Monday, August 30, 2010

"Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Silber and Little [5]

Chapter 6: "A Croatian Rifle on a Croatian Shoulder"

While Serbian nationalism had been unleashed and harnessed by Milosevic, in Croatia the two-decades long crackdown on expressions of Croatian nationalism still held sway; it took time for nationalist dissidents like Franjo Tudjman to test the waters and see how far they could push the envelope. The growth of the HDZ was greatly helped by Tudjman's relative freedom of movement--his Partisan past allowed him better treatment in prison after the crackdown, but also he was allowed a passport, which enabled to him to travel and network with the widely-dispersed Croatian emigre population, who would provide key support in the HDZs rise to power.

Tudjman was (unlike Milosevic) a genuine nationalist, and once he and the other members of the HDZ leadership found that they would be able to meet and campaign openly, he quickly became adept at using mass rallies and ostentatious displays of populist support. When the elections in Croatia were held, this support (combined with the British-style election rules) resulted in an electoral victory which gave the HDZ uncontested status as the ruling party (it's winning margin over the reformed Communists was not all that great, but the system was set up to reward the first-place party disproportionately).

This was all being watched by the Slovenes--who had a head start on multiparty elections and were working towards them carefully; ultimately, Kucan would win the Presidency and immediately quit his membership in the (renamed) former Communist Party--and the Serbs. In Serbia, the Milosevic regime played to very real fears among Croatias' Serbian minority that the Ustashe regime was being resurrected. Tudjman and his party did little to assuage such fears, and sometimes even exacerbated them.

The Army was also watching; the threats to take action to defend the integrity of Socialist Yugoslavia were repeated, and Kucan and Tudjman needed to consider how genuine the threat from General Kadijevic and others really were.


And so Part One, "Laying the Charge", comes to an end. One theme which has been contstant through all six chapters is this--the breakdown of Yugoslavia happened along genuine, pre-existing fault lines of nationalism, national grievances, economic disparities, social unrest, and political dysfunction. All of this is true. But Yugoslavia did not fall apart 'naturally' or without further stress; it was not preordained to break apart violently once the ghost of Tito's iron fist had finally faded away. It took deliberate actions by political and cultural elites to align Yugoslavia's weakened fissures against the hard edges of intolerance, fear, insecurity, and paranoia. These actions were taken by real individuals, and their actions and words have been recorded and witnessed. The tragedy which is about to follow was not organic, it was not the inevitable product of deep-seated, almost animalistic impulses. Rational, powerful, calculating people made deliberate choices to exploit Yugoslavia's weaknesses for short-term political gain.

In Part Two, we will see many of these same actors apply the violent pressure to Yugoslavia, so that the breakup they placed into motion did, finally, become inevitable.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Silber and Little [4]

Chapter 5: Tsar Lazar's Choice

The new Yugoslave Prime Minister, Ante Markovic, believed that liberal economic reforms were the key to stabilizing, indeed saving, federal Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, by the time he took power, the Federal institutions were too weak to force the Republics into compliance, and the three most powerful republics--Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia--were against him.

In the meantime, Milosevic fully embraced Serb nationalism as a political tool by leading and speaking at the huge commemoration of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje. The unprecedented public display of the bones of Prince Lazar, and the move to transport those bones to Serb Orthodox monasteries around Yugoslavia was a provocative move to symbolically lay claim to "Serb lands." Milosevic, as President of Serbia, was flexing his political muscle in full view of his rivals.

Slovenia saw the writing on the wall, and moved to take action to protect itself from the moves towards centralization under Serb domination. Proposed constitutional changes (some of which was premised on selectively chosen economic grievances) would have made Slovenia virtually a sovereign nation, although the Slovenes answered Serb complaints by pointing out that Serbia, too, had altered its Constitution without input from the other republics. The Slovenes understood that Milosevic had figured out how to use the structure of the Federal government against itself, and felt they had no choice in order to protect Slovenian interests.

The Slovenes were able to go ahead with their plans when the constitutional court argued that it could not rule on proposed changes; and then again when the JNA surprised everybody by refusing to take action against Slovenia, which disappointed Milosevic.

Serbia responded by attempting to stage a Serb rally in Ljubljana, and then by pushing for a Serb boycott of doing business with Slovenia. The break was nearly complete.

This all culminated in the Fourteenth (and final) Extraordinary Party Congress, during which every single amendment proposed by Slovenian delegates--no matter what the content--was voted down by solid majorities from Serbia and Montenegro. It became clear to the Slovenes that they were not only to be humiliated but completely emasculated; eventually, they chose to walk out of the Congress to the cheers of Serb and Montenegrin delegates. Milosevic's attempt to carry on without them was foiled, however, because the Croatian delegation also walked out, a contigency Milosevic had not counted on. Without a quorum, the Congress was suspended, never to be reassembled. Yugoslavia as a functioning state was nearly finished.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

"Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Silber and Little [3]

Chapter 3: "No Way Back."

Subtitled "The Slovene Spring, 1988", this chapter begins with the sentence: "As Milosevic consolidated power, the authorities in Slovenia were relaxing their hold." This parallel development is crucial to understanding the dynamics of what happened next, but it is also important to look closely at the political dynamics in Slovenia in the final years of Yugoslavia in order to understand, as so many revisionists do not, how neither the Slovene leadership nor the Slovene nationalist opposition were not the drivers of the breakup of Yugoslavia. The liberalization of political and civil society in Slovenia did not necessarily lead inexorably towards the dissolution of Yugoslavia.

While the Slovenian leadership were dealing with the push towards democratization and economic liberalization, the one Federal institution with real power--the Army--took offense at some actions taken by the influential opposition magazine Mladina, including leaking of confidential documents as well as harsh criticism of the military leadership.

The resulting crackdown--which was clumsy and overbearing, and mostly revealed how out of touch the army leadership had become--united the Slovene opposition and rallied the normally conservative Slovene public behind them. It also put Kucan and the rest of the republics Party leadership under pressure to pick a side; ultimately, they would side with the public against the Army and the Federal institutions.

The situation was not yet critical and the damage was not yet irreparable; it would take the calculated and cynical manipulation of the situation by Milosevic to make sure that there was truly "No Way Back."

Chapter 4: Comrade Slobodan: Think Hard"

Slobodan Milosevic was a calculating petty tyrant who was capable of appearing to believe whatever ideology was convenient at the moment. He was also a master manipulator of the complex Federal and republican bureaucracies in the former Yugoslavia; and he was the first politician in that country to understand the power of populism as a force and of the mob as a political weapon.

This chapter details the systematic way Milosevic used these abilities to stymie attempts by the leadership of other republics and even the Federal government to halt his destructive path to gaining power over first Serbia, then Kosovo, then Vojvodina, and finally Montenegro. It lays bare how cyncially and proactively popular sentiment was finessed, channeled, and harnessed by Milosevic and his cronies in order to intimidate and defeat rivals within his growing sphere of political power; claims by revisionists and apologists that the wars in Yugoslavia were the regrettable but unavoidable consequence of the loosening of Federal authority are exposed as patronizing falsehoods.

One sentence in particular is worth quoting: "With this move, Milosevic made clear his strategy towards the Yugoslav federation: when it was opportune he invoked the supremacy of the federal institutions over the republics; but when it was in his interest, he claimed that Serbia would not obey the dictates of the federation." Two things are noteworthy about this statement. One; it is no exaggeration. Many times, Milosevic explicitly declares that the Serb people will not allow any Yugoslav institution stand in their way (such statements were often made in the context of carefully planned and stage-managed mass rallies, complete with the threat of violence), and at other times he is a stickler for the letter of the law; he was a master at using the complex rules of the Yugoslav constitution to his own benefit, even as he sought to destroy it. Two; this statement must be remembered whenever revisionists and apologists for the Greater Serbia project utilize arguments based on the technicalities of Yugoslav law. Milosevic only played by the rules of the system when it was in his tactical interest to do so, even though his larger strategic aim was to destroy the system. He openly flouted his contempt for the rule of law time and time again; something which his pathetic minions of admirers consistently fail to acknowledge.

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Silber and Little [2]

Part One: Laying the Charge

The six chapters in Part One detail political events in Yugoslavia from the publication of the infamous Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Art in 1986, to the eave of armed fighting in the Krajina region of Croatia in early 1990.

It is worth stressing again, that the book traces the political developments in the country; while the authors understand and explain that nationalist tensions and grievances were a real issue prior to the outbreak of hostilities, they categorically reject the possibility that the mere existance of such resentments and prejudices could explain the Yugoslav wars. The book makes it quite clear that the wars which destroyed Yugoslavia were the direct result of deliberate political decisions made by ambitious and shrewd political leaders.

Chapter 1: "This Is Our Land"

We begin with the publication of the Memorandum, which the authors put into context of the political situation in Yugoslavia after the death of Tito in 1980 and the Yugoslav constitution of 1974. We are also introduced to Dobrica Cosic, Ivan Stambolic, and Slobodan Milosevic, among others. Cosic's status as the godfather of modern Serbian nationalism is briefly sketched out, and while Stambolic takes the position of an orthodox Communist official who fears the latent power of nationalism and who wishes to keep the Titoist system working, we are shown Milosevic shrewdly keeping silent on the issue, although a party official in his position should very well have had an opinion. The calculating, ruthless nature of the man is already beginning to show.

At the end of the chapter, the Serbian government took Cosic and his co-conspirators under its wing; the Communists were coopting the nationalists for their own ends--a power play to replace the vacuum still left vacant by Tito's death.

Chapter 2: "No One Should Dare to Beat You."

This chapter is a detailed summary of Milosevic's infamous visit to Kosovo in 1987, the circumstances surrounding it as well as the context it occured in. While the basic outlines of the story are familiar to anyone who has studied the Balkan wars, what is striking about Silber and Little's account is how much of these events were thoroughly stage-managed and prepared. Milosevic, the nationalist Kosovo Serb leadership, and the Serbian media all cooperated to create a flashpoint moment which, more than any single event, sent everything which followed into motion.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

"Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Silber and Little [1]

[I am now embarking on my promised ongoing/open-ended series of books reviews; I am undertaking this project with an eye towards developing an online annotated bibliography of books on the Bosnian war, the context it occurred in, and related issues. I am working these reviews out in process in public view in hopes of soliciting feedback, editorial suggestions, and knowledgeable feedback. Please feel free to weigh in on these reviews as I work them out in this public forum.]

"Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation" by Laura Silber and Alan Little

In 1995, BBC broadcast a six-part documentary entitled "Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation", which won wide praise for its in-depth reporting and extensive use of previously unseen archival footage.

Two of the journalists who were deeply involved in creating the series, Laura Silber and Alan Little, would subsequently go on to produce a book by the same title based on the body of documentation gathered for the production of the BBC series. This book would also garner much-deserved acclaim, and nearly fifteen years after its publication remains probably the best widely availabe single-volume English-language history of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

As the Introduction makes clear, the authors intended this book to be a dispassionate, fact-based work of sober reportage; to quote:

"It is also important to state what this book is not. It is not a crie de coeur of the "Save Bosnia Now" type (though we both believe that Bosnia could, and should, have been saved). It is not a polemic against the failure of the West to protect the weak against the strong, or even to honor its own promises. And it is not a book about journalism or journalists; it is not a "we were there and it was horrible" account of life on the front line."

This disclaimer is accurate. The authors are willing to let the facts speak for themselves, and they do powerfully in this book. For someone who knows nothing of how the wars started or what happened once they did, this is the place to start. The authors do not dwell too deeply on history--the story begins with Milosevic's rise to power, after only the briefest of historical sketches in the Introduction to set the stage. There is no examination of cultural or social undercurrents to the violence. The authors are concerned with political decisions made by mostly unscrupulous leaders who were willing to utilize the latent power of nationalism to fill the political void left by Tito's death.

The Introduction is brief, and sets the stage for the story to come. There are multiple maps, a "Cast of Characters" giving names and a brief identifying entry for approximately 175 persons, a list of acronyms, and a sense that the reader is in the hands of two authors who are able to present sober, even-keeled analysis without jettisoning their respective moral compasses in a misguided quest to be "neutral" or "objective."

Friday, August 13, 2010

Journalist Peter Lippman Bosnia Journal #9

Bosnia journal #9
Herzegovina and wrap-up
August 12, 2010


For me, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a complicated place. When I went there after the war, people asked me why I was there. Most foreigners were going because it was a career move. I answered, “I want to understand.” Not necessarily understanding my response, people said, “Oh, you can’t understand this place, when we hardly understand it ourselves.” I resolved to keep trying.

I have realized that in any place and in any situation, it is good to ask the same question of several people in order to get different answers. There is always something that someone either does not know, does not understand, or simply does not want to tell you. In some places, I consider a specific person my “third answer,” the one I can present with odd information that he or she will help me sort out.

There is Nerin in Stolac. Huso in Mostar (unfortunately for me this year, he was out of town). Jadranka in Sarajevo is one of those as well, my “third answer.” I have written about the grassroots level of activism in Bosnia and my impression that it is in a slump. Some of the people who had previously been involved in edgy activism have moved into institutional work. Jadranka concurred. She told me that a certain prominent activist has been traveling from one Western European country to another, meeting with the Bosnian diaspora, and urging them to vote. Maybe that is important work, but it is hardly the front line.

Jadranka also criticized another grassroots group I have visited, that more recently has “come indoors.” They are conducting a charity project that, according to Jadranka, could be done by any NGO. There’s no risk in it.

I recounted to Jadranka a factoid I had heard: that Muhamed Ali Gashi was one of Alija Izetbegovic’s pallbearers at his funeral in 2003. Gashi is the Albanian mafioso I mentioned in my reports in 2008-2009, one of the few who has ever actually been sentenced for his crimes and is now doing time in jail (see Among other things, his group is suspected of having killed gang leader Ramiz Delalovic “Celo” in 2007. Jadranka said, “Of course Gashi was Alija’s pallbearer. They were all there, Celo too.”


Mostar is one of the most compelling places in all Bosnia, probably because of its astonishing beauty, but also because of its particularly tormented recent history. You go to the old section. You walk above the rushing Neretva. You take the same photos every time, and new ones.

There is the beauty, and there is the climate -- I felt like I was baking the whole time I was there in early July -- and the humor of local people.

Then, if you are not just a tourist, you walk over to Bulevar and Santiceva streets, which divide east and west -- it’s not the river that divides. You feel the completely different atmosphere of the two sides, one dominated by the Croat nationalist political infrastructure, the other by the Bosniaks. You see how the Bosniaks, with fewer weapons, got the worst of it -- even today you still see the rubble. You see how west Mostar looks and feels like a Zagreb suburb. And if you read a little or talk to local folks, you hear about how the division exists in the minds of the inhabitants and is cemented by cooperation between the two political machines. Here is Mostar, in the words of some people I talked with.

I have known Kreso Krtalic for quite some years, since the time of the campaign to rebuild Santiceva Ulica (Street). An architect, Kreso was instrumental in that struggle, together with Silva Memic. They succeeded in pressuring local authorities and the international community to fund the reconstruction of this street, the heart of modern Mostar. Kreso says, “We all fought to return to Santiceva. Ninety percent returned. We planted new linden trees there. No one sold their apartment because of nationalism; some sold because they needed the money. I would never leave here; I was born here.

“There are a couple of buildings on Santiceva that are not fixed. Many of the buildings are fixed on the outside, but not on the inside. They are supposed to be fixed, but the money is lacking. Meanwhile, they are building a sports hall and a new bridge.”

“Everyone needs a place to live, social coverage, and health care. But people are hungry and poor. And they vote unrealistically. The dissatisfied just think about ethnic problems… The political parties should make plans and programs, and they should be required to quit if they do not fulfill them within a year…The international community should have taken over and built factories. In a half year, people would be working, not hating. When we work, we don’t talk politics.”

Kreso advocates development and environmental protection. He says, “The economic crisis divides people; for example, if we could open 10,000 work places in Mostar, then the tension would disappear; there would be no problem. We all work together in building; we keep occupied together from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., and we don’t think about politics.

“Mostar needs to protect the water and the environment. There are more plastic bags in the river than in the supermarkets. The government must comprehend that the environment is an urgent issue.”

Summing up his outlook on local development, Kreso said, “If qualified people were to lead Mostar, we would be the first in the Balkans in five or six years. Because we have the resources, the people, the culture, the environment. For example, we could export water. Money should be directed towards technical development, to reconstruction, not to the politicians and the economists.”

Looking back at the 1990s, Kreso said, “It was hard to come out of the war with a clean conscience…All of the politicians from 1990 should receive between five and fifty years in jail. They are all criminals. If they were against the war, they should have resigned. They all won, and there is no state.”


I talked with Marko Tomaš, who works with the youth group Abraševic Cultural and Artistic Society (“KUD Abraševic”). Abraševic works with media and produces concerts and other cultural events. It strives to create an atmosphere of normality, of young people collaborating regardless of ethnicity, in a city where Croats and Bosniaks are expected to conduct completely separate lives.

We talked about activism in the city. Marko said, “As for grassroots movements, unfortunately, there is very little that is sincere, that people can believe in. I am skeptical towards the movements. They tend to be a way of money laundering, self-promotion. They are not focused. They do not have a clear idea or plan. They are involved in raising a fuss without a goal. This describes ‘pokret Dosta.’ As for Nasa Stranka [the relatively new non-nationalist party], I have heard good things about them, but they are politically illiterate. I agree with their goals, but they lack a strategy. You can’t change things suddenly; you must go step by step.”

Q. Is there anything positive happening in Mostar?

Marko: “Very little. Most of the change is going to take place in the political realm. But the present situation will continue as it is until the political operators sell off the entire city. If the politicians were compelled to behave legally, they would not have room for the murky business. These corrupt operations have nothing to do with ‘national interest,’ but with financial interest. So there is a situation in which chaos is maintained. But the day will come when all this will become illegal.

“Change must take place in the political structure. In this situation, there can be no civil revolution, because of the manipulation. In the media, there are people who produce forgetfulness. In politics, people are voting from fear. There is a construction and commercial lobby that backs the politicians, who are stealing as long as there is something to steal. It is a ridiculous situation, but the reality is as clear as day.”


Finally, I talked with Predrag Zvijerac, a young journalist for the independent daily Dnevni List. Speaking of the divisions in Mostar, Predrag said, “Here in Mostar it is absolutely divided. The youth don’t meet each other. The older people only do if they work together. The water system is divided, the public maintenance companies as well, the fire company -- all the public companies. Private firms are segregated as well. If I as a Muslim work on the east side and my kids go to school there, then it is easier for me just to move there.

“Young people can meet in a kafana, or at the movie theater. But everyone has their favorite kafana, and they are divided by the geography. There are the two separate football clubs. There are fewer fights these days. [Sports events have often broken out into violence]. There are 1,500 police, and they are strict. But just the fact that there have to be that many police is bad.”

The situation of the (non-existent) movie theater illustrates the problem of Mostar: “The theaters are all closed except for the big Kazaliste, which opens occasionally,” says Predrag. “There is no movie theater. The local politicians are not interested in having one. They are all corrupt, and they can’t agree how to divide the money. Everyone has to pay for permits. A movie theater would be a place where young people could go to meet each other. The population of Mostar is 150,000. The city has no money for a movie theater. So the question is, who will build it? Here, you only get permits via political connections.

What happened was that one man who had the money to invest came to town, but he gave up in ten days. He saw that he had to bribe the mayor and both sides, too many people.”

On the subject of the upcoming national elections in October, Predrag said, “The youth are not interested in politics. In the elections, only about 40% of them will vote. More vote in the general elections than in the local ones, which is absurd, since local politics affect us much more. Youth are not interested because the candidates are either unknown, or they have something bad on their record. The parties like young and stupid candidates.

“The young people are only interested in politics if they are directly involved, for example if they work in the media, or they are in politics themselves. Or if they are seeking some benefit for themselves. For example here, the Elektroprivreda [regional electrical distribution company] only hires people who are members of the HDZ.

“Eight out of ten university students never vote, because they don’t like our politicians. Or, among the Croats, there is no alternative. The differences between our (Croat) politicians are not political, but about money. That is, they are just involved in a struggle for power. The young people can see this. There are 40% unemployed, and they see when they are looking for work that people connected with the parties decide who gets a job and who does not. So they don’t vote. And that leads to minority rule, because it’s a minority that votes. So the parties must change.

“Most of the people who do vote are from the village or they are the less educated people. They vote according to tradition. All they know is to circle one party.

“There is a real Catch 22 situation: We choose our government, and then a month later we are against them. Then in the next elections we choose the same people.”

Political power in the city and the region is maintained through ethnic division. Where there are Croat and Bosniak students in one school, they study under the apartheid system called “two schools under one roof.” Based on what Predrag says, it appears that ethnic mistrust is still strong: “There was a survey in west Herzegovina, in Posusje, Siroki Brijeg, Grude, Citluk, and Ljubuski, that is, mainly Croat places. The question was, ‘Have you ever been to Sarajevo, and would you go there?’ Ninety percent of the young people never went there, and are not interested in going. So it is easy to convince people that Sarajevo is Tehran, and that they beat up nuns there.

“If you order ‘kafa’ or ‘kava’ [the latter being the Croatian pronunciation of the word for coffee] in the wrong place, it’s not a problem. But people very rarely go to the other place anymore. Among Croats in Mostar there is the stereotype that ‘if you go to Sarajevo, you must order ‘kafa.’

“The politicians use this ignorance to push people into corrals on an ethnic basis. So my conclusion is that we will always have these nationalist parties, and they will always win. The only exception is places where there has been less conflict, such as in Tuzla.”


Stolac is an idyllic, pleasant town with a brook rustling through it, the Bregava. It is another one of those small towns of Bosnia, older than Sarajevo, with its own history and culture. In fact, Stolac is one of the oldest continually inhabited settlements in the Balkans.

The idyll was destroyed by the war when, in mid-1993, extreme nationalist Croat forces drove out all of the Bosniaks, who had been the majority in the town. Bosniaks started returning bravely towards the end of the decade, and Stolac is somewhat resettled now. In the core of the city the mosques and some of the old estates are rebuilt, although there are still ruins along the river and up into the hills. Apartheid is the order of the day in Stolac, with Croat nationalists controlling the politics and the economy. As in Mostar, what power the Bosniaks have is in the hands of the SDA, the nationalist Bosniak party, which cooperates with the Croat lords of separatism.

Activists struggle in different ways to assert Bosniak rights in Stolac. The reconstruction of the ancient mosques says, “We are still here.” I happened to be in the town for the “Days of Stolac Mosques,” when solemn ceremonies of prayer celebrated the reopening of one of the mosques. The prayer reverberated across the center of the old town. Catty-corner to the Czar’s Mosque sits a kafana that is popular among the Croats, who have erected a monument right on that main corner. That monument, topped by a Catholic cross, honors the Croats who died in the 1990s war. As the amplified call of the Imam filled the air, Stolac Croats drinking coffee across the street, whether they wished to or not, listened and looked at the green banner strung up in front of the mosque, announcing the event. Such is coexistence in apartheid Stolac.

I talked to Minva Hasic of the Stolac women’s organization “Orhideja” (Orchid). This organization helps disabled people, offers various social services for women, and conducts workshops on such topics as health issues and street violence. It also runs a mixed-ethnicity youth club. Minva says, “There is a larger rate of returned Bosniaks to Stolac than to all the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Stubborn people have returned. Then, there are also Croats in the region who were forced to leave central Bosnia, and the local Croats do not support them. We [Bosniak] returnees and those displaced persons have the same problems.”

The high school in Stolac has long operated under the “two schools under one roof” system. On this situation, Minva said, “People are losing knowledge, and there is no development of the culture. There are two sports clubs for each sport…We conducted a survey of high school students’ plans for the future. The Bosniak director had it filled out and sent back to us. The Croat director returned it, saying he could not understand it because it was ‘not in Croatian.’ This just adds to the frustration and the heating up of nationalism.”

I visited with Nerin Dizdar, a prominent young leader of grassroots activism against apartheid around Stolac. His organization, the Youth Forum of Stolac, has been active in all kinds of projects over the past eight or ten years, including guerrilla actions like removing emblems of Croat dominance around the town. The Forum also holds an annual camp for young people from all over Bosnia and abroad. And the group tries to restore and protect architectural and cultural symbols of the old Stolac -- not only mosques, but the Serbian Orthodox cemetery as well, and the ancient pre-Ottoman tombs known as stecci (stecaks).

The municipal government of Stolac tries to obstruct the Forum’s multi-ethnic summer camp. When the Forum requests permission to use centrally-located property, the municipal council withholds electricity and permits. They tell the Forum, “Get permission from Jozo Peric to use that property.” But Jozo Peric, a pre-war gangster, is in hiding, wanted for war crimes, tax evasion, and other post-war crimes.

The Forum has gotten around the obstruction by getting funding from abroad and by holding its events on private property that supporters made accessible. Meanwhile, Nerin and his colleagues continue to fight against discrimination and nationalist domination. For example, last year some high school students took down symbols of Catholic ethnic dominance in the school, and the Forum supported this action. The struggle is ongoing in that school where, until last year, a former member of the Croat nationalist militia (HVO), accused of war crimes, was principal of the school. He was removed last year. There has been pressure from the Federal Parliament to end the segregation of the school, but it has not happened yet.

When I asked Nerin if he could still characterize the situation in Stolac as “apartheid,” he said, “Yes, this is apartheid. They put a cross up in a public space (near the entrance to town). This is a monument to the ‘Croat defenders.’ It was approved by the SDA [the dominant Bosniak nationalist party]. Cikotic [Bosniak Minister for Defense] was ok with this. Soldiers from the Bosnian army came when it was unveiled, carrying the banned Herceg-Bosna flag [of the wartime Croat parastate] and singing the Croatian anthem.

“When you ask about justice, you are called ‘radical.’ No one has said they are sorry [for the war crimes that the Croat nationalists committed against the Bosniaks of Stolac during the war]. In fact, people are still celebrating the crimes that happened. But if you suppress history, it comes back.

“I do not believe in collective guilt, but there is collective responsibility. I feel responsible for what the Muslims did in Grabovica [a war crime committed in a Croat village in central Bosnia, where Bosniak troops killed thirteen villagers]. We need to resolve that history. Now, war criminals are treated as national heroes. It is unacceptable to diminish the victimhood of anyone.”

Nerin spoke of the collaboration between the leading Bosniak and Croat nationalist parties, the SDA and HDZ, respectively. He noted that the old principal of the high school, Ivo Raguz, had been appointed after approval by the leaders of those two parties, Sulejman Tihic and Dragan Covic. “Tihic is close to Covic. There are too many old politicians in position…A stable state with transparency and rule of law would put an end to those politicians.

“There is a great project of corrupting the public; for example, there are a half million “defenders” [a number that has been inflated so that more people can take advantage of pension rights] of BiH, and another large number of war disabled. This is a way of buying people off. There are people who get donations, say, two tractors, so they can sell one of them. The parties make extra donations to corrupt NGOs, which are not required to give receipts for the donations.”

In the midst of all this corruption, the HDZ obstructs real economic reconstruction of the municipality, and the SDA goes along with this obstruction. Nerin gave me several examples of projects with promised donations from international sources, but roadblocks to the projects were thrown up by the local authorities.

“The Croats are not comfortable with what the HDZ is doing,” Nerin said. “They know that we are just asking for equal rights. But they are still disciplined voters for the HDZ. They never raise their voices against what is happening.”

In my last visit to Stolac, in 2008, I had met with Zvonko Peric, head of the youth section of one of the Croat nationalist parties, the HDZ-1990 (a splitoff from HDZ). I wrote about him in a journal after that visit -- see (there’s more there about Mostar and other stories about Stolac as well). Peric had discussed problems of post-war recovery with me, and he called for the establishment of a “third (Croat) entity.” Towards the end of our talk his discourse devolved into a repetition of various crude conspiracy theories.

Soon after I arrived in Bosnia in May this year, I heard on the news that Zvonko Peric had been arrested for drug trafficking. Together with seven other people, including a police inspector from nearby Capljina, Peric was arrested for possession of over 25 kilos of marijuana. A (Croat) Stolac high school professor was involved as well, as were a couple of Serbs from Banja Luka and Montenegro. In organized crime as at the heights of nationalist politics, multi-ethnic collaboration remains alive and well.
(See and

This all reminds me of one of my favorite comments from an old friend, that the postwar regime is a manifestation of the “revenge of the bad students.” I mentioned this phrase to Nerin, and he said, “Zvonko Peric is an example of the revenge of the bad students. It is their policy to choose such people.”

Looking for comment on the state of activism in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I also mentioned to Nerin what I had written about Pokret Dosta earlier in this series, that they are “apparently not in a dynamic phase.” Nerin replied, “They have never been in a dynamic phase. They have only organized protests that would have happened anyway. They print t-shirts.”


Trebinje is but an hour’s ride from Stolac, but I had not been there for thirteen years. A friend mentioned to me the names of a couple of people it would be interesting to talk with in Trebinje, so I decided to take a day trip to the southernmost town in the Serb-controlled part of Herzegovina. I got up early one day and took a ride with Stolac’s only taxi driver, a friendly man who doubles as the newspaper delivery link for Trebinje.

Herzegovina is like California -- only more Mediterranean in culture -- and you feel this especially in Trebinje, with its warm and sunny climate, its fig trees and kiwi and grape vines, and its broad main square lined with kafanas. On the morning I arrived there, a couple dozen local farmers, merchants, and craft workers had set up their tables and were selling fruit, vegetables, books, and dry goods on the square. Having a couple of extra hours, I walked over the hill above the Trebisnjica River and down to the old Arslanagic Bridge, built by the Ottomans.

The town, sitting under the Leotar mountain, felt peaceful and quiet. I walked among the stone buildings and into the walled Old Town, where I noticed that the old mosque had been rebuilt. It was a bit spooky, however, knowing that Trebinje had been “cleansed” of its Bosniak population early in the war.

It’s easier to be a tourist if you don’t know any history.

I met with Nikola Sekulovic, a local opposition politician who had been president of the municipal council for some years. He has distinguished himself by opposing the hegemony of Prime Minister Dodik’s party and the local mayor Dobrislav Cuk, one of Dodik’s men. An economist, Sekulovic is the leader of a bloc of swing voters called “Movement for Trebinje.” Not long after Dodik’s party [the SNSD] and Cuk replaced the old hardline SDS rule, Cuk began replicating the corrupt behavior of the earlier party, selling off concessions to his cronies for exploitation of local resources, and appointing his relatives to various government positions.

Sekulovic described the local situation for me: “There are deals being made, blackmailing, corruption, criminality. In 2009 there was a development strategy paper released that dated from 2008 to 2017, but there is still no development. The budget was 22 million KM in 2008, and now it is around 15 KM.

“We are borrowing from Austrian banks. There could be chaos; we will be paying for this for years. When the SNSD came to power, companies here started disappearing. They destroyed the lumber industry. They made deals for corrupt projects. There have been no capital projects except Intereks (the department store), if you can call that development.

“Former communists, from the fourth echelon of the politics of those days, are in the SNSD now. They don’t know how to create employment. There are two or three Bosniaks in the local government; they are for show, to satisfy the international community.

“Ordinary people are living worse than ever. Corruption and criminality have increased, as has nepotism. People have been threatened and followed. This is reminiscent of 1948, when there was the break with the Soviet Union and much repression.”

Echoing a theme from Nerin Dizdar and Marko Tomaš, Sekulovic said, “Dodik does not like smart people. He is only looking at where he can steal more.”

The regional bishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Bishop Grigorije, excommunicated Nikola Sekulovic (See Grigorije presumably took this extreme move because of Sekulovic’s outspoken opposition to Dodik’s and Cuk’s corruption and regional hegemony. Since Grigorije is based in Trebinje and is a close collaborator with Dodik, Sekulovic’s criticisms affect him as well.

Of his problems with the church, Sekulovic said, “I am a religious person. I was baptized when I was little. The church played a very negative role in the war, and now, instead of uniting people, it has worked to create disunity.”

Q: Why were you excommunicated?

Sekulovic: “I asked uncomfortable questions: Why did you sell church land to [a local politician]?; Why don’t you pay the priests’ pensions? Grigorije also made corrupt deals with other local personalities. The Church buys companies here. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

Q: I heard that Grigorije is leaving for Belgrade.
Sekulovic: “He already stole what he could here.”

I asked Sekulovic about refugee return to Trebinje: “It has been weak. Many Bosniaks went to Scandinavia. There were 5,500 Bosniaks here; now there are between 100 and 200.”

Assessing the overall situation, Sekulovic said, “We need a lot of time for things to change. In a way, the youth are worse than the older people, since they are infected with nationalism. We could need another twenty years, to forget the war.”

I did not have the impression that Sekulovic was concerned as much with the correction of historical injustices in Trebinje as he was with stopping local corruption and, probably, getting into a position of power. He reminded me of the phenomenon of a certain political type that appears periodically among the politicians of Bosnia: someone who rises up and calls for a stop to the corruption among his own ethnicity. Usually that person fails and disappears. Sometimes they succeed because people believe in them. Then, sometimes, they go on to become corrupt themselves. Such was Biljana Plavsic in 1997; she ended up in a Swedish prison (until recently), convicted of war crimes. Her protégé was Milorad Dodik.

One thing that reinforced my impression of Sekulovic was how he showed me a raft of photographs of himself with former US Ambassador Clifford Bond, and any number of prominent Bosnian Serb politicians.

As I left his office, I asked Sekulovic what happened with the excommunication, and he told me he had been pardoned. He was wearing a cross around his neck.


I had also been advised to meet Blazo Stevovic, a local Serb activist on a more grassroots level. Blazo had gained media notice over the past few years for calling attention to corruption and the war criminals residing in Trebinje. He has declared against “Greater Serbian hegemony,” campaigning to remember the Bosniak victims of the ethnic cleansing that took place in the eastern Herzegovina region early in the war. For his efforts he was, like Nikola Sekulovic, excommunicated from the Serbian Orthodox Church. Stevovic has also called for a public admission of genocide in the RS and an official apology to the victims. It is extremely rare to find a Serb in the RS who will behave like Stevovic, so I felt compelled to go meet him.
(For a couple of articles on Stevovic, see and

Stevovic greeted me with a smile and an expansive affect in the main square in Trebinje. As we sat at a kafana, he told me that he had been involved in Otpor [the youth organization that helped dump Milosevic] in Belgrade in 2000, and that he is now engaged in theater work in Trebinje.

Stevovic painted a picture of the situation in Trebinje: “There are big problems. Life is very hard. There are war criminals in power. No one has tried them. And there is no real opposition. There were twenty people [Bosniaks] killed here during the war, and 5,500 deported. There is no civil society. Those who attacked Dubrovnik from here [during the war between Serbia and Croatia in 1991] have also not been prosecuted.”

On corruption, Stevovic elaborated, “Many development and construction projects here have been contracted without tenders. Serbian Telekom bought the RS Telekom illegally. Then, there were chests of cash delivered to Radovan Karadzic in Serbia via Bijeljina [he names two operators who channeled the money to Karadzic] …In the last year and a half more than 100 city functionaries broke the law. These criminals have to be put in jail. This is a regional problem. There is much drug trafficking coming through Trebinje. But the police inspectors in charge of investigating trafficking collaborate with the drug dealers…We need to make some surgical cuts to establish rule of law here.

“There needs to be court processing of the criminals and the corrupt actors. I am in favor of creating a civic, unified Bosnia-Herzegovina without entities, cantons, or districts. One state with a strong central government and local self-government.”

I found Stevovic’s discourse to be roughly appropriate, politically, but a bit airy and conspiratorial, with statements like, “Goran Zubac is the chief of police here. I have evidence against him.”

Stevovic told me that his apartment was burglarized as retaliation for his activism, and that he knows who did the crime, and who ordered it: “There was a newspaper called Prst [finger], a tabloid. They attacked me, calling me a queer, and an agent. Cuk [mayor of Trebinje] ordered the burglary. Since that happened, I sleep during the day and stay awake at night.”

Stevovic works with an organization called “Trebinje Alternative Club.” He hopes to establish a free newspaper, a blog, and a Facebook page in four languages. He also talks of initiating a festival as a cultural collaboration with nearby Dubrovnik. “I see the development of tourism, a demilitarized region, and multi-ethnic society,” he told me, “We have a good strategic position here, because we are close to Dubrovnik, Nikšic, and other attractive and interesting locations. Tourism could be developed. But I talk to all the politicians, and they do not have vision about what should happen in one month, let alone five years from now.”

It takes time to assess the scene in any locale in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I have been going to most of the places I have reported on for over a decade, but I don’t have deep connections in Trebinje. I don’t have a “third answer” there yet. So it is still hard to get a perspective on what’s real and what’s hot air coming from Sekulovic and Stevovic -- but this is a start.

Stevovic’s talk about war crimes and apology was refreshing -- I had heard nothing of that from Sekulovic. But I don’t have a sense of how solidly Stevovic’s feet are on the ground, how much he has a local base. I asked him if he had local support, and he answered, “I have no support, but 80% of the people here agree with me. There is a network of corruption and criminality, and people are afraid to talk about who has robbed whom in this city.

“In 2004 I ran for office. I talked about the need for ‘de-Nazification.’ I was called a traitor, and I received 84 votes in the election. If I had been elected, things would be very different here today.”

On religion, Stevovic said, “I come from a religious family. There is no five-pointed star [symbol of socialism] in my village, only crosses. Grigorije excommunicated me because since 2003 I have been calling him a criminal. He helped bring the tycoons to power.” I asked him what the status of his excommunication was. He said, “The Church pardoned me, but I will accept that when Grigorije apologizes.” When I mentioned that I had heard that Grigorije was going to move to Belgrade, he repeated Sekulovic’s assessment: “He has to, he has stolen everything he can steal here.”


Before the war, all kinds of tacky things used to happen when you would take a bus ride in Yugoslavia, especially in the poorer, less-organized parts of the country. For example, I remember traveling the length of Serbia and the whole busload of passengers getting getting dumped in the middle of the night with no explanation other than that “nema guma,” there are no “wheels.”

After the war, in Bosnia, the Croat-owned or Croatian buses tended to be the nicest, some of them even with two stories, or air-conditioning. The Bosniak-owned lines were ok, average. The Serb-owned buses were old and run down. They were getting the least money.

Back in Srebrenica: After we were done with observances and visits, we rushed to the little bus station in Srebrenica to catch the 4:30 to Sarajevo. It was the only bus of the day.

However, when we got to the station, the bus that was to take us had run into the overhanging roof of the station. The driver had forgotten about the air-conditioning unit projecting up from the back of the bus. It was spewing water and hanging off the back. The back window was broken too.

Local police were making their investigation and announced that this bus wasn’t going anywhere. That seemed reasonable. So we waited an hour for another bus. After an hour, a wretched Zvornik (Serb-owned) bus with its dirty windows and smelly vinyl came to take us away.

We hung a left at Bratunac and headed towards Kravica when there was a loud “PSSHHH” and a flat tire. We stood by the side of the road. Sarah and I discovered a plum tree. After half an hour the original bus, with the broken back window and now no air-conditioning unit, came to get us.

I was wondering what the third problem was going to be, but there wasn’t really one. Except that it was stifling in the bus, and predictably, a woman behind us would not allow us to leave the skylight open -- she said the draft was “killing her.” Instead, we breathed fumes coming in through the back window.


I sat in a Croatian bus to Vukovar with tables like breakfast nooks. The bus had two stories, but I never went upstairs -- no driver up there. A middle-aged woman from Tuzla sat across from me and we became acquainted. She told me that she had seen a French documentary that proved that the whole moon landing was filmed in a studio in Hollywood or somewhere.

After a while she asked me, “Do you believe that the moon landing happened?” I said that I was inclined to believe it. She asked me, “Then why were all the people who filmed it in that studio killed later?”