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

New Hope for Balkan Stability

Balkan politicians hail establishment of diplomatic relations between Yugoslavia and Bosnia as an historic move towards regional stability.
By Janez Kovac

Bosnians hope the New Year will usher in a new era of trade and friendship with Yugoslavia after years of enmity and war that brought both countries close to ruin.

All three of the country's ethnic groups have warmly welcomed last week's accord which established diplomatic relations with Belgrade, five years after the Dayton peace agreement brought an end to the Bosnian war.

All over the region politicians hailed the new agreement - signed in Belgrade last Friday by Bosnian Foreign Minister Jadranko Prlic and his Yugoslav counterpart Goran Svilanovic - as an historic move towards bringing stability to the Balkans.

"This is a great day," Svilanovic told reporters. Prlic commented that "conditions are being created for any (future) war to become unthinkable."

Government officials were put to work straight away drawing up agreements to liberalise trade, prevent double taxation, ensure protection of investments and regulate cooperation between customs services.

Svilanovic noted that a number of complex questions remain unresolved, most notably the issue of who inherits property owned by the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. He said establishment of good-neighbourly diplomatic relations was the first step towards settling this and all other outstanding issues, adding; "This is in the interest of the entire Balkans."

The diplomatic breakthrough comes at the end of a year in which all three signatories of the Dayton pact - Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic - have departed from the political scene. Their exit has brought a marked improvement in regional relations.

In Croatia, a new democratic leadership took over after Tudjman's death last December. Although still unclear and unstable, the situation in Yugoslavia looks much better after Vojislav Kostunica defeated Milosevic in recent presidential elections.

In Bosnia, Izetbegovic retired from the country's joint tripartite presidency ahead of the November 11 general elections in which, for the first time in a decade, nationalist parties received less than 50 per cent of votes throughout the country.

That election disappointed much of the international community which had hoped for an even greater swing towards moderate parties. But at least it meant hard line nationalists suffered some fall in support.

The Dayton agreement had called for diplomatic ties between Yugoslavia and Bosnia to be established in early 1995. But all talks in the last five years failed on two important issues: property rights and war crimes charges leveled by Bosnia against Yugoslavia at the International Court for Human Rights.

Bosnia's war-time government accused the Yugoslav leadership of instigating and directly participating in the conflict on the side of Bosnian Serbs. Later trials at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague provided ample evidence supporting this claim.

Milosevic insisted on Bosnia dropping these charges in return for diplomatic relations. Even some Western officials sought to persuade the Bosnian-Muslim leadership to make this concession for the sake of peace and stability. The Bosnians repeatedly refused to do so.

The second major issue was Milosevic's attempt to present Serbia and Montenegro as the legal inheritors of all property belonging to the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. He demanded acceptance of this as the price for diplomatic ties.

Even the new Yugoslav authorities led by Kostunica followed the same line at first, but eventually gave in to Bosnian Federation insistence on a completely unconditional accord. As a result, the ties established on Friday had no strings attached and the disputed issues were held over for future discussion.

In an interview for the Sarajevo independent magazine Slobodna Bosna, Foreign Minister Svilanovic suggested the war crimes charges should be submitted to a joint "truth commission" - similar to the one in South Africa - which would investigate crimes committed by all sides during the 10 years of conflict.

"Now it is the time to turn to the future," Svilanovic said, adding that this did not mean "we were running away from responsibility for what was done in the past."

Svilanovic also said Yugoslavia wants to establish special cultural, political and business relations with Republika Srpska, the Serb dominated section of Bosnia. The other part of Bosnia, the Muslim-Croat Federation, has already established these kind of ties with Croatia.

Yugoslav relations with Bosnia and especially Republika Srpska will be perhaps the biggest test of the new Yugoslav leadership's democratic credentials.

As a part of the dream to create a "Greater Serbia", Milosevic over the past decade instigated Serb rebellions in Croatia and Bosnia and supported them militarily, financially and politically.

Although the Dayton accord established Bosnia as decentralised state inhabited by the three main ethnic groups, some Bosnian Serb hard-liners still dream of joining their brethren in Serbia. Also, many Bosnian Serbs still refuse to acknowledge crimes committed by some Serbian and Bosnian Serb troops.

In the past few years, both Bosnian Muslim and Croat leaders have acknowledged and apologised for war crimes committed by their soldiers.

The fragile political scene in Republika Srpska, where none of the parties won an absolute majority in the November elections, makes the role of Yugoslavia even more important.

Both Kostunica and Svilanovic have already made some positive steps, acknowledging war crimes committed by individuals in the army and the previous Yugoslav regime. The issue will remain among the most difficult issues on the path to Balkan reconciliation.

Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor