Bosnia Plans New Model Army

As a commission starts work on how to unify Bosnia's armed forces, discussion begins on how multi-ethnic the army can be.

Bosnia Plans New Model Army

As a commission starts work on how to unify Bosnia's armed forces, discussion begins on how multi-ethnic the army can be.

The establishment last week of a commission to drive military reforms forward in Bosnia is a first step towards the eventual merging of Bosnia's two rival armies.


The Defence Reform Commission for Bosnia was announced on April 9 by the Office of the High Representative, Paddy Ashdown.


Ashdown has appointed United States defence expert James Locher to chair the body, which is to come up with plans to overhaul defence arrangements in the Bosnian state in the course of 2004. NATO, the NATO-led Stabilisation Force, SFOR, the Office of the High Representative, OHR, and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, all have seats on the commission, together with seven Bosnians.


The change is a prerequisite for Bosnia-Hercegovina to qualify for full entry to of NATO's Partnership for Peace, PFP, programme, something the tripartite presidency formally requested last year. At the time NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson made it clear that one of the preconditions was establishing a joint, state-level command structure for Bosnia's armed forces.


For this shared system of control to work, Bosnia would have to introduce a state ministry for defence matters as well as state-level parliamentary oversight of the armed forces. At the moment the two entities of Bosnia-Hercegovina - the Federation and Republika Srpska, RS - have separate armies and defence ministries.


The current Bosnian constitution gives each of the state presidency's three members equal rights to act as supreme commander of all armed forces in the country. Yet in RS, the law is still being interpreted as meaning the entity's president is solely in charge of the RS armed forces, VRS.


This unilateral arrangement has fostered illegal activities involving the RS military. Last year international agencies in Bosnia discovered that the RS-based company Orao had engaged in illegal trade with the Iraqi military. More recently, SFOR troops found evidence that a VRS intelligence department had been spying on various local and international institutions.


These two scandals led to the resignation of the Bosnian Serb member of the tripartite Bosnian presidency, Mirko Sarovic. They also created enough pressure to force politicians in both entities to accept further military reforms.


Following these two scandals, Lord Ashdown used his powers to abolish the RS's highest military authority, the Supreme Defence Council, as a way of making them directly subordinate to the Bosnian presidency. Now he has moved a stage further, and Locher's commission is expected to draft new legislation on a defence law for the whole of Bosnia.


Speaking as he announced the new defence commission, Ashdown said that after the reform, the two entity armies would be transformed into a leaner military, with a joint command and general staff.


The argument is that the force would be more efficient and cheaper to maintain. But disbanding separate ethnic armies in a state which has seem so much bloodshed in recent years would also send strong symbolic messages about Bosnia's intention to stay at peace with itself.


The most immediate question is just how multi-ethnic the new joint military will be. IWPR has learned from local and international sources that SFOR has already come up with a number of proposals for the shape of the new armed forces.


The force will have between 10,000 and 15,000 troops. This would represent a reduction on current numbers - the Federation Army, VF, has 13,200 soldiers, 9,200 of them Bosnian Muslims and 4,000 Croats, while VRS has 6,600 men.


SFOR's commander, US Lieutenant-General William Ward, has begun frequent consultations with two armies and defence ministries, but he denies that SFOR or NATO has decided in advance how the new army should look.


"All such claims in the media are counterproductive," he said, adding that all options remain open.


Of the options proposed by SFOR, there are three front-runners. One would create three ethnically mixed brigades under joint command. This option would be closest to the concept of a single, multi-ethnic army and would erase separate military identities.


As the single biggest ethnic group, Bosnian Muslims have the greatest interest in seeing this kind of army come into being. The commander of the Joint Command of the Federation Army, Lieutenant-General Atif Dudakovic, has openly voiced support for it.


"In my view, the time for playing with national armies and sentiments is over," Dudakovic said.


But simply doing away with ethnic differences in the military may be premature, or unacceptable to some Bosnians.


The second proposal is more of a compromise. It would see a joint command structure in charge of one Serb and two joint Croat and Bosnian Muslim brigades. The drawback of this is that it would effectively perpetuate the existing Federation army and VRS. The ruling Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, is hostile to this idea because Croats, who number less than the other two ethnic groups, could be submerged in Bosnian Muslim-dominated units.


Many Croat and Serb politicians are therefore believed to be favour of a third option in which there would be three separate brigades - one Serb, one Croat and one Bosnian Muslim - under a joint command. Like the preceding one, this plan would not erase ethnic differences.


Speaking after a meeting on the issue on May 9, VRS Chief of Staff Major- General Cvetko Savic refused to state a preference, but said that the separate armies that currently exist cannot be done away with unless the constitution is changed. "Ultimately the decision is in the hands of politicians, not soldiers," he said.


The Defence Reform Commission is expected to present final proposals by the end of September. That will mean Bosnia could have the legal framework needed for PFP membership in place by January 1, 2004.


"All this depends on Bosnian citizens and their politicians. If they want to join Partnership for Peace or NATO, this is a historic opportunity which should not be wasted," said Ashdown.


Antonio Prlenda is a journalist and military analyst for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje.


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