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Economy Trumps Political Rifts at Bosnia-Serbia Meeting

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Economic ties proved more important than political differences at Monday’s meeting between Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and the chairman of Bosnia’s Council of Ministers.

A meeting between the Serbian government and Bosnia’s Council of Ministers in Belgrade on Monday offered a glimmer of hope that better cooperation in the region is possible, despite strained political relations and a number of unresolved issues between two countries.

The meeting also sent a strong message to the leader of the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, that the secessionist rhetoric that has prevailed in his speeches in recent months will not be supported by Belgrade.

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Peace and stability, economic cooperation, joint projects and EU integration were the main topics discussed by Aleksandar Vucic, the Serbian prime minister, and Denis Zvizdic, the chairman of Bosnia’s Council of Ministers.

Economy before politics

Both ministers insisted that economic issues were at the forefront, claiming they talked more about the possible highway from Belgrade to Sarajevo than about the attack on Vucic at a memorial for victims of the Srebrenica massacres in the summer of 2015.

The attack has been seen as a pressure point in relations between the two countries since the culprits have not yet been brought to justice, and media have seized on claims in recent months that Serbian undercover agents were present at the memorial event.

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“I really expect that the entire investigation will be finished as soon as possible,” said Zvizdic.

Vucic added: “I think the [investigatory] bodies are working. But whether they have worked or not, that will never be an obstacle to the development of good neighbourly relations.”

Banja Luka-based economist Damir Miljevic told BIRN that economic cooperation was the most important aspect of the relationship between the two countries.

It is particularly important at the moment, said Miljevic, because several difficult political topics had come to light and hindered cooperation.

Economic analyst Zoran Pavlovic agreed that economic cooperation could help ameliorate political problems.

“This cooperation could be the locomotive that leads to better overall relations because everybody is tired of political bickering, strife, and political tensions,” Pavlovic told BIRN.

Sanctions against Dodik

An inevitable subject on the agenda was the US Treasury’s imposition of sanctions on Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, for obstructing the Dayton peace agreement that ended the 1992-95 war by defying the orders of Bosnia’s Constitutional Court.

Vucic repeated his position that Serbia would not join the US in sanctioning Dodik, while Zvizdic added that the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the other Bosnian entity, was not happy about Dodik’s addition to a US blacklist.

“Ongoing anti-Dayton actions led to this and I expect that this will be a good lesson for all in Bosnia,” Zvizdic said.

Dodik welcomed the talks between Zvizdic and Vucic, but didn’t miss the opportunity to speak negatively about the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina once again.

He claimed that this was not a meeting of two governments and two prime ministers.

“The Bosnian Council of Ministers is not a government but rather an auxiliary body of the Bosnian presidency, therefore Zvizdic has very limited jurisdiction,” Dodik told Serbian media on Monday.

Dodik said Bosnia and Herzegovina was dramatically divided, with no chance of becoming united.

“Bosnia is an illusion and I, as a man and as a politician, am not ready to be part of it. In my mind, I have enough knowledge to understand that it is unworkable,” Dodik said.

A strong message

An army platoon, a red carpet and all the members of the Serbian government welcomed the delegation from the Bosnian Council of Ministers at a ceremony in Belgrade.

The way in which Serbia greeted the delegation spoke louder and more clearly than any other message from Belgrade, analysts told BIRN.

At the same time, it sent a strong message to Dodik, experts said.

“Vucic clearly said that Serbia respects the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but more important is the fact that he, for the first time, emphasized the position of Republika Srpska. He said Republika Srpska is an entity of Bosnia of Herzegovina, and I think this is the first time that Serbian officials have sent such a clear and strong message,” Tanja Topic, a political analyst from Banja Luka, told BIRN.

Topic said the situation was not panning out well for the RS leadership, but that they were continuing to use nationalist rhetoric regardless.

“My impression is that the RS authorities pinned all their hopes on the new US administration, expecting a miracle or something. They even suggested that RS could be a bridge between Washington and Moscow,” said Topic with irony.

The next test for Bosnia-Serbia relations will come in February when Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic is expected to visit Sarajevo.

His first attempt to visit the Bosnian capital as president of Serbia, less than two years ago, failed.

After the arrest of a high-profile former Bosnian Army commander, Naser Oric, for alleged crimes against Serbs in Srebrenica, the Bosniak member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Bakir Izetbegovic, advised Nikolic to cancel his visit a day before it was scheduled to take place.

This time, the invite was issued by Mladen Ivanic, the Serb member of the Bosnian presidency – but Nikolic’s recent trip to Banja Luka on January 9, for the RS ‘statehood day’ holiday that was banned by the country’s Constitutional Court, was met with disapproval by Bosniak political parties in Sarajevo.

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