The Consequences of Ratko Mladić’s Ideology for Today’s Bosnia
International criminal justice may be slow, but it is persistent. This is one of the messages the beginning of the trial against General Ratko Mladić, the leader of the wartime Bosnian Serb Army being tried before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, sends out to all actual and potential war criminals in the world.
Or, at least, it is the message it wants to be heard: regardless of rank, position, or international partnerships, if you act against a commonly agreed set of rules for war and human decency, you will, sooner or later, be held accountable for your actions. International criminal justice has thus both a daunting and a punitive character.
On a personal level, the trial seeks to provide consolation to the families of the many men and women that fell victim to the orders of the adamant war general. Representatives of victim organisations, like the mothers of Srebrenica, or international human rights activist groups were present in The Hague when the prosecution presented its opening statement. The possibility to look at the man who ordered the murder of your family as he is being tried in front of the entire world, is an extremely powerful psychological feeling. This is especially true for those Srebrenica mothers that, even today, have not yet found enough remains of their brothers, husbands, and sons, in order to bury them in accordance with the legal provisions and their traditions. The trial helps the bereaved find closure with their brutal personal histories.
Direct confrontation with Ratko Mladić is also important in order to come to terms with the past. The trial provides a fair and balanced setup for both sides to present their evidence and argue their case. In doing so, it can produce evidence that transcends the mere framework of criminal justice and enters both public and historical memories. This is, however, the most difficult task as it confronts a realm of contested national prides, different national histories, and a human’s reluctance towards the acceptance of inconvenient truths.
The Dayton Peace Agreement and its consequences
In 1995, the international community ended the Bosnian war and brokered the Dayton Peace Agreement. Politically and administratively, the Agreement divided the country into two entities, the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the Federation can be described as a condominium of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Bosnian Croats, the Republika Srpska is largely dominated by Bosnian Serbs, in no small part due to the ethnic cleansing campaigns of Ratko Mladić’s army. As the wartime American negotiator, General Wesley Clark, recently explained in a co-authored op-ed article in the New York Times, the Dayton Peace Agreement “ended the worst bloodletting in Europe since the Second World War”, and thus fulfilled its primary target. Even though all the participants knew that it was “imperfect”, it was simply “the best we could achieve” at that time.
It is, of course, inaccurate to blame the Dayton Peace Agreement for all of Bosnia’s current problems, even tough this opinion can be found quite often in everyday discussions even amongst politically well-informed people. There are two major challenges the Agreement posed for a post-conflict institutional setting: the division into entities, and the equality of the three main groups.
The Agreement divided Bosnia into entities by largely following the conditions on the ground, ie the territories held by the different armies. By imposing only some rather limited functions on the central state, common institutions were left politically and structurally weak. Several key competencies, such as the military, originally remained with the entities, which made it more complicated for the central state to work efficiently. Furthermore, this arrangement neglected an important aspect of post-conflict reconciliation: the possibility of integration through political institutions. The entities became, or remained, the primary reference points for the citizens while common institutions were left out of the equation. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the strengthening of the central state was a key feature of the international supervision policy imposed on Bosnia, for the central state lacked both legitimacy and efficiency.
The other challenge concerns the constitutionally prescribed equality of the three so-called “constituent peoples” of Bosnia, namely the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks. Following a decision of the Bosnian Constitutional Court, it applies not only to the central state but to the entities as well. This decision had the effect of institutionalising ethnicity in the entire political and administrative system, which produced an inefficient state structure, as most times a government official had to have two deputies from the other groups. On a political level, the decision legitimised the basic idea of exclusive group representation, meaning that only a member of my group can represent me within the system. Apart from that, it structurally discriminated members not identifying with one of those groups, which presents a violation of the European Charter on Human Rights.
However, these two general challenges that Dayton imposed on postwar Bosnia were mere reflections of the ideology behind the entire war. As such, they were consequences of the politics of Mladić and his political counterpart, Radovan Karadžić, the president of the Bosnian Serbs. As the prosecution argued in its opening statement, the idea of homogenising the ethnically complex map of Bosnia was crucial in defining the goals of the war and carrying out the military operations. This concept incorporated the ideas of ethnic cleansing and genocide almost by definition. Any homogenisation efforts were bound to include forceful removals and murders of non-members of the ethnically defined group, in this case the Serbs. Through political campaigns and the war itself, the ideas of territorial segregation and ethnic exclusivity strengthened, and this strongly influenced the thinking of the general public within the ethnic groups. Following this nationalist ideology, inclusion of non-group members in any form was bound to be impossible. Consequently, their removal or killing could be legitimised. It is therefore of extreme importance not only for Bosnia but for the larger context that such ideology does not remain unpunished. Its key masterminds need to be brought to justice, as do their lower ranking followers who carried out indescribable orders with inhumane precision.
Two principles of ethnic segregation
Apart from the human suffering, the most brutal consequence of Mladić’s and Karadžić’s politics can be found in the fact that they succeeded in segregating Bosnia’s population along ethnic lines. Throughout history, the territory of the Bosnian state, understood as a traditional border-region, has always had a multicultural character, which was responsible for both times of peace and times of friction. The different groups were always conscious of their allegedly distinct features, even though their importance varied throughout time. Yet, it is the politics of the 1990s that made the different allegiances incompatible with each other for large parts of the population. These views didn’t vanish after peace was achieved and explain the predominance of nationalist parties throughout the political system.
When this absolute ideology hit the politically weak system created by the Dayton Peace Agreement, it reinforced itself. This made political compromise almost impossible and, consequently, international mediation largely futile. Herein lies the deeper problem of current Bosnia: the political institutions do not possess the power to integrate the country and to counteract the ideas of nationalist territorial segregation and exclusive group representation that dominate the system.
The persistent discussions about a possible secession of the Republika Srpska, a third entity for the Croats, or the Bosniak’s claims to strengthen the central state, are all manifestations of these dilemmas. Even though a postwar census has yet to be conducted, it can be assumed that Bosniaks have a majority within the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, while Bosnian Serbs have a majority within the Republika Srpska; logically, a third entity for the Croats is supposed to be constructed largely in the Herzegovina region (thus leaving out the Croat population in the Posavina region in northern Bosnia) where Croats have a majority. These political claims, therefore, largely correspond to the principle of territorial ethnic dominance on all sides.
The second principle of exclusive ethnic representation is more complex as it goes even beyond the mere fact that a representative needs to belong to the same group. It includes the condition that the member has to be chosen by the group itself. This is the reason why many Bosnian Croats do not regard their co-national, Željko Komšić, as their representative within the Bosnian presidency as he was elected largely through the votes of Bosniaks. This underlying condition may be intuitively logical and seem to be the consequence of a democratic setup. But it incorporates the idea that political candidates can only be chosen within one’s own group, which strengthens the principle of ethnic segregation. Ultimately, it makes multi-group candidacies impossible.
The aim of the points just mentioned is not to suggest that the entirety of Bosnia’s current problems, or even all of the political positions taken by group leaders, are nationalist in character or entirely explainable through the principles of territorial ethnic segregation. There are other important factors that need to be taken into account, namely the politics of the international community, different interpretations of the state and its institutions, the mechanisms of the postwar political structure, the role of democracy, and, last but not least, the strategies of political parties and their leaders. What is important, however, is that the described principles resulting from the nationalist ideologies nevertheless form part of the explanation. What is more, they can be seen as a direct consequence of the politics during the war.
A new kind of social contract
The importance of the trials against Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić therefore lies in the fact that they exemplify this ideology beyond its brutal immanent consequences. The condemnation and punishment of such ideology is not enough to make Bosnia a functioning polity. International trials, or even changes of the legal state structure, can hardly influence deeply rooted beliefs, even if they are largely constructed and based on specific (mis)readings of history. They may, however, be an important first step in this direction.
Even though the scope of the war crimes Mladić is charged with are largely known to the general public, the historical discussion is far from over in Bosnia. For example, representatives from Republika Srpska still question the characterisation of the massacres in Srebrenica as genocide. International criminal trials and the media attention they get can help to move the discussion of recent history outside of the largely polarised political arena to society as a whole. And such discussions might result in a new societal consensus; a different kind of social contract that is capable of bringing about a politics of cooperation. At this moment, however, this is a naive and perhaps futile hope.
Adis Merdzanovic is a PhD candidate at the Departments for Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.