Yugoslavia continues to disintegrate. There’s Kosovo, there’s lingering territorial and financial disputes among successor countries...and there’s Republika Srpska. Last month, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency and Republika Srpska’s strongman leader, announced the entity would annul a number of state laws and withdraw from the country’s institutions in order to establish the entity's full autonomy under the original Dayton Peace Agreement. While these steps would fall short of outright secession, the announcement sent chills across Bosnia and the region; the internationals and many Bosnians are worried at the prospect of partition and conflict. The situation remains tense.
How did we get here? How did Dayton's gendered nature impact Bosnia and Herzegovina in its 26 years? What are the broader international and geopolitical implications of the current crisis? And how can the Dayton problem be solved?
With Aida Hozić, Valery Perry, and Tanja Topić.
The Remembering Yugoslavia podcast explores the memory of a country that no longer exists. Created, produced, and hosted by Peter Korchnak. New episodes two to three times per month.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.
Yugoslavia continues to disintegrate. There’s Kosovo of course, there’s lingering territorial and financial disputes among successor countries…and there’s Republika Srpska.
Last month, Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency and Republika Srpska’s strongman leader, announced the entity would annul a number of state laws and withdraw from the country’s institutions, including the tax administration, top courts and prosecution, and, most worryingly, police, intelligence agencies, and the armed forces. In essence, institutions that make a state run.
Dodik claims these laws and institutions were imposed by the Office of the High Representative, the international overseer of peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina whose authority he rejects, and are not in the country’s constitution, which is part of the Dayton Peace Agreement. Rather than outright secession, this is meant to accomplish Republika Srpska’s full autonomy within Bosnia and Herzegovina, again, according to the constitution, Dodik says.
But while all these steps would indeed fall short of outright secession, particularly the renewal of a Serb army sent chills across Bosnia and the region, as it was precisely that armed force that drove the Bosnian war in the 1990s, including the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide in Srebrenica. Bosniaks in particular are concerned as Dodik’s rhetoric is painfully reminiscent of the pre-war period. The fear of another war is real.
Dodik has denied embarking on the war path but claimed Republika Srpska would defend itself and that its “friends,” which implies Serbia and Russia, would come to his aid should Bosnia’s army or the West intervene. For visual effect, Republika Srpska police forces conducted a number of exercises, including in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo.
The High Representative, Christian Schmidt, told the UN Security Council these steps would represent an existential threat to the country, “tantamount to secession without proclaiming it,” adding “the prospects for further division and conflict are very real.” The US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has said Dodik’s rhetoric represents “a dangerous path.” And Baroness Arminka Helić, herself a Bosnian refugee, has warned all this could lead to “the return of events we do not want to see.”
On the surface, this may actually be old news. Dodik has been threatening secession for over a decade in order to achieve his political goals. His machinations and threats in order to get what he wants, in elections, from the Federation or the Bosnian state, or from the international community, have been a constant feature of Bosnian politics.
In fact, Dodik may already have achieved something he wanted in this go-around. When the UN Security Council earlier this month extended the mandate of EUFOR, the European Union-led stabilization force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the insistence of Russia all references to the Office of the High Representative were omitted from the resolution text.
Viktor Orbán and Janez Janša visited Dodik, which made for interesting photo ops underscoring just who Dodik’s friends in the European Union are. Gabriel Escobar, US Special Envoy to the Western Balkans, tried to defuse the situation on his personal visit, only to have Dodik reiterate his goals and plans to withdraw from Bosnia’s institutions. The US and UK are now discussing sanctions.
It is mid-November and the situation remains tense.
This is not how this episode was supposed to go. I was planning to revisit the Dayton Peace Agreement on its 26th anniversary to continue exploring how it impacts life in Bosnia and Herzegovina and what some potential solutions may be. The how-it-started and how-it’s-going type of thing. I’m still going to do all that but given the recent developments I’m also going to look at how Dayton helped get us here as well as the broader international or geopolitical implications of what’s happening—and there are plenty.
AIDA HOZIĆ: So, in terms of representation of who participated in this agreement, it was a manly agreement, okay, it was an agreement among the strong men in every possible way.
VALERY PERRY: I think right now, when looking at the issue of Dayton agreement and the Dayton constitution, the most important thing for the international community to keep in mind is that they should first do no harm.
PETER KORCHNAK: Quite a few topics in the space of a single episode, pushing this podcast’s scope. But, it’s important and it’s all related.
What’s also related is that none of what you hear on the podcast, indeed the podcast itself, would be possible without you. It is your support that makes Remembering Yugoslavia’s wheels go round. Thank you and welcome new Patreon sustainer, Nino, and thank you, Alexander, for bumping your pledge.
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PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s recap the Dayton Peace Agreement to set the stage. In addition to ending the war on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dayton, as the peace agreement is known for short, contained among its 11 annexes the country’s constitution. Dayton and subsequent decisions of the international High Representative set up Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state comprising the entities of Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina with a central presidency, government, bicameral parliament, bank, and constitutional court. The state presidency rotates among its three members, a Bosniak, a Croat, and a Serb, each of whom represent the three major ethnic groups and are directly elected in their respective entities; the current tripartite presidents are Šefik Džaferović, Željko Komšić, and Milorad Dodik. The state government and parliament also comprise predetermined percentages of each major ethnic group. Each entity has its own presidency, government with 16 ministries, and parliament. Republika Srpska is monoethnic, Serb, and centralized, while the Federation, where Bosniaks and Croats share power, comprises ten cantons, each of which has a government of its own. And there’s also Brčko, a multi-ethnic self-governing administrative unit that is formally part of both entities. Each municipality also has its own government and assembly.
If this sounds convoluted, it’s because it is. The system is one of the most complicated in the world.
The Dayton Peace Agreement is widely viewed as the entrenched source of political division in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. “What the agreement ushered in was a complex political structure that translated the military balance of power into an institutionalized political stalemate,” wrote University of Sarajevo professor and my fellow Central European University alum, Hamza Karčić, last year.
Like any compromise, all parties got something but not everything out of Dayton. Bosniaks got to keep Bosnia and Herzegovina but with a weak central government and an entity they share with Croats, who too had to settle for autonomy while looking to Zagreb as their capital. And Serbs got an autonomous entity within the country, short of outright independence. It is this fact-on-the-ground Dodik is working to change.
The bottom line: ethnic division undergirds the country’s administrative division. Ethnic representation keys are in place for state-level positions, from the presidency on down, and each of the three major ethnic groups is dominated by a single political party. The many layers of governance helped bloat the country’s public sector, create a multitude of power holders on all levels (fiefdoms if you will), and enabled rampant corruption throughout the system, with patronage networks based on political loyalty and bribes. Those in power, again at any level, from state to entity to canton (in the Federation) to municipality, benefit, and therefore have little incentive to change the system.
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The Manly Nature of the Dayton Peace Agreement
PETER KORCHNAK: To see how we got here we have to begin by investigating where we started.
You heard my first guest, Aida Hozić, in Episode 37, “Yugosplaining the World.” She’s from Bosnia and Herzegovina but has been in the US since the early 1990s. She is now an associate professor of international relations at the University of Florida and spoke to me from Gainesville.
Where were you when the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed?
AIDA HOZIĆ: I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is about two hours south of Washington, DC. I spent the war here in the United States because I was already a graduate student here in the US.
And I don’t have a particular recollection, I was not very certain even when it was signed that that was really the end of the war. There were so many previous agreements and ceasefires that were signed and guaranteed and then they failed [sic] through that I just remember a tremendous degree of anxiety.
Nineteen ninety-five was a terrible year, it was just a dreadful year in Bosnia and in the former Yugoslavia in principle, the year of tremendous life losses, you know, kind of carnage, violence. And so by the time Dayton came, I don’t think I had much hope that it would hold and I don’t know if people in Bosnia did either.
TANJA TOPIĆ [in Bosnian, with English voiceover]: When Dayton was signed I was in Germany, as a war refugee. I lived there until 1997.
PETER KORCHNAK: Tanja Topić is a political analyst and journalist as well as a research associate with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. She spoke to me from Banja Luka, the capital of the Republika Srpska, where she is based.
TANJA TOPIĆ: To be honest I did not expect or believe that it would bring peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina because there had been various plans and agreements and proposals before that and every time I hoped or expected that things would change and peace would come, I was disappointed. So when the Dayton Agreement was signed, I was worried it wouldn’t work.
PETER KORCHNAK: Writing on the London School of Economics blog, Hozić sees the roots of the Dayton dysfunction in the manly nature of the agreement, whose “ramifications still exert costly and deeply gendered political and socio-economic consequences.” How the agreement was negotiated provided the seed for where we are now.
AIDA HOZIĆ: Dayton was negotiated on an Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. Richard Holbrooke had this ingenious idea, I think, that he could bring these warlords from the former Yugoslavia not to a fancy hotel, which is where some of the previous agreements were kind of attempted to be negotiated outside of Bosnia, but that they should be brought to a bare bones military bases in the middle of nowhere in the United States, and stuck there with no access to fancy restaurants zfor as long as it took to negotiate peace.
PETER KORCHNAK: Holbrooke, who died in 2010, was President Clinton’s assistant secretary of state and a chief architect of the Dayton Peace Agreement.
AIDA HOZIĆ: So these men were really literally stuck there. And, you know, according to these kinds of locker room room tales that we hear from those who participated in these agreements, you know, that involved a lot of drinking and thinking about who’s going to lure whom and to what kind of evening conversation and where to negotiate different pieces, bits and pieces of agreement.
Except for Holbrook’s wife, there were really no women who participated directly in the negotiations. And even Holbrook’s wife, Kati Marton, who is a very famous journalist, was brought there and participated in some of these dinners, because Holbrook thought that having a woman there to kind of smooth over conversations among the men would be helpful and Kati was very skillful in doing that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Alas, none of the nine books the Hungarian-born Kati Marton has written since 1995 deals with Dayton.
AIDA HOZIĆ: So, in terms of representation of who participated in this agreement, it was a manly agreement, okay, it was an agreement among the strong men in every possible way.
But also substantively, it was an agreement which was produced through force, okay, it was produced through this threat of force, finally credible treat of force by the United States which loomed behind negotiations. And then also it was a manly agreement, because it really recognized kind of the worst possible crimes and violence on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which carved it eventually into these two entities.
Women were some of the greatest victims of that war. Particularly rape against women in in Bosnia was then used to finally legalize rape as a crime against humanity. So they served the purpose in the building of the international law, but they were not anywhere near the the agreement, nor were they acknowledged in any way by that agreement.
The substantive part and the representative part of the agreement has kind of resulted in a peace which is itself very manly, okay. Which, first of all, recognizes only ethnicities as the as the only legitimate identity for participation in politics. You have to be Croat or Bosniak or Serb to actually legitimately participate in politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina through these Dayton institutions, but it’s also an agreement, which has really kind of excluded women and all of the others from any meaningful participation in politics.
PETER KORCHNAK: The gendered, quote unquote manly nature isn’t unique to the Dayton Peace Agreement and it isn’t unique to the 1990s. Reporting by advocacy groups and research, by Hozić and others, has demonstrated the consequences of peace agreements negotiated without women’s participation. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda govern the inclusion of women in peace agreements, among many other areas, but progress has been slow.
AIDA HOZIĆ: We once again end up with Afghanistan, just a couple of months ago, where women were instrumentalized throughout 20 years of American presence there. The war was fought on the premise of saving Afghan women. And they were totally excluded from negotiations and left now at the mercy of the Taliban.
I think we live actually in a world which pays a lot of lip service to gender equity but despite resolutions and formal recognitions of the importance of women for peace, it’s actually a very entrenchedly [sic] manly international system.
Peace which is negotiated by force and through force and where force is the principal kind of objective or taming of force is the principal objective of peace, mostly, then focuses on these, once again, on very traditional militarized aspects of security. And so a principal goal of many of the policies in the aftermath of the war was, you know, how to unify police forces, how to unify the Bosnian military, how to bring the Bosnian military closer to NATO, how to secure again, peace in these terms of the absence of military threat.
But the other aspects of what constitutes peace, you know, such as healthcare, or education, or care industries as kind of an infrastructure of everyday life, were completely not only neglected, but gutted through a series of kind of neoliberal reforms imposed by the international financial institutions.
And so the pandemic now over the last two years has really shown the degree to which that neglect has tremendously damaging consequences on people’s lives. The last I looked Bosnia was second in the world in the per capita mortality rate of COVID.
PETER KORCHNAK: Right, once the guns come out the healthcare is not as much in front of people’s minds.
AIDA HOZIĆ: That’s exactly what some saw perplexing about many of these peace agreements which were signed in the post Cold War period, okay. That rather than demilitarizing, which you would expect to happen, after brutal civil wars, that the peace agreements were made in such a way that they actually appeased those who started wars and violence. And so rather than taking guns away from them, the idea was to integrate them into some supra military structures, and let them keep their arms in one way or the other, and let them hold on to the violence with which they pursued these wars. And that that would somehow stabilize and, and appease these spaces. It’s really ironic, I mean, it’s not just in Bosnia, we see that in a number of other negotiated peace agreements around the world since the end of the Cold War.
PETER KORCHNAK: And it also seems like you know, since there’s no war there’s so much less interest in the place. So, you know, why stir the pot so to speak and of course, the pot’s being stirred from people on the ground.
AIDA HOZIĆ: Yeah, yeah. Going back to the kind of the manliness of all of this, I have come to the conclusion that that explains a lot of the post-World War politics, not just Bosnia, because it is politics, which is determined by crime and violence and corruption and blackmails.
Once you notice that 51 percent of the population is not in the picture, then you realize what else is not in the picture. And once you realize that there is a gender dimension to fortifying police and the military as a way of securing peace as opposed to promoting education and healthcare, you see that there are different ways in which politics could be done.
Having these battles over the military and the police, while education and health care have become so feminized and so neglected that now in this post-COVID time women just don’t want to go back to work. The nurses are leaving in droves, the women are not coming back to teach, because the gender inequity of the politics ran over the past few decades has come and has become completely transparent through the pandemic.
PETER KORCHNAK: Gendered peace is one of the consequences of manly agreements in multiethnic countries. Complexity is another.
AIDA HOZIĆ: The similarities between Lebanon, Belgium, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, is that the results were very similar, that you end up with these very complex structures of power sharing. And again, that those power sharing agreements then acknowledge only certain kinds of people as possible participants in politics. They may resolve what are assumed to be the deepest cleavages in societies, but they don’t allow any other possible either fissures or positive connecting tissues to emerge.
And they also have institutional consequences, which are really dysfunctional. I mean, they lead to these over bloated bureaucracies. The bureaucracies are created because you have a budget through which these different constituencies have to be appeased. And so these different constituencies who are power sharing, they use their power sharing capacity to employ those who are loyal to them. So bureaucracies grow. And, and then also, you have, there’s a tremendous degree of corruption, which kind of feeds off that bloated and dysfunctional bureaucracy.
In places like Bosnia, where that was coupled with privatization, you then end up with very problematic consequences of privatization, enrichment of the same elites who are leading and power sharing the country. They have a tendency to maintain the status quo. Their purpose becomes to share power among each other and so they support each other in a paradoxical and pathological way because that means keeping everybody else out.
VALERY PERRY: A colleague of mine did his doctoral dissertation, in which he coined the term peace cartel and describes a situation which he sees in Bosnia and in North Macedonia, but which he also applies to Lebanon, whereby you end up having a structure, which was put in place following a violent conflict and which empowers tribal nationalist, sectarian political party elements, who, over time, are able to basically blackmail society but also international actors by saying, “Well, hey, you know, you better not shake up the system, because then there could be a war again.” But this is basically then politics and diplomacy by blackmail.
PETER KORCHNAK: You heard Valery Perry in the previous episode, number 46, “Two Schools Under One Roof.” Born, raised, and educated in the U.S., she has lived in Sarajevo since 1999 and spoke to me from there. Between 2004 and 2011, Perry was OSCE deputy head of mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is currently an associate with the Democratization Policy Council, a think tank.
VALERY PERRY: This has been so evident and in such a tragic way in in Lebanon. I remember last year, when that port explosion happened, thinking, “Well, God, this will hopefully shake people out of this peace cartel mindset and lead people to recognize that making deals with warlords doesn’t work if you want to build the right space and accountable society.” But it hasn’t, because I mean, cartels are strong for a reason, because they know how to wield the levers of power.
Lebanon is obviously a very specific case. But I think that the international community and journalists and academics can learn from some of these structural sources of dysfunction. Because people are not happy with the system. No matter where you go, people will always start a conversation with the same statements: “Everything is corrupt, svi su lopovi,” and that they’re frustrated.
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TANJA TOPIĆ: The Dayton agreement gave Republika Srpska a country within a country.
PETER KORCHNAK: The political analyst Tanja Topić again.
TANJA TOPIĆ: Serbian representatives at the negotiations weren’t satisfied with what was achieved but they eventually realized how much the agreement did give them in terms of state-building. What’s sad is that we were all satisfied with the minimum: Dayton ended the war and that’s considered its greatest accomplishment.
In the meantime, the Dayton constitution is discriminatory. It’s discriminatory against all those who are not Serbs, Croats, or Bosniaks. And we still haven’t righted that wrong.
PETER KORCHNAK: Only Serbs, Croats, or Bosniaks can occupy administrative positions in the country. About 3.7 percent of Bosnia’s population is thus excluded from representation. Courts both in Bosnia and the European Union have ruled against such discrimination on a number of occasions, but nothing has changed.
TANJA TOPIĆ: In 2006, Dodik began talking about independence of the Republika Srpska and organizing a referendum about independence. He conducts the politics of walking on a thin wire and close to a red line. He is simply pushing and blackmailing both domestic and international players to see how far he can go. Every time he gets away with it and gets what he wants and his conditions met. He’ll claim to be someone who wants to find solutions, who wants peace, who wants dialog, but he states his conditions and if those are not met he simply does not budge and refuses to compromise in any way. For him compromise means things happen the way he wants.
In the current situation he will again stop at the last minute because of international pressure and because it fits into his plans.
PETER KORCHNAK: In that country within the country, Dodik is king. Earlier this year, he called Topić an agent of the German intelligence services, a foreign mercenary, a quisling and bunch of other insults, some of which he directed at her family.
TANJA TOPIĆ: This is how he has operated for the last 15-20 years. He discredits all his critics by labeling them traitors paid by foreign interests.
The problem is also that he has equated himself with Republika Srpska. Any criticism, any arguments against him, he interprets as an attack against Republika Srpska and declares them as coup d’etats.
No one disputes this, no institution dares to protest, and so it has become accepted. A recent analysis of hate speech among Bosnian politicians showed politicians are in fact the main generators of hate speech in the country, and the first among them is Milorad Dodik.
PETER KORCHNAK: One form of hate speech is genocide denial. Specifically, some Serbs refuse to acknowledge that the murder of over 8,000 boys and men in Srebrenica in July 1995 was genocide, and continue to glorify Ratko Mladić, the Serb army officer who led that campaign, among others, and who is serving life in prison at the Hague for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
TANJA TOPIĆ: What’s tragic is how this all started. It started when the departing High Representative, Valentin Inzko, decided to amend the criminal code of Bosnia and Herzegovina with provisions prohibiting genocide denial.
Unfortunately, 26 years after the end of the war our politicians are still not mature and responsible enough to face the dark side of their respective ethnic groups and call things by their true name. Most politicians in Republika Srpska question that genocide took place in Srebrenica. They call it a horrible crime and place war criminals on heroic pedestals. They all agree when it comes to High Representative’s decision about genocide denial in that they deem it illegal and a barrier to the freedoms of thought and speech. This is very cynical, in that those same people are among the worst offenders when it comes to violating citizens’ rights to free thought and speech.
So it all started there, and here we are talking about taking over state agencies, attacking the judicial system, creating our own army, and so forth, and we are no longer talking about Inzko’s law about genocide denial. The situation intensifies and we get closer to the red line.
PETER KORCHNAK: Political diversion of sorts, I suppose.
TANJA TOPIĆ: Under Dayton the country functions like a smorgasbord: those in power take what suits them from Dayton and what doesn’t fit their political agenda they reject and deny.
The same goes for the current crisis, another crisis in a series of crises that defines our life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a dispute about Dayton, specifically what the original Dayton is and whether it allows for the creation of institutions on the state level or the entity level.
PETER KORCHNAK: Dodik asserts that Dayton did not provide for state institutions, that they were imposed by administrative order of the High Representative, and that, consequently, what he’s doing is merely returning to the original Dayton.
It is the international community’s involvement, or in some cases lack thereof, that has contributed to the current crisis.
For one, the Dayton Peace Agreement itself was imposed from the outside and its implementation in the country has been driven by the international community as well. The European Union maintains a small military presence in the country in the form of EUFOR, and the High Representative has the final word on legislation and can in fact drive it, as we saw in the case of the genocide denial law.
VALERY PERRY: I found that overall the experience of all of this in Brčko had been much more positive, and really, in many ways served as a model for reforms that should have been going on in the Federation and the Republika Srpska.
PETER KORCHNAK: Perry has investigated the role of the international community in the state-strengthening process in Brčko in the decade after the war.
VALERY PERRY: What I was interested in doing was trying to understand more whether or not peace implementation and the mechanisms of democratic peace building were more effective in one part of the country, Brčko district, where there was a very strong role by an international supervisor who was an American, and where for about seven years, they didn’t even have any local elections, from about 1997 till 2004 because there was the sense that local elections could possibly infect or reinfect the local polity with the same nationalism that we were seeing, trying to sort of raise up its head in other parts of the country, versus in the rest of the country where we there were elections very regularly since 1996. And so I wanted to study those two different elements in terms of local governance, the police reform, justice, sector education and a general sense of civic belonging in faith and confidence in democracy, versus the way it was being done in the two entities, which had more regular elections.
People in Brčko had more faith in the notion of democracy as a process and were more open minded in terms of joint life and the notion of the other in terms of different groups of people living together. And I found that interesting, because it really spoke to the negative role that a political and an electoral system can have on a society when all the incentives in that political or electoral system seem to promote polarization and electioneering to the extremes, which is unfortunately, what we’ve seen.
Since I’ve been working here, I’ve been able to see how this Dayton structure in the Dayton constitution have interacted with the political parties and actors on the ground, as well as the international community here to lead to a bizarre situation in which, after about 10 years of genuine forward-moving progress, we then have seen a reversal or regression, and now a lot of backsliding, especially over the past 13, 14, 15 years.
A lot of this really does come down to the electoral incentives that shape the way political actors behave and what they do. There is more attention to the fact that elections don’t automatically lead to accountable, non-corrupt democratic systems and that there really is a need more for a broader political culture that will promote the possibility for functionality, accountability, and in the case of Bosnia, ongoing peace building.
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PETER KORCHNAK: I’ve analyzed Yugoslavia’s (and Czechoslovakia’s) dissolutions in terms of elite mobilization, with different sides playing offense, making demands, and defense, giving in, until they get what they want. The game escalates and the state disintegrates when the international context allows for it. Though the current situation doesn’t quite fit the model in every way, it does have a distinct international dimension.
From the international relations perspective, international relations standpoint, how has the agreement or its impact evolve over the years, over the decades, I guess, now?
AIDA HOZIĆ: There are different Daytons circulating out there in the world of international relations. You know, there’s a Dayton that people in Bosnia living on daily basis, and I think a lot of that Dayton is kind of just muddling through, and living with a maze of completely nonsensical, bureaucratic institutions that have mushroomed, thanks to Dayton. Different powers of different entities within entities, different powers of counties, or internal offices, different ministries, an absurd number of ministries, and kind of bureaucrats who regulate your life, which remains largely unregulated. You know, for regular Bosnians, it really means kind of just somehow surviving that mess, in a certain sense, institutional mess that Dayton has created.
There is another Dayton which lives kind of in the memories of I think of American diplomats in particular. It’s very easy to forget, because Dayton is now considered as a success, as kind of this great success of interventionism, humanitarian interventionism, you know, kind of resolution to a war, end of carnage. It’s very easy to forget how non effective and actually counterproductive that policy was for the four years of the Bosnian war. By the time that kind of Dayton was signed, and then what happened in the aftermath of Dayton has led now this to this retrospective reinterpretation of events, and Dayton has become kind of a symbol of a successful peace agreement, successful because of the intervention and assertiveness of the United States, successful because it was supported by the military force so it’s kind of used as an example of muscular diplomacy.
And, and then, you know, it was kind of refracted also in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which was signed in Belfast, and then obviously, kind of served as a pretext for the intervention in NATO intervention in Kosovo, solution to the Kosovo problem, and then the Ohrid agreement, also in Macedonia in 2001. So there’s this kind of a, you know, specter of Dayton, I think.
And also Dayton serves as inspiration for other possible peace agreements around the world, okay. And that’s the part which I find particularly problematic. Yes, it was an agreement which ended the war, but it was a deeply flawed agreement whose, yes, whose specter haunts many other flawed agreements in its aftermath.
PETER KORCHNAK: I think of the Dayton Peace Agreement as the reverse of that quote or adage that war is a continuation of politics by other means. Dayton to me seems a continuation of war by other means in Bosnia Herzegovina. So yes, the interest of the various actors are there to keep each other in power etcetera. But at the same time, what’s going on there right now points to little bit of a change to what to that kind of a static, unchanging environment with the talk of secession, etcetera.
AIDA HOZIĆ: [The] geopolitical situation has changed since the signing of Dayton. When the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, that was the immediate post Cold War period. America really conceived of itself as having no particular opponents in the world. Russia was very weak at the time. And Europe was relatively disorganized in a certain sense. I mean, the Bosnian war was the best proof that Americans could offer to Europeans that they are not capable of running their own foreign affairs on their own.
Things have changed. There is a moment at the end of NATO bombing of Kosovo, which is very often forgotten. In June when the bombing was over, for a brief period of time, Russian troops occupied [the] airport in Pristina, even though that bombing was prepared for, negotiated with the Russian leadership, and the outcome was a foregone conclusion that NATO would probably come in and control Kosovo. But in June, when that became obvious, Russians actually tried to prevent the arrival of the NATO forces and occupied the airport. And the very little known man at the time was the head of the Russian Security Council, and his name was Vladimir Putin.
I think, as I have spoken with some of the diplomats, American diplomats, what they said was, you know, “we paid a lot of attention to Russians, but we really, we really, totally underestimated kind of the Russian security services at the time.” So they were underestimated in 1999 and then they continue to be very underestimated throughout the 2000s when America was busy fighting the global war on terror.
In the meantime, Russians figured out that they could actually play Monopoly in different ways: you can buy the most expensive streets where you can start buying cheap property, and kind of tried to control the map by buying cheap properties around. And so they started shopping for cheap properties where they knew that they would not provoke much of attention and they have expanded their influence throughout Central and Eastern Europe in the meantime. And the Balkans became one of those prime properties.
And the bits and pieces of the former Yugoslav properties have been changing hands, you know, Macedonia was for a while in the NATO camp, and then the same person who was running it became kind of a Russian puppet. Montenegro has been going back and forth. But Republika Srpska has basically, since the assassination of Zoran Djindjić, Serbian Prime Minister in 2003, Milorad Dodik who was once upon a time a kind of seen as the, as a breath of fresh air in Republic of Srpska politics has really become an ultra Serb nationalist and very much someone who I think could be seen as a very close ally of the Russians.
And so I think that that changing geopolitical situation is what’s driving some of the tensions at the moment in the former Yugoslavia and in Bosnia.
The big question is, Why is this happening now? What is it that the Russians might want with this? What is the EU position in all this? Where’s EU vis-a-vis Russia and vis-a-vis America? That agreement, which was already flawed to begin with, Dayton, has now metastasized into something that’s a very dangerous geopolitical power play.
TANJA TOPIĆ: I think the international community, a part of it anyway, committed a strategic error, not just in Bosnia and Herzegovina but in the whole region. Why do I say that? They favor stabilocracy, meaning they have a naive belief that only the current political leaders can guarantee stability and peace in the region. They are ignoring the autocratic tendencies of these leaders, they close their eyes before the fact that these people violated human rights in their countries, that they attacked freedom of conscience and the press, they blindly believed these leaders would be the stabilization factor.
A good portion of the international community believed that they can control Dodik through Serbia’s president Alexandar Vučić and stability in the country would be guaranteed. Now most international officials see Dodik as the most destabilizing factor in the Western Balkans.
Sanctions against politicians and Dodik in particular would not be advisable. If you sanction them, the Serbian characteristic of inat comes into the fore that will put them on a pedestal as heroes because they stood up to the foreign powers. It’s really difficult to understand this logic rationally, it’s emotionally charged and it’s a characteristic of Serbian politics.
PETER KORCHNAK: Speaking of strategic errors. For a long time the European Union used a powerful tool to manage the affairs in the Western Balkans: expansion. In 2016, Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for EU membership and received a list of requirements it had to meet for the official accession process to start.
For a number of reasons, expansion now seems off the table: EU citizens have cooled on it; Hungary’s and Slovenia’s and Poland’s behavior isn’t helping; and there’s simple petulance in some corners, just look at how North Macedonia has been jerked around over the past few years.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, little has happened around accession, there is no timeline for it, and public support for or even interest in it is on the wane. The whole process simply appears to be rigged and unfair to those outside the EU’s gates, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, and North Macedonia even perceived as anti-Muslim.
Any sort of punitive measures, like sanctions, have to be approved by all EU members and with Slovenia and Hungary palling around with Dodik, it’s clear such a measure would never pass; unlike the U.S., the EU has never sanctioned Dodik. The EU’s security presence in the country is minimal, with only a few hundred EUFOR troops, and the historical record, from the 1990s, poor.
So if EU accession, punitive measures, and security guarantees and deterrents are out, in other words if there are no carrots or sticks to motivate them, leaders in the region don’t have to try to appease the EU or meet its conditions or fear its wrath and, consequently feel more emboldened to do what they want.
Bottom line: the EU’s policy, such as it is, toward Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Western Balkans is failing, says Kurt Bassuener, Perry’s colleague at the Democratization Policy Council.
VALERY PERRY: So the past 25 years now, since last year was the 25-year anniversary of the Dayton agreement, has offered a lot of lessons in terms of what doesn’t work. But unfortunately, these lessons have been playing out at the same time as we’re seeing less and less interest in values-based engagement by the international community by the U.S., by the European Union, etcetera.
And this environment has gotten much more difficult, starting really in 2015, with the migrant crisis and the impact it had on Europe, and especially on Southeast Europe and the Balkans as a transit route, where we started to see less support for the values underneath human rights based democratic systems, and more and more populist rightward leaning fear based democratic systems, which ironically, mirrors the fear based populism that helped to tear apart Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
I think it’s important to sort of really see, see the engagement of the international community on an ark. And unfortunately, while things have been getting noticeably in regularly and unquestionably better up until around 2006 or so at around the same time that we saw the Americans wanting to shift their focus over to different conflicts, whether that would be Afghanistan, Iraq, etcetera. We saw the Europeans come in with a very different way of looking at the situation in Bosnia Herzegovina, wanting to believe that the local leaders were just like any other local leaders in terms of wanting progress, wanting things to move forward, and believing that they could apply the same strategy to EU enlargement and trying to integrate Bosnia into the European family that they had used in Estonia or Poland or the Czech Republic, and not really fully appreciating the extent to which the war had created facts on the ground and had really selected for a group of political elites who had profited from the war, from corrupt privatization, and from stagnation and to entrench themselves in a way that the European Union hadn’t seen before.
And so the model that Europe wanted to bring to Bosnia from around 2007, 2008 was never appropriate for the countries of the former Yugoslavia in light of what their experience had been during the war and after the war. And because there has not been a readiness by Brussels to admit that their model, their approach, their strategy, has failed to understand the situation and the nature of the political systems and the elites they’re dealing with, we’ve been in a sort of Groundhog Day where year after year we hear the same statements from the same bureaucrats in Brussels, we hear continued pledges of interest in reform without seeing any actual implementation on the ground.
And it’s led to a bizarre situation where it seems like more money is being spent by Brussels and others than ever before, while there’s less and less reform happening on the ground. And this is because the, the European Union and its partners and unfortunately, sometimes as well, the United States right now, are actually funding the institutions and systems that don’t want to reform because it’s actually this current status quo environment, where politicians have money coming in, have minimal accountability, maximum legitimacy on the world stage, on a European stage, which leads you to wonder why they would ever want to change the system. And I think this is what citizens here understand and have seen for years. And it’s going to take a lot for the West to find a way to get out of this negative cycle of supporting the very actors that don’t want reform.
PETER KORCHNAK: Being based in the US, you and I both, the American involvement, the American piece of it, is very much of interest. So does having a weak president that we have now play into that? And in what other ways is the US involved, and can the US be involved to improve things on the ground?
AIDA HOZIĆ: You just said it. I mean, we have a very weak president who is so preoccupied by domestic politics at this point that I don’t think he has much leverage to kind of forcefully shape global politics. So the big question for me is not so much, “What what can President Biden do?” The big question is whether he wants and can do anything. And therefore, the bigger question is, “What is it that the Russians want and how far are they going to push for it?” And whether or not they’re willing to use violence for it, or they will just continue to play Monopoly the way that they have done over the past 20 years.
And of course, it’s just a guessing game. I mean, I don’t have a crystal ball. I’m not talking to anyone in the Kremlin, you know, I’m not talking to anyone in the White House, so I have no idea.
But one thing, which is often forgotten is Yalta was the high day of Soviet foreign policy, the moment when they could translate the tremendous losses of World War Two into something which were gains to securitize the Soviet space, or at least that’s how it was interpreted. Given the dreams that Putin has and his desires to kind of create this continuous history of Russia, that goes from Imperial times through the Soviet times through the post-Soviet times is one one big, grand history of a grand nation, I would not be surprised that he wants something like that, that he wants a big negotiated agreement, which would keep the United States out of those spaces that Russia considers critical to its own survival. But I’m not sure that he has a partner for that.
PETER KORCHNAK: So we can expect a bunch of men going to a military base in Russia?
AIDA HOZIĆ: We can expect is a lot of incidents, okay, we can expect a lot of provocations, we can expect an even greater number of the already corrupt politicians becoming clients of one great power or another and then switching sides. And that period of uncertainty can go on for a while, whether it will, whether it’s going to explode into something else is another question but I think these shows of force and incidents will continue.
And for those who are so traumatized by the war, who have to live through it again, you know, it’s very difficult. It’s easy for me to look at them and say, “Oh, yes, this is Russia playing Monopoly on a board game. It’s a very different thing if you have to live through that through day to day and never know if some Karadžić is once again going to show up on the hill and start killing children with a sniper.
PETER KORCHNAK: As in many other places, when the Americans and the Europeans step out, the Russians (and to an extent, the Chinese) step in.
When the EUFOR mission renewal came up at the UN Security Council earlier this month, Russia managed to strip the resolution of any mention of the international Office of the High Representative (OHR). The OHR is the civilian body overseeing the implementation of Dayton and the country’s unity, and so omitting it from the resolution as a concession to Russia and China is tantamount to admitting Dayton is dying. Bassuener has called it “the EU’s humiliating failure;” Tony Barber, writing in the Financial Times, called it “a defeat for Western diplomacy and another nail in the coffin of the Dayton peace settlement.” As a result, concludes Barber, “Far from calming tensions, the west’s complicity in the dismal politics of ethnic partition will simply store up trouble for the future.”
VALERY PERRY: Right now, it’s difficult to see a new positive Western engagement in Bosnia, but also in the whole of the Western Balkans, as we’ve seen what has been happening in Afghanistan since the pullout of the Americans so quickly, with the terrible images we’ve all seen and the terrible human consequence, because of the apparent lack of thorough consultation with the allies that have been supporting the United States in Afghanistan for so long. And even though we can already hear a number of analysts talk about the fact that perhaps the Biden administration felt that they needed to rip off the band aid and do it this way, it’s hard to imagine that this is not going to have some sort of a lasting impact on American transatlantic allies, whether that would be NATO, the EU and the UK, in terms of how they deal with the US.
And I mention that because it will be difficult to sort of see how this trust can be rebuilt in terms of engagement on the international realm. Unfortunately, some of the illiberal actors like China and like Russia are already seeing how they will be able to use the exit from Afghanistan to their advantage.
But this could also spill over into the Western Balkans. The geopolitics of the region, have been changing for a number of years as, for example, Putin has become much more of an opportunistic spoiler in the region. But as China has also sought to really try to expand its influence as part of its broader Belt and Road initiative but also its interest in really trying to have a presence, an economic presence, if nothing else, in the Western Balkans.
PETER KORCHNAK: With all that, the number one concern on everyone’s mind is the possibility of another conflict.
TANJA TOPIĆ: Indeed, a lot of people I talk to are asking whether there will be another war. Dodik has managed to frighten people of both entities into asking whether war is possible. That this question comes up shows how dangerous the situation has become to ordinary citizens. Ordinary people face existential problems, they face a difficult public health situation. They’re worried, they’re under pressure, and so this whole thing just makes their life more difficult.
Maybe I’m naive but I personally don’t think a war is even possible in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am not excluding the possibility of some incidents, but I think Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska especially, is an impoverished, devastated place. For example, 81,000 people left Bosnia and Herzegovina in the first half of this year. People are leaving because they are tired, they are exhausted by the politics that generates constant tension, intolerance, and hate, and so they decide to leave with their families, and they’re mostly young and educated.
In 2014, we had huge floods here. Most of the country suffered. The worst part was that we did not have any reserves, on both the state and entity level, of basic tools and equipment needed to deal with these floods. Things like boots and shovels required to provide first, basic assistance. Same thing during the pandemic. In the first months of the pandemic we had absolutely nothing. We didn’t have face masks, we didn’t have gloves. And what were the politicians doing? They were taking photos at airports with humanitarian aid flying in from foreign countries to show how well they succeeded in assisting the citizens. And they enriched themselves with irregular purchases of respirators and medicines. Some have been arrested and are being tried for that corruption.
So I’m asking the next logical questions. What material resources do we have to wage a new war? What human resources do we have for war? There are fewer and fewer people ready to be manipulated to go to war to protect the wealth of those who plundered the country.
For these reasons I am discounting the possibility of war.
PETER KORCHNAK: I’m not big on predictions, but once the dust over Dodik’s opening salvos settled, many observers reached the same conclusion. While sporadic incidents may be in the offing, rather than lead up to war, they would be part of a brinkmanship game. Reminds me of what the Kims have been doing in North Korea for decades or perhaps of what toddlers do when testing boundaries.
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How to Fix Dayton
PETER KORCHNAK: So what is to be done? The first thing that comes to mind is, if Dayton doesn’t work, let’s fix it. How can Dayton be fixed? Can it be fixed?
TANJA TOPIĆ: I don’t think Dayton will be reformed, that there will be a Dayton 2.0. I completely dismiss this possibility. The status of the frozen conflict which we have in Bosnia and Herzegovina suits the ethno nationalists perfectly. They divided the territory, they rule over life and death here, they control the finances, they control all public resources, they spread nationalism, they feed off of each other—and that’s how they stay in power.
But I think a reform is possible in the sense of generational change, when we’ll see a political generation without the war background that will not build its politics on spreading hate, nationalism, and division.
I want to hope for a reform of Dayton that will make Bosnia and Herzegovina a rule-of-law country. Such a country would mean we wouldn’t have politicians who subject the judiciary to their control, who are connected with criminal elements, who are corrupted, and who are not interested in ensuring everyone is equal before the law.
AIDA HOZIĆ: It’s very difficult to dismantle Republika Srpska now. It’s very difficult to dial back Croat nationalism and their desire for the third entity. So I can only speak in terms of what my aspirations would be.
How to fix it, I think would require a tremendous leap of faith by international actors who can influence the things on the ground, to actually enable very different people to come to power, to kind of loosen up the institutional straitjackets of Dayton and allow a new generation of people who think differently about politics to come to the fore.
And there were moments and there were pressures and there were protests in Bosnia, that actually were asking for that, and I think that there are a lot of smart people who would be more than capable of leading Bosnia in a very different way. But the international actors want people who can deliver. That’s the kind of the Washington and EU term is deliverables like who can do that, you know, so they prefer these thugs to actually kind of people who would, who would lead Bosnia but also I think other places on this Monopoly map. They prefer those who will be loyal and who wield violence.
PETER KORCHNAK: You say tremendous leap of faith. To me it’s not just that but it’s a tremendous leap of creativity because we tend to think in you know, past dependent ways, you know, what’s happened before and so forth. And so maybe there’s things that we haven’t even thought about or powers that be haven’t even thought about in terms of solutions or maybe in terms of even like thinking that something needs to be changed because it seems to have quote unquote worked in so many so many ways.
AIDA HOZIĆ: Whenever they try to make whenever they try to fix things, and I’m thinking here, primarily the EU and US diplomats, whenever they’re trying to fix things, the easiest way for them is to turn to the same party leaders that they had negotiated before, and then go into some room, you know, and try to try to make try to make a deal with them. So they don’t even invite anybody else in, and if they do, it’s for decoration, it’s not really for any kind of substantive change.
PETER KORCHNAK: “Unwilling to reckon with its failing policy in Bosnia and Herzegovina…the EU’s political leadership is turning to bureaucratic triage to camouflage failure: collaborating with local ethnic leaders to achieve pacification,” writes Bassuener for Carnegie Europe. Smells like appeasement spirit to me.
Bosnia’s “citizens now are growing to see the EU and the United States as just two of many self-absorbed geopolitical actors—and incompetent hypocrites to boot,” concludes Bassuener. “All their talk about anti-corruption rings hollow as they desperately seek deals with Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ethnic godfathers. The message citizens…are hearing is: if you believe in liberal democratic values, the rule of law, and societies of equality that protect the dignity of the individual, the…EU isn’t in your corner. You’re on your own. The EU is with your leaders.”
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VALERY PERRY: I think in the long run, history has shown us that autocratic systems systematically degrade people. And I don’t think that we can ever underestimate the extent to which people’s pursuit of dignity as a human need and as a human right can help people to positively radicalize.
There hasn’t been a dictatorship in history that has been able to ensure human dignity. So as long as we can try to support individuals from the bottom up, make sure that international diplomatic strategies are aimed at supporting actors who really do share the same values we say we want to promote, then I think that we can be a bit more optimistic looking forward.
PETER KORCHNAK: The 2014 floods Topić talked about put a stop to a wave of protests that had started in February in Tuzla, against corrupt privatization and asset stripping of large local companies, and spread across the whole country, eventually turning violent, with government buildings set on fire. “The protests…bubbled up out of long-simmering discontent at a sluggish economy, mismanagement, corruption and unemployment,” wrote The Guardian at the time.
The protests were soon dubbed the Bosnian Spring. After years of apathy, Bosnia’s citizens, mostly in the Federation, had enough and rose up in anger. This was, “the largest and most dramatic wave of civic protests since” 1995, wrote Larisa Kurtović and Azra Hromadžić in their analysis of the 2014 events.
More importantly, Kurtović and Hromadžić continue, the protests led to the creation of plenums, essentially town hall assemblies, “where protesters collectively articulated their grievances against the country’s corrupt and deeply unpopular political authorities. The plenums emphasized Bosnia’s pressing problems of widespread unemployment, rising poverty and corruption, and in so doing sidelined the ossified nationalist rhetoric and identity politics.” With the plenums, “protesters sought to break out of the impasses of post-Dayton ethnic politics by actively recuperating and representing alternative visions of participatory politics and popular sovereignty…” To Kurtović and Hromadžić, these “efforts signal[ed] the emergence of a new kind of prefigurative politics that provide alternative practices of political organization, decision-making, and sociability in Bosnia and beyond.” End quote.
In other words, if the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is to improve, if Dayton is to be reformed, or even replaced, it will be a bottom-up, popular effort that gets the job done. Perhaps it’s the only thing that can.
VALERY PERRY: What I think is necessary in Bosnia today is something we haven’t seen happen yet, which would be to look at the Dayton constitution in a fundamentally different way and as the basis for discussing a new post-Dayton social contract.
The constitution that Dayton bequeathed onto the country had never been discussed among people, had never even been translated officially into the local language here, and was completely disconnected from service delivery, from accountability, from anti corruption measures, from responsibility.
And what we haven’t seen is a real bottom-up discussion about what kind of vision people have for the country and what they want to see for the country. This is going to sound idealistic, but I don’t think it’s impossible because what people want is consistent: people want accountability, they want responsibility, and perhaps most of all, they want dignity.
People, especially outside the main population centers are very frustrated by a system where they feel that they’re denied dignity, that they feel that they have to pay a bribe for their children to get into school, to get a job, to get justice, etcetera. Where they feel they can’t speak freely, because they could lose a job, where they feel they have to buy into the patronage system to get ahead. And it’s these daily indignities that is what’s driving people to leave this country in record numbers over the past few years.
It’s not simply an issue of jobs, because people who have jobs, people who have good jobs, including in international organizations for example, are leaving because they feel their children won’t have perspective, vision, and a sense that they could live a life of dignity here in the future. So any discussions on the social contract need to be about getting to those fundamental human needs, that can give you the ability to ensure that you can live a life of dignity and that your children can as well.
There needs to be a discussion about how people want their society to function. And then you can create the political mechanisms to do that. Trying to support a real bottom-up discussion about a social contract, what people want, has to be the way to move forward with any optimism. And again, I know this is going to sound idealistic, but it’s not impossible.
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[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Balkan Gypsy Party” by John Bartmann]
PETER KORCHNAK: Some countries change their constitutions through a special convention. This is the process underway in Chile, when after massive protests an agreement was reached to adopt a new constitution. A referendum was held whether or not to do it through a Constitutional Convention, then a special election for the Convention members. That election had seats reserved for indigenous groups, was designed for gender parity, and yielded a completely different political arrangement than the status quo.
Sounds great for a unitary, centralized state, right, but I don’t see a way for something like this to work in Bosnia and Herzegovina under the current structure. But what if the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina managed something like this outside the political system? A parallel structure, say. There is precedent for it, in the region even. In Kosovo, Albanians in the 1990s ran parallel government structures as an alternative to Serbia’s administration. They basically built a new system outside the existing one and put it in place at an opportune moment. Parallel states typically arise in countries under dictatorship, like in Myanmar right now; under occupation, where the parallel state often operates in exile; or under other oppressive, unpopular situations.
Who’s to say it couldn’t be done under an internationally imposed constitution that is no longer working for a country’s ordinary citizens? This would, of course, require mass action and some form of consensus on a scale as yet unseen in Bosnia, again an unrealistic scenario in all likelihood.
This podcast is about remembering Yugoslavia. That country was born out of a revolution and ended up being quite unique among socialist countries with its open, market-like system and unique in its geopolitical standing as well with its nonaligned stance. I’m not saying Bosnia and Herzegovina ought to be a socialist country, but I am saying that if a diverse peoples could create a new system before, they can do it again. Perhaps I’m optimistic too, but don’t quote me on that.
[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:
IRINA JANAKIEVSKA: What if, as a way of remembering her and honoring her memory, I set out on this journey of teaching myself to cook like her, like my mother in the long line of inspiring Balkan women in my family.
Food is an important part of many cultures, including in the former Yugoslavia. What do people eat in the region? What does food mean for ex-Yugoslavs? Can I make a sarma? On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: in search of Yugoslav cuisine.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.
[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, links, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by John Bartmann, other additional music by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Special thanks to Lindsay Sauve and Una Hajdari.
I am Peter Korchňak.