Bosnia and Herzegovina was not created in 1995, because Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as its peoples, the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks, precede the Dayton Peace Agreement. All of them developed Bosnia and Herzegovina as their state during history. In 1995, the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks did not create BiH, and no representatives of the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks participated in the peace negotiations, instead Izetbegović, Milošević and Tuđman were negotiating as state Presidents . In the achieved agreement, everyone agreed that after the war “Bosnia and Herzegovina would continue its legal existence (...) along with further international recognition“.
When politicians create historical narratives, it constitutes an abuse of history
The commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Operation “Storm” (“Oluja”) in Knin (Croatia) was marked by the presence of Deputy Prime Minister of the Croatian Government Mr. Boris Milošević, a Serb by nationality, and, besides that, the organisers forbade the presence of right-wing extremists wearing Ustasha symbols at the central square. On the other hand, government representatives from Serbia gathered in Sremska Rača (Serbia), lead by President Aleksandar Vučić, together with a part of Serbian representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), lead by Milorad Dodik, member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both events likewise carry a great symbolic message: in Knin it is the proof that Croatian Serbs are finally accepting the reality of the existence of an integral Croatian state, and one can read from the events in Rača that the concept of creating a single Serbian state also encompassing the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to live on. Still, in Bosnia and Herzegovina the most reactions concerned the statements of Croatian President Zoran Milanović, in which he touched upon the character of the war lead during the 1990ies, the status of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the position of Croats in it, as well as the fact that he was awarding distinctions to certain units from BiH, which as an integral part of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) and the Ministry of the Interior (MUP) participated in Operation Storm in 1995. Those reactions mainly expressed the dissatisfaction with the fact that a “left-wing President“, by honouring Croatian units from BiH whose commanders were indicted for war crimes in BiH, is betraying the “idea of anti-fascism“, flirting with nationalism, and the like. Thereby, however, it is being forgotten that Milanović’s statements and his behaviour should be examined in the context of his position: he is the President of the Republic of Croatia, and the politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina should understand and finally learn that others do not do politics in accordance with our expectations, but with the expectations of their citizens.
Still, some of Milanović’s statements, as well as the distinctions he awarded to some military and police units from Bosnia and Herzegovina, do deserve certain attention, as this concerns moves that have more long-term messages that usual statements when commemorating Operation Storm. Namely, they are an excellent example of how politicians are creating historical narratives. However, these narratives of Milanović are not historically accurate, although at first glance they appear to be completely realistic.
Milanović, in fact, stated that “[BiH] was a state that was created based on the agreement between three peoples and that some rights were stolen from the Croats“. At first glance, this claim of his might appear reasonable, but it simply is not correct. Bosnia and Herzegovina was not created in 1995, because Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as its peoples, the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks, precede the Dayton Peace Agreement. All of them developed Bosnia and Herzegovina as their state during history. In 1995, the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks did not create BiH, and no representatives of the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosniaks participated in the peace negotiations, instead Izetbegović, Milošević and Tuđman were negotiating as state Presidents (which is also testified by Richard Holbrooke, who wrote that even the halls in which the negotiations took place were arranged in such a way that there was not even one chair on which the representatives of the Bosnian Croats or Serbs might possibly sit, should they manage to sneak into the hall at all). In the achieved agreement, everyone agreed that after the war “Bosnia and Herzegovina would continue its legal existence (...) along with further international recognition“. Thus, neither the Dayton Peace Agreement, nor the Constitution as an integral part of the Agreement, state nowhere that a new state is being created, instead the continuity of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina is mentioned, and Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks are mentioned as constituent peoples, but “Others” and “citizens” are mentioned as well, who also have their rights in BiH. Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state had different territorial organisations in its history, and the most recent territorial organisation, and not a new state, was created in 1995. Moreover, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina was signed in Dayton, and the signing “parties“ were the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republic of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
As a justification for this statement of Milanović, it is stated that there is a difference between modern BiH as an independent state, which is the “result of the agreement between three peoples“, and the earlier Bosnia and Herzegovina. That is correct, but the foundations of Bosnian-Herzegovinian statehood were not set with the “agreement between three peoples“. The essence of this statement of Milanović lies in insisting on the “agreement between three peoples“, because by such a definition, the character of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina is factually determined, and it is important to Milanović, as the President of Croatia, to avoid the qualification that the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina had the character of an international conflict in which Croatia was involved, which is testified by some court rulings from The Hague (the judgement in the case of “Prlić and others“). With such statements, Milanović is simultaneously giving amnesty to Croatia from any sort of involvement in the war events in BiH, and shifting everything to conflicts of the “three peoples“, which, in that narrative, eventually came to an agreement on Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Milanović’s statement how “some rights were stolen from the Croats“ likewise is not correct. The facts, actually, are that there was no stealing of Croatian rights, not even the manner of electing members of the Presidency has changes as compared to the Dayton Constitution. There were interventions of the international community in order to enable the better functioning of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whereby maybe the most profound changes were made in 2002, with the so-called Petritsch Amendments, by which the constitutionality and equality of Croats and Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska was restored, as well as of the Serbs in the Federation of BiH, by which “the final blow was given to those (…) wishing to divide (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and that is the essence of the (…) outcries (of those attacking these amendments)”, as was assessed a long time ago by Krešimir Zubak, former President of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus, this does not concern “stealing rights from Croats“, but attempts to break the ethno-territorial principle of the functioning of the state, and to enable equal rights on the whole territory of the state to the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, we are witnesses that the Croatian Democratic Union of BiH (HDZ BiH) and some other exclusively Croatian political parties, as well as some other associations and individuals, keep bringing up the issue of the position of Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A serious dialogue in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian society should finally be opened with regard to that issue, in order to clarify it once and for all. As long as there is no thorough discussion, in which everyone needs to be involved – room is left for various manipulations, and only the nationalist political elites benefit from that. However, it should be acknowledged that Milanović acts as the Croatian President in this case as well, and not the Bosnian-Herzegovinian one.
That is where we also come to Milanović’s following statement how “not everyone who was convicted in The Hague is a war criminal “. Milanović needs such claims in order to give amnesty to the ones convicted in The Hague, who are associated with Croatia’s participation in the war events in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Still, it should be emphasised that all persons who were definitely convicted in The Hague, but also before other courts, are war criminals, and it makes absolutely no difference whether this concerns Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Albanians or any other nation. Such a relationship of Milanović towards court rulings is entirely consistent with the relationship towards court rulings of the other political leaders from the Balkans: accepting only rulings in their favour. When the Court acquits general Gotovina – then the Court has reached a fair verdict, but when it convicts Prlić and others, and connects their crimes to Croatia’s responsibility – then the verdicts are not fair! That lack of principles, characteristic of Balkan political leaders, is nothing new. Court verdicts, and therefore also neither the verdicts of the Court in The Hague, do not present war history, but they define the responsibility of the individual for concrete crimes precisely. It is the task of historians to research the war further, to explain contexts and interpret war events differently, in order to obtain a comprehensive picture of the war events, but politicians, including President Milanović, should respect court verdicts, especially the ones that have already become legally effective.
Milanović has interpreted awarding a distinction to some guards brigades of the HVO from Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Special Unit of the Ministry of the Interior of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia as honouring units contributing to the success of Operation Storm. It is a fact that those units participated in Operation Storm, but this distinction demonstrates in a symbolic sense the unbreakable bond between the Croatian Army from Croatia (HV) and the Croatian Defence Council from BiH (HVO). Has Milanović by this act honoured and rehabilitated Herzeg-Bosnia? Considering the totality of his behaviour at the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Operation Storm, that is precisely what might be deducted! The problem is that a distinction was also received by general Zlatan Mijo Jelić, who was indicted for war crimes committed in Mostar. Milanović is formally right when he claims that he is awarding the distinction to units that contributed to the success of Operation Storm, and he does not assess the other actions of military and police units during the war. That is, Milanović is awarding the distinction to an officer who was not convicted of war crimes, but against whom an investigation was launched and who was indicted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, it would also be good if he would advocate as the President of Croatia for all persons indicted for war crimes to be brought before a court. And prove their innocence.
What do these distinctions mean for historiography? Nothing! Milanović is not a historian, but a politician. He is not writing his doctoral thesis in history, he is in politics and holds political speeches. His goal is not the searching for the historical truth, but creating narratives that can help to improve his political position. I do not even believe that historians will refer to Milanović at all in order to support his interpretations of war. It is the task of historians to point to historical falsifications, committed frequently by politicians. Milanović’s awarding of distinctions remains solely as a testimony that politicians are actively building narratives on the war, and based on the same model as others politicians in the region. The “war of remembering“ the wars during the 1990ies will continue, and politicians will continue to participate in it. However, such narratives do not contribute to cooperation on the Balkans. And politicians, especially the leaders of those small countries of ours, should pursue a policy of calming passions and building mutual trust and cooperation. Arguing will not take us to a good place.