Bosnia on the brink of crisis

Al Jazeera’s Barnaby Phillips says struggles between ethnic groups threaten stability.

Some people say bull-fighting has helped bring the fractured peoples of Bosnia together

It is high summer in Bosnia, and on a remote hill-side Al Jazeera has joined a crowd of several thousand excited people to watch the traditional sport of bull-fighting.

I had come with some trepidation, expecting blood and gore, and possibly death. In fact, in the Bosnian version of this sport, bull fights bull, and injuries are very rare.

The fight is over as soon as one of the animals chooses to break and flee (which sometimes happens straight away), and horns are deliberately blunted. 

Dragomir Skrbic is a farmer whose family raises fighting bulls. He says none of his animals have ever been hurt. 

“I look after them like you look after a small child,” he says. 

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Bosnia on the brink of crisis

Skrbic says all his bulls were slaughtered in the war, and has since then had to build his stock up again.

He says bull-fighting has helped bring the fractured peoples of Bosnia together.

His rivals today include Croat and Muslim bull-breeders, and last year he travelled to a competition in Croatia.

“In our heads the war is half-forgotten, but there is a minority who are still living in that time,” Skrbic says. 

War fears

We travelled deep into the semi-autonomous Serb region of Bosnia, known as Republika Srpska.

People here identify themselves first and foremost as Serbs; the crowd at the bull-fight is friendly but the atmosphere is macho, fuelled by beer and roast pork. 

I could see plenty of Serbian flags, but no Bosnian ones.

Dragomir was quick to dismiss any possibility of a return to war

A stall was selling memorabilia decorated with the face of Radovan Karadzic, the war-time Bosnian Serb leader, now on trial for genocide in The Hague.

Apparently, he is a hero to some.

In Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, I met people who now worry that the leadership of Republika Srpska is determined to pull this country apart.

Skrbic, however, was quick to dismiss any possibility of a return to war.

“I don’t think it will happen again in our generation, but the big question is what will happen with younger people now growing up,” he says.

Political crisis

Bosnia is in a slow-motion political crisis that is hard to define or see.

The temptation is to look at the country in relation to the bloody civil war of the early 1990s and speculate about a possible return to war.

This is often misleading, despite some of the more lurid rumours now doing the rounds.

We travelled south from the Republika Srpska to the city of Mostar, famous for its historic bridge, and for the vicious fighting that took place here between Croats and Muslim Bosniaks during the war.

Today Mostar is peaceful – the old bridge is rebuilt, and tourists bustle around the surrounding Ottoman streets.

But the city’s administration has been almost completely paralysed for many months as politicians bicker about a power-sharing arrangement. 

The International Crisis Group, which works to prevent and resolve conflicts, says that the disputes, between, and within the main Bosniak and Croat parties are creating “new and potentially dangerous strains” that threaten to poison relations between the groups.

Workers despondent

With no administration in place, public services have come to a halt, and many municipal workers have been on strike.

Last month, High Representative Valentin Inzko, Bosnia’s top international envoy, lost patience with the situation, and, “to ensure that city employees are no longer held hostage by the politicians,” used his powers to extend financing to municipal workers.

This is a temporary solution, but politicians in Mostar are going to have to sit down and reach an agreement at some stage.

Milenko says “if the situation doesn’t improve, we’ll blockade the streets once again”

We found Mostar’s firemen sitting around the station, despondent and depressed.

“We’re still on strike,” said Milenko Zovko, “and if the situation dosen’t improve we’ll blockade the streets once again”.

He embarked on a long list of complaints; outdated equipment, poor salaries, and no overtime.

His colleagues, slouched on the chairs behind him, smoked their cigarettes and nodded their heads in sullen agreement.

Milenko says the firemen are the only truly united force in the city, where Croats and Bosniak Muslims work well together. 

“We don’t care about the ethnicity, religion, or politics of somebody who needs our help,” he says.

‘Unfortunate necessity’

In Sarajevo, I met Salmir Kaplan, a young Bosniak politician making his way through the ranks of the SDA, or Party of Democratic Action.

Like many Bosniaks, he is alarmed by demands from the leaders of Republika Srpska that the Office of the High Representative (OHR) should now be scrapped.

“Unfortunately it should continue, because it’s necessary, very necessary for Bosnia at this moment,” Salmir said.

Some Bosnians believe that Dodik, centre, is playing a destructive role  [EPA]

He says the High Representative still needs to arbitrate on the contents of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement (which brought an end to the ethnic fighting in the country), even as he concedes that the OHR’s presence is painful evidence that Bosnia is still far from a normal state.

He says Milorad Dodik, the controversial Republika Srpska leader, plays a destructive role.

“He doesn’t have the courage to destroy Bosnia openly, but his intentions are not good.”

A foreign diplomat recently said that the problem in Bosnia is that nobody has any concept of national interest.

It’s a damning verdict on the country and the outside powers that have spent so much time and money since the signing of the Dayton Accords.

Bosnia is drifting, and the eyes of the world have turned elsewhere.

Source : Al Jazeera

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