Ambassadors Archive 2

Bosnia -- Under War’s Shadow


An Interview with Ambassador Mitar Kujundzic

By Alan Dessoff

It’s a short walk across a park from the Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Washington to the State Department, but while that facilitates access to America’s foreign policy headquarters for newly arrived Ambassador Mitar Kujundzic, he might find his job to be no easy walk in the park.

Fourteen years after a brutal war in his country ended in an agreement negotiated by the U.S. at an Air Force base near Dayton, Ohio, the war and its aftermath still shadow Bosnia’s relations with the U.S. as well as with other countries in the European Union and NATO, both of which Bosnia strives to join.

From the unusual rotating presidency at the top of his parliamentarian democratic government to landlines remaining from the war that continue to cause deaths and injuries, Kujundzic, trained as a mechanical engineer, is called on to address sensitive issues that require all the skills he has developed in 11 years in Bosnia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Barely two months into his Washington posting, for example, Kujundzic said it was “very difficult” for him to talk about statements made early this year by Haris Silajdzic, a member of the Bosnian presidency. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, Silajdzic said in an interview with the paper that increased U.S. engagement and enforcement of the principles of the Dayton Peace Accords are essential to avoid a repeat of the 1992-1995 conflict.

According to the WSJ, Silajdzic said Bosnia, a country slightly smaller than West Virginia, remains ethnically divided between Muslims, Serbs and Croats. He cited “benign neglect” since the Dayton accord and international “fatigue” Bosnia faces in trying to resolve its issues, both of which create a “potentially destabilizing situation” that could lead to a new conflict.

“It is very difficult for me to talk about it,” said Kujundzic, a Serb, when questioned about Silajdzic’s statements. “I can not comment on a statement made by a member of the presidency.” At another point, he said he was “not familiar” with what Sliajdzic had said and was “not authorized to comment specifically” on it.

“I can only suppose he was trying to stress the partnership, the friendship” between the U.S. and his country and that “the already very high level of cooperation and relations between them should be preserved and more developed,” Kujundzic said. Since the war ended with the Dayton accord, he continued, “there has been peace and everything has gone in a good direction,” with no security incidents or attacks on international peacekeeping forces, who have been reduced from 60,000 initially from NATO to 2,500 now from the European Union.

“We are very grateful to the United States for everything they did for peace. The Americans successfully led the efforts to end the war after some previous peace negotiators failed,” Kujundzic said. Today, he said, Bosnia maintains “very close contact” with the U.S., with “political cooperation at a very high level” and “consultations on every significant issue.” The U.S. “has been very supportive all these years; there is no real conflict of interest.”

Bosnia’s principal foreign policy goals today, Kujundzic emphasized, are membership in the European Union and NATO and the U.S. has been “very supportive” of both, especially towards NATO membership. Since 2006, Kujundzic said, Bosnia has participated in the NATO Partnership for Peace program. Bosnian troops also joined the NATO mission in Afghanistan and until last year Bosnia participated in the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, withdrawing “with permission of the Iraqi government, as other countries did,” Kujundzic said.

While Silajdzic spoke of continuing ethnic divisions in Bosnia, Kujundzic said the ethnic cleansing that took place during the war “was a matter of individual involvement of some people and can not damage the general relations” between Bosnia and other countries. “In general,” he said, Serbia was not responsible for the genocide that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina and relations with Serbia now “are generally good,” notwithstanding “some minor issues.”

But he added that “some people were very involved in war crimes,” and whether they were “high in the chain of command or ordinary soldiers,” they must be brought to justice before either the International Criminal Court in the Hague or domestic courts in Bosnia, and “held responsible for everything they did during the war.” One of them is Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general indicted for ordering the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica in 1995. He remains at large and “we are sure he is not in the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina,” Kujundzic said.

He acknowledged that the aftermath of the war still is experienced in other ways. Most refugees have returned to their pre-war homes, although “in some cases, the people didn’t want to return” and remained in other countries, Kujundzic said. Also, many children lost their parents during the war and some “must be affected by what happened to their parents; they can not forget it forever.” But although some in the “new generation” remember the war, “they are not bothered by it,” he said.

Kujundzic emphasized that “there is no hatred” among the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina today. “You can ask anybody, in any village or city, on the street, if they feel the other people are enemies, and they would say ‘no.’ That doesn’t mean the war didn’t hurt relations, but it didn’t hurt in a way that couldn’t be repaired in a few years. They have been living together for centuries,” he asserted.

When telephone lines were reestablished immediately after the war, “people started to call their friends and acquaintances on the other side” and three years later, Bosnians had “complete freedom of movement” throughout the country,” Kujundzic said.

Land mines are one issue still unresolved from the war. There were two million of them when the war ended and although about 500,000 remain, deaths and injuries are “very seldom,” Kujundzic said. It is a government priority to “get rid of them” and the most dangerous places are known and marked, he said.

The Associated Press reported late last year that more than 600 square miles of territory—an area larger than Los Angeles—are still riddled by mines and the impoverished country is having trouble coming up with money it needs to get rid of them. When Sarajevo, which hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, bid for the 2010 games, it was eliminated from consideration largely because ski slopes and a bobsled run that would be used were still heavily mined, according to the AP report.

Still, tourism, a government focus, is improving with “good facilities for skiing and hiking,” Kujundzic said. In Sarajevo, the capital, “almost everything has been repaired” and many new buildings have been constructed. But while construction continues, he acknowledges that unemployment “remains a problem.” It is officially about 43 percent and rising, according to the Associated Press, although Kujundzic maintains it is less than that.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was among the poorer areas of the old Yugoslav Federation and remains one of the poorer countries in Europe today. Although it has made considerable progress since peace was reestablished following the Dayton Accords, it still is regarded as a transition economy and sees the long-term goal pf EU membership as a driver to further economic growth and development. The banking sector has been fully reformed, with a significant inflow of foreign banks, and although lending has slowed significantly since 2008, Kujundzic make the point that “no bank has failed so far.”

According to the most recent census, conducted in 1991, before the war, Bosnians, who are Muslim, made up 48 percent of the population; Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, comprised 34 percent; and Croats, who are Roman Catholics, represented 15 percent. The remaining ethnic divisions in the country are reflected today in the presidency, which rotates every eight months among three members—a Bosniak, Serb and Croat, each elected for a four-year term.

“All are equal” and obliged to “represent the common opinions on issues. No one is authorized to represent the view of only one side,” Kujundzic explained. Accordingly, Silajdzic’s remarks should represent “the views of the whole government,” Kujundzic said.

Among other assignments before his Washington posting, Kujundzic headed the American desk in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and served as Bosnia’s Ambassador to Germany. Now getting settled in Washington with his wife and four-year-old daughter, “I like it here very much,” Kujundzic said.