30 December 2019

The bridge on the Drina. Where West meets East.

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

In Visegrád, Bosnia and Herzegovina- and not that Visegrád, which produces headaches when European Union’s elections emerge- there is a unique, historical monument, old for quite some centuries, built by Turkish people when they were still being called Ottomans. Some of them were, in fact, Islamized Slavs, like building’s founder, the vizier himself, Mehmed-Pasha Sokolovic. The monument is actually a bridge and it became famous not just thanks to its unique Islamic architecture, alike its little brother from Mostar, both on UNESCO’s list, but because a former Yugoslav ambassador to Berlin (when Tito was still acting illegally and preparing to become partisan), wrote, in a grey apartment from Belgrade, (occupied during the World War II) a novella or a shorter novel about its history. The bridge’s history. The book brought the author’s Nobel Prize, in 1961: Na Drini ćuprija / На Дрини ћуприја/ The bridge on the Drina. Author’s name? Ivo Andric.

Image source: Mediafax

Alike all bridges, it was destroyed and rebuilt. Many times. It had great, but also bad times. During the Bosnian war, in 1992, people were killed on this bridge. Now, after being rebuilt by a Turkish company (Turkish Development and Cooperation Agency/ TIKA), the bridge reunites Bosnia, actually Srpska Republic, the Serbian entity, and Serbia. In other words, Serbians on both Drina’s rims are enjoying a historical monument built, rebuilt for a couple of times, by those they have shared Western Balkans’ history’s burden with.

Here, things are not as clear as in other regions in Europe and the rest of the world. Close to Visegrád, in Srebenica, recently there were celebrated 24 years since the July 1995 massacre, when thousands of Bosnian Muslims, men and teenagers, were killed by Serbian forces. Srebrenica’ Muslim Commander was President Slobodan Milosevic’s bodyguard. After many years, he met in prison, in Hague, some of those he fought against.

After the Dayton Agreement, from December 1995, the region is part of Republic of Srpska, including Drina’s river Eastern valley. Before the war, the inhabitants were mostly Muslims but, after the treaty, it is mostly inhabited by Serbians. Some of the former inhabitants came back home, and Srebrenica, now a touristic city, is equally lived by Muslims and Serbians. In the nearby villages, censuses remind us of the times before the 90’s. Either there are 300 Serbians and 2 Muslims, or 250 Muslims and no Serbians. Churches and mosques destroyed by the war are now being rebuilt depending on these majorities.

And the situation on Drina Valley happens also everywhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even in Sarajevo.

Bosnia was, in the 90’s, the place that felt the most the conflict between the former Yugoslavia’s entities. After more than two decades, Bosnia and Herzegovina remain Western Balkans’ issue most difficult to deal with.

Besides general negative processes and phenomena, which contributes to blocking the region and postponing its European perspectives – institutional corruption, weak governance, authoritarian regimes, non-transparent political-economic connections –, there are still three concerning issues, three millstones which have blocked existent and possible (Kosovo) states’ European pathway, inheritors of the Former Yugoslav union:

1. North Macedonia’s name issue;

2. Standardizing the Serbia-Kosovo relations;

3. Ensuring Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political institutions’ functioning.

The first obstacle is almost gone, as the new Greek conservatory government will hardly cancel, despite the electoral rhetoric, what has been accomplished so far, having consequences including in European Union’s support for North Macedonia’s integration.

The second obstacle, although it seems insuperable, can definitely be overcame because parts were already delimited, hence it only needs the proper mechanism to silence all nationalist and populist voices from Belgrade and Pristina. Both capitals are interested in getting the keys to Brussels’s door, the European wing. As for the other, the Euro-Atlantic one, Serbia has still fresh and unpleasant memories about it. Maybe things would be different in Belgrade or Pristina if Serbia would not be so influenced by Moscow, and Kosovo would postpone “Great Albania’s” short novel and the ultimatum tone for greater and, eventually, wiser times.

The third obstacle is Bosnia and Herzegovina’s dysfunctional governance. We are not talking about an administrative issue, though it would be easier this way. For such a state, which is the very image of the former Yugoslavia, the constitutional commitments created by the Dayton Agreement, from December 1995, proved to be the perfect medicine, which partially ablated the pain the fratricide conflict created between 1992 and 1995. Under military, political and even juridical pressure, through the role given to Hague’s Justice International Court, Bosnian state’s functioning followed, for quite some time, treaty’s provisions. Alike any other artificial creation, at some point, it got blocked. It is not an administrative blockage, it would be too easier this way. And blockage’s reason is extremely important: half of the country (the Croatian-Muslim Federation) wants the NATO membership and getting through all the required steps to reach this objective, meanwhile the other half (Srpska Republic) wants country’s neutrality and threatens with delimitation otherwise. Those being blamed for the situation are the politicians, especially the Serbians, but they are the sometimes aggressive and demagogic mirror of the communities they represent.

Now, Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have a central government because there is no consensus within the collective rotating presidency on term of the right pathway. Country’s effective president, Serbian Milorad Dodik, has blocked any process for country’s Euro-Atlantic integration and, collaterally, including for new central government establishment. Hence, the country has executive bureaucracy, is full of local governments, cantonal parliaments and province presidents. The Bosnian Constitution, in fact, the Fourth Addendum of the Dayton Agreement, was generous when creating these forms that helped stopping hostilities, but could not avoid a posterior blockage.

These two entities’ loyalty on the Bosnian state gets differently assumed, even in terms of state’s meaning: meanwhile the Croatian-Muslim Federation gave up its own symbols and uses its country’s flag only during official events, Srpska Republic has its own tricolor, identical to Serbia’s. Country’s hymn is composed by a Serbian composer, abjured by its own community because of it and, of course, can only work in the instrumental version, because entities could not agree on the message the lyrics were sending: Pokoljenja tvoja / Kazuju jedno / Mi idemo u budućnost / Zajedno! // Покољења твоја / Казују једно / Ми идемо у будућност / Заједно! //Your generations/ We are all alike/ We are going towards the future! This is one of the stanza the text proposes. It is as artificial as the rest of common state’s significance.

It is noteworthy that: the hymn and the flag were adopted through foreign decisions, two centuries ago, by the High Representative of the International Community, at that time the Spanish Carlos Westendorp y Cabeza. And, for the frustration of those asking for High Representative’s Office closure to be even bigger, the Austrian, native to Slovenia, Valentin Inzko, the current High Representative, is Bosnian scene’s most longevous politician, being elected back in 2009. The “Bonn Powers”, excessively used by one of the predecessors, the British Padd Ashdown, have attached this position the idea of a supra-governance, which has been added to the complicated domestic deals. Bosnia was led by political people and diplomats, sometimes emblematic, other times less emblematic, from Sweden, Spain, Austria, Great Britain, Germany, Slovakia, again Austria.

Sometimes forced to solve its political issues and cover old and deep religious and historical divisions with economic facilities and integration promises, Europe has invested a lot in Bosnia and Herzegovina, calling any positive results an important success, regardless of its impact, and continuing to minimalize its differences and divergences. Indeed, Moscow was caught, many times, sneaking into their drawers with political poisons and Banka Luka and Pale diplomatic combinations, but neither this time could be permanently used to justify the repeated blockages the entity faced lately.

Step by step, the Western Balkans’ map started to get clearer in terms of the direction foreseen by constitutional and security’s agreement authors from 1995, half of former Yugoslavia’s entities, whether republics or provinces, being already NATO or EU members. North Macedonia is getting ready to be one of them also. Serbia and Kosovo still have to negotiate it and pay the price of a historical compromise. Hence, the only white mark on this map remains Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is too complicated for the European Union, which has nationalisms fighting and disputing on unexpected position for Brussels. The one to have strong influences coming from former Istanbul owners, wherefore the Muslim space from Central Bosnia’s valleys are so special. The one which has ideological and religious sponsorships from Muslim states (Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan) which are, also, fighting one against the other. The one to receive pan-Slavic pressures from Kremlin that hopes to have another open door, besides Bosporus, towards the Mediterranean Sea, through former Yugoslavia’s space.

The bridge on the Drina knows more history about this region that all experts’ community, political people or diplomats who are managing Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Mostar’s current businesses. It only has one dilemma regarding the future:

● Does it connect two places, currently inhabited by Serbians, through a common option which means EU integration and neutrality against military alliances, including NATO?

● …Or does it separate Bosnia and Herzegovina from its Yugoslav past, which is, symbolically, at East, beyond Drina River, in order to become part of EU and NATO?

Translated by Andreea Soare