Kostunica Walks Bosnia Tightrope

Vojislav Kostunica's recent trip to Bosnia almost turned into a diplomatic disaster.

Kostunica Walks Bosnia Tightrope

Vojislav Kostunica's recent trip to Bosnia almost turned into a diplomatic disaster.

A scandal was narrowly avoided last weekend when Yugoslavia's new president Vojislav Kostunica paid his first visit to Bosnia.

Over the past week, international officials realised with alarm that Kostunica was planning to attend a gathering in Republika Srpska, RS, instead of paying an official visit to Sarajevo as a gesture of reconciliation before the November 11 elections.

The international community wants Kostunica to recognise the sovereignty of Bosnia, to establish diplomatic relations with it and to support "democratic forces" in RS on the eve of the elections.

But the Yugoslav president had other plans, namely a "private visit" to Trebinje, in south-east RS, to attend the reburial of the famous Serb nationalist poet Jovan Ducic who died in Chicago nearly sixty years ago. His will requested that he be buried in Trebinje once his country was free again.

It was hardly a "private visit", though, as it's well known that Kostunica had promised Mirko Sarovic, the leader of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS - formerly led by war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic - that he would attend the ceremony.

Kostunica's visit triggered a chain of protests in Sarajevo, the city which, according to diplomatic protocol, should have been his first stop in Bosnia.

It looked like turning into a nasty diplomatic incident.

But then Bosnian Foreign Minister Jadranko Prlic offered a face-saving solution by suggesting Kostunica couch the visit as a private one.

Wolfgang Petritsch, the highest international official in Bosnia, also persuaded the Yugoslav president to meet senior Bosnian officials in Sarajevo after the Trebinje ceremony.

The international community was jubilant at having turned a potential diplomatic disaster into what UN mission head Jacques Klein called "a historical moment."

"Today is the beginning of the future," said an euphoric Klein, who chaired the Sarajevo meeting, which was held at the city airport. He described the purpose of Kostunica's visit as "the establishment of constructive bilateral relations that will satisfy the needs of the peoples of both states and enable them to join the European family of nations."

Kostunica, meanwhile, assessed the visit as paving the war for "normalisation" and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.

Such optimism is premature though. Kostunica faces many obstacles, personified by a distrustful public in Bosnia, and wily Serb politicians in RS.

At a press conference at Sarajevo airport, journalists asked Kostunica whether he would apologise for what Yugoslavia did to Bosnia over the last ten years. Kostunica replied ambiguously that he was not a politician who would "with hollow words, promises and apologies, neglect the complexity of our relations."

He admitted that crimes had been committed, but by all sides. "We need to build confidence and investigate what really happened," the president said. Sarajevo's view is that Yugoslavia was the unequivocal aggressor in the Bosnian war.

It's no wonder then that Kostunica's victory got a lukewarm reception from the Bosnian public and politicians. People here are wary of Kostunica's nationalism. They're also worried they will now have to share their privileged position in the international community with post-Milosevic Serbia.

"I am disappointed with Kostunica's attempt to make all sides equally responsible for what happened on the territory of the former Yugoslavia," said liberal Bosnian politician Rasim Kadic.

"But we have to be pragmatic and use this chance to open links with Serbia. We need Serbia and it needs us."

The Bosnian visit was Kostunica's first encounter with international policy on Bosnia which he strongly opposes Two weeks ago, an article by Petritsch in the Financial Times, in which he said he had "some difficult questions for Kostunica," infuriated the new president for its "colonial tone."

Sources close to Kostunica say the president was particularly insulted by Petritsch's setting of conditions, namely that the Yugoslav president "will clearly have to support democratic and moderate forces in the Republika Srpska around prime minister Milorad Dodik, and not parties close to Milosevic".

Kostunica does not consider Dodik a democratic force. Even before his election, he scorned him as a puppet prime minister and corrupt politician who violated RS law to stay in power.

The RS politicans may turn out to be Kostunica's biggest problem. Most believe the change of power in Belgrade strengthens their position in the Bosnian Federation, and they are constantly calling for Kostunica to support them in the run-up to the general elections.

When Kostunica recently met Mirko Sarovic, Dodik's challenger in the presidential elections in RS, the latter was quick to announce that his SDS would cooperate with Kostunica's party, the Democratic party of Serbia. Serbs took the meeting as a clear demonstration of support by Kostunica, which - given his popularity in RS - could be decisive at election time.

Meanwhile, prime minister Dodik sought to exploit Kostunica's visit to Trebinje. He loudly proclaimed that he had had talks with the president and informed him about a proposal for dual citizenship for RS and Yugoslav citizens during the reburial ceremony.

Kostunica was having none of it. "When I decided to go to the ceremony I swore not to make any political statements, " he said. "I talked with Dodik only because he was standing beside me, and it was not about politics."

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a regular IWPR contributor

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