Serbia: Kostunica Remarks Frighten Bosnia

Yugoslav president may regret perceived attempt to appeal to Serbian nationalists.

Serbia: Kostunica Remarks Frighten Bosnia

Yugoslav president may regret perceived attempt to appeal to Serbian nationalists.

An apparent bid by federal president Vojislav Kostunica to curry favour with Serbian nationalists has rocked relations between Yugoslavia and Bosnia.

While Kostunica was visiting the border town of Mali Zvornik on September 14 as part of campaigning for Serbia's presidential elections, the Democratic Party of Serbia, DSS, leader described neighbouring Republika Srpska, RS, as "part of the family, temporarily separated from the Serbian motherland".

Haris Silajdzic, a Bosniak candidate for the Bosnian presidency, described the remarks as "one step away from declaration of war", claiming that "everything achieved in the process of normalisation" between the two neighbouring states had been destroyed as a result.

Kostunica - who later described his comments as having been "maliciously misinterpreted" - maintained he has no plan to reunite the RS with Serbia, saying that he had only been calling for the eventual reunion of all of the former Yugoslavia's Serbs within the framework of the European Union.

Belgrade officials hurried to convince Bosnia that the president's words did not herald a sea change in Yugoslav policy, stressing that they continued to support the Dayton agreement under which Bosnia was divided into the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb RS.

The day after the incident, Yugoslav foreign minister Goran Svilanovic expressed regret over the remarks, blaming them on the heated election atmosphere in both Yugoslavia and Bosnia. "Belgrade is fully behind Dayton and does not want to divide Bosnia in any way, nor damage relations between our two countries," he said.

It would now appear that Kostunica was simply playing the nationalist card in the run-up to the September 29 presidential ballot in Serbia.

But whatever his intention, it's not just relations with Bosnia that might have suffered. Some of Belgrade's international trading partners and aid donors - who hold the key to Serbia's economic revival - are also thought to have taken offence.

Kostunica's main rival in the presidency contest is Miroljub Labus, a reformist supported by the ruling Democratic Opposition of Serbia, DOS.

That leaves Kostunica with the support of the large percentage of nationalists, especially tens of thousands of Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb refugees who obtained voting rights in Yugoslavia. In the event of a second round, it is possible he will also garner the votes of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party leader, Vojislav Seselj.

Despite the chorus of general disapproval, there is little doubt that Kostunica's intemperate remarks in Mali Zvornik achieved exactly what was intended - it won him the sympathies of many nationalists in what may be a close-run poll.

This is not the first time the Yugoslav president has raised international eyebrows on the subject of RS.

Kostunica supported the Bosnian Serbs armed struggle and their goal of creating a Serbian state. His DSS forged close links with the dominant Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, of Radovan Karadzic - indicted by The Hague for war crimes.

The fall of Milosevic in October 2000 led to a thaw in relations between Belgrade and Sarajevo. Yugoslavia and Bosnia established diplomatic ties that December and ambassadors were exchanged a year later.

Kostunica was a little slow to adjust to the new realities. He caused a diplomatic incident at the start of his presidential term by attending the funeral of a Serb nationalist poet, Jovan Ducic, in the RS heartland of Trebinje.

He soon changed his course, though. On his first official visit to Sarajevo in January 2001, he said Belgrade was fully behind the Dayton agreement.

However, the ties between Kostunica's and Karadzic's parties were not severed. On July 30, 2001, DSS and SDS signed an agreement on cooperation committing the two parties to "full cultural, economic and spiritual unity between the Serbian people" - although they stressed that this could only be achieved through Dayton.

Belgrade and Sarajevo signed two further agreements over the course of the year, on cooperation between their foreign ministries and the establishment of an interstate council. A free trade agreement came into effect this year.

Under the pressure of the international community, Belgrade also severed military ties between the Yugoslav army, VJ, and the Republika Srpska army, VRS.

With encouragement from Belgrade, the RS complied with a request from Bosnia's constitutional court earlier this year for both entities to change their constitutions to guarantee equality for Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

However, in spite of this progress, relations between the two states have not been fully normalised. Belgrade has used every opportunity provided by Dayton itself to treat RS as a special entity within Bosnia. Yugoslav and RS citizens can travel freely between the two countries using only their ID cards, while citizens from the Federation need passports to enter Yugoslavia.

Belgrade maintains such issues need not disturb the continuing improvement in ties between the two countries. Relations are "constantly being improved, without spectacular breakthroughs," a Yugoslav foreign ministry source told IWPR. "This is an irreversible process."

Milanka Saponja-Hadzic is a freelance journalist based in Serbia.

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