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The Future of the Republika Srpska

William Montgomery

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I was standing on the pier in Cavtat last week when the sea was calm and the sun shining. A line of sailboats and small motorboats was moored peacefully along the pier and suddenly they began to rock violently when buffeted by strong, sharp waves. A large boat several hundred meters away slowly exiting the harbor had caused the turbulence. What the International Community consistently has failed to understand, in fact has refused to accept, is that the countries and areas of this region are exactly like those sailboats along the pier. Actions in this region are connected and impact on each other with at times violent, damaging results.

The International Community has traditionally put each problem in the region and each country in separate, individual boxes and tried to resolve them one-by-one. Despite around fifteen years of serious interaction with the problems of this region, the fundamental concept that an action which might be beneficial on one particular issue could well have an extremely damaging impact elsewhere seems still to elude them.

To give a few examples:

a) One small, but influential circle within the U.S. government was so determined to oppose the International Criminal Court that the United States has had a major campaign to obtain separate Article 98 agreements with each country in the world. These ensure that the country would not extradite our citizens to the International Criminal Court without our consent. In pursuing this policy, we have put great pressure on the governments of the region to sign and decreed that none could have any military training or assistance from the United States until they did. What we totally failed to take into consideration was that at the same time we were putting immense pressure on the same governments to send their citizens to The Hague in response to ICTY indictments. How could any government explain to its electorate that it would send its citizens to The Hague while signing pledges to not send our citizens to a similar court? Moreover, the programs of military assistance and training we could provide could go a long way to improve the democratic, Western orientation of the militaries of the region and cutting it off reduced our ability to fulfill our number one objective in the region: completing the process of democratic transition and establishment of market-based economies as quickly as possible.

b) Articles even this week in the American papers talk of the "successful" Bosnian model of entities, cantons, three armies, and a weak central government as a potential solution for Iraq. At the same time, the International Community has totally rejected any of those concepts for Kosovo. In every way, the International Community has handled Kosovo and Bosnia totally differently, almost as if anything done in Bosnia by definition was prohibited for Kosovo. Meanwhile, the people on the ground see the differences in policies and lose faith in the overall process.

c) Intent on arresting Mladic, the European Union with strong U.S. support has suspended negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro on a Stabilization and Association Agreement until that happens. While it may be the most effective way to encourage the Serbian government to exert maximum efforts on Mladic, it also had at least two unintended consequences. It makes it far more likely that the pro-independence Referendum will pass in Montenegro, as its proponents can rightfully say that association with Serbia is holding them back. And it was the catalyst, which led to the resignation of Deputy Prime Minister Labus and also his departure from the Presidency of G17+.

My focus now is what will be the impact in Serbia proper and in the Republika Srpska of three cataclysmic events which are now taking place: the eventual independence of Kosovo, the likely independence of Montenegro, and either the arrest/apprehension of Mladic and Karadzic (which, depending on how they occur, can have major consequences) or alternatively the continued freezing of EU cooperation talks and reductions of U.S. assistance ties if those arrests are not accomplished.

There continues to exist a feeling among the Serbian people that "they should get something from all this." The thoughtful among them warn that if Serbia simply loses everything, it is bound to have a strong counter-reaction. Some are focusing on a partition of Kosovo (despite the fact that the International Community has ruled it out as an option), but others look at the Republika Srpska and its eventual independence and/or incorporation into Serbia. No matter how fiercely the International Community rules out this option, we should be under no illusions that the objective has gone away. A significant segment of the Bosnian Serb population wants at least independence, if not union with Serbia. It is for sure that at least until now, many feel no real loyalty to the concept of Bosnia and fear the consequences if left "unprotected" at the mercies of the Croats and Bosniaks. While one can debate the facts of the conflict, including who was responsible and so on, it is an interesting phenomenon that of the three ethnic groups, it is the Serbs who are by far the most outspoken and most concerned about the prospects of being somehow "ruled" by the other ethnic groups.

There are three basic options for the Republika Srpska. The first is to cooperate fully and extensively with the other ethnic groups in significant revisions of the Constitution, creation of a much stronger central government, and voluntarily surrendering much of the autonomy of the RS. This is by far the fastest way to full Euro-Atlantic integration. The second is the "Montenegrin Option," where the leading parties simply start to treat the Bosnian national government and the Federation exactly the same as Montenegro treated Serbia for the past three years. The point would be to look to a date in the future for a Referendum on the future of the Republika Srpska. This argument would be considerably strengthened by the declaration of an independent Kosovo, an area of Serbia, which never had the status of Republic. This would, at least in the eyes of many Serbs, set a precedent for the RS. The third option would be to continue the status quo, which means to continue to fight to maintain significant autonomy for the RS as specified under the Dayton Agreement despite efforts by the EU and others to reduce it.

Which of these policies is ultimately pursued depends in turn on the fundamental conflict now underway in the RS between two radically different principles. The first is the siren song of Nationalism. The second is the desire to be a "normal country," to be part of Europe, to have the economic advantages and travel opportunities, which most Europeans, take for granted. This is the true battle now underway in the Republika Srpska. What seems hard for many to accept is that one cannot have both.

It has now been more than a decade since the fighting stopped and the Dayton Agreement implemented. By now, absent other factors, one would have expected the pull of the EU to be gaining significant strength. It hasn't happened for a number of reasons. The first is the Dayton Agreement itself, which put in place an unworkable system with strong powers to the two entities. The second is the deep-rooted hostility of Serbs anywhere in the Balkans to live as a minority. The third is that oftentimes, the actions of the International Community in trying to combat what it perceived as anti-Dayton blockages, took actions, which to the local Serbs only strengthened nationalist sentiment. Every RS official removed for being anti-Dayton, for example, actually was a symbolic victory for nationalist, anti-democratic forces and the replacement invariably was cut from the same cloth. Finally, the reality of membership in the Euro-Atlantic Institutions seems far off. The United States, for example, will not even let Bosnia into the Partnership for Peace because of the lack of full cooperation with the ICTY.

With this backdrop, I am increasingly concerned that the "waves" coming from Serbia over the next year will have a sharp and negative influence on this battle over competing visions and principles in the Republika Srpska. There is no question that a percentage of Bosnian Serbs realize that the future lies with Europe and want to bring it about. We all need to think how to best support that effort.

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