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Bosnia, Cradle of World War I, Still Struggles with Ethnic Divisions
The Washington Diplomat / August 2014

By Larry Luxner

Bosnia’s claim to fame — at least before the 1990s, when it became synonymous with ethnic cleansing and genocide — had always been that it was the birthplace of World War I. It was on Sarajevo’s Appel Quay the morning of June 28, 1914, that a 19-year-old Serb revolutionary named Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie.

By the time the Great War was over four and a half years later, the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman sand Russian empires had ceased to exist and 16 million people were dead, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in history.

World War I also gave birth to a slew of nations — and sectarian divisions that fester to this day: Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics were granted independence; the borders of the Middle East were arbitrarily drawn, creating nations such as Syria and Iraq; Russia became the Soviet Union while the Ottoman Empire became Turkey; and Czechoslovakia and other countries emerged from the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It was the decline of that empire, and the ascendance of Serbia, which had gained territory in the 1912-13 Balkan Wars and began to chafe under Habsburg rule, that precipitated the deadly chain of events that led to World War I.

Austria-Hungary, with unconditional support and perhaps even prodding from Germany, seized on Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination to attack Serbia, activating a complex system of military alliances that would pit the Allies, led Britain, France and Russia, against the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary.

When the dust settled, World War I gave rise to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929. However, this Balkan tinderbox of nationalist and sectarian passions that sparked World War I would reignite in 1992 with Yugoslavia’s collapse.

Three years of fierce fighting led to the eventual establishment of seven independent states including today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is itself comprised of two distinct political entities drawn up along ethnic lines.

Those ethnic lines still pulsate with centuries of hostility and resentment between the mainly Orthodox Christian Serbs and the predominately Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks — a prism that colors how Gavrilo Princip, the instigator of World War I, is seen today.

“Even now, 100 years after the war, our people cannot agree whether he was a terrorist or a freedom fighter,” said Jadranka Negodic, Bosnia’s ambassador to the United States.

This past June 28 — the same day the Vienna Philharmonic performed at Sarajevo’s rebuilt City Hall to mark the 100th anniversary of the archduke’s assassination — we caught up with Negodic during a State Department-sponsored “Experience America” trip to Seattle.

“Historians say it started in Sarajevo, but Bosnia was not the cause of the First World War. It was just a trigger,” Negodic told us. “Our main message is the need for peace, and that wars should stay in the past and should never happen again.”

She described with pride how Sarajevo’s City Hall — constructed when Bosnia was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later turned into the National Library — has been lovingly restored exactly as it was a century ago, with help from the Austrian government. But it also bears a plaque condemning the “Serb criminals” who burned the building in a 1992 attack.

In response, Bosnia’s Serbs boycotted the official ceremony and staged their own commemoration to honor Princip, including a reenactment of his shooting.

“To Serbs, Princip was a nationalist hero striking a blow against the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg empire; to Bosnians, his actions helped unleashed the turbulence that came back to destroy their city during the Balkans civil war in 1990s,” London’s The Telegraph recently wrote.

Marking the Great War’s centenary, French philosopher Bernard Henri Levy opened his play “Hotel Europa” in Sarajevo with a call to let Bosnia into the European Union, despite the lingering animosity. “Populism and nationalism are on the rise,” he warned. “The admission of Bosnia to the bloc means fresh flood, fresh air and Europe’s second chance for redemption.”

Bosnia’s turbulent history and ongoing tensions, however, make it unlikely that the 28-star, blue-and-gold EU flag will flutter over Sarajevo anytime soon.

“Whenever people ask where I come from and I say Bosnia, people automatically think about refugees, war, genocide and dead people. But there is another side to the country called Bosnia,” said Negodic. “Before the war, Bosnia was the place where people of all nationalities and backgrounds lived together. It was a wonderful mixture of four religions — Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish — and three nationalities.

“Before the First World War, when we became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lots of engineers and teachers came to Bosnia and helped develop its economy,” she continued. “Through the generations, they mixed with the local population. We all lived in a kind of harmony, respecting each other. We managed to create our own culture from each of those religions and ethnic groups. Even now, within 100 square meters of each other in Sarajevo, you can find the country’s biggest mosque, its biggest Orthodox church and its biggest synagogue.”

Negodic, an articulate, thoughtful woman with a deep sense of history, said that before 1992, some four in 10 marriages were ethnically mixed. “People didn’t ask what background you came from,” she said. “But then, all of a sudden, a terrible thing happened.”

That terrible thing was the breakup of Yugoslavia and the unleashing of a war that killed some 100,000 Bosnians — marking Europe’s first genocide since World War II.

“From 1945 to 1992, Yugoslavia was a dictatorship, although it was prosperous. After the Second World War, the country started from scratch. The economy was developing, jobs were created and people lived in peace and stability. They were not so concerned about the lack of democratic institutions,” Negodic said.

But a backlash was brewing against the incendiary Serb nationalism propagated by leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic, and as communism’s grip in the region began to weaken, one by one Yugoslavia’s republics declared their independence. Just as Serbia had rebelled against Austro-Hungarian rule decades earlier, Slovenes, Croats, Kosovar Albanians, Bosniaks and ethnic Macedonians yearned for freedom from Serbian domination.

But freedom came at a cost, and the resulting inter-ethnic clashes became infamous for war crimes such as genocide and rape. Bosnia bore the brunt of it.

“Sometimes, when a country is unstable or fragile in terms of its institutions and hasn’t reached a certain level of democracy, nationalists can misuse their influence as an instrument to divide the people. That’s exactly what happened in Bosnia,” Negodic said. “When Yugoslavia fell apart, Bosnia was the most mixed of all the republics. It’s a tragedy that the country that was the example of multiculturalism suffered the most.”

Negodic moved to Sarajevo at the age of 3 and eventually graduated from the University of Sarajevo’s law faculty. When the war started, Negodic moved to the relative safety of neighboring Croatia — the country of her late husband — and stayed there until 1998, the year she returned to Sarajevo and joined Bosnia’s new Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We didn’t have experience or the structure of a foreign ministry. Everything was in Belgrade. We had to start from scratch to establish an independent, sovereign country,” she recalled. “The other countries — Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia — were not as affected by war, but our state structure was totally destroyed.”

In January 2008, Negodic was appointed Bosnia’s ambassador to the EU in Belgium, moved to London 11 months later as envoy to the United Kingdom, and came to the United States in July 2012. Her daughter still lives in London.

“My first job was heading a division for neighboring countries, but ambassador in Washington? Even in my craziest dreams I didn’t expect that to happen,” said Negodic, who’s visited 18 states since her arrival here; the largest communities of Bosnians are in St. Louis, Chicago and Jacksonville, Fla.

But the sheer complexity of representing Bosnia abroad — let alone governing it from Sarajevo — is a massive headache.

The country is home to 3.8 million people, 62 percent of whom live in the predominantly Muslim and Croat “Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina” and 35 percent in the Serb-dominated “Republika Srpska,” a division that dates back to the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the bloodshed nearly 20 years ago.

Those accords stopped the fighting but instituted political paralysis by splitting power up along ethnic lines. This has led to a labyrinthine, multilayered governing structure dictated by ethnic quotas and defined by stasis and corruption. With two autonomous entities (the Federation and Republika Srpska), a tripartite presidency and dozens of municipalities and cantons, this awkward political arrangement has done little for the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs it was intended to serve.

Under the law, even Bosnia’s Foreign Ministry must employ minorities in the same proportion that’s found in the general population: Bosniak Muslims, 44 percent; Serbs, 33 percent; and Croats, 19 percent.

“That principle is applied to our ambassadors abroad as well. In our eight biggest embassies abroad, we employ the principle of national rotation,” Negodic explained. “All our ambassadors are obliged to represent Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state.... My predecessor was a Serb, and there was no problem at all.”

But the country’s precarious federalism has led to problems. Earlier this year, thousands of Bosnians took to the streets in Sarajevo to protest the country’s political dysfunction and economic stagnation.

“The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success: war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. The political agonies, however, show the intervention’s limits. Years of well-intentioned reforms, imposed or urged, have left a governing structure leaders circumvent, ignore or despise,” the International Crisis Group wrote in a July 10 report called “Bosnia’s Future.”

“With growing frequency, Bosnians ask the questions that preceded the 1992-1995 war: shall it be one country, two, or even three; if one country, shall it have one, two or three constituent entities, and how shall it be governed?”

It’s little surprise that the country is struggling economically as well. Even though it bounced back after the devastation of the 1990s wars — with GDP increasing by two-thirds and poverty falling from 20 percent to 14 percent — Bosnia remains one of the poorest countries in all of Europe, with unemployment at a staggering 44 percent.

“Our major issue is the economy and creating jobs,” said Negodic. “For the time being, foreign investors are coming to Bosnia, but only in small numbers because they are not quite sure whether their investments will be protected. They are very cautious.”

And even though the war ended in 1995, scars from the fighting remain everywhere. As of October 2013, there were still 103,353 registered internally displaced persons, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“All people have their own stories and experiences from the war. Lots of them lost family members and it’s really hard for them,” Negodic said. “We can talk about reconciliation, but it’s much easier to talk than to implement. And it’s much easier for those who didn’t lose anyone.

“Some women lost not just one son but five sons. Some families lost 10 or more. How can you expect them to forget? They can try to forgive, but they can never forget,” she said.

“It would have been much more bearable to see justice coming from The Hague tribunal and putting all those responsible for mass murder in jail,” Negodic added. “The problem, from my point of view, is that justice has been too slow. [Radovan] Karadzic and [Ratko] Mladic were at large for a decade; they were transferred to The Hague only two years ago. But for thousands of people who expected justice to come, it was too late. And [former Serb President] Slobodan Milosevic died without ever being convicted for his role.”

Karadzic, 68, faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity relating to the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, in which an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces under Mladic’s command. It ranks as Europe’s single worst atrocity since the Holocaust.

Asked about the conflict’s parallels to another atrocity, Rwanda — where 800,000 minority Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutu tribesmen in a 100-day period in 1994 — the Bosnian ambassador reflected that “whenever the world is faced with such a horrific crime, we always say never again. We didn’t expect such atrocities to happen. But it seems to me that some lessons from the past were never learned.”

Looking at the longer term, Negodic said she hopes her country can overcome its painful history and one day join the EU. In 2010, the Brussels-based club approved visa-free travel for Bosnians, though that’s only the first baby step in a very steep, difficult road ahead.

“Croatia is already a member, Serbia is on the right path and Montenegro is also a candidate. We are the only country in the Balkans that hasn’t applied for candidacy status,” Negodic said. “It’s a long, long journey. It depends on political will, commitment and administrative capability.”

The ambassador added: “People are much better than their political leaders. They’re coping with everyday life. It’s 19 years since the war ended, and the whole region has changed dramatically. We can’t be stuck in the past. We support Serbs on their way to EU membership because we know that the progress they make will help us as well. Croatia is also ready to share its experience.”

On Oct. 12, Bosnians will elect a new president and parliament, but more than 30 percent of voters are undecided. And until Bosnia reforms its constitution and makes deep political reforms, the country cannot even begin accession talks with Brussels.

Sofía Sebastián-Aparicio, author of “Post-war Statebuilding and Constitutional Reform in Divided Societies,” said such political will is a life-or-death issue for Bosnia — and an opportunity for the West.

“The tragic violence of Iraq and Syria might seem like it is spiraling beyond the ability of Western powers to influence events,” she wrote recently. “But the U.S. and Europe still have a viable opportunity to engage Bosnia in a way that will allow for a more stable future. They must not miss the opportunity.”

Negodic agrees — and says Bosnia’s future must be as part of a united Europe.

“It would be a huge change. It’s not important whether we’re members in five, 10 or 15 years,” she said. “What’s important is to accept the standards of the EU regarding democratic principles and the rule of law. It’s just a matter of time.”

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