Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Report 29 / Europe & Central Asia

A Hollow Promise?

In Bosnia’s local elections on 13 and 14 September 1997, parties representing displaced Serbs from Croat-held Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo and Glamoc won either a majority or a plurality of council seats in these three municipalities in Canton 10 of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Executive Summary

In Bosnia’s local elections on 13 and 14 September 1997, parties representing displaced Serbs from Croat-held Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo and Glamoc won either a majority or a plurality of council seats in these three municipalities in Canton 10 of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Since then, displaced Serbs have begun spontaneously moving back to their homes with the result that by mid-January, some 800 heads of households had returned to Drvar alone. Other displaced Serbs in Western Republika Srpska and in Brcko are monitoring the fortunes of these returnees closely.  If Serbs are able to return to Drvar, this will free up housing in Republika Srpska for displaced Bosniacs and Croats.  If, however, their return to Drvar is obstructed, displaced Serbs elsewhere will be discouraged from attempting to return to other Federation municipalities.

Before the war 97, percent of Drvar’s 17,000 inhabitants were Serbs.  The municipality fell to the Hrvatsko vijece odbrane (Bosnian Croat Army, HVO) in 1995 and the pre-war population fled.  Since the end of hostilities, some 6,000 displaced Croats have settled in the municipality and a further 2,500 HVO troops and family members are stationed there. The Reconstruction and Return Task Force has identified Drvar as a priority area for returns in 1998, in part because of the large number of vacant houses in the municipality.  According to SFOR estimates, some 600 vacant houses in Drvar town and a further 2,000 in surrounding villages could be made habitable with only minor repairs.  Further housing would come available if the HVO were to withdraw from the town.

To date, prospective Serb returnees to Drvar have been obstructed both by the authorities of Republika Srpska and by the HDZ, the ruling Croat party.  Drvar Serbs played a prominent role in founding the Coalition for Return, an association of displaced Bosnians from all ethnic groups wishing to return home, in October 1996.  Sometimes referred to as “black Serbs” for defying the Republika Srpska leadership and wishing to return to live in the Federation, Drvar Serbs were for a long time denied access to mainstream media.  As the political environment has changed during the past six months, however, their plight has been the subject of various television documentaries which have sparked a hitherto taboo debate in Republika Srpska as to the rights of Serb returnees.

The greater obstacle to Serb return comes from the HDZ authorities which have attempted during the past two years to consolidate the ethnic predominance of Croats in all areas under HVO control.  Serb houses have been burned and/or looted with the tacit approval of the authorities; vacant houses have been advertised for resettlement to displaced Croats from Central Bosnia and Posavina, as well as Croat refugees in Germany; and Croatian companies linked to the HDZ leadership in Zagreb, in particular Finvest, have invested massively in these municipalities, offering jobs to Croats willing to relocate.  The police is ethnically-pure Croat.

Another obstacle to returns in Drvar has been inadequate humanitarian assistance.  When spontaneous returns accelerated, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told leaders of Drvar’s displaced Serbs that they should advise their followers to reconsider their return.  Impact Team International, a UNHCR implementing partner and the only international non-governmental organisation located in Drvar, handed out leaflets to Serbs in Drvar, arguing that responsibility for any difficulties encountered as a result of spontaneous returns would lie with Mile Marceta, the leader of their association.  At that time, ITI did not have a warehouse in Drvar and with the onset of winter it was obviously difficult to start house reconstruction for returnees.  However, winter supplies, clothing and stoves sufficient for the Drvar needs were stored in UNHCR warehouses elsewhere in Bosnia.  The real problem was not lack of supplies, but poor co-ordination between international organisations and possible mismanagement of food supplies delivered by the World Food Programme to the local Red Cross.

If the Drvar Serbs are unable to return home, this failure is likely to discourage other displaced persons in Republika Srpska and will probably be exploited by nationalist forces as proof that different ethnic groups cannot live together, and that the international community will allow Annex 7 to remain unimplemented.  ICG therefore proposes that:

  • Instead of selecting specific towns and villages for negotiated returns and tying all budgetary planning to these places, international policy should focus on creating the preconditions for spontaneous returns.  These include a credible SFOR and IPTF presence, close co-operation with displaced persons’ organisations and improved freedom of movement.  A multi-ethnic police force is essential.
     
  • The international community continues to act quickly and firmly in response to blatant acts of obstruction, backed by SFOR when necessary.  Relocation of Bosnian Croats not originally from these municipalities into Serb houses must stop.  The High Representative should urge governments of refugee host countries to discourage returnees from relocating to areas to which original inhabitants are trying to return.
     
  • The international community helps displaced Croats currently living in Canton 10 to return to pre-war homes in Central Bosnia.
     
  • NGOs and donors look for projects in Canton 10 which benefit inhabitants of all ethnic groups.
     
  • Housing in Drvar town is made available to elected Serb councillors immediately and the HVO moves out of the accommodation it currently occupies in the centre.  Countries funding “Train and Equip” should condition delivery of weaponry on this.
     
  • Bosnia’s major donors, such as the European Commission and the US Agency for International Development, include these municipalities in their budgets for projects in 1998 and devolve decision-making to representative offices on the ground so that they are able to react with flexibility to changing developments.

Sarajevo, 19 January 1998

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.



Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.