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Echoes of the Bosnian War in Ukraine

Moldova -- The checkpoint at the border of Moldova and the breakaway Transnistrian Republic, near Bender, April 17, 2014
The news arriving daily from Ukraine is unlikely to leave anyone in Bosnia indifferent. Most will be transported back a quarter of a century, when major Bosnian cities woke up to the first street barricades, followed swiftly by sniper bullets and shells.

All of this had been preceded, just as in Ukraine, by a political crisis, and by rival politicians’ inability to find common ground, but also the weakness of the international community, unable, or unwilling, to prevent the war.

In the early 1990s, in the former Yugoslavia, the politicians were also the first to cross swords, above all in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The same political rhetoric was used then, whether about the ‘integrity’ of this or that people, the alleged persecution of one or another ethnic group, the language issue, or great national dreams and purported historical injustices. The next step was that each side proposed plebiscites and referendums, which were meant to lead to something better.

Once the politicians had opened fire from parliamentary pulpits, real guns were turned on ordinary citizens, who came out to protest in support of peace.

It is therefore not surprising that the events in Ukraine have triggered a flood of memories and associations to the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Journalist Vlastimir Mijovic, a former Moscow correspondent of the Sarajevo daily newspaper ‘Oslobodjenje’, is among those who see clear parallels between what is happening in Ukraine today and the events in the Balkans a quarter of a century ago.

“The wars in the former Yugoslavia began in the same way. Wherever the ethnic Serb population was in the majority, in Croatia and Bosnia, there was an attempt to change borders and create a Greater Serbia, with the help of Belgrade and the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army). Thus what we’re witnessing today is an attempt to create a Greater Russia, using methods that are familiar to us [in the Balkans]. The intention is to mobilize ethnic Russians in Ukraine, with the help of the Moscow-controlled [Russian] army, to carry out a blitzkrieg and to redraw borders,” says Mijovic.

The former Bosnian ambassador to Russia, Enver Halilovic, also sees similarities between Ukraine today and the Balkans in the 1990s.

“The absence of a culture of political dialogue, understanding, and acceptance [of other points of view], speaks to a shared political tradition [in Russia and the Balkans]. Another common feature is the prevalence of certain illusions in the popular consciousness, illusions about an easy and comfortable life, requiring no effort or hard work. I would also emphasize the importance of outside political influences. All the countries of the former Yugoslavia, just like Ukraine, are subject to strong influences from the political and economic centers of power,” according to Halilovic.

The director of the Banja Luka Center for International Relations, Milos Solaja, feels that the experience of the Balkans should be applied in the Ukraine.

“The situation in Ukraine is different in the sense that the Great Powers are paying more attention [to events there]. It represents a geopolitical problem of global proportions. The great powers have made their interests clear, not least the West’s advance into central Asia, a region that is particularly important to Russia. I sincerely hope that Ukraine will not have to go through what we had to endure,” Solaja concludes.

So has the international community failed to heed the lessons of the former Yugoslavia? Mijovic finds evidence that the international response to the Ukrainian crisis is ambiguous in this respect:

“When we say that the lessons have not been learned, we mean that actions [taken by the international community] should be different. Yet the countries in question, the UK and the USA for instance, are too powerful, and their diplomatic corps too professional, to believe that they would conduct policy in a hasty or shoddy manner. Perhaps this reaction, which leads us to conclude that some lessons [of the past] have not been learned, is in fact meant to be just as it is, and has been designed with some other goal in mind, since we cannot be certain yet about the real aims of the great powers, what they have in store for that region, and how many concessions they might be prepared to grant to Moscow and Vladimir Putin behind closed doors.”