Bosnia Welcomes Kostunica

Bosnians hope Yugoslavia's new president will seek to improve relations between the two countries.

Bosnia Welcomes Kostunica

Bosnians hope Yugoslavia's new president will seek to improve relations between the two countries.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

Bosnia welcomed the fall of Slobodan Milosevic with a mixture of joy, relief and some trepidation.

Last week's revolution could hardly have attracted more attention in Bosnia than if it had taken place on the streets of Sarajevo, Mostar or Banja Luka.

Briefly forgetting their own political and economic struggles and problems, Bosnians were transfixed by events in neighbouring Yugoslavia.

In offices and schools, restaurants and homes, people gathered around television sets and radios and logged on to the internet to find out for themselves what was happening in Belgrade.

And there was a very good reason for this.

For better or for worse, every important development in Serbia for the past 13 years has affected the rest of the Balkans. Milosevic instigated conflicts which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions of people.

And so the people of Bosnia now wait to see what Serbia has in store for them this time: more strife and suffering or the beginning of good, neighbourly relations.

The Yugoslav revolution surprised many as only a few optimists expected the Serbian strongman to relinquish power so peacefully. Some were even disappointed, believing that Serbia should at least experience some of what it had forced on its neighbors in the past decade.

These people argued that Milosevic fell not because he waged war, but because he failed to deliver the 'Greater Serbia' that he had promised for such a long time. "Nothing has changed, Kostunica is an even bigger nationalist than Milosevic," was a typical comment.

As Vojislav Kostunica took charge in Belgrade, the media across Bosnia began to scrutinise every statement the 56-year-old constitutional lawyer had made in the past few weeks to find out what he really stands for.

Republika Srpska politicians, who have been politically and financially dependent on Serbia and Milosevic for years, are now looking for a new mentor and hurried to pay tribute to Kostunica - even though many probably regard him as too soft and moderate.

Some, like the entity's former president Biljana Plavsic, went further than anybody else, visiting Belgrade over the weekend in the midst of all the chaos. Although she failed to meet Kostunica, she managed to speak to other opposition leaders. However, it is unlikely that her courageous trip will help her restore the political support she lost a couple of years ago.

Many Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, meanwhile, are suspicious of Kostunica's nationalist background. They point to his meeting with Bosnian Serb war-time leader and No. 1 war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, as well as a photograph taken during the period of conflict in Kosovo in which Kostunica is seen holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

Notwithstanding the concerns over his nationalist leanings, many think the new Yugoslav president appears to be a moderate, uncorrupted, decent enough politician who might in time help to improve relations between countries in the region.

One of the most influential US newspapers wrote that if all goes well after the fall of Milosevic, Belgrade "could quickly become the center for democratic life in the Balkans." But many in Bosnia believe it will take Serbia many years to overcome Milosovic's legacy of nationalism, hatred and war-mongering.

Despite painful memories from the war, most Bosnian Croat and Bosniak politicians extended their congratulations to Kostunica and stressed that diplomatic ties, cut off for many years, should be re-established between Yugoslavia and Bosnia soon. But renewing the links will again depend on Serbia, Belgrade and Kostunica making the first move.

In a radio talk show a few days ago, one of the leading Serbian opposition leaders from Vojvodina, Nenad Canak, said reconciliation would require Kostunica to go to Bosnia and apologize for Serb war crimes. Many here believe that that would be a very good start.

Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor.

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