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

Bosnia: Will Serb Hardliners Really Reform?

Nationalist pledges to compromise on constitutional changes are viewed with suspicion.
By Dragan Jerinic

When hard-line Serb nationalists start talking moderately, other Bosnians look for the catch.


The Serb Democratic Party, SDS, the main nationalist body in the Republika Srpska, RS, entity, has indicated it is ready for compromise over reforms prescribed by the Bosnian constitutional court. But the country's Croat and Muslim communities suspect this is just a ploy to avoid having changes imposed by international edict.


They have a point. "The SDS is doing everything to avoid imposed solutions," Dragan Cavic, vice president of the SDS and RS deputy president, recently admitted.


For two weeks, representatives of the main parties have been negotiating about changes to constitutions of the Bosnian state and its two constituent entities - changes which would reflect the constitutional court's ruling that all ethnic groups in Bosnia must be made equal.


Unless final agreement is reached by the end of this week, Bosnia's top western mediator, the High Representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, could impose his own solution.


Cavic's illuminating remarks follow the SDS congress on March 11 in Banja Luka where it was said the party was ready to "turn a new page". Yet at the the meeting, the SDS re-elected its old leadership. Granted, they did draft a new reformist political programme, but many local and Western analysts doubted the value of the party's honeyed words.


Igor Radojicic, general secretary of the opposition Democratic Socialist Party in RS, said, "SDS has changed attitude towards the international community, trying to create the impression that it's the most cooperative RS party, while at a local level it continues to behaves arrogantly towards other parties and ordinary people."


Observers query whether the party formed by wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, a figure still high on the wanted list of The Hague war crimes tribunal, could ever really bring itself to stop obstructing democracy and reconciliation in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


The SDS led Bosnian Serbs throughout Bosnia's three-and-half year war; and its war time membership includes most of the war crimes suspects sought by The Hague.


Ever since the conflict, SDS has doggedly impeded implementation of the Dayton peace accord, constantly obstructing the passage of legislation in Bosnia's joint institutions. The party has also persistently refused to cooperate with The Hague. Legislation on the matter was passed in the RS at the beginning of the year, but not a single war crimes suspect has been apprehended by the entity's police force.


In eastern Bosnia, where SDS enjoys the largest support, only a few Bosniak refugees have been repatriated. Attacks on the returnees are common and they serve as a warning to all displaced people looking to come back to this region.


According to numerous media reports, the party's infamous record almost led to it being banned from the 2000 elections. Many believe it was the fear of being excluded from elections planned for later this year that prompted the SDS to try and appear more reasonable.


Dragan Kalinic, the party president, and his vice-president Cavic were re-elected to their posts without opposition at the party congress. "A new, realistic pragmatic approach to Republika Srpska and Bosnia-Herzegovina has taken over from the usual stereotype of self-destruction and self-sacrifice which was expected from the SDS," Kalinic said.


During the congress, the SDS reportedly changed parts of its political platform, indicating that it will for the first time also run for election to positions in the Muslim-Croat federation in 2002. In addition, the party programme, which in the past exclusively focused on Bosnian Serbs, now refers to "constituent people", indicating it could be ready to take into account the rights of other communities.


However, critics say re-election of wartime party members like Kalinic showed the SDS remained firmly on the road of nationalism and obstructionism. Many political analysts believe the SDS is simply incapable of supporting the Dayton agreement.


Kalinic himself was, before and during the war, one of Karadzic's closest associates. At the start of the conflict, he openly advocated bombardment of Sarajevo and other assaults on non-Serbs. "Until the enemy (Bosnian Muslims and Croats) is militarily defeated and broken, and this of course implies liquidation of their key men, I am in favour of the military option," Kalinic told the RS assembly at the beginning of the war in May 1992. After the conflict, he served as speaker of the entity's assembly.


Critics point out that after its congress, the SDS still contained more than 50 per cent of its wartime membership. "The old hardline faction has retained power," said Rajko Vasic, spokesman for the opposition Alliance of Independent Social-Democrats. "This faction is for undemocratic power on lines favoured by Karadzic."


The true intentions of the SDS are of vital importance for the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The 2000 elections proved the party still enjoys strong popularity among the majority of Bosnian Serbs, especially in rural areas.


The SDS has managed to appoint its own people to leading positions in the RS police and media - which they frequently used against their political foes.


One case now being cited as an example of SDS ruthlessness was the murder by an unidentified assassin of Risto Jugovic, a prominent insurance company director in the southern RS town of Pale. Jugovic was one of the SDS founders but left the party in 1994 after a row with Karadzic over corruption and war profiteering. Only few days before the assassination on March 10, Jugovic said publicly the SDS was planning to kill him and take over his lucrative company.


Even before the 2000 elections, local and international officials were pressing Western mediators to adopt tougher measures against the SDS and other radical nationalists. But recent statements by the Office of the High Representative indicate the international community is prepared to give the SDS another chance to change its ways. "What is important is that the SDS demonstrates it is capable of implementing reforms," said OHR spokesman Oleg Milisic.


Dragan Jerinic is the editor of the Banja Luka-based Nezavisne Novine


More IWPR's Global Voices