Dr. Biljana Plavsic can go back to her microscope now that she has failed to win re-election as president of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. A tenured professor at Sarajevo University, she was elected dean of the faculty of math and science in 1988.
As a respected scholar and community leader, she carried, the most votes of any Serb candidate running in Bosnia’s first post-World War II multi-party elections in 1990 and was elected to the presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a representative of the Serbs. After war erupted in the spring of 1992, she became the vice president of the Republika Srpska. In June 1996, she became acting president of the Republic, and in the September 1996 elections she was elected president of the Republika Srpska for a two-year term.
Biljana Plavsic became head of state at a difficult time for the Republika Srpska, as it suffered from economic collapse and an extraordinarily unfavorable international position. Despite numerous difficulties and obstacles, President Plavsic managed to shatter the international isolation and moved to put an end to corruption and to the criminal activities which had taken hold of the country since the war years.
In her first interview after losing the 1998 general election, Biljana Plavsic explained to me the reason for her defeat.
Srdja Trifkovic: Madam President, during the campaign you had enjoyed the support of the international community, and under your leadership the Bosnian Serbs were beginning to emerge from international isolation. What went wrong?
Biljana Plavsic: My credibility was undermined by the constant escalation of demands on the Republic of Srpska—from various circles in the international community—to proceed ever more rapidly toward a centralized Bosnia-Herzegovina. Those demands went far beyond the terms of the Dayton Agreement, and often represented a clear violation of that agreement.
In the end my position proved to be untenable. You see, I was—and I still am—committed to Dayton, and I kept saying to my people that we would respect its terms. Had those terms been clearly acknowledged by the representatives of the “international community” as inviolable, I would still be president now, and Bosnia would have been a safer, stabler place. But some Western powers-that-be apparently just wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer. They insisted on constant reinterpretations of the Dayton Agreement in favor of the alleged “spirit of Dayton”—the one that, in their rendition, implied “reintegration” of Bosnia.
As a consequence, many of our voters have grown apprehensive that my policy of cooperativeness with the international community was, in fact, tantamount to our Republic’s quiet self-annihilation. Now, that would bring us back to square one, and create a real danger of another war. This legitimate fear of our people was exploited by my adversaries. But I would have found it easier to counter the demagoguery of some of my political opponents had there not been some substance in their allegations. Unfortunately, they could point out with some justification that the Serb side was still not being treated as an equal partner under Dayton, that the demands on us—for example, over the return of refugees were much more stringent than in the Muslim-Croat Federation.
The evidence is overwhelming. To quote but one example, while Serbs returning to their homes in the Croat-controlled areas are getting murdered, and hardly any Serbs have been able to return to the Muslim-controlled Sarajevo, we are always singled out to adhere to some arbitrarily imposed schedules, quotas, and timetables.
ST: So what is the future of the Dayton Agreement now?
BP: We have had to accept many sacrifices for the sake of peace. All three constituent polities of Bosnia—Serbs, Croats, and Muslims —have supposedly compromised. But while there is almost universal condemnation in the West of that old bogey called “Serb nationalism,” hardly anyone seems to notice—much less to criticize—the fact that the Muslims have not given up on their objective of creating a centralized Bosnia. This is because some powerful figures from the international community like to treat “Bosnia” as a project in social studies, and not a land inhabited by three distinct peoples, with very different traditions, collective memories, and self-perceptions. You can’t play the game of “nation- building”: Nations are developed through centuries, not “made.”
ST: But frankly, is there a future for Bosnia under Dayton?
BP: Only if the agreement is respected by all sides in letter and not turned into a nebulous, all-embracing “spirit.” As I repeatedly pointed out during my visit to the United States last May, on the ruins of a multi-ethnic, multicultural society that was Yugoslavia it is impossible to recreate such polity in miniature, and call it “Bosnia”; The same root causes of discord are just as present. But if everyone is reconciled to the permanent solution based on Dayton—a very loose Bosnian state, consisting of two entities that have transferred some of their sovereignty to it—then such a Bosnia under Dayton still has a great future.