The two-entity structure of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and its division along ethnic lines causally determines the whole spectrum of the country’s relations with other states. Things become completely and unambiguously clear if we look at the way neighboring Serbia and Croatia have treated BiH over the years, and the way representatives of the Serb and Croat leaderships maintain parallel relations with their so-called parent countries.
The mechanism of ‘special parallel relations’ with neighbors — essentially the political structures of other countries acting as mentors of political developments in BiH — is used as a means of protecting the interests of other countries in BiH, which in most cases impacts the state of BiH itself and its relations with states that are not perceived as parent countries. This necessarily puts BiH into a paradoxical and protectorate-like position, which suspends the perceived sovereignty of this country to the greatest possible extent.
The impact of external pressures, as well as the ethnic roots of political action, on the relations between BiH and other countries is perhaps best illustrated by its relationship with Kosovo. That relationship is marked by causality on several levels, owing to Serbia’s obstruction of the recognition of Kosovo via the BiH entity Republika Srpska. The complexity of this relationship and its broader implications is revealed through the visa regime between BiH and Kosovo, as well as the problems in overcoming this problem.
Does the inability of BiH citizens to travel to Kosovo freely affect the spiritual needs of devout Orthodox Christians, and, if so, how? In that sense, does the visa regime affect pilgrimages to Orthodox monasteries, as well as other sacred (from an ethnic and spiritual standpoint) Serb sites in Kosovo — the center of Serb national and religious spirituality?
A clear and straightforward answer to this question is the fact that members of the patriotic-religious association Srbsko Sabranje Bastionik (Serb Bastionik Assembly) from Banja Luka are still able to “visit Kosovo and Metohija once or twice a year.”
“When we travel we use Serbian passports, which we are entitled to under the Dual Citizenship Agreement and the Agreement on Special Parallel Relations Between the Republic of Serbia and the Republika Srpska,” says Predrag Adamovic, Head of the Assembly’s Steering Committee. “None of our members have ever applied for a visa for the so-called Republic of Kosovo.”
“No” to the recognition of Kosovo
Ever since Kosovo declared independence and requested recognition from members of the UN, Serb representatives in BiH, opposition politicians and those in power alike, have adopted a clear and unequivocal stance — the recognition of Kosovo by BiH will never happen.
This sends an unambiguous message — as far as Serb representatives are concerned, this matter was considered resolved from the outset. Seeing that political decisions in BiH are made with the consent of all three constitutive peoples — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats — this stance directly impacts the possibility (or rather the impossibility) of establishing diplomatic relations between BiH and Kosovo. In the long run, these relations will undoubtedly remain blocked, owing to the make-up of the state of BiH. It cannot be reasonably expected that this question will even be brought up in the foreseeable future, because any attempt to establish diplomatic relations would be met with obstruction by representatives of Serbs in BiH institutions. In the future, this issue will likely be used as yet another arena of confrontation about the vital national interests of the constitutive peoples.
Serbia’s general commitment to the Euro-Atlantic path compels it to relax its relations with Kosovo. The negotiations have already made plenty of progress, and, in effect, there are no major obstacles to communication between Belgrade and Prishtina. There are certain oscillations, but the fact that people from Serbia may travel to Kosovo reveals that this relationship is different to that of BiH with Kosovo. Everything that has been denied to Serbia in some way has been granted to the political representatives of the Republika Srpska. This can be seen from the fact that the Republika Srpska today positions itself as the ultimate custodian of the Serb claim to Kosovo, which is reflected in several things.
Firstly, seeing that Serbian politicians sees it as compensation for ‘losing’ Kosovo, Republika Srpska assumes all of Serbia’s obligations and points of view (whether openly or latently) in connection with certain issues. This position therefore makes it possible to control, via the mechanism of parallel relations, everything that is projected as Serbia’s interest in BiH. This has led to a paradoxical situation in which Serbia makes more and more concessions in the EU accession process, and more or less legitimizes Kosovo as an independent state, while the Republika Srpska blocks any prospect of talks about the recognition of Kosovo in BiH.
If we are to follow the fuzzy political logic of the future, at some point we will reach a paradoxical situation in which Serbia officially recognizes Kosovo, whilst BiH will be prevented from doing so thanks to the veto mechanism introduced for the “protection of vital national interests.” This implies that Kosovo will turn out to be a national interest of Bosnian Serbs rather than citizens of Serbia.
If we look at the number of humanitarian and other actions that citizens of the Republika Srpska have been organizing for the benefit of Kosovar Serbs for years now, we might conclude that Kosovo is already a “priority” for the Republika Srpska. There is a whole host of civic associations, as well as official entity institutions, which organize provision of aid to the Serb population in Kosovo. These associations, which have been organizing the collection and transport of humanitarian aid to Kosovo over the last few years, include: Sveti Djakon Avakum (Holy Deacon Habakkuk), Bozur, Srbsko Sabranje Bastionik, numerous delegations of Orthodox Christian metropolises and eparchies from BiH, as well as local and regional offices of the association Kolo Srpskih Sestara (Circle of Serbian Sisters) in Republika Srpska.
In Banja Luka there is also the Odbor za pomoc Srbima sa Kosova i Metohije (Committee to Help Serbs of Kosovo and Metohija), which has been active for several years, as well as the official action organized by the Radio Television of the Republika Srpska ‘Kad Bi Hljeba Bilo Vise’ (‘If Only There Was More Bread’). There is nothing wrong with humanitarian work, but the profusion of such actions illustrates the extent of interest in Kosovo for the Republika Srpska.
The system of relations described above undoubtedly affects the very problem of the visa regime that exists between BiH and Kosovo. After Kosovo’s independence, the state of BiH introduced measures to make travel for Kosovars more difficult, and Kosovo responded in kind in 2014. The current situation regarding the visa regime is complex, the process of obtaining a visa is very complicated, economic exchange has been frustrated, while a relaxation of the relations is not on the horizon.
Finally, it is the citizens who bear the brunt, as they have to put up with an arduous and costly procedure in order to obtain a visa to travel to Kosovo. Does this visa regime not prevent citizens from the Republika Srpska, too, from travelling to a place they by and large perceive as the heart of Orthodox Serb spirituality?
Kosovo visas not a problem for some
After talks with representatives of church organizations from the Republika Srpska, as well as with representatives of organizations that have travelled to Kosovo for religious or humanitarian reasons, it became apparent that this problem is actually not a problem for the majority of Serbs in BiH. The visa regime can easily be avoided, thanks to the special parallel relations between Republika Srpska and Serbia, which make it possible for most citizens of the Republika Srpska, or at least most representatives of organizations and institutions who have a reason to travel to Kosovo, to obtain a Serbian passport without complications. In effect, this means skirting the visa regime, as bearers of Serbian passports do not need a visa to enter Kosovo. If you are a BiH citizen who also has a Serbian passport, you will have no problem travelling to any destination in Kosovo.
I asked priest Zdravko Bogojevic, secretary of the Bihac-Petrovac Eparchy, if any of the staff or clerics from his eparchy had obtained a visa to travel to Kosovo. He says that none of the 39 priests and hieromonks from the Bihac-Petrovac Eparchy have applied for a Kosovo visa.
“I recently, in mid-May, escorted the Bishop of Bihac and Petrovac to Kosovo, but we used Serbian passports,” says Bogojevic. “Our vehicle had BiH registration plates, so we had to pay 15 euros for insurance at the Merdare border crossing. Many priests have dual Bosnian-Serbian citizenship thanks to the parallel relations between BiH and Serbia. They apply for citizenship or replace their expired passports at the Serbian consulate in Banja Luka.”
Mira Lolic-Mocevic, former director of programming at Radio Television of the Republika Srpska, who worked on the ‘If Only There Was More Bread’ programme, also points out that she has travelled to Kosovo, but that no one from her team has had to apply for a visa, since they all hold either Serbian or Croatian passports.
The visa regime between BiH and Kosovo is a burden for BiH citizens who do not have a Serbian or Croatian passport. To be even more precise, it is quite obvious that those who have the means to avoid the visa regime make it impossible for the citizens who do not have travel documents issued by neighboring countries to travel freely.
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.