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Belt and Road in the EU, Central and East Europe : Roads of challenges

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Today at a broader diplomatic and strategic level, the BRI has become a symbol of China’s growing importance in international affairs, changing regional dynamics in geographical areas close to or even within Europe. At the most basic level, the strategic implications of expanding China’s policy in the EU stem not so much from a set of projects with a single link, but from its comprehensive nature.

China-related initiatives, such as the AIIB and the BRI, have already changed the global financial development landscape. Similarly, in the sphere of security relations, there is a need to protect assets and citizens abroad leading to the“securitization” of Chinese BRI participation abroad, which is likely to significantly change China’s role in the regions of European interests. Within Europe, and in conjunction with sub–regional “mini-initiatives” in China, such as CEE 16 + 1, the BRI also contributes to changes in the policy-making landscape in Europe and China.

When analyzing China’s relations with CEE countries in the framework of the BRI initiative, it should be noted that the initiative was put forward with the principle of mutual complementarity of economies, taking into account the differences between China and neighboring countries, as well as taking into account all existing shortcomings in the infrastructure of all prospective participants in this economic project. Such complementarity provides an important basis for long-term business cooperation between China and neighboring countries, and even the creation of the Eurasian Union could not affect the complementarity of the economic systems of China and neighboring countries, because only in the process of joint efforts to create the “Silk Road Economic belt” will it be possible to fully overcome the underdevelopment of infrastructure in this region.

The Chinese government emphasizes that the “One belt, One road” initiative “complements” existing national and European plans (for example, the so-called “Junker plan” or plans promoted by individual EU member States) to develop infrastructure and expand connectivity in Europe and beyond. Most of the ambassadors in European countries note the importance of the BRI and its significance for the development of relations between China and European countries.

Analyzing the role of CEE countries in the implementation of the Chinese “One belt, One road” initiative, it can be noted that the specifics of the region’s countries are the potential for market development and geographical advantages. An important role is played by projects to create continental and Maritime transport routes that can transport goods between China and Europe. In developing cooperation, first of all, it is necessary to focus on market requirements, follow the principle of “first simple – then complex”, avoid political risks, give enterprises a guiding role and take into account the leading role of important projects.

It should also be underlined that in the format of the initiative, there are equal partnerships between all countries, it does not have strict mechanisms, and its structure allows for multi-level, multi-layered cooperation that covers all areas of collaboration, including politics, economy and humanitarian exchanges. This multi-functional format is useful for promoting bilateral relations between China and the CEE countries, and it can also play a stimulating role in the development of China – Europe relations. At the same time , when building ties between within the 16 + 1 format and China – EU cooperation, a number of questions arise that cause concern in the EU government circles about the role played by the PRC in the region.

Today the CEE region is located at the junction of the “Economic Belt of the New Silk Road” and the “Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century”. Both routes connecting the markets of Europe and Asia – sea and land-pass through it; it performs an important function of ensuring the passage of commodity flows. The CEE region has the advantage of location; through it, cargo is sent overland from Western China via Russia or Central Asia to Western Europe. China gains a strategic advantage from redistributing some of its Maritime supplies, reducing the use of the Strait of Malacca. In addition, there are commercial considerations: in terms of time, this overland route speeds up transportation twice as compared to the usual way of delivery by sea with reloading to the railway, and at a price it is much more profitable than air transportation.

The sea route from China to the Greek port of Piraeus for the delivery of goods to the Balkan Peninsula, which lies at the intersection of transit communications in Europe, Asia and Africa, has great prospects. Currently, 80% of cargo from China to Europe goes through the Atlantic ocean to the ports of Northern Europe. The sea route through the Arabian sea and the Suez canal to the Balkans will reduce the transport time by 7 – 10 days: this is the shortest sea route from China to Europe. However, to do this, CEE needs to build transport infrastructure, which the region has a huge need for. This is especially true for the Balkan Peninsula, which has entered a period of stable development after riots and wars that caused serious damage to infrastructure.

The membership of 11 of the 16 CEE countries in the EU is an advantage that provides “system guarantees”. EU members and candidates comply with European laws and standards, which reduces the risks for Chinese investment in infrastructure projects. According to the researcher, continuing economic growth and expanding market demand make the CEE region an ideal “target market”. Thus, political stability has bring results, and in the first decade of the XXI century many Central and Eastern European countries have gone from “transition countries” to European representatives of “new markets”. This is not only a transport corridor on the way to the core of traditional Europe, but also an increasingly important investment and consumer market in itself. It is attractive because the laws there are European, but land and labor are cheaper than in Western Europe.

Based on the analysis of China – CEE relations, it can be seen that cooperation between China, the EU and CEE countries can also contribute to the balanced development of Europe. The bilateral ties between China and CEE for 70 years have laid a solid Foundation for cooperation in the 16+1 format. The relationship is now entering a new era of multilateral cooperation that is not focused on a single European sub-region, but reflects Trans-regional characteristics. Thus, when analyzing the relations between China and the countries of the region, we should not limit ourselves to the regional level, but we should go to the Trans-regional and global scale.

For example, the 16+1 initiative is an inter-regional cooperation in which China focuses on linking its efforts with those of Europe and considers rail links, ports and foreign direct investment as the basis for ensuring balanced development and social cohesion in European countries. For example, the construction of a railway between Hungary and Serbia was far more important for both countries than obtaining short-term economic benefits. It is part of an Express route connecting land and sea from the port of Piraeus across the Balkan Peninsula to the main corridor in Europe. In the future, the Express route will be extended to cover new areas near the three seas that wash the coasts of the CEE countries.

However, the economic relations between China and the CEE countries are still underdeveloped, but they have a great future due to the fact that China is one of the most important investors in Europe. Thus, it is worth noting that before the start of cooperation in the 16+1 format, Chinese investment and trade were not spatially balanced and were concentrated in the North – Western part of Europe. Due to the poorly developed transport infrastructure, trade between China and the CEE countries was carried out through the ports and railways of Germany, Holland and France.

More importantly, China has begun to develop cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries in the field of innovation. This is a very promising direction. At the summit in Dubrovnik in 2019, China and the CEE countries expressed the idea of building a bridge as a sign of strengthening cooperation between China and the EU, which would reflect the great potential of China and Eastern European countries as partners with the same level of development.

The projects that China is able to offer are thought out comprehensively and can be effectively implemented with the participation of state corporations. They will help countries like Croatia achieve their goals faster and more effectively. In short, the 16 + 1 Initiative will help transform this region from a marginal region of Europe to a link between Europe and China.

Cooperation in the 16 + 1 format is sub-regional in nature, but the PPI will help it become a Trans-regional way of developing connectivity on land, in the air, in the ocean, and on the Internet. Now even North Africa and the middle East can become part of this interface. Its results will be systemic in nature.

The goal of China’s cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries is not to continue to use CEE countries as a trade route, but to combine the industrial development needs of these countries with China’s large production capacity, using the potential of Central and Eastern European countries in the Chinese market. If Chinese products are close to the Central European market, it is necessary to ensure the presence of high-tech products from CEE countries in the Chinese markets.

Cooperation between China and CEE countries should reflect the future development trends. The interface includes not only traditional modes of transport, energy, labor and capital, but also digital infrastructure and data flows based on new technologies. There are huge opportunities for expanding cooperation between China, the 5G industry and service businesses. Cooperation with China is also intended to contribute to the economic revival of the Balkan region, the implementation of Internet and smart city projects. Small countries can play the role of connecting links between China and Europe.

However, despite the positive aspect of the development of relations between China and CEE countries within the framework of the BRI initiative, they also continue to face new challenges and problems.

  1. The first challenge is how to balance China and CEE relations with China’s relations with the European Union. China, when developing relations with the CEE countries, now has to think about the concerns of the EU and some Western European countries. They fear that the countries of the Western Balkans that have not yet joined the EU will “choose China and reject the EU”, and the countries that have already joined the EU will “move closer to China and away from Europe”, which will lead to a split in Europe.
  2. The second challenge is how long it will be possible to maintain China’s economic advantages and how to make the development of economic cooperation sustainable. Thus, today the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are showing interest in cooperation with China, and after the financial crisis they wanted to get Chinese capital. However, the indispensability of Chinese investment for CEE is not so high. Mutual complementarity in trade and economic cooperation is increasing, but at the stage of the rise of the EU – China proto-languages is also increasing. When the European and American economies recover after the crisis, there is a risk that Chinese investment in CEE will be in a state of fierce competition with investors from Europe and the United States. This is not only a question of the size and volume of investments, but also their competitiveness, degree of interdependence and attractiveness. In trade, the main partner for the CEE countries is Western Europe – their mutual complementarity and mutual dependence is much greater than with China.
  3. The third challenge is the asymmetry of the strategic needs of the two sides. There are no historical problems between China and the CEE countries, and there is no serious conflict of interests. Nor do they have a strategic mutual need for each other. Thus, in fact, there is not a single important issue where CEE countries need China’s support (the problem of Kosovo is an exception for China and Serbia).
  4. The fourth challenge is the issue of roadssafety, caused by the unstable political situation in the Balkans, as well as the Eastern borders of CEE. Also problematic issues include the strained economic relations between the EU and the Russian Federation, which provoke difficulties in transporting goods across the borders of these countries. Central and Eastern European countries are closely monitoring China’s position on this issue. They are concerned about security and are moving closer to NATO, and the growing level of Sino – Russian relations may arouse suspicion in some EU states. In the construction of the “One belt, One road”, any traditional threats, especially security – challenging geopolitical games, can have an impact on the participants. Therefore, China’s reaction to the violation of international norms becomes an important criterion for psychological judgment in the development of CEE countries ‘ relations with China.

Thus, according to the researcher, China, as a towering large state, should pay attention to not taking a position and not making statements that can give rise to security concerns and distrust in the CEE countries.

  • As a fifth challenge, we should point to the problem of the balance of large States and external pressure on the development of China’s relations with CEE. Thus, after the end of the Cold War, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe became truly subjects of international relations with their own interests. The US does not want the deepening of CEE countries ‘ relations with China to harm their strategic interests in Europe. Russia also allegedly fears that China, relying on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, will penetrate to its Western borders and take its place there. Therefore, in some areas and issues, these countries can put pressure on China and the CEE countries.
  • Wasted or misdirected investment should be considered as a threat as well. Thus, South East Europe Transport Observatory (Hereinafter SEETO – Auth. said that the availability of Chinese funding can be an advantage and an opportunity. While the availability of Chinese funding might pose a threat on the EU financial institutions, which would have to compete with Chinese institutions for clients, alternative sources of financing might represent a positive development for the business sector or the countries accessing such sources (see Map 1 below).

Map 1.: China`s 16+1 grouping built around EU`s newer, poorer members

Source:IMF, FT research

  • The EU is also concerned at the potential dominance of rail transit by Chinese parties. The apparent implication was that this would give China market power over the EU’s trade (For example Apple, Boeing, Google and Microsoft all originated in the USA, but this does not mean that the US Government manipulates access to their products to disadvantage the EU.). A large global economy such as China will almost inevitably gain market power through its economic size and its importance as a trading partner.
  • Another challenge can be new Chinese investments in transit countries. Thus, it is suggested that Chinese companies may begin production not only in north – eastern China but also in transit countries such as Kazakhstan and Russia. This would make EU consumers more accessible to Chinese industry without making Chinese consumers more accessible to EU industry. Nonetheless, consumers in the EU would in principle benefit from wider choice or lower costs. The extent of this effect would, however, depend on the extent to which transit countries, or China itself, were open to inward investment from the EU.
  • Also there is a risk for the EU to ensure that transport infrastructure being developed not only in China but also elsewhere in Asia would meet the EU’s needs. At the same time, a supplier of rail services outside the EU suggested that the focus of the TEN-T has been building the single market, and that it has not been sufficiently outward-looking.

Thus there is an urgent need to upgrade the rail infrastructure in Belarus and Ukraine, which caters for transit traffic to and from the EU. And also conflicting views appeared on whether and how Chinese parties, and particularly contractors, would adapt to, and comply with, EU standards in areas such as construction.

A related concern was that weak legislation in rail transit countries might permit environmental damage. The EU cannot impose higher standards on the construction or operation of railways in non-EU states such as Russia and Kazakhstan. There are, however, a number of mechanisms by which the EU can encourage higher standards:

-through the terms and conditions of EU involvement in financing or supporting infrastructure projects;

-through the supply of products compliant with (high) EU environmental standards; and

-through operating, or encouraging other parties to operate, through rail services using locomotives and other equipment with a high environmental performance.

An institutional stakeholder made the point that EU standards could always be imposed and, in principle, enforced if a project was funded by the EU, but that this was less likely to be possible if the same project was funded by China.

  1. One the the challenges, which causes the emergence of many contradictory and negative opinions about the Chinese initiative in European political and business circles is primarily due to Europe’s low awareness of the project, its main goals and structure. Thus, analysis found the the BRI is generally positively perceived, but differences are marked at the country level with some countries having negative perceptions.

Figure 1.: Media sentiment for most positive countries

Figure 2.: Media sentiment for most negative countries

Source : Bruegel based on https://www.gdeltproject.org/

Figure 1 and Figure 2 above further report the countries with the most positive and negative sentiments towards the BRI. The first impression is that Europe and Asia both extremes of positivity and negativity. That means China`s initiative has particularly penetrated the two regions, but is evaluated very differently by different countries and regions.

Within Europe, BRI members tend to have a much worse view of China`s initiative (especially Bosnia and by Poland), compared to others, especially the Netherlands. Thus, China does not seem to be necessarily improving its image through efforts made through BRI projects or, at lest, not when the way it is perceived in non-BRI countries.

Thus, as a result of the analysis of China – CEE relations in the framework of the BRI project, it can be concluded that there are both positive trends and possible challenges in China – CEE relations and their role in China’s relations with the EU.

While the specific impact of the “integrity” of the BRI on European territory is still limited, new transport corridors are already emerging and their frequency of use is growing rapidly. One is a rail link between China and Western Europe via Poland to Germany and beyond; the other is a North – North corridor between Greece and the Baltic region through Central Europe, and Piraeus as a fast–growing center in the Mediterranean, and actors in Italy are involved in expanding their profile as part of an expanding South – North logistics network. At the same time, cooperation with third countries (Ukraine, Russia, Belarus) remains at very early stages, as the degree of readiness of European companies to participate in Chinese-led infrastructure projects outside Europe remains unclear

PhD in International Politics, Central China Normal University, Wuhan, the P.R.of China Research Associate , Ukrainian Association of Sinologists

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Indo-European rapprochement and the competing geopolitics of infrastructure

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Current dynamics suggest that the main focus of geopolitics in the coming years will shift towards the Indo-Pacific region. All eyes are on China and its regional initiatives aimed at establishing global dominance. China’s muscle-flexing behavior in the region has taken the form of direct clashes with India along the Line of Actual Control, where India lost at least 20 soldiers last June; interference in Hong Kong’s affairs; an increased presence in the South China Sea; and economic malevolence towards Australia. With this evolving geopolitical complexity, if the EU seeks to keep and increase its global ‘actorness’, it needs to go beyond the initiatives of France and Germany, and to shape its own agenda. At the same time, India is also paying attention to the fact that in today’s fragmented and multipolar world, the power of any aspiring global actor depends on its diversified relationships. In this context, the EU is a useful partner that India can rely on.

Indo-European rapprochement, which attempts to challenge Chinese global expansion, seeks also to enhance multilateral international institutions and to support a rules-based order. Given the fact that India will hold a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021-22 and the G20 presidency in 2022, both parties see an opportunity to move forward on a shared vision of multilateralism. As a normative power, the EU is trying to join forces with New Delhi to promote the rules-based system. Therefore, in order to prevent an ‘all-roads-lead-to-Beijing’ situation and to challenge growing Chinese hegemony, the EU and India need each other.

With this in mind, the EU and India have finally moved towards taking their co-operation to a higher level. Overcoming difficulties in negotiations, which have been suspended since 2013 because of trade-related thorny topics like India’s agricultural protectionism, shows that there is now a different mood in the air.

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, had been scheduled to travel to Portugal for  a summit with EU leaders, but the visit cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, the European Commission and Portugal – in its presidency of the European Council – offered India to hold the summit in a virtual format on 8 May 2021. The talks between these two economic giants were productive and resulted in the Connectivity Partnership, uniting efforts and attention on energy, digital and transportation sectors, offering new opportunities for investors from both sides. Moreover, this new initiative seeks to build joint infrastructure projects around the world mainly investing in third countries. Although both sides have clarified that the new global partnership isn’t designed to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the joint initiative to build effective projects across Europe, Asia and Africa, will undoubtedly counter Beijing’s agenda.  

The EU and its allies have a common interest in presenting an alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, which will contain Chinese investment efforts to dominate various regions. Even though the EU is looking to build up its economic ties with China and signed the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) last December, European sanctions imposed on Beijing in response to discrimination against Uighurs and other human rights violations have complicated relations. Moreover, US President Joe Biden has been pushing the EU to take a tougher stance against China and its worldwide initiatives.

This new Indo-European co-operation project, from the point of view of its initiators, will not impose a heavy debt burden on its partners as the Chinese projects do. However, whilst the EU says that both the public and the private sectors will be involved, it’s not clear where the funds will come from for these projects. The US and the EU have consistently been against the Chinese model of providing infrastructure support for developing nations, by which Beijing offers assistance via expensive projects that the host country ends up not being able to afford. India, Australia, the EU, the US and Japan have already started their own initiatives to counterbalance China’s. This includes ‘The Three Seas Initiative’ in the Central and Eastern European region, aimed at reducing its dependence on Chinese investments and Russian gas. Other successful examples are Japan’s ‘Expanded Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ and its ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy’. One of the joint examples of Indo-Japanese co-operation is the development of infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The partners had been scheduled to build Colombo’s East Container Terminal but the Sri Lankans suddenly pulled out just before signing last year. Another competing regional strategy is the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAGC), initiated by India, Japan and a few African countries in 2017. This Indo-Japanese collaboration aims to develop infrastructure in Africa, enhanced by digital connectivity, which would make the Indo-Pacific Region free and open. The AAGC gives priority to development projects in health and pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and disaster management. 

Undoubtably, this evolving infrastructure-building competition may solve the problems of many underdeveloped or developing countries if their leaderships act wisely. The newly adopted Indo-European Connectivity Partnership promises new prospects for Eastern Europe and especially for the fragile democracies of Armenia and Georgia.

The statement of the Indian ambassador to Tehran in March of this year, to connect Eastern and Northern Europe via Armenia and Georgia, paves the way for necessary dialogue on this matter. Being sandwiched between Russia and Turkey and at the same time being ideally located between Europe and India, Armenia and Georgia are well-placed to take advantage of the possible opportunities of the Indo-European Partnership. The involvement of Tbilisi and Yerevan in this project can enhance the economic attractiveness of these countries, which will increase their economic security and will make this region less vulnerable vis-à-vis Russo-Turkish interventions. 

The EU and India need to decide if they want to be decision-makers or decision-takers. Strong co-operation would help both become global agenda shapers. In case these two actors fail to find a common roadmap for promoting rules-based architecture and to become competitive infrastructure providers, it would be to the benefit of the US and China, which would impose their priorities on others, including the EU and India.

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The Leaders of the Western World Meet

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The annual meeting of the G7 comprising the largest western economies plus Japan is being hosted this year by the United Kingdom.  Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister has also invited Australia, South Korea, South Africa and India.  There has been talk of including Russia again but Britain threatened a veto.  Russia, which had been a member from 1997, was suspended in 2014 following the Crimea annexation.  

Cornwall in the extreme southwest of England has a rugged beauty enjoyed by tourists, and is a contrast to the green undulating softness of its neighbor Devon.  St. Ives is on Cornwall’s sheltered northern coast and it is the venue for the G7 meeting (August 11-13) this year.  It offers beautiful beaches and ice-cold seas.

France, Germany. Italy, UK, US, Japan and Canada.  What do the rich talk about?  Items on the agenda this year including pandemics (fear thereof) and in particular zoonotic diseases where infection spreads from non-human animals to humans.  Johnson has proposed a network of research labs to deal with the problem.  As a worldwide network it will include the design of a global early-warning system and will also establish protocols to deal with future health emergencies.

The important topic of climate change is of particular interest to Boris Johnson because Britain is hosting COP26  in Glasgow later this year in November.  Coal, one of the worst pollutants, has to be phased out and poorer countries will need help to step up and tackle not just the use of cheap coal but climate change and pollution in general.  The G7 countries’ GDP taken together comprises about half of total world output, and climate change has the potential of becoming an existential problem for all on earth.  And help from them to poorer countries is essential for these to be able to increase climate action efforts.

The G7 members are also concerned about large multinationals taking advantage of differing tax laws in the member countries.  Thus the proposal for a uniform 15 percent minimum tax.  There is some dispute as to whether the rate is too low.

America is back according to Joe Biden signalling a shift away from Donald Trump’s unilateralism.  But America is also not the sole driver of the world economy:  China is a real competitor and the European Union in toto is larger.  In a multilateral world, Trump charging ahead on his own made the US risible.  He also got nowhere as the world’s powers one by one distanced themselves.

Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen is also endorsing close coordination in economic policies plus continued support as the world struggles to recover after the corona epidemic.  India for example, has over 27 million confirmed cases, the largest number in Asia.  A dying first wave shattered hopes when a second much larger one hit — its devastation worsened by a shortage of hospital beds, oxygen cylinders and other medicines in the severely hit regions.  On April 30, 2021, India became the first country to report over 400,000 new cases in a single 24 hour period.

It is an interdependent world where atavistic self-interest is no longer a solution to its problems.

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Revisiting the Bosnian War

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Genocide is not an alien concept to the world nowadays. However, while the reality (and the culprit) is not hard to profile today, history is ridden with massacres that were draped and concealed from the world beyond. Genocides that rivaled the great warfares and were so gruesome that the ring of brutality still pulsates in the historical narrative of humanity. We journey back to one such genocide that was named the most brutish mass slaughter after World War II. We revisit the Bosnian War (1992-95) which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100,000 innocent Bosnian citizens and displaced millions. The savage nature of the war was such that the war crimes committed constituted a whole new definition to how we describe genocide.

The historical backdrop helps us gauge the complex relations and motivations which resulted in such chaotic warfare to follow suit. Post World War II, the then People’s Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina joined the then Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina became one of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia in 1946 along with other Balkan states including Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. As communism pervaded all over Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina began losing its religion-cultural identity. Since Bosnia-Herzegovina mainly comprised of a Muslim population, later known as the Bosniaks, the spread of socialism resulted in the abolition of many Muslim institutions and traditions. And while the transition to the reformed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963 did ease the ethnic pressure, the underlying radical ideology and sentiments never fully subsided.

The Bosniaks started to emerge as the majority demographic of Bosnia and by 1971, the Bosniaks constituted as the single largest component of the entire Bosnia-Herzegovina population. However, the trend of emigration picked up later in the decades; the Serbs and the Croats adding up to their tally throughout most of the 70s and mid-80s. The Bosnian population was characterized as a tripartite society, that is, comprised of three core ethnicities: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats. Till  1991, the ethnic majority of the Bosniaks was heavily diluted down to just 44% while the Serbian emigrants concentrated the Serbian influence; making up 31% of the total Bosnian population.

While on one side of the coin, Bosnia-Herzegovina was being flooded with Serbs inching a way to gain dominance, the Yugoslavian economy was consistently perishing on the other side. While the signs of instability were apparent in the early 80s, the decade was not enough for the economy to revive. In the late 80s, therefore, political dissatisfaction started to take over and multiple nationalist parties began setting camps. The sentiments diffused throughout the expanse of Yugoslavia and nationalists sensed an imminent partition. Bosnia-Herzegovina, like Croatia, followed through with an election in 1990 which resulted in an expected tripartite poll roughly similar to the demographic of Bosnia. The representatives resorted to form a coalition government comprising of Bosniak-Serb-Craot regime sharing turns at the premiership. While the ethnic majority Bosniaks enjoyed the first go at the office, the tensions soon erupted around Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbs turned increasingly hostile.

The lava erupted in 1991 as the coalition government of Bosnia withered and the Serbian Democratic Party established its separate assembly in Bosnia known as ‘Serbian National Assembly’.  The move was in line with a growing sentiment of independence that was paving the dismantling of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Democratic Party long envisioned a dominant Serbian state in the Balkans and was not ready to participate in a rotational government when fighting was erupting in the neighboring states. When Croatia started witnessing violence and the rise of rebels in 1992, the separatist vision of the Serbs was further nourished as the Serbian Democratic Party, under the leadership of Serb Leader Radovan Karadžić, established an autonomous government in the Serb Majority areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The vision and the actions remained docile until the ring of independence was echoed throughout the region. When the European Commission (EC), now known as the European Union (EU), and the United States recognized the independence of both Croatia and Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina found itself in a precarious position. While a safe bet would have been to undergo talks and diplomatic routes to engage the Serbian Democratic Party, the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović failed to realize the early warnings of an uprising. Instead of forging negotiations with the Bosnian Serbs, the Bosniak President resorted to mirror Croatia by organizing a referendum of independence bolstered by both the EC and the US. Even as the referendum was blocked in the Serb autonomous regions of Bosnia, Izetbegović chose to pass through and announced the results. As soon as the Bosnian Independence from Yugoslavia was announced and recognized, fighting erupted throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Bosnian Serbs feared that their long-envisioned plan of establishing the ‘Great Serbia’ in the Balkans was interred which resulted in chaos overtaking most of Bosnia. The blame of the decision, however, was placed largely on the Bosniak president and, by extension, the entire ethnic majority of the Bosniaks. The Bosnian Serbs started to launch attacks in the east of Bosnia; majorly targeting the Bosniak-dominated towns like Foča, Višegrad, and Zvornik. Soon the Bosnian Serb forces were joined by the local paramilitary rebels as well as the Yugoslavian army as the attacks ravaged the towns with large Bosniak populations; swathing the land in the process. The towns were pillaged and pressed into control whilst the local Bosniaks and their Croat counterparts were either displaced, incarcerated, or massacred.

While the frail Bosnian government managed to join hands with the Croatian forces across the border, the resulting offense was not nearly enough as the combination of Serb forces, rebel groups, and the Yugoslavian army took control of almost two-thirds of the Bosnian territory. The Karadžić regime refused to hand over the captured land in the rounds of negotiations. And while the war stagnated, the Bosniak locals left behind in small pockets of war-ravaged areas faced the brunt in the name of revenge and ethnic cleansing.

As Bosniaks and Croats formed a joint federation as the last resort, the Serbian Democratic Party established the Republic Srpska in the captured East, and the military units were given under the command of the Bosnian-Serb General, Ratko Mladic. The notorious general, known as the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, committed horrifying war crimes including slaughtering the Bosniak locals captured in violence, raping the Bosniak women, and violating the minors in the name of ethnic cleansing exercises. While the United Nations refused to intervene in the war, the plea of the helpless Bosniaks forced the UN to at least deliver humanitarian aid to the oppressed. The most gruesome of all incidents were marked in July 1995, when an UN-declared safe zone, known as Srebrenica, was penetrated by the forces led by Mladic whilst some innocent Bosniaks took refuge. The forces brutally slaughtered the men while raped the women and children. An estimated 7000-8000 Bosniak men were slaughtered in the most grotesque campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe off any trace of Bosniaks from the Serb-controlled territory.

In the aftermath of the barbaric war crimes, NATO undertook airstrikes to target the Bosnian-Serb targets while the Bosniak-Croat offense was launched from the ground. In late 1995, the Bosnian-Serb forces conceded defeat and accepted US-brokered talks. The accords, also known as the ‘Dayton Accords’, resulted in a conclusion to the Bosnian War as international forces were established in the region to enforce compliance. The newly negotiated federalized Bosnia and Herzegovina constituted 51% of the Croat-Bosniak Federation and 49% of the Serb Republic.

The accord, however, was not the end of the unfortunate tale as the trials and international action were soon followed to investigate the crimes against humanity committed during the three-year warfare. While many Serb leaders either died in imprisonment or committed suicide, the malefactor of the Srebrenica Massacre, Ratko Mladic, went into hiding in 2001. However, Mladic was arrested after a decade in 2011 by the Serbian authorities and was tried in the UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY). The investigation revisited the malicious actions of the former general and in 2017, the ICTY found Ratko Mladic guilty of genocide and war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison. While Mladic appealed for acquittal on the inane grounds of innocence since not he but his subordinates committed the crimes, the UN court recently upheld the decision in finality; closing doors on any further appeals. After 26-years, the world saw despair in the eyes of the 78-year-old Mladic as he joined the fate of his bedfellows while the progeny of the victims gained some closure as the last Bosnian trail was cased on a note of justice.

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