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Opening Remarks by President Biljana Plavsic

Speaker: Biljana Plavsic
May 18, 1998
Foreign Affairs

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Note: Remarks as prepared for delivery

We are now in the third year of peace, ushered in by the Dayton Accords. I would like to devote a few minutes to the brief overview of the results of “Dayton” so far, and the challenges facing us in the near future.

“Dayton” is not an ideal solution, and the Serb side has had to accept many sacrifices for the sake of peace. We have nevertheless signed the Accords, on the assumption that our sacrifices will be reciprocated; that our willingness to make a compromise will be accompanied by the other two nations in Bosnia-Herzegovina giving up their maximalist goals.

We were motivated by the view that—in an imperfect world—the most viable solution is the one in which all conflicting parties accept the principle of give-and-take. The spirit of compromise does not come naturally to some people on the Balkans; but on the Serb side there is now a clear commitment to honor what has been signed—and we expect the same from others.

For the sake of peace we have reluctantly accepted the loss of many territories that had been Serb for many centuries—including Drvar, a city over 90% Serb before 1992, but now a ghost town in which two elderly Serbian returning refugees were recently murdered by the Croats.

We have agreed to build the future of the Republic of Srpska within the loose framework of the Union of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to which we have accepted to transfer certain functions of our Republic, such as foreign affairs.

So, “Dayton” is a compromise, in that each of the three constituent polities of Bosnia—Serbs, Croats and Muslims (who call themselves “Bosniaks”)—have had to give up their maximalist goals.

For their part, the Croats have supposedly given up the ambition of carving up a separate Croat statelet in Bosnia that would eventually unite with Croatia.

The Muslims have ostensibly given up on their objective—openly stated in the “Islamic Declaration”—of creating a centralized, unitary Bosnian state, in which they would eventually achieve full domination.

I regret to say that neither of those objectives have disappeared from the agenda of the other two sides. Accordingly, there are many problems with the way the other two parties are implementing the Dayton Accords.

Regarding the return of refugees, this highly personal decision for each person needs to be facilitated by the overall climate in his or her former home town or village. We are doing all we can to create the conditions for a long-term solution. This entails not only the political will, but the creation of socioeconomic preconditions, which still leave a lot to be desired, with the high unemployment rate, low GNP and minimal reconstruction funds that have been allocated to our side.

While we do not want to use the shortcomings of other parties as an excuse for the problems on our side, we are deeply concerned by the lack of progress on the return of refugees in the Federation.

In spite of the rising international pressure, the Muslim authorities are still not allowing tens of thousands of Serb and Croat refugees to return to the capital, Sarajevo, which should be the showcase of Muslim intentions. If the results in Sarajevo are so disappointing, what should we expect for the country as a whole? As for the Croat-controlled areas, the tragic incident in Drvar last month illustrates the state of affairs on the ground more vividly than any statements. Had Muslim and Croat refugees been murdered in the Republic of Srpska, I suspect that the international outcry would have been much greater.

Unrestricted freedom of movement across entity lines is a major requirement of Dayton. Throughout the Republic of Srpska there are thousands of citizens, and hundreds of vehicles from the Federation, and from the Republic of Croatia, on the roads every day. They are unhindered, and incidents are virtually unknown.

And yet, our citizens are being denied entry into the Republic of Croatia. (I expect that this will stop when common license plates and new passports are introduced.) Within Bosnia, in the Federation, they are being routinely stopped for no reason, and several of them have been arrested and accused of a variety of offenses—including war crimes—even though their names are not on any list submitted to The Hague Tribunal. This has created an atmosphere of distrust and fear among our citizens, and reduced the freedom of movement only to the non-Serbs, who know they have nothing to fear on our territory.

At a more fundamental level, on the ruins of a multi-ethnic, multicultural society that in 1991 was Yugoslavia, it is impossible to recreate an essentially identical polity in miniature, and call it “Bosnia.” Centralization cannot work: the same root causes of discord would be just as present, or even more so, after the trauma of this latest war.

It is possible, and even desirable, to have within the boundaries of the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina a loose union of entities that will provide the three constituent communities with a sense of common interest in staying together. This is what Dayton is all about, and this is our commitment, too.

There is a future for the loose union of Bosnia-Herzegovina within the terms of the Dayton Accord, consisting of two entities which have transferred part of their sovereignty to the Union. But centralized Bosnia is an oxymoron, an impossibility. We accept that certain functions of the Republic of Srpska reside with the central authorities. But the process of drawing together has to be gradual. I am sometimes frustrated when some members of the international community tell us how quickly to proceed, and do so with ideas, or even demands, that are not contained in the Dayton Accords.

They must learn to be patient, lest the overdose of their medicine kills the patient. I have stated elsewhere that the European Union is “united” thanks to several decades of spontaneous, incremental development of its common political, economic and social structures.

Had someone from the outside tried to impose those structures on, say, the Italians, the Danes, or the British twenty years ago, the whole edifice would have collapsed. The same applies to Bosnia and Herzegovina: bitter fruits of the war can be overcome only through gradual healing and development of mutual trust.

Any attempt to force the issue is perceived by our people as an intervention on the side of the Muslims, many of whom have not given up on their centrist ambitions.

Such ambitions are not confined only to the key people in government in Sarajevo, such as Mr. Izetbegovic himself, but to virtually all political parties there. They openly share the view that Dayton is only the first step. They claim that the power of the Union should be increased, and that of the entities—by which they mean the Republic of Srpska—should be decreased. They are advocating something called “Dayton Two.” The notion that “Dayton” is to be renegotiated, that it is but a stepping stone on the road to much tighter integration of Bosnia, is dangerous for peace. It is a threat to Dayton, and should be discouraged by the international community.

There are well-intentioned people in the West who mistakenly believe that “Dayton” is about an ever-tighter integration. It is not. Administration officials working on Bosnia agree with me on this. They know I shall implement the agreement to the letter, and that I shall do so in good faith, but they also understand that I shall never allow the nebulous concept of “the spirit of Dayton” to blur the issue and legitimize ad-hoc reinterpretation of the agreement. Vague, woolyheaded ideas may reflect misguided idealism, or else hidden agendas. I am opposed to both. Politics is the art of the possible, and “spirits” do not belong to its realm.

This terrible war has left a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of all the peoples of Bosnia, which is why all three parties—Serbs, Croats, and Muslims—must work hard to overcome the legacy of hate. We should stop pretending that one party represents specially deserving victims, and another perennially punishable culprits—it is simply not true! There are war criminals among the Serbs, just as there are among the Muslims and the Croats. In this nightmare that we’ve been through, any attempt to quantify culpability is absurd and immoral.

All parties must learn to recognize the humanity of their former enemies, and to enjoy full democratic rights. This is why my government, to quote but one example, has taken steps to guarantee the rights of all non-Serbs in Brcko. I accordingly expect that the final arbitration on Brcko, in a few months’ time, will recognize its status as a city in the Republic of Srpska. If a substantial land link has been allowed for the small enclave of Gorazde, then not only the terms of Dayton, but also justice, common sense and the interest of peace demand that the Republic of Srpska not be cut in half. The alternative is the collapse of my government, the triumph for the hard-liners who would claim that cooperativeness does not work, and the destruction of all positive results so painstakingly achieved so far.

But I remain an optimist, provided that what I have just said is taken seriously, and not as mere rhetoric. We need and deserve equal treatment, for the sake of all. This last war has shattered the nerves and undermined the moral foundations of life in all three Bosnian communities. There is a need for more renewal on all sides, and this cannot be effected from the outside. World Bank dollars and international mediators will help, but the real burden is on us.

Thank you.

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