I have been in Bosnia-Herzegovina about ten days. Here are some notes on what I’ve seen, observed, heard, and thought. Note: some of the names are changed to protect people’s privacy.I will try to modulate between personal notes and political explanations in the hope that my story doesn’t get too dense for those less familiar with Bosnian politics, while trying to share information with those who, like me, are obsessed with this place. This posting will be a little longer on background for the benefit of those who are less familiar. The situation here is not so complicated, but there are a lot of details.
For me, Sarajevo is a walking city; in a day there I walk as much as I walk in a week in Seattle. I walk along Ferhadija, the pedestrian zone leading from the old Ottoman quarters to the Austro-Hungarian section. In the early evening, throngs of people come out, because walking is their pastime too. I am captivated by the looks of people: the rugged faces, the classically beautiful ones, the sophisticated ones, the over-privileged ones (just a few). The magnetically attractive young people, hard not to look at. On some faces you can see all of Bosnia’s history; on others, you can see a city that feels like it’s Europe.
Now, seventeen years after Dayton, some of these people have grown up without a war. But it is not yet peace. You may or may not feel that on the streets, depending on what you know.
Other than the fascination of the people’s faces, the salient visual thing at present is the riot of posters plastered all over town, from the airport to the Bas Čarsija (the old Ottoman core), and on up into the hill neighborhood of Vratnik, where I stay. These posters promote candidates for the upcoming nationwide municipal elections on October 7th. “Naprijed Stari Grad!” (Forward Old Town) exhorts a poster of the SDP, the entrenched (pseudo-) Social Democratic Party. “Krajnje je Vrijeme!” (It’s High Time!) shouts another poster, from the newer SBB, Party for a Better Future. That party’s posters also sport the slogan, “Seventeen years of bad government is enough” - leaving me to think, “now it’s high time for a worse government.”
War hero Dragan Vikić, running for mayor of one municipality on the SBB ticket, declares, “Nikad vas nisam iznevjerio” (I have never deceived you)…so far.
I am ambivalent about these elections. In a way, they seem nothing more than a colorful exercise in the use of surplus ink and paper. The chance that something will change afterwards is small. The 28% unemployment (43% if you count those who have given up or are working off the books) won’t be affected. A new government will have a hard time reversing the astronomical trade deficit. A new city council won’t change the fact that the average consumer's monthly expenses far surpass the average income. A new garnitura (political clique) will continue the plunder.
By way of illustration, here’s what one of my current favorite columnists, Asaf Bečirović, wrote in the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje on September 21st: “The people we voted for [in the last election] did all kinds of things, just not what they promised us. One immediately employed his brother in a state company; the brother immediately bought a Tuareg on state budget for 120,000 KM [about $80,000]. Another hired a driver who had beaten up a policeman. A third employed his wife as a teacher in a school whose director is a member of the same political party. A fourth, who was elected as deputy mayor, employed his wife in the post office, and the wife of the fifth gained employment as an advisor in the office of the director of the state electrical company, who is also in the same political party. They also employed the wives and brothers of compliant journalists as advisors!”
This nepotism and the entire repertoire of corruption is present at every level of government, and there are fourteen governments in Bosnia-Herzegovina: two entities, ten cantons, one District, and the state level. And I should add the municipal governments as well.
My landlady tells me that her heating bill is as much as her pension. Of the people who visit Bosnia and fall in love with it, she recommends, “They should try living here for a few months - on our income, not theirs.” She contemplates going to the polling station in the upcoming elections just to invalidate her ballot, because none of the candidates can be trusted.
Sometimes the political drama is entertaining, and sometimes it’s appalling; let me tell you the story of the SDP. The SDP is the heir to the pre-war Communist Party, renamed. Its chairman, Zlatko Lagumdzija, was a member of the wartime presidency and wrote good articles about the wartime aggression against Bosnia and about the struggle to save Bosnia. The West, and progressive people, admired him. After the war we admired his party because it was the only hope for anti-nationalists. The SDP consistently ran a multi-ethnic list of candidates and, for all but two of the first fifteen years after the war, it was in the opposition throughout the country except for Tuzla.
A few years ago it started to become clear that the SDP was an opportunist outfit and not so free of corruption. It became clear that it was an entrenched party that was more concerned about power than about justice or about promoting independent thinking on the part of its members. The party was often described as a “party of one person,” that being Zlatko Lagumdzija. Most of the best party activists gradually left, leaving only those who were compliant with Lagumdzija’s autocratic party rule. The SDP was just another dishonest power-monger. This didn’t make it any different from any other party, but the disappointment was greater because the party’s promise, its rhetoric, had been better.
But the SDP was still a powerful party with a base. And in the 2010 national elections the SDP won a plurality of the votes among many parties, thus gaining the right to form the government at the state level and in the Federation (one of Bosnia’s two “entities” along with the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska, or RS). This can be seen as a revolt, especially on the part of voting Muslims, against the other entrenched and corrupt parties, particularly the SDA (Party of Democratic Action).
And then - nothing. For almost a year and a half no new government was formed, while the SDP fought it out with the leading nationalist parties of the Croats and the Serbs. The old prime minister and his cabinet remained in office as caretakers and no significant legislation was passed throughout that time. The SDP formed a coalition with the SDA, the powerful Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) nationalist party, together with a couple of less-significant parties, but they did not succeed in forming a new government until earlier this year.
Not long after the new government was finally established, wham - the SDP broke up the coalition with the SDA and announced a new one with the SBB and with the prominent Croat nationalist parties. The force of the SDP’s move was astonishing, because it was equivalent to a demonstration that Bosnia could go to hell: no more multi-ethnicity, no more citizen-based politics (as opposed to ethnic-based), and not even a pretense of principles.
Hypotheses about the reasons for the SDP’s ultra-sellout are plentiful but let me say something about its new partner, the SBB. In the run-up to the 2010 campaign, the SDP and the SDA declared that they would cooperate with anyone in politics except the SBB. That was reasonable, because the SBB was clearly a reactionary Bosniak nationalist party, run by another corrupt autocrat.
Parties that rest on the personality of one figure are common in Bosnian politics; the SDP is one, and Haris Silajdzic’s old Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina was another. The SBB is yet another.
People like to say that the SBB’s founder, Fahrudin Radončić, came to Sarajevo (he was from Montenegro) carrying only two plastic bags of his belongings. I don’t know, maybe they were filled with money. Radončić was a journalist who during the war received hefty start-up funding from the SDA - then headed by now-deceased Alija Izetbegović - to start the newspaper Dnevni Avaz (Daily Voice or just “Avaz”). For a long time Avaz was the mouthpiece of the SDA, save the period between 2000 and 2002 when Avaz conveniently had a falling out with Izetbegović in time for the SDP to win a rare victory in the national elections.
Then Avaz swung back to the SDA. For fifteen years Radončić was content to work as kingmaker in the media without directly participating in politics himself. Along the way he became one of the richest men in Bosnia, a few years ago erecting a domineering, phallic tower across from the main bus station. Rumors swirled around to the effect that Radončić was involved in corrupt deals and that he was cozy with various gangsters, particularly with the Albanian drug-runner Naser Kelmendi, originally from Kosovo.
This is more than rumor, in fact; the Sarajevo-based Center for Investigative Journalism (CIN) listed Radončić as Kelmendi’s main business partner.
In June, US intelligence agencies published a blacklist of one hundred of the world’s top narco-dealers, signed by President Obama. It included Kelmendi as one of the largest drug smugglers in Europe. To quote one article: “A 2008 report by the Bosnian State Investigative and Protection Agency, SIPA, which CIN used in its research, described Kelmendi as the head of one of the best organized criminal organizations in the region, allegedly smuggling drugs and cigarettes, trafficking in people and laundering money.” (BIRN news agency, June 5, 2012)
Kelmendi is highly-placed in the Albanian mafia in these parts. This being a multi-ethnic region where there is equal opportunity in crime, each ethnicity has at least one mafia that it can call its own. The different crime organizations sometimes cooperate like good old Yugoslavs, but usually they balkanize, resulting in a record of gangland murders going back to the immediate postwar years. A few years ago someone from the Albanian mafia killed Ramiz Delalović Celo, leader of a relatively home-grown outfit with roots in Montenegro. “Investigation in that case is still underway,” but Radončić has been accused of complicity in that operation.
Another unsavory alliance of Radončić’s involved dealings with the Serbian supermarket magnate Miroslav Mišković. People in Sarajevo mounted a rebellion when Mišković, who had been a financier to Slobodan Miloševic in the 1990s, proposed to open a supermarket in the Bosnian capitol.
All of which is to say that Radončić is a very scary character. To me he is, potentially, the ultimate counterpart - a collaborator in the final destruction of Bosnia - to Milorad Dodik, president of the Serb-controlled entity and literally a sworn enemy of the existence of Bosnia as a unified state.
This is to illustrate just how rock-bottom disgusting the SDP’s sellout was, and how upsetting the prospect of their encouraging a Trojan horse in the form of the SBB into Bosnian politics is. And the SDP has proposed that Radončić, pal of Kelmendi, become the next Minister of Security.
A few weeks ago there was a series of raids on the mafias, the biggest crackdown in postwar Bosnian history. Police were looking for drug-runners, extortionists, traffickers, money-launderers, and more than a few murderers. Kelmendi and his sons Besnik, Liridon, and Elvis narrowly escaped arrest, going on the lam in Montenegro (or Kosovo, depending on which rumor-mill newspaper you believe). One theory has it that the raid was mounted on the prompting of the SDA - still in power in many places - in retaliation for being dumped by the SDP. Another plausible theory has it that Radončić tipped off the Kelmendi clan before the raids.
Here’s another fascinating detail about Radončić. There is an awareness in this country of the problem of conflict of interest, and relevant laws exist, though they are not consistently enforced. A prominent politician who holds office should not be manager of a state-owned company, for example. And it is, at the least, unseemly for a Minister to own a high-circulation newspaper.
Radončić has a history of suing people for libel, going back to the immediate post-war years. Recently Radončić took the present Minister of Security to court for accusing him, as owner of Avaz, essentially of misusing the newspaper for demagogic purposes during the present electoral campaign, in which Radončić has a high stake.
Well, in court Radončić’s lawyer asserted that Radončić was no longer the owner of Avaz. It came out that he had recently divorced his wife and sold the paper to her for 200 million KM (konvertabilna marka), i.e. about $140 million. His ex-wife, a hairdresser who had never paid taxes, paid a 500,000 KM down payment for Avaz and is due to pay the rest by the end of 2015.
It’s a remarkable move: Radončić divorced Azra so that she could become owner of his companies (there are more than one, an empire involving hotels, real estate, restaurants, printing, and more). If she were still married to him, this would constitute a conflict of interest.
With Bosnia-Herzegovina slouching towards the elections, Srebrenica is a special case. Like almost all of the other towns in Podrinje (the eastern Bosnian region alongside the River Drina, Bosnia’s border with Serbia), before the 1995 genocide Srebrenica had a majority (around 70%) population of Bosniaks. That population was decimated and the town was destroyed. “Recovery” has been slow and, without benefit of a census (the last one having taken place before the war in 1991), the rough estimate of Srebrenica’s current population is around 5,000 or 6,000 in the entire municipality, with that population estimated as half Serb and half Bosniak.
Since the end of the war surviving Srebrenicans have had the right to vote in that municipality’s elections regardless of where they live, be it Vogosca (a Sarajevo suburb) or St. Louis. This voting right, established in weak compensation for the genocide, ensured that Srebrenica would be the only municipality in the RS entity to be politically controlled by the Bosniaks. That arrangement has lasted until this year, when the Bosnian electoral commission, in the face of great protest, removed Srebrenica’s special status. In response, activists mounted a campaign to register as many as possible Bosniak voters as residents in the municipality. This campaign lasted until a recent deadline; simultaneously, Serbs from other areas were also registering their residency in Srebrenica as well. To some extent these activities looked like a competition for the listing of dead souls; the Bosniak-led campaign published a list of registered Serbs who do not live in Bosnia, and who perhaps do not live at all.
Soon the result of all this finagling will be clear. Who rules Srebrenica politically is significant, but it is not the only thing, and probably not even the main thing, as long as the municipality is part of the RS. And it is going to remain part of the RS for the foreseeable future, despite the wishes of many people to see it turned into a special district. Meanwhile, the municipality is economically suffocated. To some extent this is a result of the worldwide economic crisis, but it is also arguably a result of a conscious policy by the highest echelons of RS politics to discourage a postwar revival in the Srebrenica.
In any case, Srebrenica will be the location of one of the few really interesting elections this season.
When I arrived in Bosnia I met with Hasan Nuhanović, an activist for justice for the Srebrenica survivors. He is a survivor himself, having lost most of his family upon the fall of the enclave. Some years ago he wrote the book Under the UN Flag, detailing the behavior of the Dutch battalion of UN troops, for whom he had been a translator in the enclave. There are many books about Srebrenica, but this one is indispensable because, having been a first-hand observer, Hasan was able to relate damning evidence about how the Dutch not only failed to protect Srebrenica, but also actively collaborated with the Serb forces that were besieging the enclave.
Now Hasan has written a new book, yet to be translated, titled Zbijeg. The title is related to the words for escape and for flight, or fleeing. The book covers an earlier period than Hasan’s first one, describing the onset of the war and the early period. I look forward to reading it.
Hasan took me to the new memorial gallery for Srebrenica in the center of Sarajevo. The gallery features the photography of Tarik Samarah: photos of mass graves, survivors, and artifacts from Srebrenica’s past. There was a whole wall with a list of the names of the massacre victims. I found Hasan’s family. There were films and a set of interviews of survivors who told their stories.
There, Hasan introduced me to a photographer, originally from Visegrad, who had survived a firing squad in Visegrad and somehow escaped alive.
There’s no end to such stories here; each person carries a book within. This may all seem sad and gloomy. But in it all I see that people have the will to survive and carry on, and to seek out justice. I think this resilience and innate sense of justice is the essence of life and a miraculous thing. That’s why I consider it a privilege to know people like Hasan.
I received an e-mail from my old friend Agron, whom I hadn’t seen in six years. He had moved to southeast Asia to get a job, and I never expected to see him again. It happened that a friend of his had spotted me at a kafana, and although he did not greet me, he did report my presence to Agron.
Agron is one of those people who is always growing. The signposts of his life have to do with employment. He studied in Sarajevo but was not able to get a job here. It would have been easier for him to get work if he had been willing to join a political party, as patronage is still the way things work here. But Agron stuck to his principles and thus became an expatriate. It is a sad thing to lose your homeland in that way, but Agron has been spiritually enriched through the experience.
Agron calls the political parties here “employment bureaus.” And he describes to me the experience of being “ironed” (peglati, to jerk around) by the university here, where the professors only give top grades to the children of politicians or other highly-placed officials, and to the children of their colleague professors. Out of a possible grade of ten, no one else gets more than an eight.
There are other ways to get along as a student; the appearance of scandals involving sex or money for grades is common (I wrote about some of this extensively in 2010; see my journals from that year here. Agron says, “Then, these students grow up and become employed in the same institutions. Some of them have spent tens of thousands to get there. So it is only natural that they will then abuse their privilege and behave the same way.”
I ask Agron, “If the students are guilty for acquiescing to this system, and the professors are guilty for implementing it, then where can the cycle of corruption be broken?” Agron replies with the oft-used old Eastern European saying, “The fish stinks from the head.” Which I interpret to mean that, until there is rule of law in Bosnia-Herzegovina - and for that, there must be a functional state - nothing will change. Finally, Agron says, “I would not recommend the universities here to anyone.”
I went to visit Drew Sullivan, local director of the international Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), affiliated with the Center for Investigative Journalism. I asked whether the OCCRP focuses strictly on crime, or pays attention to corruption at the state level as well. Mr. Sullivan said, “We keep it vague. Organized crime is a fuzzy term.” In other words, the organization observes the behavior of politicians as well. In Bosnia and vicinity, there is no way to talk about organized crime without doing so.
“We define organized crime as a group of people working to hurt the larger group,” Mr. Sullivan said. (That sounds to me like a description of the Bosnian government.) He noted that many of the crime organizations often work through tycoons or oligarchs. (Remember here what I wrote, above, that “there are clear parallels with what we experience in the United States.”)
Sullivan put his finger directly on the problem when he commented that “there is a weak government.” Referring to the drug smuggling that uses the Balkans as a crucial transit route, he said that “the amount of money involved dwarfs the governmental budgets.“
I mentioned to Sullivan that I get most of my in-depth information about corruption in this country from the independent weeklies, Slobodna Bosna and especiallyDani. He responded, “Those two magazines are right about seventy percent of the time. That is not enough. We are more conservative and only use quotable sources.”
You can see reports from the OCCRP at https://reportingproject.net/occrp/.
Many prominent politicians were managers of state enterprises under the “old system,” as they call the socialism of the Tito era. Others are former dissidents who gained popularity by virtue of having been persecuted by that system. Others are lone operators who, through connections, enriched themselves and went into politics as a lucrative field of operations.
RS President Milorad Dodik is one of the latter. Sullivan recalled that Dodik got rich through cigarette smuggling. He said, “Now, Dodik and his ilk have stolen all they can steal, so they have to look for new avenues of profit.” Regarding Radončić, he commented that “the SBB is not an organized criminal group, but Radončić, yes, he is involved in organized crime.”
Describing Bosnian politics, he said, “In Bosnia-Herzegovina there is a patronage system, where every contract goes through a political party. The tenders are fixed, and the contractor returns the favors. For example, by staying loyal during the elections.” Hefty kickbacks are customary. Sullivan continued, “The top ministers take a ten percent kickback off of each contract. Their corruption can triple the cost of a project. There is gross malfeasance and no competition…they are all crooks. What you would call ‘corruption,’ they would call ‘the political system.’
“This is the fundamental issue. This has destroyed the economy because it is not functional to do business in Bosnia, which has the lowest rate of small businesses in Europe outside of Belarus. Small businesses are being destroyed, and poverty is increasing. The money is in drugs.
“For things to improve, it takes the leaders wanting Bosnia to become a real country. But the politicians believe that if the Dayton constitution is changed, “we” [any political party] may lose.”
I visited with my old friend Dino who, as usual, said “They are all lopovi (thieves).” It’s a safe bet that, even with such a broad brush, he nails it ninety-nine percent of the time.
My friend Marc is familiar with the compulsory auditing operations visited upon most companies. He told me that the state auditors come and check the books of a company for a couple of days, and the company is expected to feed the auditors lunch during that time. I knew that if you hire a majstor (craftsman…carpenter, bricklayer, etc), you have to feed him lunch every day, but this was news to me.
Marc told me the story of one company that played strictly by the rules. When the auditor failed to find any trace of malversation, he dinged the company 2,000 KM for having “outdated labels” on its products.
Referring to the corrupt politicians and other operators, Marc told me, “They should all be hanged. I won’t wind the rope, but put them on a chair, tie the rope, and I will push over the chair.”
I asked my first cab driver if there was anyone worth voting for. He said no. My second cab driver said, “These are the worst elections ever.”
These are not very good elections. One candidate for mayor in Zenica, a city in central Bosnia, posted some pornography on his campaign web site. People could watch the porn after affirming their age. Then the candidate appeared in a video clip saying, “If you liked this footage, vote for me.” It was announced yesterday that he was disqualified, but he vowed to appeal.
And in the RS one on-line daily announced a competition for the “prettiest female candidate”; you could send in your vote via cell phone message. Women’s advocacy organizations have not commented.
I met with the writer and activist Vuk Bacanović. He has been working with a new group, the United Organization for Socialism and Democracy. We had a good talk about activism here, and everywhere. Vuk used to write for Dani. There are some very good writers and analysts in the media in general in this country, but they don’t cultivate a strategy for grassroots activism. Vuk expressed positive feelings about some activity going on lately in Banja Luka - about which more later. Speaking of the progressive party Nasa Stranka, (Our Party), he said, “Nasa Stranka is not a serious organization. It’s the SDP that has had the resources.”
And I met with Darko Brkan, former leader of the grassroots organization “Dosta!” (Enough!). That group is presently inactive, and Darko works with the group “Zasto ne?” (Why not?). He too felt hopeful about the actions in Banja Luka. Regarding the present pre-election acrobatics, he felt that the SDP should have remained in the opposition. He noted that one prominent SDP defector said, “Lagumdzija still has the same values that he had before, but other values have become more important to him.” Which is to say, profiteering has become more interesting. Cooperation between the SDP and the SBB can result in some very lucrative dealings including privatization of the more profitable state-owned companies. Darko emphasized that “in the previous coalition, the SDA was not prepared to get up off of its large number of seats. The SBB would demand less. That is the whole reason for SDP’s change of coalition.”
Darko talked about the idea to vote with invalidated ballots as a protest. Ever the campaigner, he started brainstorming about a campaign: Form the “Stranka nevazecih listica” (Party of invalid ballots); raise 30,000 KM, enough for 100 billboards around the country. Don’t vote, wreck the ballot. But: “People must go to the polls, so that it doesn’t look like they are just apathetic.”
Every year or so there is a governmental crisis and everything stops. Commentators regularly say that “this is the worst crisis since Dayton.” The implication is that these are episodes. In fact, the Dayton constitution is the crisis, and the political crisis has lasted since the war ended. The non-stop functional corruption works for the Dodiks, the Radončićs, and the Lagumdzijas (and the rest of them). These things won’t stop without massive pressure from below and, one hopes, from outside the country. Meanwhile, the leaders will continue to generate these distracting crises that resemble a soap opera, only they are more original.