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

Bosnian Serbs Surrender Their Own Army

Fear of sanctions prompts reluctant Republika Srpska to agree to a fully unified army in Bosnia.
By Gordana Katana

Bosnia and Hercegovina is set to get a unified army a decade after the war split the country along ethnic lines, following a decision by the Bosnian Serb Republic, RS, last week.

The RS parliament on August 30 dropped its previous insistence on maintaining a separate army, general staff and defence ministry and will now transfer all defence powers from the entity to the state level.

The Bosnian state parliament is expected to back the decision by creating the legal framework for the first-ever joint armed force in independent Bosnia’s short history.

European Union foreign ministers heralded the RS decision at a meeting in Newport, Wales, on September 2, as a major step towards Bosnia’s eventual integration into the EU.

It was the first major concession that Bosnian Serb officials have offered towards the creation of a more unified Bosnia since the Dayton peace accords in 1995.

Until now the RS has fiercely protected its right to maintain separate institutions, including the armed forces, as the Dayton deal allowed.

International officials hope this decision signifies a new willingness among the Serbs to form joint institutions and abandon the nationalist policies they pursued until now.

The 1992-5 war in the former Yugoslav republic saddled Bosnia with three armies, the predominantly Bosniak Army of Bosnia and Hercegovina, the Croatian Defence Council and the Army of Republika Srpska. The three units had no single command or control centre.

Under strong international pressure, the Bosniak and Croat elements formed a unified entity army in the Federation.

But the Serbs remained outside these developments. In 2003 and 2004, a comprehensive reform of the defence system led to a unified defence ministry and command but they still retained a separate army.

Further pressure from the international community resulted in the set-up of an independent commission for defence reform in December 2004.

As well as calling for a single armed force, the commission recommended scrapping conscription in favour of a voluntary professional army. This entailed a sharp cut in overall troop numbers.

A year after the war ended, the RS army had 23,000 professional soldiers, 8,000 conscripts and 173,000 reservists. After cuts demanded by the Dayton treaty, the force was cut to 4,000 professionals and 20,000 reservists. Further reductions are envisaged if the commission’s recommendations are acted on.

The RS parliament initially rejected the commission’s recommendation in March 2005, saying that it did not want to change its constitution. Parliamentarians were supported in their decision by various pressure groups, including veterans, former prisoners and the families of war casualties.

But international pressure grew throughout the summer, demanding not only a unified army but a unified police force as well.

This month, the RS government announced a change in policy for the army but not for the police.

Dragan Cavic, the RS president and leader of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, made the announcement to the RS parliament on August 30, warning deputies that the entity already faced “strong pressure for not cooperating with the Hague tribunal”.

“A further obstruction of reforms could result in sanctions against the RS institutions, which in turn could question the entity’s very survival,” he added.

“This reform means a complete and full break with the past,” he admitted. “Since the beginning of the war up to this point, the balance of power in Bosnia has been maintained by the balance of fear.”

Most deputies supported Cavic’s move. “Scrapping the RS army doesn’t mean scrapping the Bosnian Serb republic, too,” said Borislav Bojic of the SDS.

Milorad Dodik, leader of the biggest opposition party in the RS, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, agreed.

“Scrapping ethnic armies in Bosnia should be the first step towards the country’s complete demilitarisation so that the conflict that broke out in the 1990s never happens again,” he said.

But Serb hardliners are unhappy. Jovan Mitrovic, vice president of the Democratic People’s Alliance party, DNS, said the army reform was the first step towards the abolition of the RS.

Mitrovic received backing from several prominent pressure groups.

“You do not have the support of the RS citizens nor is Bosnia and Hercegovina a state in which we can accept a single army and a single police force,” said Branislav Dukic, president of the Association of Prisoners of War in RS. “That’s why we were at war.”

Opinion polls ran by local television stations suggested most Serbs backed the president but Tanja Topic, a political analyst for the Friedrich Ebert foundation, said the key test will be next year’s elections.

“The only issue is whether this pragmatic course of action will be punished by voters,” she said.

Gordana Katana is a regular BCR contributor.