here ten years after the slaughter, the town seemed to me more miserable than ever. Before the war it had a population of 37,500, of whom 73 percent were Bosniaks, the more recent word for Bosnian Muslims. Now, according to an international official, there may be as few as 7,500 people here, of whom 5,000 are Serbs, and 2,500 Bosniaks who have returned. Although some Bosniaks and Serbs get along, it was clear to me that the atmosphere of hate remains strong. There are virtually no jobs, and this is one of the main reasons why there are so few people here. Most of Srebrenica’s houses have been returned to their original Bosniak owners, but they are largely empty. Some are still in ruins; many are in varying stages of reconstruction, but their owners live in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and other cities and only come for the holidays or weekends. Many of their children are now used to city life and no longer want to return here, or to the other little villages around the town.

As for the Bosnian Serbs, their story has been different. At the end of the war in 1995, Serb leaders under Radovan Karadzic ordered that thousands of Bosnian Serbs who came from districts and suburbs of Sarajevo that were turned over to the Bosniaks under the Dayton agreement should be given houses in Srebrenica. They wanted to make this strategically important region forever Serbian. Now almost all of those Serbs (as opposed to local Serbs) have left, either for more prosperous parts of the Republika Srpska, as the Serbian part of Bosnia is called, or for Serbia itself.

Srebrenica is dying. But it is far from typical of Bosnia today. In fact, great political progress has been made since the end of the war. According to Osman Topcagic, who coordinates European policy for the Bosnian government, fifteen of the sixteen EU conditions for starting talks on membership have now been fulfilled, including customs and tax reforms and making public administration more effective. The one remaining condition concerns reform of the police in Bosnia, which, thanks to the detailed provisions of the Dayton agreement of 1995, has sixteen police forces for its 3.5 million people. Most of those police forces are still controlled by local politicians, some of whom have links to criminals.

Lord Ashdown, the international community’s high representative in Bosnia—in effect he is a kind of neocolonial governor with extensive powers—told me there is a “nexus of politics, crime, and the police” in Bosnia that had to be broken up. Essentially the plan promoted by Lord Ashdown, but officially one prepared and endorsed by the EU for police reform, is that new police districts should extend beyond the boundary that divides Bosnia into the Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation. The Serbs reject this proposal, arguing that the police forces don’t cross federal boundaries in any other federal state in the world. They are frightened that Lord Ashdown, with Bosniak support, is trying to strip the Republika Srpska of any real power. The result is that the recent rejection of police reform by the Bosnian Serbs has left the country in a state of crisis. It was telling that the Serbs said “no” only after the French and Dutch referendums. Up to then they had agreed to many reforms—for example, a single indirect tax authority, a single army, and a single border police patrol service—because, among other reasons, they were necessary if Bosnia was to join the EU.

Bosnia and the other former Yugoslav states want to join the EU not only to benefit from its subsidies and to be part of the single economic market and to have the freedom to travel and work freely within Europe.2 They also believe that if they are locked into the EU and its institutions, that will give potential foreign investors the confidence to invest much as they have in the new member states of Central and Eastern Europe and as they did previously in countries like Ireland and Portugal. They also believe that the process of joining will be so rigorous that their own institutions will be modernized by it. As small, weak states, they also have nothing to say about how the modern world is run; only as part of a large and powerful union can they hope their interests will be looked after. This hope, however, is now threatened following the votes in France and Holland.

Lord Ashdown told me that he had been warning his Balkan colleagues for years that the door of Europe would not be open forever and that they had better hurry to get in. Now, he said, he was worried that the EU might have asked Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosovo to go through a large number of painful reforms only to “find that the door of Europe is closed.”

This is a fissiparous region and the only glue that holds it together is Europe. It is the single thing that all political parties and people agree on.

If the prospect of EU enlargement fades, he went on, then why should politicians do things that might not be in their own personal interests as opposed to those of their constituents—the rejection of police reform by the Bosnian Serbs was, he said, an example. “If the French can say ‘no,’” said Lord Ashdown, then the politicians will think, “we can say ‘no.’” And unless Bosnia is forced to modernize, he said, corrupt politicians and criminals will, among other things, continue to cooperate in channeling drugs through the region to EU countries, and EU citizens will be the losers.

In April the International Commission on the Balkans, an independent body including Giuliano Amato, the former Italian premier, and Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister, argued that unless the Balkans were brought firmly into the EU, “it ran a serious risk of allowing a black hole to emerge on the European periphery that could inflict considerable harm on the European project.” An official at the EU’s Council of Ministers in Brussels told me that while many citizens of EU countries and their ministers perceive countries like Bosnia as “criminal havens,” the question now is, “Do you put them in prison or isolate the problem, put the clochards out of sight or rehabilitate them? It’s the crucial debate.”


What is true for Bosnia is also true for Serbia. The violent past is still fresh in people’s minds and its leaders believe that membership in the EU is the principal hope if they are to overcome it. But the horrors of the past continue to impinge on the present. On June 1, during the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the prosecutors introduced into evidence a video showing, they said, a Serbian paramilitary group called the Scorpions mistreating and killing six young Bosniaks after the fall of Srebrenica. No one who sees it will forget the self-assured contempt of the killers for the young men and the sadistic satisfaction they took in taunting them and brutalizing them first. It was a scene that must have been reenacted hundreds of times during the war.

The Hague prosecutors claim that the group was controlled by Serbia’s ministry of the interior—not the Bosnian Serbs. Serbia’s top leaders rushed to condemn the crime, but its politicians immediately began quarreling about what to do next. Most agreed that a resolution should be passed in parliament deploring war crimes, but they couldn’t agree on whether it should concentrate on Srebrenica and its Bosniak victims or whether it should remind the world that Serbs had victims too. No resolution was passed. In the meantime the Serbian authorities declared that the Scorpions had never been a unit belonging to the ministry of the interior but rather were part of the army of the now defunct Serbian breakaway state in Croatia. The controversy over whom they were working for continues.

Three legacies from the past are holding back Serbia’s political and economic recovery: the unresolved question of Kosovo’s status; Serbia’s relations with Montenegro, which seeks independence from Serbia; and the continuing demands of the Hague war crimes tribunal. After Milosevic fell in October 2000, Serbs invested their hopes in their new premier, Zoran Djindjic, but he was murdered in March 2003 on the eve of a major crackdown on organized crime. The shadowy criminal syndicates in Serbia that were, and still are, but to a much lesser extent, endemic were able to eliminate a serious threat to their power. During Djindjic’s tenure the question of the future of Kosovo, then still recovering from the war of 1998 and 1999, was simply not addressed. Not wanting to inflame the Kosovo issue further, Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, succeeded in getting Montenegro to agree to a three-year moratorium on holding a referendum on independence from Serbia. It was felt at the time that if 650,000 Montenegrins could exercise their unquestioned legal right to secede, then almost two million Kosovo Albanians would insist that they too had a right to independence. The EU and the Americans also thought there was no reason to stir up anti-Djindjic sentiment by pressing the then premier to hand over men indicted by the Hague’s war crimes tribunal. In fact, Djinjic sent several men to The Hague for trial, among them Slobodan Milosevic. But General Ratko Mladic—the man who had assured the defeated Muslims at Srebrenica that they would be properly treated and then had them killed—was untouchable: he was protected by the army.

  1. 1

    An excellent new book has been published in Britain about the siege of Srebrenica. It is the first book in English by a Bosniak who lived through the siege and survived the fall. See Postcards from the Grave by Emir Suljagic, published by Saqi Books and the Bosnian Institute. It will be published in the US in September.

  2. 2

    A powerful argument has recently been made suggesting that the EU should make pre-accession funds available to all the Balkan countries and not just ones that are official candidates. See The Helsinki Moment—European Member State Building in the Balkans, by the influential think tank the European Stability Initiative, www.esiweb.org.

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