By Matija Šerić
War crimes and genocide
On July 24 and 25, 1992 in bosnian village Briševo happened the biggest war crime against the Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina during Bosnian war. In a village not far from Prijedor, 67 Croats were killed in a monstrous manner, and the crimes were committed by members of the 5th Kozaracka and 6th Krajina Brigades of the Army of the Republika Srpska from Sanski Most. Before the murder, almost all the women were raped, the men were massacred by cutting off their noses, genitals, and ears. The village of Briševo didn’t pose any threat to the authorities of the newly formed entity then under the name of the Republic of the Serbian People in Bosnia and Herzegovina (since August 1992, Republika Srpska). There were no Croatian military formations, neither HOS nor HVO, which would pose any threat to the Serbian population. So, the massacre happened out of pure hatred towards the Croatian people and everything Croatian.
On October 9, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, according to which genocide is “a crime aimed at the destruction, in whole or in part, of a national, ethnic, religious or racial group by killing its members, inflicting severe physical or psychological injuries, by placing the group in such living conditions that can lead to its destruction, by imposing measures that lead to the prevention of births in the group or by forcibly taking children to another group.” It is clear from the relevant UN definition that the massacre in Briševo has all the characteristics genocide, although the international community only defined the massacre in Srebrenica as genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where more than 8,000 Bosniak civilians and soldiers were killed in a few days in July 1995.
Much is known about the genocide in Srebrenica, but Briševo can be cited as a relatively unknown but classic example of the pattern of how the Republika Srpska was born. And it was born and created through systematic war crimes, massacres of civilians and soldiers, mass rapes, persecutions, camps, ethnic cleansing and other horrors. Precisely, systematic war crimes and genocide can be cited as the first argument for the abolition of Republika Srpska – a smaller Bosnian-Herzegovinian entity that, according to all common sense criteria of humanity, should not exist. Why? There are many reasons.
Crimes like the one in Briševo were the modus operandi of the Serbian authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the entire war from 1992 to 1995. Although the RS was formally established in January 1992, it can be stated that its bloody formation began even earlier, in October 1991 at the latest when JNA (Yugoslav Army) burned and looted the Croatian village of Ravno in Eastern Herzegovina. This was part of the Great Serbian War against Croatia, but since Ravno is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the basis for the creation of a Serbian parastate in that country also began to be created. There were no Croatian military formations in Ravno either, but that didn’t prevent destruction.
It was just the beginning, and other war horrors followed. The massacres in Prijedor (Kozarac, Korićanske stijene), Bijeljina, Foča, Višegrad, Bratunac or Doboj were no exception but the rule. It is interesting that during the war, the international community considered that a genocide took place in Prijedor, but after the war it refused to qualify it as such. Death camps were established, the most famous of which are Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje and Manjača. In Banja Luka, where no war had been fought, around 220 Bosniaks were killed, and 75,000 Bosniaks and Croats were expelled. All mosques were also destroyed. In January 1994, Foča, where more than 20,000 Bosniaks were previously expelled, about 3,000 killed, and 13 mosques destroyed (including the Aladža mosque under UNESCO protection), was renamed Srbinje. There was also a special camp for the rape of Bosniak women and girls in the city. It is estimated that Serbian forces raped between 20 and 50 thousand women during the war, which was a special form of aggression embedded in the concept of Great Serbian politics.
The siege of Sarajevo is the longest siege of one city in history. It lasted 1,425 days, longer than the “famous” Nazi siege of Leningrad, which lasted 872 days. During the siege of the capital of BIH, more than 10,000 people were killed, including 1,601 children. In total, more than 400,000 Bosniaks and 153,000 Croats were expelled from the territory of Republika Srpska during the war. The VRS demolished a total of 534 mosques and damaged 249. Regarding Catholic churches, Serbian troops destroyed 117 churches and damaged 40. Also, eight Catholic monasteries were demolished and nine were damaged. In 1995, the CIA estimated that Serbian forces were responsible for 90% of war crimes in the wars in the former Yugoslavia.
From all the above figures, it is evident that the Republika Srpska was created by fire and sword, more precisely by the armed forces of the JNA and later the VRS, which took over all its weapons, equipment and all other military effects that were used to carry out the armed rebellion of the Serbian leadership in Pale led by Radovan Karadzic and SDS. With the help of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the VRS managed to occupy about 70% of the territory of BiH during 1992, which would sustain most of the war. Thanks to the successful operations of the HV, HVO and ABIH during 1995, Serbian forces were on the verge of collapse at the end of that year (there was a threat of an internal Serbian conflict), but the Republika Srpska was saved by the Dayton-Paris Agreement, thanks to which it was legalized as one of Bosnia and Herzegovina entity with 49% of the territory (it later fell to 48% due to the creation of the Brčko District). Even if we accept the principle that the current RS has been legal since December 1995 and that all the horrors that happened earlier are not its legacy (which is a rather miserable argument because all the legacy of the war is recognized), there are enough arguments for its abolition.
Even a cursory look at the geographical map is enough to see the geographical senselessness or paradox of the geographical position of the Republika Srpska, which represents another argument for its abolition. The entity has disproportionately long and irregular borders. In some places they are very elongated and in others they are retracted, so in some places narrow belts are created, the so-called “Serbian pockets”: Šipovo – Mrkonjić Grad – Gornji Ribnik, Doboj, East Sarajevo. This is not strange, since the border of the RS was not created as a result of following mountain ranges or river basins, but it is largely a matter of following the war demarcation lines. Such internal borders have never existed in the centuries-long history of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The total length of the RS border is 2170 km, and if the entire entity had the shape of a circle, the length of the border would be only 561 km. There is no country with such a border in the world, whose western part is elongated in the west-east direction and the eastern part in the north-south direction. It can be seen how it is done in an unnatural and artificial border.
The borders of RS also divide Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even the RS itself is not whole, because its continuity was interrupted in Brčko District. The Serbian entity includes parts of the Bosnian Krajina, Central and Eastern Bosnia, part of Semberija, part of Posavina and the eastern part of Herzegovina. Not having any of these regions in its entirety shows that RS is unsustainable in a geographical sense, which generates all other problems from traffic, economy to everyday life. Thus, for example, the areas of Mrkonjić Grad and Šipovo naturally gravitate towards Jajce, Travnik and the rest of Central Bosnia, but due to the entity border, the inhabitants of these cities in reality gravitate towards Banja Luka. In Eastern Herzegovina, the natural gravity of the population is directed towards Mostar as the capital of Herzegovina, but in reality the population there gravitates towards Trebinje and Nevesinje and fulfills its business, educational, health, cultural and other needs there. Political-geographical larceny par excellence is at work.
The third argument is that the abolition of Republika Srpska is its demographic disaster. Smaller BIH entity has had negative natural growth for two decades. According to the data of the Statistical Institute of the RS, a total of 8,634 children were born in 2021, and 18,732 people died. That is more than twice as many people died as were born – the smaller entity thus lost 12 thousand inhabitants as a result of negative natural growth. When emigration is taken into account, the demographic balance is even worse.
A good example of demographic collapse is Bijeljina. According to Eurostat data, more than five thousand people moved out of Bijeljina in the period from 2013 to 2021. A city with a wider area of more than 100,000 inhabitants cannot reach the figure of one thousand newborns per year. In Bijeljina, the fertility rate is a miserable 1.44 children per woman, and for the birth rate to be at positive zero, and for the city to prosper, it should reach a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. Children who were born in the diaspora are also registered in the registers, and there were 267 of them in 2021. When enrollment in the first grade of primary school begins, it can be seen that every year fewer and fewer children are registered. As a city, Bijeljina implements certain demographic measures such as one-time financial assistance, monthly assistance for unemployed mothers for one year, subsidies for preschool institutions, but the measures do not produce results.
According to the last population census from 2013, RS had a total of 1,170,342 inhabitants. Today there are fewer, the only question is how much. According to estimates presented by SDS representative Davor Šešić in the National Assembly of the RS, that entity has no more than 850,000 inhabitants, and as time goes by, it will probably have even fewer. According to Šešić’s estimates, from 1996 to 2013, about 330,000 people left the RS, and from 2013 to 2020, an additional 125,000. The problem is not only negative demographic trends, but also the structure of people leaving. Most of them are highly educated and able-bodied people in full force. In addition to them leaving, their present and future children who will be born somewhere in the diaspora are also leaving with them.
The problem is not only the number but also the age structure of the population. According to the aforementioned census from 2013, more than 50% of the population was over 50 years old (more than 540 thousand), and the largest age group was the population aged 64 (19,555). RS has an unfavorable aging index, i.e. there are more people aged 65 and over than younger people up to 15 years old. The ideal value of the aging index is 1, and RS has 0.4, which is a very unfavorable coefficient. Although RS has had negative natural growth since 2002, the situation has been alarming in recent years. In most municipalities, the average age of the population is over 40 years. The data of the government of the RS is particularly impressive, that from 1996 to the present, not a single municipality has continuously had a fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman. Also, it was concluded that it is questionable whether demographic renewal can be carried out in 23 municipalities/cities.
In order to improve the demographic picture, it is necessary to start stronger foreign investments and to open a large number of new companies. However, this is where we come to the fourth argument for the abolition of Republika Srpska, and that is its economic collapse. RS consists of 64 local self-government units (10 cities and 54 municipalities), and of that number, as many as 35 municipalities are underdeveloped or extremely underdeveloped. Some of them are Kalinovik, Nevesinje, Jezero, Čajniče, Lopare, Istocni Stari Grad. The generators of economic underdevelopment are the already mentioned negative demographic trends, small municipal budgets, too few companies. The situation is even worse when looking territorially, because it turns out that about 50% of the surface of RS with about 250 thousand inhabitants belongs to underdeveloped or extremely underdeveloped municipalities. The budgets of all these municipalities are smaller than the budget of Banja Luka, which is in the best position economically and demographically, but even that is much too little.
The economic indicators of the RS are by no means favorable. In October 2022, the average net salary was KM 1,198 (€612.53). Compared to the same month last year, the average net salary is nominally higher by 16.7%, and in real terms by 1.0%. At the same time, in October inflation was 15.5%, which points to a decline in the already poor standard of living. The average net salary in the RS is almost half the average salary in the Republic of Croatia (€1,024), lower than countries such as Montenegro (€720), Serbia (€641), Bulgaria (€709), Romania ( €819). In 2021, the GDP of the RS amounted to 12.5 billion KM, and in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina it was even twice as high – 25.1 billion KM, in the Brčko District 944 million KM.
The pressing problem is indebtedness. The example of indebtedness shows that the RS is economically unsustainable without the union with the FBIH and Brčko District. In the document of the Ministry of Finance and Treasury of Bosnia and Herzegovina entitled “Information on the State of Public Indebtedness of Bosnia and Herzegovina as of June 30, 2022”, it was stated that the public debt of the RS amounts to 6 billion and 60 million convertible marks. The data that FBIH has a public debt of 6.6 billion KM can be misleading, because although the debt of the Federation is higher when you take into account its twice the size of the market, twice the population and GDP, it is actually smaller. The external debt of the RS amounts to 4.1 billion KM. The total public debt is approximately 50% of GDP. Per capita it is more than 5,000 KM, while in the Federation of BIH it is almost half as much and is 2,800 KM per inhabitant.
RS faces a very uncertain financial year in 2023, because next year loan installments of around 1.1 billion marks are due, which makes up almost a fifth of the entity’s budget of 5.3 billion KM. The question is how the money will be found to collect the public debt, but there is no doubt that the authorities led by Milorad Dodik will reach for new loans on the international financial market. This has already been done by selling RS bonds on the London Stock Exchange in the spring of 2021 to mystery buyers. However, new borrowing is not a solution and is an indicator of the unsustainability of the financial system as such. It is tragic that Dodik declares “We are now in debt, and the debts will be paid back by some new generations”. The question of all questions is which new generation will repay the debts when the number of newborns is decreasing year by year?
The only solution is foreign investors, of which there are not enough because they are hindered by widespread corruption in the RS government structures. Potential investors, mostly local people who have gone abroad, should be exempt from corporate income tax. More broadly, in order to enable economic development, it is necessary to create a positive climate for the development of private entrepreneurship and reduce taxes to a minimum so that employees can receive higher wages. Higher wages would mean more children sooner or later. However, positive developments are not in sight.
Discrimination against non-Serbs
The fifth argument why the RS should not exist is the systematic discrimination of non-Serbs. According to the Constitution of Republika Srpska, Bosniaks and Croats, together with Serbs, form one of the constituent nations and, as such, should have equal rights, but in reality they do not and the RS functions as an entity of the Serbian people. First and foremost, the largest number of people who left the area during the war were not allowed to return. According to the 2013 census, 81.51% of Serbs, 13.99% of Bosniaks and 2.41% of Croats lived in the RS. Only about 20,000 Croats and slightly more than 100,000 Bosniaks returned. Of course, many have been prevented from returning through burnt and destroyed property, intimidation, encouraging the sale and exchange of land. Although there is no more wartime terror, it is not easy for non-Serbs because discrimination is very present in all areas of life, especially in employment in public institutions.
Proportional representation of ethnic groups is not respected. It is common for the number of Croats and Bosniaks to work in the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the RS, year after year. Data from 2019 show that 93% of Serbs are employed in the MUP – 12% more Serbs than there were in the territory of the RS according to the 2013 census and 30% more compared to the 1991 census, which is required apply because Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement on the return of refugees has not been respected. And it will never be as long as RS exists. The use of Bosnian and Croatian languages in schools is also a problem. This is, for example, the beginning of the 2021/2022 school year. was marked by the news that the students of the regional school “Liplje” near Zvornik, together with their parents, went on strike because they were “again prevented from learning the Bosnian language, and the name of the language of the Bosniak people was written in the school books”. For years, students from Konjević-Polje, due to the inability to study the national group of subjects, have been attending classes at the Educational Center in Nova Kasaba. Croatian students can learn Croatian only in church institutions.
Reducing the Serbs to small part of Bosnian territory
Somewhat ironically, although the Republika Srpska on paper occupies 48% of the territory of Bosnia, it does not occupy all the areas where the Serb people lived for centuries. The RS actually reduces the Serb people to half of Bosnia, although by law Serb were and remain constitutive people in the entire country. Since the RS lost certain territories with a significant share of Serbs in the Dayton Agreement, the Serbs there left the areas of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where there were many before the war, such as Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar, Zenica, Livno County. When, according to the entity line, most of Sarajevo belonged to the FBIH (including the municipalities with a large number of Serbs, Ilijaš, Vogošća, Hadžići, Ilidža, Rajlovac and Grbavica), it’s estimated that around 150 thousand Serbs left the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a kind of ethnic cleansing of their own people in peace who did not want to live outside the borders of the Serbian state. There are ten times fewer Serbs in the FBIH than before the war, their number has decreased from about half a million to about 50 thousand, they make up about 2.5% of the entity’s population. Traces of Serbs remained in the FBIH. Hundreds of former Serb villages are gaping empty, and numerous churches and monasteries have not been restored since the war. It shows that the (Greater Serbian) policy of the RS is not good, because by inertia it forces the Serbs outside it into a subordinate position.
A time bomb that can set the region on fire
The most important argument for the abolition of the RS from a security point of view is the fact that the RS is a kind of time bomb that can ignite the region of the former Yugoslavia. Any push of Banja Luka into secessionism, whether it was carried out by means of a pen (referendums and related secessionist acts) or by means of violent separation with weapons, brings instability and restlessness to these areas. On several occasions, Dodik and other high-ranking officials of the RS emphasized that the purpose of the existence of this creation was the disintegration of BIH and its annexation to Serbia. Currently, the geopolitical situation in this part of the world is dictated by NATO and the EU, and the secession of Republika Srpska is not possible, let alone its annexation to Serbia. However, if there is a change in the geopolitical picture of the world and eventual reform or dissolution of NATO and the EU or something else, it is clear that the RS would go into secessionism. Anyone who knows anything about politics is aware that there is no possibility of a peaceful disintegration of Bosnia and that in the best case a whole series of incidents will follow, and the bigger reality is the outbreak of a new Bosnian war.
An existential threat to the Republic of Croatia and the rest of the region
This brings us to the last argument for the abolition of the Republika Srpska: the Serb entity represents an existential threat to the Republic of Croatia and the rest of the region. Following on from the mentioned secessionism, the new Bosnian war would shake all the countries of the region to the core, because they would all be drawn into it in some way. Any armed incidents and conflicts in BIH would destroy Croatian tourism and drive away foreign investors from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and beyond.
Ultimately, even if this does not happen and the RS is peacefully annexed to Serbia, it would create a (truncated) Greater Serbia. Such a Greater Serbia, which would contain 48% of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, would pose a life-threatening threat to the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo. Serbia would thus cross the Drina, climb Trebević and Jahorina, break out on the Sava and reach the Dubrovnik hinterland. An enlarged Serbia could create military bases on the annexed parts of BIH, which would represent starting points for new wars: new conquests of more parts of BIH and potentially Croatia. Also, we should not forget that the RS borders with Montenegro for 225 km, and Belgrade could even more strongly disturb that country, which Vučić’s clique considers to be part of the Serbian world. The victory of the Greater Serbian idea in BIH would further inspire Greater Serbian ideas in the region and start the Kosovo powder keg. Although today such a scenario sounds science-fictional due to the current geopolitical situation in these areas, in some distant future such a scenario isn’t impossible. Many doubted that the wars of the 1990s would happen just like the war in Ukraine, but unfortunately they happened.
However, new wars and conflicts will certainly not happen if Republika Srpska is abolished on time and through diplomatic channels. Ideally, it would be at the green table during some new negotiations on the political arrangement of Bosnia. Unfortunately, BIH is semi-disintegrated state, an unsuccessful and hopeless country, from which the best personnel fled a long time ago, and RS appears at the center of every problem sooner or later. BIH needs comprehensive restructuring. This implies the abolition of the RS and FBIH entities and the federalization of the entire territory, guaranteed rights to all constituent peoples and citizens. No less important, BIH must also be a geographically meaningful, demographically and economically prosperous country.
Matija Šerić is a geopolitical analyst and journalist from Croatia and writes on foreign policy, history, economy, society, etc.