Izetbegovic in Oxford: On Islam and Europe

“Islam is not alien to the spirit of Europe”, was the main message of the leader of the leading Bosniak political party in Bosnia and Herzegovina Bakir Izetbegovic during his lecture delivered for the Oxford Islamic Center. He reminded the audience that European culture, history and civilization is not only Judeo-Christian in spirit but also Muslim. “Muslims were the co-creators and thus co-owners of European culture and civilization. … Muslims made a colossal contribution to the world culture and civilization”, he further stated.

Bakir Izetbegovic in his lecture portrayed the history of Bosnian Muslims as a struggle for recognition and equality under a multitude of oppressors.  Starting with medieval Bosnian kingdom and the Bosnian Church, Izetbegovic pondered over each period of Bosnian history leading up to the present. Bosnia to him stands for a meeting place of ideas, which has had a negative effect on the country as an “area of conflict” stirred externally. Bosnia to him flourished under the Ottomans while was suppressed under the Christian Austria-Hungary. However, he acknowledged the modernization contribution of the Austrian rulers and the lasting privileges’ Bosniaks have been enjoying since the late 19th century through this Austrian link. Significantly bleaker was his portrayal of Bosniaks I the 20th century, who were “marginalized, assimilated and threatened” by the socialist regime of Jozip Broz Tito. The latest war in Bosnia was to him a genocidal attack by Croatia and Serbia and an effort of colonization to split the country. “We are the moral victors of the war. … There is no military victory in this war,” he noted. A “victory of good over evil” was his brief assessment of the Bosnian war.

Zetbegovic’s narrative was clearly influenced by the legacy of his late father Alija Izetbegovic, the former leader of Bosniks during the 1990s war. Bakir Izetbegovic cited from his father’s well-known Islamic Declaration for which he was imprisoned during the socialist regime of Tito, accused of Islamic radicalism and public support for nationalist ideology, which was banned in socialist Yugoslavia. Alija Izetbegovic was also the main supporter for the national term “Bosniak”, which to him existed as a regional term for all population in the Bosnian territory already during medieval times.

As a leader of the strongest political party representing Bosnian Muslims, SDA (Party of Democratic Action), Bakir Izetbegovic spoke in the name of only one section of the Bosnian population, to which he referred to as Bosniaks in tradition of his late father. As if no other people suffered during the course of turbulent history in the Balkans, Izetbegovic only spoke the crimes committed on Bosniaks while leaving Croats and Serbs aside. His sheer lack of acknowledgment for the other groups living in Bosnia (he mentioned them only in passing) was indeed striking. When elaborating on the numbers of killed Bosnian Muslims during the Second World War, he did not remember great numbers of Serbs slaughtered in concentration camps. Neither did he mention Croats and Serbs cleansed and killed during the latest wars. A black-and-white, evil vs good, was the kind of history we were presented. Even more striking was Izetbegovic’s assessment of the reconciliation progress in the country as good and positive. It is difficult to imagine any expert on the country sharing his opinion that regional cooperation is good and reconciliation is heading the right way.

Although Izetbegovic’s correct and justified reminder that Islam is not foreign to Europe, its culture and history, his eulogy on the Bosniak people and the one-sided assessment of their history was inappropriate for the audience. However, as a representative of a political party from a divided country (though he disagrees on this assessment too), he certainly did not come with any surprises.

Republika Srpska’s PM: “Bosnia is a functioning democratic state”

Will Bosnia disintegrate? is probably the first question that comes to mind when discussing the post-war development of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is still coming to terms with its violent past. It was also the question Zeljka Cvijanovic, the current Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, had to answer during her recent visits in London last week. Although she refused any possibility of a break up, it was clear from her presentations at the Royal United Services Institute and a subsequent interview for the BBC HardTalk that her primary allegiance as a citizen and politician is to Republika Srpska rather than to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina of today has an unprecedented constitutional structure. Administratively, it is composed of 142 municipalities in two de facto autonomous entities – Republika Srpska and Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (which is further divided in ten cantons) – and an independent district. It also gathers three constituent people who are represented in a bi-cameral parliament, a government based on power-sharing and a rotating tri-partite presidency. To make things even more complicated, an international official (High Representative) has been overseeing this complex structure since the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 with broad powers, which de facto strip Bosnia of a democratic self-rule.

 

In the past, some scholars and policy-makers argued that Republika Srpska’s (RS) cessation would solve a number of war-related issues and finally bring peace. In the case of RS and its Bosnia Serb leadership, most of the secessionist argumentation has been based upon ethno-national differences and the rights for self-determination. A clear lack of commitment of Republika Srpska to the common federal state has been demonstrated on its lukewarm position during a series of failed attempts of reforming the existing constitutional structure of the state created by the Dayton Peace Agreement. In addition, public polls repeatedly show that citizens of RS feel only a very small attachment to a common state of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

The public detachment from a unified Bosnian state is certainly more worrisome than the repeated calls of the RS President Milorad Dodik for independence or at least very loose confederation. Despite the fact that Mr Dodik is lacking any support for his aspirations from the neighbouring countries Croatia and Serbia or any other major international actor, his calls for leading RS into independence have proven to be a very powerful political weapon, especially during electoral campaigns. His calls for independence are thus a mere wishful thinking rather than an actual threat, which could turn into reality in any near future. It is clear that RS’s independence would lead to another violent conflict, which would a very irrational route to take in light of the ongoing negotiations with the EU.

 

Bearing in mind her boss’s calls for independence, Prime Minister Cvijanovic’s presentation in London was a first respectable attempt coming from top echelons of the Bosnian Serbian entity to tone down the secessionist image that Republika Srpska has had in the West. She numerously referred to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a “functioning democratic state”, where people had successfully lived in peace for nearly two decades. She also expressed her confidence that Bosnia was on the right European path. Moreover, a clear novelty was her emphasis on individual, rather than group-based rights, which have so far dominated the prevalent discourse coming form RS’s capital Banja Luka. Pinpointing that every Bosnian citizen should be the bearer of the same rights and privileges, she alluded to the ongoing constitutional reform deadlock regarding minority rights and the Strasbourg ruling on the so-called Sejdic-Finci case. Though criticizing the “administrative monster” in Sarajevo and the general bureaucratic complexity of the Federation, she acknowledged that a number of previously lingering problems such as new identity cards have been recently resolved.

 

“Of course that I know that RS will not enter the EU without the Federation,” she responded to a question about RS’s cooperation with the Federation. Accession to the EU was the underlying justification for all of her government’s recent business and financial reforms, which have significantly improved RS attractiveness for foreign investors. Indeed, the focus on the economy and foreign investment was another striking change in her talk on the past and future of Bosnia. Leaving ethno-national and war-related arguments aside, she focused on the need to reform the labyrinthine governance structures in the country, which are to her mind halting Bosnia’s negotiations with the EU. Cvijanovic proudly referred to the latest reforms in the business sphere in RS, which were aimed at simplifying registration procedures of foreign firms her entity. She noted that it is often ten times faster to set up a business in the RS than in the Federation. Unlike in RS, where only entity and national level permits are necessary, the Federation operates on a municipal, cantonal, entity and national structure, which significantly complicates any attempts of running a business in the entity.

 

Overall, Mrs Cvijanovic’s words come as a breath of fresh air into a dank and frowsy house. Although her presentations at the Royal United Services Institute in London as well as her later interview at the BBC clearly showed that her primarily allegiance is to Banja Luka, it was also obvious that her government had become aware of the impossibility of independence of RS and the need to cooperate with the Federation on their common aim to enter the European Union.

 

The interview is available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b03j0t7x/HARDtalk_Zeljka_Cvijanovic_Prime_Minister_Republika_Srpska/