The arrest of a former Bosnian wartime politician in London is convenient for Balkan nationalist rhetoric: It lends Serbia a boost of power in the eyes of the public and throws Bosnia’s ethno-nationalists another bone of contention to use ahead of elections, Anes Alic comments for ISN Security Watch.
The massive wounds from the Balkan wars do not heal easily, and while opportunistic politicians find it personally expedient to frequently throw salt on those wounds, stirring up ethnic tensions, this generally accomplishes nothing more than temporary appeasement of ethnically divided voters.
The 1 March arrest of Ejup Ganic, a former member of the Bosnian wartime presidency, by British authorities at London’s Heathrow airport on the basis of a Serbian arrest warrant for alleged war crimes will likely prove this point. Though various media like to think that this will result in major diplomatic tensions between Bosnia and Serbia, the fallout is likely to be much more localized, with Bosnian politicians using it as a convenient nugget for the election campaign ahead of October polls.
Ganic was arrested by British authorities at the request of Belgrade, which says he is wanted for his involvement in the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, in particular for the 1992 ‘hijacking’ of a Yugoslav Army (JNA) convoy in which some 40 Serbian soldiers were killed in the ‘Dobrovoljacka Street’ incident.
There is no official indictment against Ganic, but Serbian authorities are now expected to file papers to support their extradition request. Ganic is due to appear for another court hearing in London on 29 March.
Bosnia also quickly filed its own extradition demand, saying that Ganic must be tried for his alleged crimes at home. Bosnian authorities previously dismissed Belgrade’s charges as illegal, arguing that Serbia was not authorized to make charges of war crimes committed on Bosnian territory.
And then, of course, there is the tricky business of determining whether Ganic was defending his country or committing war crimes. As the Bosnian war erupted in April 1992, Ganic was a member of the country’s collective presidency. For less than two days, he served as acting president when President Alija Izetbegovic was taken hostage by the JNA at Sarajevo airport upon his return from peace talks in Portugal.
In an operation broadcast live on Bosnian television, Ganic negotiated the safe passage of the JNA troops that remained in Sarajevo in exchange for Izetbegovic’s release. However, during the withdrawal of JNA soldiers and their weapons convoy, one of the army transporters came under attack from Bosnian forces attempting to free the Bosnian delegation, including President Izetbegovic, his daughter (who was serving as an interpreter) and the vice prime minister.
Some 40 Yugoslav soldiers died in the incident, and the Serbian prosecutors believe Ganic orchestrated the attack on the convoy, ordering that “after Alija is free, kill them all.”
Ganic denies these charges, stressing that he had warned the UN, which supervised the exchange, that many of the Bosnian forces in the city were comprised of volunteers and were out of the government’s direct control. So far, no one has been indicted for the incident.
In 2001, Ganic withdrew from politics, and since then has managed the private Sarajevo School of Science and Technology. Just prior to his arrest, he had accompanied his students to the University of Buckingham, where they received their diplomas.
The arrest of this figure in London has not sparked the expected debate in Sarajevo. After all, Ganic is not terribly popular among the majority of Sarajevo citizens. He was accused of cowardice during the war, partly because he insisted on working from a small, windowless office in the presidency building in the center of Sarajevo. During nights of heavy shelling from Bosnian Serb forces in the surrounding mountains, he allegedly slept in the safe of the Bosnian National Bank.
Sometime after the war, Ganic is believed to have illegally acquired one of the most prime pieces of residential real estate in the city for less than €6,000. Given his less-than popular standing in the community, his arrest may actually serve to boost his image among local Bosniaks, lending a bit of martyrdom to his alleged wartime cowardice.
His popularity, though, is perhaps irrelevant to the case. What is relevant is that this incident will be used by all parties across the board to again revive the ghosts of war.
Ganic’s arrest is seen as a provocative move by Serbia, while Serbians, including Bosnian Serbs, view it as proof that not only Serbs are responsible for war crimes. While this is certainly true, Serbs tend to feel that only they are being punished for all the bloodshed.
Bosnian Serb war veterans, politicians, NGOs and other groups welcomed the arrest of Ganic, saying Bosnian officials condemned the extradition request, describing it as a direct attack on Bosnia’s sovereignty and a continuation of Belgrade’s wartime policy.
Questions of justice and morality aside, Ganic’s arrest will hit some legal challenges. If an indictment against him is to hold any water, he would likely be indicted by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which has actually looked into his culpability but proceeded no further.
Ganic has frequently traveled throughout the world, both as a Bosnian official and privately or on behalf of his university. There were numerous opportunities to arrest him, even on the Serbian territory. So why now?
For now, the timing remains a mystery. It is possible that Serbia is demanding Ganic’s extradition because they are actually planning to arrest Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic, who is wanted by the ICTY and remains the main obstacle to Serbia’s EU accession bid. There must also be a tit for tat.
Or perhaps Belgrade knows that Kosovo is not lost to them, and they cannot break this to the public without making it look like someone else is being punished, too. A small bone, indeed, but a bone nonetheless.
The timing of the arrest also coincides with the start of the trial of former Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, who faces charges of war crimes and genocide at the ICTY. The trial itself, being broadcasted on Bosnian public television, is already adding to ethnic tensions.
Back in Bosnia, Ganic’s arrest will provide some more fuel for the ethnic fires. On 1 March, Bosnians celebrated Independence Day, when Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats voted in a referendum for independence from Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs boycotted the referendum and do not recognize Independence Day.
The short version is this: No one cares about Ganic, but his arrest will benefit Serbian authorities hoping to show the public that they are still on top of their game, and it will also benefit ethno-nationalist politicians in Bosnia who are always looking for some way to boost tensions and score points ahead of an election.