by Rhodri C. Williams
Observant TN readers will have noticed that Halisa Skopljak’s recent guest posting on lingering return and restitution issues in Bosnia was taken down a few days ago. Halisa found it necessary to ask me to remove the piece for compelling reasons that I am not at liberty to disclose. However, I am hopeful that the post may return from its business trip shortly, allowing the broader public to benefit once again from her unique analysis of a little-known judicial case with important national (and even regional) implications.
In the meantime, I thought it might be worth pointing out a few contextual issues. First, the case Halisa describes is generating a good deal of political heat in Bosnia. Most recently, the Sarajevo based broadsheet Dnevni Avaz described this week’s eviction of Faik Zulcic from his home in the terms it is perceived by many Bosnians – as a judicially sanctioned and ethnically biased attempt to roll back the relatively meager gains achieved by those displaced persons that took the right of return set out in the Dayton Peace Accords seriously. As the Office of the High Representative (OHR) noted, in apparent response to Halisa’s posting, the decision threatens the “right of returnees to the peacefully enjoy their prewar homes.” With the story now having been picked up in Al Jazeera’s Balkan service, there is a chance it may soon hit the mainstream media.
Unfortunately the nature of this case tends to play into Bosnia’s post-war ethnic stereotypes; here, the high court of the Serb-dominated entity of Bosnia upheld the ruling of a (subsequently discredited) lower court judge in expelling a returned Bosnian Muslim from his home for failure to pay exorbitant and legally dubious compensation for improvements made by the Serb wartime occupant. However, as Halisa pointed out in her posting, this ruling comes as part of a nationwide failure to fully act in the spirit of the Dayton Accords. Indeed, the most significant ongoing return-related problem in Bosnia is arguably the failure of the Muslim-Croat entity of Bosnia to implement a European Court of Human Rights decision requiring remedies for the wartime confiscation of semi-privatized military apartments. In this case, the victims are overwhelmingly Serbs.
Given this context, one of the central contributions of Halisa’s post was to shift attention from the heated and frequently unconstructive political debate over these issues, and refocus it squarely on legal arguments and Dayton obligations. At a time when neighboring Croatia is on the threshold of the EU and the Bosnian political discourse is increasingly (and rightly) dominated by European integration issues, it is useful to recall that EU accession should not only signal a new beginning but also closure for the lingering grievances from the past. Supporters of Bosnia’s rapid accession should therefore be concerned by the case of Croatia, which is likely to enter the Union with a number of property and return-related skeletons still jangling in its closet. In fact, a comment on Halisa’s posting by ‘Chris’ touched directly on potential synergies arising from this connection:
Maybe the issue of so called unsolicited investments could be resolved the way it has been in Croatian with the State offering extra judicial settlements to temporary users of occupied properties for the investments made. This is the solution the EU pushed for in Croatia, maybe somebody within the EUSR office should remember about it.
Meanwhile, a few observers have noted the fact that it is now twenty years since the spring of 1992, when the full horrors of ethnic conflict cascaded across a beautiful country inhabited by resilient people who had already survived enough privations in the past and deserved a far better future. For me, it was a time of grim political awakening. As a Fulbright scholar in a sleepy town in northern Bavaria, I followed the blood-streaked headlines from not-at-all-so-far south, and felt the tipsiness of 1989 fade into something sadder and more realistic. However, Ed Vulliamy, who reported from Bosnia at the time, has reminded us of the fates of those who fell directly into the path of the war’s immeasurable cruelty and are still struggling with its legacy. Even twenty years on, it would be grossly unfair to expect ordinary Bosnians to just get over it, but one might ask more of their courts and elected representatives.