Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: Greater Serbia Dream Lives On

Eight years after the Bosnian war, many citizens of Republika Srspka still believe their future lies with Belgrade.
By Nerma Jelacic

On the eve of talks that could decide the future status of Kosovo, more than half of Bosnian Serbs think they should join Serbia and Montenegro if the predominantly ethnic Albanian international protectorate gains independence.


Recent polls in Republika Srpska, RS, show that eight years after the end of the brutal war that divided the country into two entities, the Serbs still do not want to live in a union with the Federation’s Bosniaks and Croats.


Although changes to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s existing borders are unlikely, it is clear that the international community is still very far from achieving its objective of creating a unified country.


Since the end of the war, its two ethnic-based entities have been operating with parallel political, economic and social infrastructures. The only steps towards integration, such as common passports and car license plates, have been made at the insistence of the international community.


"I would not like to live in Bosnia without entities," Slavenka Ducanoviæ, a 28-year-old shopkeeper from Banja Luka, told IWPR. "I think we [the RS] should join Serbia as our lives would definitely improve then."


More than 50 per cent of the population in RS share her opinion according to a public opinion survey conducted by the Banja Luka-based Partner agency in July.


The reluctance of Bosnian Serbs to unify with the Federation has come under the spotlight as politicians from Serbia and Kosovo prepare to enter talks on the latter’s future for the first time since the end of the war.


The international community is keen to resolve the final status of Kosovo and the Belgrade/ Pristina talks - which are expected to start in September - are seen as the first step on a long road towards a decision on the future of the international protectorate.


Should Kosovo eventually gain full independence from Serbia, the Serbs in RS are likely to use this to make a case for their own secession from Bosnia.


The Dayton agreement, which ended the war in 1995, left Bosnia divided into two entities, the Muslim and Croat dominated Federation and the primarily Serb RS, whose eastern border abuts Serbia and Montenegro.


While the international community has been trying to push the two entities towards integration, very little progress has been made - the citizens of both rarely venturing across the internal borders.


RS enjoyed varying degrees of support from Belgrade during Slobodon Milosevic’s time. After his downfall, the Bosnian Serbs hoped for a big improvement in relations with the emergence of the nationalist Vojislav Kostunica as president of Yugoslavia. But under international pressure to sever ties with Banja Luka, Kostunica was sidelined and Zoran Djindjic, the assassinated prime minister of Serbia, distanced his country from the RS leadership, halting direct support.


However, the two governments have maintained close ties and many in RS would still like to see their entity unify with Serbia and Montenegro.


“I think if Kosovo is taken away from Serbia, something should be given it in return,” said Sanja Vujicic, a 33-year-old hairdresser in Banja Luka. "Serbs are majority citizens in RS so it would only be logical for us to be united with Serbia.


"I don’t think the two entities of Bosnia should be integrated under any circumstances because that definitely wouldn’t work."


Darko Kurtoviæ, 32, a driver, differs only in so far as he believes RS should become independent in the event of Kosovo being allowed to secede, "I think if Kosovo gets independence from Serbia then RS should get the same treatment. I certainly do not think unfying with the Federation would work. We would only see the repeat of what happened between 1992 and 1995."


Sasa Borjanovic, a 23-year-old electrician, told IWPR that unification was unthinkable, "I would be disgusted if it happened. If anyone else in this town tells the truth they would say the same thing. Oil and water do not mix.


"It should be clear to everyone that this [Bosnia-Herzegovina] is a fake country created by the international community."


Senad Slatina, a Sarajevo-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, ICG, said the reason separatist views are still widely held is because the nationalist political parties, which have been held responsible for the four-year war that ravaged the country, are in power again.


Slatina argues that the period between the signing of the Dayton peace accord in November 1995 to the first elections in October 1996 was too short for Bosnia’s liberal and civil political parties - who were willing to make an effort to restore peaceful coexistence in the country - to gain legitimacy amongst the public.


"The majority of those surveyed in this poll were citizens of Serb nationality. Their views are the consequence of a big mistake made in the aftermath of the Bosnian war when the political parties, which had brought about and waged the war, were granted democratic legitimacy through the first post-war general elections," he said.


"When you have the same people in power in RS after so many years - the staunchest opponents of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a multi-ethnic state - it is not surprising to find that over fifty per cent of [RS] citizens believe it perfectly normal to secede from that state."


Tanja Topic, a Banja Luka-based political analyst, said the opinions held by the Serbs in RS are product of years of negative campaigning by the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party, SDS. “ It has been telling people for years on end that the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina is imposed upon them, they are obstructing and hindering the implementation of the Dayton peace accord. That’s why the polls showed such separatist opinions," she said.


SDS spokesman Dusan Stojicic dismissed any connection between his party’s policies and the views held by RS citizens, insisting that voters were primarily concerned about the dismantlement of their entity and that the poll results were "a warning for those who pursue [abolition] to think again about the actions they take".


While Bosnian Serbs are calculating that possible Kosovan independence will strengthen their case for secession from Bosnia, it’s very unlikely that the West would countenance the latter.


"No one in the international community is even considering this as a possibility. Too much money and time were invested in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and international organisations, ranging from NATO through the European Union to the OSCE, are too involved here to allow any changes to the existing state borders," said Slatina.


However, the opinions held by the citizens and politicians of RS are a stark reminder that the international community has a long and difficult road ahead if it pursues a unified Bosnia.


Nerma Jelacic is IWPR programme manager in Sarajevo and Gordana Katana is a Voice of America correspondent and a regular IWPR contributor in Banja Luka.


More IWPR's Global Voices

Young Iraqis Are Demanding Change
A new generation is standing up for what they believe in - and they refuse to be intimidated.
Nineveh Reborn
Iraq: Women Plant Trees for Peace