Bosnia divided over ban on genocide denial as EU fights for influence
Hours before issuing a decree criminalizing genocide denial in Bosnia and Herzegovina, UN diplomat Valentin Inzko visited at dawn a mass grave site in Srebrenica and, on his own terms , âsearched his soulâ. Then he did what he thought was the right thing.
The town was the place where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Serbian forces in 1995. It was one of the most notorious incidents of the armed conflicts of 1992-95 surrounding the outbreak of Yugoslavia, which claimed about 100,000 victims.
After that visit – and just before stepping down as the top UN representative overseeing the tiny Balkan country – Inzko used the powers of his role to enforce the ban on denying that genocide took place here in the 1990s.
The question divides the country. Many Serbs still deny that the atrocities were genocide despite several international court rulings on the issue.
“My conscience finally dictated to me to use Bonn’s powers and impose the law,” Inzko, 72, told the Financial Times this month, referring to the authority of his former office. impose significant legislation or dismiss officials deemed to be detrimental to the peace process.
But the Austrian diplomat’s action sparked a debilitating dispute in Bosnia and worsened the complex situation in the wider Balkans, a fragile region where the EU competes for influence with Russia and China.
Since Inzko’s decision in July, Serbian members of the Bosnian government – a carefully calibrated tripartite agreement between predominantly Muslim Bosnians, Eastern Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats – have boycotted the administration, calling the ban limitation of freedom of expression. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik insisted that the genocide did not take place.
The walkout of Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two entities that make up Bosnia, has undermined efforts such as the response to the coronavirus pandemic – Bosnia has the lowest vaccination rate in Europe – thus as basic functions such as approving next year’s budget.
It also calls into question the unity of the Bosnian state at a time when Serbian nationalism is on the rise and when RS is speaking out loud about wanting to break.
Inzko said he anticipated the reaction to his decision, but said it was more important to bring Bosnia into line with EU law, which prohibits genocide denial. âWhat is riskier for the future of the country? he said. âThe glorification of war criminals as the founding fathers of Republika Srpska or a great temporary turmoil? “
Inzko’s successor Christian Schmidt, a 64-year-old former German government minister, faces the challenge of protecting the ban on genocide denial while ensuring that Bosnia has a functioning government. In his first interview with international media, he said there would be no change to the ban on genocide.
“I do not see anyone to question the content of the legislation,” he said.
He said a boycott of the Bosnian administration was a bad political approach and he was concerned about the âdysfunctionâ of the government.
But Schmidt sought to avoid casting collective blame, telling the FT that the ban on genocide denial “cannot be directed against [Bosnian Serbs as a] people, only against individuals â.
Bosnian leaders will attend a summit between the EU and Western Balkan countries in Slovenia on Wednesday, with the enlargement of the union high on the agenda. The EU is keen to keep the door open for Bosnia and the Western Balkans in general, but balks at specific promises. A proposal by the Slovenian EU Presidency for a deadline of 2030 for the admission of the six Western Balkan countries to the region has shocked several member states.
“Many people in the region perceive the EU process as dead,” said Majda Ruge, senior policy researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
Instead, a Plan B was needed, Ruge said, including “other kinds of levers to prevent the crumbling of the central government.” She said allowing this to happen would be a “humiliation” for the EU.
Schmidt also had to defend his position after a challenge in the Security Council from Russia and China, which argued in July that the Office of the High Representative (OHR) was no longer needed to preserve peace in the Balkans. Russia was a party to the Dayton Peace Accords which define the governance of Bosnia.
The Russian Foreign Ministry told the FT that the OHR was a “humiliating external protectorate” which “creates problems and undermines peace and stability”. Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in written responses to the FT that Schmidt’s appointment was “illegitimate” because it required the approval of all Dayton signatories.
Russia also accused Inzko of “attacking [the] all the Serbian people âwith his declaration on the denial of the genocide.
Bosnian Serb leader Dodik, a close ally of Moscow, also called Schmidt illegitimate. “You were not chosen as a high representative,” Reuters said in July. âThe Serbian Republic. . . won’t respect anything you do. Dodik’s spokesperson did not respond to FT’s requests for comment.
Analysts told the FT that Russia wanted to keep the Western Balkan countries out of the EU and the NATO defense alliance.
Russia wants “to leave Bosnia as it is – an ungovernable country where ethnic groups are stranded,” said Maxim Samorukov, member of the Carnegie Moscow Center. âAnd since he is ungovernable, he cannot join NATO. This is Russia’s only goal in Bosnia.
China’s influence has also grown in the Western Balkans after billions of euros in investments, notably in Bosnia, said Laszlo Markusz, a former diplomat in the region and a researcher at the Hungarian Institute of Foreign Policy.
Schmidt said that the unity and stability of Bosnia was paramount but required strong support from the international community. He said Bosnia’s governance structure should remain as it is. “There will be no change,” he said.
The German said he is used to dealing with his own country’s past and derives optimism from its post-Communist reunification.
“I come from a country which unfortunately has a lot of experience with war criminals and war crimes,” he said in his office overlooking the Sarajevo valley, once the scene of a three-year siege. where snipers attacked civilians. âI know how to enter a new dimension of cooperation with my neighbors.