Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Report 40 / Europe & Central Asia

Impunity in Drvar

Croat extremists put Drvar into the spotlight in April 1998 with murders and riots against returning Serbs and the international community.

Executive Summary

Croat extremists put Drvar into the spotlight in April 1998 with murders and riots against returning Serbs and the international community. It was the most serious outbreak of violence in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) for more than a year. Before the riots, Drvar -- whose pre-war population was 97 per cent Serb -- offered some cause for optimism: more Serbs had returned there than to any other region of the Federation outside of Sarajevo, and Serbs were looking to Drvar to help them assess the possibilities and risks for further return to the Federation and Croatia.

In the wake of the riots, key international officials flocked to Drvar, among them High Representative Carlos Westendorp and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, General Wesley Clark, as well as the heads of most of the international organisations in Bosnia, and even several US Congressmen. All stated emphatically that violence was unacceptable, that the right of Serbs to return would be supported, and that those responsible would be brought to justice.

Nearly four months later, small steps have been made towards getting the return process back on track. The number of Serbs in the villages, 1,800 before the riots, down to 1,600 after the riots, has climbed back up to 1,800. Some 30 of the 130 Serbs who fled their flats in town have returned. The municipal assembly met on 11 August 1998 for the first time since 3 April 1998, and selected a Deputy Mayor to replace Drago Tokmadzija, who had been dismissed by the High Representative for sustaining an atmosphere conducive to violence.

However, Tokmadzija retains de facto power and no real progress has been made in holding accountable the architects of the April 1998 violence, or those responsible for blocking the restructuring of the police and other concrete measures necessary for minority return. Hard-line officials of the HDZ in Canton 10 and Drvar continue to act with impunity. Moreover, Ante Jelavic, the HDZ candidate for the Croat member of the Bosnia’s Joint Presidency has stated in the Croat media that: “Drvar is and will remain a Croat town in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” These are dangerous messages to leave unchallenged, particularly during an election campaign.

The high-level visits to Drvar following the riots must be matched with a firm action plan backed by the necessary resources. Before the elections the international community must send a clear message that the instigators of the violence in Drvar will be punished, and that the international community is committed, over the next year, to work to:

  • root out the criminal network that has a grip on key aspects of governance, policing and the economy in Drvar and Canton 10, including with stepped-up measures by SFOR and increased efforts to bring Finvest, a Croatian company and Drvar’s largest employer, within the law;
     
  • create a multi-ethnic administration and police force;
     
  • help Croats return to their homes in Kakanj, Vares, Teslic and elsewhere with adequate security and funding for jobs and reconstruction; and
     
  • support continued, phased Serb return to Drvar, while assuring that any Croats who are thereby displaced will be found adequate alternative accommodation.

The international community must, before the elections, take a series of measures backed up by a co-ordinated strategy, to show that it is serious:

  • “Acting” Minister of Internal Affairs Batisa Letica, suspended in April 1998, and promptly reinstated for six months to supervise the police restructuring process, must be dismissed from office immediately. Steps he has taken recently to hire a few Serbs onto the police force and bring minor charges against perpetrators of violence in Drvar are inadequate.
     
  • Former Drvar Police Chief Ivan Jurcevic, dismissed in April 1998, must be stripped of all trappings of police authority, including his vehicle, badge, weapons and police bodyguards.
     
  • Donor governments should announce the creation of a special fund for Drvar, to be administered by the Reconstruction and Return Task Force, to (a) assist Serbs and Croats to return to their homes, and (b) repair homes and necessary services and promote sustainable economic recovery in Drvar, Kakanj and Vares (municipalities from which Croats now in Drvar fled). Donors should give increased funds not because of  the violence  but because progress in Serb returns to Drvar and surrounding municipalities is crucial for opening up Serb returns to the Federation and Croatia, and because increased Croat returns to Central Bosnia will strengthen the position of Croats committed to a multi-ethnic Bosnia.
     
  • International organisations, especially OHR, SFOR, IPTF, UNHCR and OSCE, should (a) devise a co-ordinated strategy to boost minority returns in and out of Drvar, (b) dedicate increased resources during the remaining 3-4 good weather months of the year to this end, (c) design and implement a security strategy aimed at preventing any further outbursts of violence, which may be anticipated as Serb returns increase and Croats move back to their homes in Central Bosnia and elsewhere, (d) and publicise this renewed, concentrated effort.

The Resident Envoy of the High Representative should gain agreement within the international community on the above points, and then lead and co-ordinate a public information campaign, in the Croat and Drvar media and via public meetings, to make these points clear to those in, and wishing to return to, Drvar.

Above all, what is needed is a shared commitment to a vision of Drvar, and Canton 10 generally, as genuinely multi-ethnic, governed by the rule of law and the will of the people, free of criminal influences in governance, policing and the economy, with equal protection for the rights of all. The international community must, before the elections, make clear that it has not been pressured by the hard-liners into backing down from this fundamental vision. This is necessary in order to give Serbs displaced from Canton 10 a reason to vote in the cantonal elections, and to reassure Croats throughout HDZ-controlled areas that, if they vote for any party other than the HDZ, they will not be risking their jobs, pensions, political futures or personal safety.

Sarajevo, 20 August 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.

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