Sunday, December 14, 2008

Journalist Peter Lippman--Travel Journal to Bosnia-Herzegovina Part II

Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #2: Sarajevo and Bosnia, continued


The nationwide pre-election campaign for municipal assemblies and mayors was in full swing when I arrived early in September. Over 3,000 assembly seats and some 140 mayoral positions were to be contested.

Elections in Bosnia take place every two years, with state and entity polls alternating with municipal races. Every election is a circus in which most candidates compete with each other to see who can raise tensions higher through the use of nationalist rhetoric. In the context of this time-proven campaign method, the rhetoric of fear and mistrust recalls the fraught discourse that dominated the pre-war period. As such, it is unavoidable that a very tense atmosphere will prevail.

A high point in the manipulation took place when Haris Silajdzic, Bosniak member of the three-person state-level Presidency, gave a speech before the UN General Assembly on September 23rd. There, Silajdzic called on the U.N. to "reverse the recognition of the Republika Srpska," which, as he terms it, is a "genocidal creation." He was not speaking for the Presidency, which has trouble crafting a unanimous position on just about any issue. As his counterparts -- mainly Serb politicians -- were quick to point out, Silajdzic was speaking for himself.

This speech, and a similar one that Silajdzic later gave before the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, caused an outcry from RS Prime Minister Dodik and his spokesmen. Always quick to respond to any perceived call to abolish the Republika Srpska, Dodik's followers voiced their oft-repeated threat to call a referendum, to be held in the RS only, on the question of secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

This back-and-forth verbal warfare was of great use to the nationalist parties during the election campaign. It worked to reinforce the voters' perception that they could only identify as members of one ethnicity or another, rather than as citizens with common interests. As such, they could only vote for the candidates who said that they held their constituents' "national interests" at heart -- even though what a "national interest" is, and why it always takes precedence over all citizens' needs for stability and economic recovery, have never been clarified.

For the rest of the campaign period, and beyond, the issue of abolition of the RS versus secession of that entity from Bosnia dominated the discussion. It didn't matter that this was unrelated to the local elections. It was a sideshow that upstaged the relevant issues -- but that was not an accident.

In fact, a media monitoring organization conducted a review of thousands of press releases and other pronouncements by the various political parties during the campaign, and found that a relatively small number of statements -- under a third -- pertained to local issues whatsoever. A much smaller number of statements, only around one hundred altogether, actually offered solutions to local problems.

While dust was being thrown in the eyes of the 3-million-odd voting population, other ways of swinging the vote were also underway. The clich├ęd practice of direct vote-buying was uncovered in some locations in both entities. This was implemented particularly in municipalities where the vote was expected to be close, such as Doboj, where Dodik's SNSD was trailing the SDS (the party founded by Radovan Karadzic). There, seventeen SDS activists were arrested a few days before the election, on suspicion of vote bribery.

Another somewhat transparent manipulation that promised an advantage to any local ruling party was the timely allocation of municipal funds for civic improvement in the months immediately before the elections. Such improvements included repair and upgrading of sports facilities, planting of new lawns, and installation of water fountains and public monuments. In some cases, spending on such projects in a two-month period equaled the expenditure for the entire previous year.

One enduring scandal involved the threatened rejection of the right of thousands of absentee voters to post their ballots by mail, due to "lack of proof of citizenship." This number included over 2,000 Bosnian Croats from northern Bosnia residing in Croatia, who wished to vote by mail. Their votes could significantly affect the outcome in some elections.

Just as scandalous was the involvement of high police officials in the RS in providing false identification -- and thus eligibility to vote -- to criminals and citizens from neighboring countries. In Brcko, some people who were illegally provided with new ID even registered the local government building as their home address.

The Bosnian state police agency, SIPA, arrested around twenty such officials in May, and another eight in September. These included top police commanders in Srebrenica and Bijeljina, and the head of the identification administration in Bijeljina. Upon the September arrests, top RS police officials complained that only the entity police had the right to arrest their own employees. These top police officials were the same ones who had cleared the appointment of the Bijeljina ID. official.

In response to these campaign manipulations, some concerned members of Parliament from an opposition party suggested that elections in some municipalities should be postponed, but this idea was rejected by the central elections commission.

The strongest non-nationalist opposition party in Bosnia is the Social Democrat Party, led by Zlatko Lagumdzija. Lagumdzija has for years written and said very reasonable things, but his party has lost popularity steadily over the years. It doesn't help that the SDP, reformed heir of the pre-war Communist Party, still works on the model of CP leadership, where the party's image is defined by one autocratic personality. (This is true of other parties as well.) Nor does it help that that personality, Lagumdzija, is one of the most wealthy politicians in Bosnia. He owns two fine apartments in central Sarajevo; an office building in Skenderija; a huge parcel of land with a summer house in the resort area of Poljine; an apartment in Dubrovnik; and a very comfortable savings account.

This year, a new non-nationalist party made a splash: Nasa Stranka ("Our Party"). NS was founded by an independent politician from the RS, with significant backing from Bosnia's best-known film-maker, Danis Tanovic, who won an Oscar for best foreign film for "No Man's Land" a few years ago. Tanovic is a non-nationalist who says many reasonable things, and seems to want to move the electoral and political process out of the hands of the finagling elite. He has been living in Paris since the war, but moved back to Bosnia recently, saying, "I want to live in this country, but I want it to be a country that my children can thrive in."

Nasa Stranka fielded candidates throughout Bosnia. Many of them were former SDP members, and others were prominent artists and intellectuals. You couldn't say that they represented as strong a movement as that of Barack Obama in the US, but among some people, they provided a measure of hope.

Another new multi-ethnic party made a small ripple, but it interested me because its principles were more in harmony with grassroots activism than with traditional electoral politics. That is the Pokret Mladih, which means "Movement of Youth." While in Bosnia there is generally a strong distinction between a movement and a political party, Pokret Mladih seemed to straddle the fence.

I talked with Jasmin Vedran Mehicevic, leader of Pokret Mladih. The party was campaigning in about twenty municipal races. Jasmin told me, "We have Serb candidates in our party in Trebinje and in Laktasi. It does no good to have a multi-ethnic political party in places where there is not a multi-ethnic voting body." I asked him if his candidates in those ethnically-cleansed towns were at all progressive. He said, "Anyone in a party in the RS with 'Bosnia-Herzegovina' in its name is forward-thinking."

Jasmin described the way that the odds were stacked against newer parties. During the 1990s, the OSCE helped to fund all parties' campaigns, but this is no longer the case. Now, parties receive governmental funding for campaigns only after they have been elected. What's more, the advertising companies are controlled by the larger political parties which, naturally, discriminate in distribution of advertising resources. Jasmin also told me, "One second on television costs ten KM (around $7.00). So a ten-second spot, every day for ten days, costs 1,000 KM." Pokret Mladih and Nasa Stranka simply did not have the resources for such advertising. Perhaps to its advantage, Pokret Mladih's youthful candidates -- and their graffiti-esque posters -- probably attracted some new young, otherwise jaded, voters.

Speaking of division among the multi-ethnic parties, Jasmin said that there are "at least seven good parties." His activists broke away from a party that had earlier split off from the SDP. He said, "The SDP is essentially a good party. The multi-ethnic parties should unite, but they can't, because all the leaders want to be the main leader. Each leader thinks they are the smartest, and they won't cooperate with each other. If we were to unite, there would be results.... Everyone would go into the SDP if it were without Lagumdzija. Zlatko Lagumdzija is someone who is wrecking his party."

I asked Jasmin about the relevance of "Dosta!" (Enough!) and other non-governmental organizations -- sometimes not even registered as NGOs -- that organize street protests. Could they help to make change happen in Bosnia? He answered, "The problems with the government can't be solved on the street, only in the government...The only change in government can happen in the elections.

I also had a chance to speak with Darko Brkan, a leader of Dosta. This group, which grew out of the successful conscientious objector movement, has been working on various civil rights issues for around four years. (see It has activists in five or six cities, in both entities. Dosta's activities include protesting utility price hikes and corruption, fighting anti-Roma racism, generally promoting grassroots activism, and most recently, protesting street violence that seriously affects the population in the larger cities.

In February, some high school students randomly attacked and killed a seventeen-year-old, Denis Mrnjavac, on a streetcar. This shocked the citizens of Sarajevo, who had observed that the city government failed to respond in any effective way after several other similar murders. Fed up, people came out onto the streets and demonstrated for two months. In the largest protests since the war, between 5,000 and 6,000 people stood in front of the canton government building. They demanded the resignation of the city's mayor and the prime minister of the canton. Unfortunately, in one incident some of the angry protestors threw stones at the canton building, and this rather took the wind out of the sails of this movement, for the time being.

Darko says that although his movement lacked a strategy for building on the energy of these protests, they did attract some new activists. Dosta is currently working to expand and unite more groups of people, including student groups, in the grassroots movement. Darko agreed with Jasmin's assessment that change could only take place through the electoral process.


While I was following the Bosnian elections, people in Bosnia were watching those in the United States. Bosniaks were somewhat wistfully wishing for the election of Hillary, of Clinton fame. And as Obama was gaining steam, my friend Iva said to me, during a discussion of nationalism, that anything that made people feel that they were better than others was not acceptable. In that context, she wondered "why it was necessary for Obama to state that the United States was the greatest nation in the world."

2. "QUEER SARAJEVO FESTIVAL": Threats in advance

As I was arriving in Sarajevo in early September, a new scandal was brewing. Some young gay and lesbian people had been preparing to hold a "Queer Festival" in Sarajevo. This was not going to include a parade, but would present a photography exhibit, hold a public panel discussion, and show some films. Gay activists from around the region were going to attend. Association Q, the organization preparing the event, was observing its sixth year of activity. Its goals were to "offer a space in which we will evoke and reexamine heteronormativity and patriarchic values." (For the Queer Festival's web site, see

In Zagreb there has been a gay parade for several years. There were violent incidents at first, but the local response has since calmed down. In Belgrade, there have been two parades. The first, in 2001, was met with such violence that there was not another attempt to hold a parade until mid-September of this year. There were attacks again, with one participant hospitalized and two attackers arrested.

In Sarajevo, opposition to the gay festival was going strong by August, and it was wide-ranging and vicious. At one end, posters appeared on the streets reading "Death to Gays." Someone founded a group on Facebook called, "Stop the gay parade in Sarajevo during Ramadan." On another web site, someone wrote in and said of the participants, “They should be bathed with gasoline and set ablaze.” Other people called for the festival's organizers to be attacked with baseball bats or molotov cocktails, subject to impaling, or run out of Bosnia.

At the high end, public officials condemned the event, and some media incited the public against it. The objections went like this: "That behavior is rejected by Islam, and it's a provocation that they are organizing the festival to happen during Ramadan."

A couple of prominent Imams, including Seid efendija Smajkic of Mostar, spoke out. Smajkic said, "We will not grab them by the neck on the street, but we have to say: This is immoral ... a promotion of ideas that are in violation with religion" (published in the Sarajevo daily, Dnevni Avaz). He added, “Freedom and democracy should not be used to promote deviant ideas and garbage imported from the West...We are certainly for a free society, but healthy ideas and healthy life must be nurtured.”

Representatives from Bosnia's other ethnicities got in on the act, providing a rare instance of agreement across ethnic lines: The general secretary of Milorad Dodik's party, the SNSD, said of homosexuality that "it is unnatural, sick and deviant behavior." Bosnian Croat politicians and clerics voiced similar opinions. The top Muslim cleric in the country, Reis Mustafa ef. Ceric, kept quiet.

Member of the Bosnian Parliament Amila Alikadic-Husovic declared that homosexuality was an "illness should be cured, and not supported." Later, she admitted that she had recently learned that homosexuality was no longer classified as an illness (for at least the last 30 years), but she was not apologetic. Mayor of Sarajevo Semiha Borovac condemned the death threat posters, but said that the festival should not be held during Ramadan.

When Start magazine writer Samir Sestan said, “With such democrats, who needs fascists?”, he nailed it. According to its constitution, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a secular society. It is a signatory to all the relevant international human rights conventions, including those that specifically protect gay rights. But these modern principles have not been well-assimilated into the patriarchal culture of Bosnia. Just as important, the violence and aggression of the past two decades has elevated mistrust of the "other" to the top rank of prevailing ethics. Sarajevo is touted as a city of tolerance, the multi-cultural city that, for example, welcomed the Jews exiled from Catholic Spain. This tolerance was showing wear and tear in August.

Some human rights activists and otherwise pro-democracy figures lapsed and joined in the criticism, suggesting that the event should have been scheduled outside of Ramadan. In response the coalition "Odgovornost" (Responsibility), composed of a dozen-odd NGOs and civil human rights organizations, reminded the public that in Bosnia, as a secular society, it is neither required nor possible for all events to be "synchronized with different religious calendars." The coalition described the festival as a "test to show whether Bosnia was truly democratic."

Among the political parties, only Nasa Stranka and the Liberal Party expressed support for the festival, which was to be partially funded with donations from the Dutch, Canadian and Swiss Embassies. The silence, on the part of people who should have reacted in defense of the event, was every bit as inappropriate as the attacks.

Besides the incitement by prominent individuals against the festival, parts of the media were involved. A late-August edition of Avaz published the blaring headline: "Provocative Gay Gathering during Ramadan! - BiH Public against Queer Festival in SA," and went on to print that "Bosnian politicians and most religious leaders think that this festival shouldn't be held during Ramadan, and some think that homosexuality is a disease."

A few magazines and radio stations defended the upcoming festival. These outlets received telephoned and written death threats. Dani magazine published a couple of relatively articulate, if angry, criticisms that it received. In one, an imam attacked Dani for expressing "anti-Muslim" opinions that were a "holdover from Communism." Another writer warned that the world-wide Mason conspiracy was promoting anti-Muslim, degenerate Western values in order to destroy Bosnian society, and asked, "Would you like to see your children marching in a gay parade, holding hands with others of the same sex?"

In a rare response from someone in the political establishment, a legal advisor to member of the Presidency Haris Silajdzic wrote that "anyone who is getting votes by justifying hatred on the basis of religious feelings misunderstands the meaning of religion. Homophobia, like Islamophobia, is a subgroup of xenophobia. The same rules apply to gender issues that apply to discrimination on the basis of race and religion."

Amnesty International and the OSCE issued statements of concern about the threats of violence against the festival. In a clarifying statement, organizers of the festival noted that it was to be a festival of arts and culture, and that it was not intentional that it coincided with Ramadan. As the festival approached, several venues cancelled their agreements to host events, citing the need to "repair the ventilation system" or other excuses.

A festival spokesperson voiced the hope that there would be no violence, saying that she was counting on the protection of the police department and a private security agency. But commentator Asim Beslija wrote, referring to Ramadan, "And while sins are being confessed, and people are behaving in a humble and pious manner, under the table the knives are being sharpened and the clubs are being grasped. It is good to kill at least one queer..."


DEFEAT IN HOLLAND: Dutch Court Rejects Srebrenica Lawsuit

Hasan Nuhanovic, a survivor from Srebrenica, filed a suit several years ago against the Dutch government, together with the family of another former employee of the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica. The lawsuit charged the Dutch with criminal involvement in the massacre of at least 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, which took place upon the fall of Srebrenica in July of 1995. On September 10th, Hasan's claim was rejected in the first-instance District Court at The Hague.

During the war Hasan, living in Srebrenica, was a young interpreter for the Dutch Battalion, which was tasked by the UN with defending that enclave. Upon Srebrenica's fall, thousands of residents fled to the Dutchbat base ahead of the advancing Serb forces. The Dutch allowed 5,000 refugees to enter their base, and then welded shut a hole in the fence. After negotiating with the arriving Serbs, the Dutch decided to hand the Bosniaks on their base over to General Mladic's troops.

Most of the men in that group were killed, and the women and children were expelled from Serb-controlled territory, driven to the front line and dumped there. Hasan still had protection from the Dutch because he was their employee. But Dutch officers ordered him to tell his mother, father, and brother that they were to leave the base. He never saw them again.

This story is written in greater detail in other places, such as Emir Suljanovic's Postcards from the Grave, and Hasan's own, recently-published book, Under the UN Flag. For anyone who wants to know the story of what happened in Srebrenica, and especially for anyone who is inclined to be forgiving towards the Dutch, this book is absolutely necessary. With painstaking detail, Hasan provides an airtight condemnation of the Dutch troops' active cooperation with Serb forces, especially, but not exclusively, at the time of the fall of the enclave.

After the Dutch District Court's rejection of Hasan's lawsuit, Hasan told a magazine interviewer that he had not expected much from the court, but he was glad that the court was finally forced to address the issue of Dutch responsibility in a serious way. Hasan said,

"The Dutch court used the phrase 'Under the UN Flag' several times, but there were two flags [the UN flag and that of the Netherlands] there at the time that the Dutch were expelling my family and 5,000 more people from the base. I saw this with my own eyes.

"In my opinion, the Dutch are responsible for participating in a war crime. They actively controlled the situation, deciding to drive people from the base and to hand them over to the Serb forces. Not one official organ of the Dutch government has answered the question of how to legally address the act of handing over the refugees.

"They have in fact admitted that they knew ahead of the handover that there were people who had already been killed; they saw the bodies....but they left open the question of who drove people from the base, as if it was the Serbs who did it."

Hasan explains that Dutchbat, instead of handing the refugees over to the Serbs, had the power to allow more of them, at least the males, to enter the base. But the Dutch were more concerned with smoothing the way towards their own safe departure than with the safety of the Srebrenicans.

The Dutch court denied that the Dutch government had any responsibility for what happened in Srebrenica, and said that the appropriate place to address this question was the UN. However, the same District Court had previously judged that the UN had "absolute immunity" with regard to the massacre.

A friend of mine who works at the Bosnian war crimes court said, "Where politics meets justice, politics wins. So the ICJ [World Court] didn't decide to convict Serbia of genocide, because of the possible repercussions in other countries where such things have happened, thus preventing the payment of restitution. The same thing happened with Nuhanovic's case with the Dutch government. They weren't about to convict themselves."

When I met with Hasan later in the month, he told me that he was planning to appeal the decision all the way to the EU human rights court in Strasbourg. But this will take years.

For more information on this case and the history of the Srebrenica massacre, see
DomovinaNet page on Srebrenica
Wikipedia entry on Srebrenica Genocide (recommended to me by Hasan Nuhanovic)
Balkan Witness: The Srebrenica Debate


Next -- Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #3: A visit to Srebrenica


Anonymous said...

Another fascinating articel by Peter. But although Hasan Nuhanovic recommended the Wikipedia Srebrenica Massacre to him, this article has long been a battlefield under more or less regular onslaught from revisionists and deniers.

Anthony said...

Yoiu might take a look at another Michael Totten article on Kosovo --

I tend to fall on the Pipes line that moderate Islam needs to be encouraged, so the world should look at Kosovo.