Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

The Konjic Conundrum

On 1 July 1997 Konjic became the first municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) to be officially recognised as an Open City by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Executive Summary

On 1 July 1997 Konjic became the first municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) to be officially recognised as an Open City by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  At the time, the Open Cities Initiative was supposed to form the backbone of UNHCR’s approach to minority return.  To obtain Open City status Konjic had to demonstrate a willingness to accept the return of minority displaced persons.  In return, the UNHCR endeavoured to reward the municipality with additional funding.  However, despite large-scale financial assistance and although close to 2,000 minority families have formally registered their intent to return, reliable sources estimate that fewer than 300 minority returnees have made their way home to Konjic since the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) brought the Bosnian war to a halt.

Konjic has to date received more than $14 million in aid.  That represents nearly a quarter of the $60 million disbursed or committed to the Open Cities Initiative by the end of April 1998.  The Open City of Kakanj, by contrast, has received less than one-fourth of the economic assistance Konjic has but has accepted a greater number of minority returnees.  International aid has paid for the reconstruction of 501 homes and several municipal buildings in Konjic.  However, some two-thirds of the reconstructed homes remain empty because their owners, who signed contracts pledging to return to their homes, once rebuilt, have failed to do so.

Although the ratio between habitable dwellings and population is almost the same as before the war, the main hurdle facing potential minority returnees to Konjic town is the difficulty of re-claiming their homes.  The principal obstacle is “double occupancy”, that is, the occupancy of two or more homes by a family that before the war occupied only one home.  Municipal authorities have dragged their feet on this issue and generally failed to evict families currently sitting on more than one property.  Minorities also cite a lack of basic services, such as health care, in outlying areas and security concerns as obstacles to return.  That said, Konjic has not been the scene of any serious ethnically-motivated violence.

Most displaced Serbs and Croats from Konjic currently live in areas controlled by hard-line nationalists of their ethnic community: Serbs in Trebinje and Visegrad, and Croats in western Herzegovina.  They are thus targets of a mixture of propaganda, carrots and sticks to keep them where they are.  The goal of the hard-liners is to maintain and re-enforce the ethnic separation caused by the war.  The displaced Serbs and Croats are needed where they currently live to occupy the homes of other minorities to prevent their return.  Konjic’s weak economy is also a major deterrent to returns.  This is especially the case for Croats, many of whom believe they have better employment prospects in the areas in which they currently reside.

Since UNHCR originally designated Konjic an Open City and itself put up much of the reconstruction assistance, it bears a particular responsibility to scrutinise the municipal authorities and their approach to minority returns.  However, it has failed to take a pro-active approach; failed adequately to monitor reconstruction and housing issues; and failed to mobilise donors and agencies with a political mandate to exert pressure on the municipal authorities.

Despite the problems outlined above, Konjic remains one of the most promising municipalities in Bosnia for minority returns, and in particular for Serb returns.  This is because of the relative availability of housing; the relative receptivity of the municipality to minority returns; and the amount of aid already given to the municipality.  In addition, Konjic appears to be a safe destination for minority returnees; the police has a high proportion of officers from minority communities; and the municipality has already benefited from considerable international assistance.  Konjic is not, however, a model for how best to spend scarce funds to support minority returns.  The report ends with three pages of recommendations, including the following:

  • Municipal authorities, NGOs involved in reconstruction, and UNHCR must take more effective steps before starting to rebuild homes to ensure that pre-war occupants and/or owners are genuinely committed to returning there.
  • UNHCR’s implementing partners, and ultimately UNHCR, should ensure that the pre-war owners have indeed been notified that repairs have been completed and that, if the families do not reclaim the home by a certain date, another family will be given the legal right to live in the home temporarily.
  • Rather than reconstructing homes in areas that international monitors believe are attractive for return, international agencies should meet with displaced persons in groups, support the formation of associations, and take guidance from these meetings as to where returns are most likely to be successful.
  • Municipal authorities must issue and implement eviction orders in cases of double occupancy immediately, and UNHCR, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and donors must make clear that international assistance projects will be suspended until they do so.
  • UNHCR, OHR and the International Police Task Force should urge donors to provide additional funds, or else insist that funds already given be used, for essential police equipment such as cars and radios, and essential services in villages to which minorities are actually returning.
  • Donors, the American Refugee Committee and OHR should support the formation of displaced persons associations, particularly in Visegrad and Trebinje, where most of Konjic’s 6,000 displaced Serbs are concentrated.
  • UNHCR should be more active in monitoring, and taking steps to unplug, the bottle-necks obstructing minority returns.

Sarajevo, 19 June 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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