“The tension in the Western Balkans will persist for a long time”

Mladen Ivanic was born in 1958 in Sanski Most, Northern Bosnia. He graduated from the Belgrade University with a Ph.D. He later studied in Mannheim and at the University of Glasgow. He began his career as a journalist before changing his career path in 1985, when he started teaching at first in Banja Luka, and then at the University of Sarajevo. During the disintegration of Yugoslavia that took place from 1988 to 1991, he was a member of the office of the President of Bosnia. In 2001, he was elected prime minister of Republika Srpska, one of the entities composing the Bosnian federal state. From 2003 to 2007, he served as the Bosnian Minister of Foreign Affairs. He is currently the vice president of the federal parliament and president of one of the largest Bosnian Serb opposition blocs, the Democratic Progress Party. He has not abandoned teaching, and currently conducts post-graduate training courses in Banja Luka in cooperation with the University of Sussex and the University of Bologna.


Things seem to develop rather slowly in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is still no agreement between the Serbs, Croats and Muslims about the constitution and the economy is still in recession.

MI: Yes, the unemployment is approaching 40 percent in RepubliKa Srpska and there are still no investments, so it is a miracle that anything works at all. The biggest problem is that we have no perspectives of improvement. It is difficult to find reasons to invest in our country, while you can find at least a hundred arguments against such an idea.

When the civil war ended in Bosnia in 1995, billions of dollars of investments and aid poured into the former Yugoslav republic, and for several years the development of the country was fast-paced. What has changed since then?

MI: There is a general lack of confidence in the political system and the country’s stability. Foreigners say that there is security, but only while the office of the High Representative in Sarajevo is still open. Nobody knows what will come after its closure which, according to the plans, may happen pretty soon. One can expect major changes only when a new generation of politicians will appear. They should be able to bypass the endless debates about the constitution and be capable of focusing on practical things instead. The debate surrounding basic laws is currently frozen, and it will take at least fifty years to reach an agreement on how to run the country.

Your openly pro-secessionist political rival, Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, has been in power for several years in Republika Srpska. Do you see any chances for his replacement?

MI: Not yet, but the opposition is finally united, and I hope that we will be able to win a majority in four large cities, Bijeljina, Doboj, Trebinje and Gradiska. The feelings of the voters are changing, Dodik has already lost one fifth of his supporters and will not win the next parliamentary elections. He will be defeated because he has talked a lot, but accomplished nothing tangible.

Can that be attributed to his nationalism?

MI: All the political parties in Bosnia are nationalist, and all of them are talking about national issues. We do that too. The difference is that Dodik and his cronies need such nationalistic rhetoric to wield their power. Seven years ago, he was an advocate of multiculturalism, and that is how he managed to secure the support of the international community. He then realized that, if he sticks to that line, he will not be able to stay in power for long. Approximately 90 or even 95 percent of our voters are Serbs, while the supporters of the Social Democratic Party, which claims to be a multiethnic party, are mostly Muslims. A country like ours can only operate like this.

What could the way out be?

MI: When I was Prime Minister, I always said that we could succeed only by cutting the oversized public sector and by reducing taxes. We can be competitive only by keeping the costs low. Seven or eight years ago, many Croatian and Serbian companies were registered i nBosnia due to the low taxes, and it was worth investing in the country. Dodik and his government raised the taxes, and now the capital outflow exceeds the amount of new investment.

What is the relationship between Republica Srpska and the federal state with its centre in Sarajevo?  How can the common state of Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croatian federation be strengthened?

MI: This is nonsense. I do not deal with such issues. Bosnia cannot have a single head of state, a single government and parliament in the foreseeable future. And none of its composing entities can separate from Bosnia at this point. The Dayton Agreement ending the civil war was difficult enough to reach, and since then there has been little consensus among us about anything at all. It is obvious for all of us that this political context will not change for a long time to come. Anyone who speaks about the independence of the Republika Srpska or about the unitary Bosnian state does this only to collect votes.

Will Bosnia-Herzegovina continue to exist as it is now?

MI: Its people have learned to live together, but the politicians refuse to acknowledge the existence of the word compromise. The Croats want a Croatian entity, the Bosniaks are preaching about strengthening the central power, while the Serbs want to secede. Keeping the country together would need some level of cooperation, but the politicians prefer to incite hostility in order to stay in power.

Your heroes are those Serbian soldiers dubbed chetnik war criminals by Sarajevo. The Muslims celebrated in the capital are mass murderers in your eyes. Is it possible to rule a common state in such conditions?

MI: I have no idea. It is not by chance that I did not give a clear answer to your previous question. No one knows what will happen to Bosnia in a few years’ time, it could remain one country mainly because of the local presence of the international community.  In Republika Srpska, 90 percent of the politicians and voters would probably vote for the secession, and the vast majority of Croats would also opt for the secession of the Croatian regions.

The French and the Germans had been killing each other for centuries, but 12 years after World War II, they initiated the Common Market, and by now they have formed a strategic partnership. In Bosnia, the civil war ended 17 years ago, but there is still no cooperation between the various parties. Who is responsible for this failure?

MI: The international community is not responsible for this. We are unable to step over our own shadows. We have been unable to restore the trust between our ethnic communities because there have been too many wars and hostilities between them. Peace will only come if the country becomes part of a larger entity. We never had periods of tranquility when we were independent, but we did when we were a part of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy or Yugoslavia. During those times, the national issues were somehow removed from the agenda. I am not necessarily talking about the European Union when mentioning such an entity. It may be a new kind of regional cooperation among our countries.

According to public opinion polls, the popularity of a EU membership is decreasing. Why?

MI: Because people are less and less interested in that. They say that, by the time we will get the membership, the European Union will fall apart anyway. The EU is too far away from us, people consider it a beautiful fairy tale that has nothing to do with everyday life. And they do not know enough about it, because Europe has been off-limits to us for a long time. The partial abolition of the visa regime was one of the few things that brought a small change in this respect.

The process of integration cannot speed up, because Bosnia is not meeting the criteria.

MI: Yes, because politicians are not interested in integration: it is much easier for them to manipulate people, if Bosnia is alone.

The situation is not calm in Kosovo, the other multiethnic state of the region, either. What are the future prospects of that former province of Serbia?

MI: Kosovo has been a serious problem for a long time. The lesson that Kosovo teaches other separatist entities is that, if someone is violent enough and creates an army, it eventually reaches its goal. But those who think that Serbia will soon accept the independence of its former province are completely wrong.  And this means that the tension in the Western Balkans will remain high for a long time. The Serbs and the Albanians should be forced to conclude a compromise amongst themselves. No matter what the agreement will be, no external decision should be forced upon these two nations.

But the Serbs and the Albanians have been negotiating different issues for decades, and have never agreed on any major issue so far.

MI: That’s because one of them was always the favorite. As long as you have the support behind you, you will not compromise. In the 1980s, for example,Serbia was the favorite. When I was the Foreign Minister of Bosnia, I told my colleagues attending a European meeting that the independence of Kosovo was not a good idea. If Kosovo is allowed to become independent, why is Republika Srpska not allowed to do the same? Our people want the same independence that Kosovo Albanians have. The answer was that Kosovo was different from Bosnia. But when I wanted to know what the difference was, I received no answer.

How harmful is for the region the fact that, a few months ago, formerly aggressive nationalists have become members of the Serbian coalition government (in Belgrade)?

MI: Neighboring countries as well as EU member states will continue to monitor Belgrade for a few more years. Serbia will still be invited to regional meetings, but the number of bilateral meetings will decrease significantly. However, there will be no major policy changes, the members of the present government may use tougher rhetoric than the former head of state Boris Tadic, but Belgrade will remain a pro-EU country willing to cooperate. The independence of Kosovo, however, will not be recognized.

András Németh is a reporter for HVG. This article was produced for the Next in Line project co-funded by the European Union, and originally appeared in the daily newspaper HVGPhotos by András Németh.

3 responses to ““The tension in the Western Balkans will persist for a long time””

  1. Stefan
    1. Ela

      Hi Stefan, would you possibly be interested in taking part in a few questions for my dissertation research? It is generally about if peace exists between Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia. If you would be interested I can send you my e-mail, on there I can answer any qualms you may have and give more details of what it entails. Full anonymity is guaranteed and all views are welcome. Thank you so much for your time.

  2. Ells

    Hi, I am conducting my dissertation research on whether peace exists between Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, I would be extremely grateful as I know how sensitive this topic is, if anyone would like to participate in a questionnaire about this topic. My contact info: eu12@le.ac.uk, through my e-mail I can answer any qualms and give more information on what the questionnaire entails, Thank you so much for your time