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

Plane Crash Exposes Bosnian State Shortcomings

Muddle over search for Macedonian president’s body fuels debate about effectiveness of Bosnian institutions.
By Marija Arnautovic

Weeks after the funeral of the Macedonian president, killed when his plane crashed over Bosnia-Herzegovina, an angry debate rages in Sarajevo over who is to blame for the muddle surrounding efforts to find Boris Trajkovski’s body.

With international peacekeepers, local media and politicians trading accusations about who is responsible for the confusion, many analysts agree the affair has underlined the fact that Bosnian institutions do not function in a host of key respects.

The plane carrying Trajkovski and other members of a delegation to an international investors’ conference in Mostar, south-west Bosnia, crashed on February 26 at 08:01 hours local time near the town of Stolac.

After Dragan Covic, president of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s presidency, told the Mostar conference the aircraft had crashed and all nine people on board had been killed, confusion erupted over who was responsible for finding the bodies.

In theory, the local interior ministry should have reacted along with the civil defense, civilian aviation and emergency services.

But 27 hours of confusion followed in which it was unclear whether the Bosnian authorities or SFOR peacekeepers were responsible.

As rumours swirled round both Bosnia and Macedonia, Bosnian media accused SFOR of blocking access to the crash site - a claim which the NATO force rejected out of hand.

Unconfirmed and, as it later turned out, incorrect information about what caused the tragedy poured hour after hour out of the local media; an SFOR spokesman later said less than one per cent of these reports was correct.

After the local authorities set up their own “crisis staff” to coordinate the search between the local police and emergency services, the bodies of the Macedonians were finally found and sent home.

Antonio Prlenda, a military affairs analyst, attributes the confusion to SFOR’s decision to deny local authorities access to the probable crash site on the grounds that there were mines in the area.

Prlenda says this was compounded by a virtual blockade of information on the part of the internationals, which fuelled the local rumour mill.

“The second problem is why SFOR, after refusing to allow the local authorities to get involved in the search, was not more open to the public and how it was possible to know that the area was mined in advance?” he asked. Local politicians have echoed these remarks.

After SFOR spent a day fruitlessly searching for the bodies, a visibly angry chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s council of ministers, Adnan Terzic, said SFOR, the Bosnian police and the local search and rescue services had failed to coordinate.

Bosnian analysts said no one appeared to know who was in charge of the crash zone. SFOR, for its part, has explicitly denied it ever prevented local access to the site, and accused the local media of acting irresponsibly by fuelling what it says were unsubstantiated rumours over who or what caused the plane to come down.

“SFOR did not prevent anyone from going to the site of the plane crash,” said spokesman Dave Sullivan. “However, since the investigation into the case is still underway it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”

Addressing Bosnia’s local newspaper, radio and TV reports, he added that “less than one per cent of everything the media said was true”.

After the Council of Ministers set up its own crisis staff following a late-night emergency session, the local authorities actively joined the search for the plane on day two.

The Council appointed Security Minister Barisa Colak to head the team along with Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic, Defence Minister Miroslav Nikolic, Public Prosecutor Medzida Kreso and police chief Zlatko Miletic.

The team comprised members of both the Federation and Republika Srpska, RS.

As SFOR and Bosnian politicians have continued to dispute who was in charge of the search and who was to blame for the delay, local newspapers have concluded that the affair highlights the confusion over the true competences of local institutions in what remains effectively an international protectorate.

Senad Avdic, editor of Slobodna Bosna magazine, said the affair underlined the fact that the Bosnian state was not only hampered by its division into two entities, but also by the presence of international authorities, which limited or undercut the authority of local bodies.

“In this case an extra element has appeared which we never took into consideration before,” he said, namely that “the sovereignty of Bosnia-Herzegovina outside the entity divisions is limited by the presence of the international community.

“The action of state bodies was much more limited by the policies of the international community than it was by the division of the state [into two entities]”.

He recalled that the locally established crisis staff operated with unexpected unity of purpose, even though it comprised elements from both Bosnian entities.

Colak also said it was to the credit of the Council of Ministers that they had formed a team that had acted with unity, resulting in the location of the plane wreck and the remains of the passengers.

“We were frustrated the search produced no results on the first day and that the plane was not found immediately,” Colak said. “In that situation it became important to act efficiently and find the plane as quickly as possible, as there was still hope of finding survivors.”

According to Avdic, the success of the crisis team proved Bosnia’s home-grown institutions can work when given a chance.

“The operation to locate the plane saw combined action by the internal affairs ministries of both the Federation and Republika Srpska,” he said. “The action of state bodies like the police was only limited by the presence of SFOR.

“SFOR spent an entire day searching the wrong location for the plane wreck. The next day, when entity police were included in the operation, the plane was found.”

Avdic said the plane crash also showed Bosnia institutions at state level lack true authority. “We have institutions which are insufficiently rounded and which only function formally. They have no real competencies,” he said.

The decision to go ahead with the Mostar conference following the plane crash, he added, highlighted their irresponsibility, “The most responsible actions were those of the delegations of Serbia and Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia and Albania, which all cancelled their participation.”

But while Avdic insists the confusion over jurisdictions suited the interests of the international community, Prlenda said the delay over finding the president’s body simply reflected disorganisation - and a failure to sort out the competencies of the various local institutions from those of the internationals.

“At the time of the accident we needed to know who was in charge and who was responsible for such a situation,” he said.

“The bigger question is what would have happened if a large aircraft had fallen. Bosnia-Herzegovina institutions were simply disorganised and SFOR additionally tied their hands.”

Marija Arnautovic is a journalist with TV Sarajevo.