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The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
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

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.

Macedonia

The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.

Kosovo

The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.