Watching the RS Day commemorations last week was troubling for many reasons. It was yet another snub at the rule of law or the notion that courts and the judiciary have any role at the state level. Dodik’s decision to in effect ban the BiH Armed Forces and highlight the entity police was brilliant, but not new – it was the culmination of years of effort by him to weaken state security while building up his own Praetorian guard. However, it was still deeply troubling to see armed men and women (but mostly men) from one entity parading. Particularly unnerving was the apparent age of many of these marchers and onlookers– a generation raised on segregation, grievance and intolerance.
One would expect nothing less of Emir (“Nemanja”) Kusturica, who has made much of his career based on his own national metamorphosis, demonstrating his convert’s zeal with each film and basking in the affirmation from the political class he has selected as his own. Former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić played his role perfectly, as did Aleksandar Vulin– making explicit imagined past, present and potential future links between the RS and Serbia, while giving Aleksandar Vučić the space he needs to continue to present his own carefully cultivated image abroad as a forward-thinking reformer, somehow aligned to both the EU’s espoused European liberal values and Russia’s illiberal ones. And, of course, it was all consecrated by the prominent presence of a Serbian Orthodox priest at Dodik’s side.
There has been surprisingly little public reaction to this spectacle from members of the international community, particularly from individuals who have a mandate to ensure a safe and secure environment in BiH. You don’t have to be a lawyer to recognize that none of the images seen on January 9 will contribute to state cohesion, a forward-looking environment for reform, or a sense of security – in general but especially in non-Serb communities in the entity. (That was indeed the point.) One can only hope that there is some analysis ongoing – how many military-grade weapons are in the hands of local police and private security firms? Where did they come from? How – and by whom – have they been trained? What equipment did we not see? (And where did those floppy berets come from? One rarely sees such military fashion innovations in these events…..)
Another point also deserves mention. Imagine a similar scenario – scores of armed men marching down the streets in the company of the political leadership; flags distributed; clerical blessing, literal and figurative………….but now imagine if this was done by Bosniak Muslims.
Critics will say this is unfair. They will note that the RS is a territorial unit, not just an ethnic group. They will claim that it is possible that among the numerous ranks of armed men and women (mostly men) there were in fact some others in there – some Bosniaks (Muslims) or Croats (Catholics) or others (?). But one cannot imagine there were many – if any. This was – by intention – an exclusivist Serbian and Orthodox show of solidarity and force.
Imagine the same scenario with predominantly Muslim participation, with the Mufti or other Islamic clerics standing together with the leadership. With the participation of past or present leadership of foreign allies – say, Turkey, or some representatives of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. With training for special units coming from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, or Qatar. Armed. On a day everyone knows is relevant to only that group. Would such a spectacle have not raised eyebrows? At a time when the amount of attention being paid to “CVE” (countering violent extremism) is reaching surprising proportions, it is hard to imagine that this would not be a cause for concern to be accompanied by both efforts at public diplomacy and private consultation.
Violent extremism doesn’t come from nowhere. It starts with extremism. And such extremism has been mainstreamed into the RS from the top, with scant Western reaction.