The challenge of forming a single army in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Under The Same Flag

Reforming armed forces in the Western Balkans - third episode - duration 26 minutes

Short description of the documentary

In 2004, nine years after the war, a joint Ministry of Defence was established in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a Joint Military Staff. The once warring armies are now under a single command. In the building of the State Ministry of Defence, Generals from the three ethnic communities work under the same roof. The Head of the Joint Staff is Bosniak. His two deputies: a Serb and a Croat. They are now formally in command of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most of the Generals who are now working together here, were fighting each other during the war.

Putting the Army of Republika Srpska and the Federation Army under joint command was described by many as a quiet revolution. But are the reforms really being pushed through – or is it convincing only on paper?

This documentary explores the reality of the reforms undertaken in the Bosnian army, and also in the intelligence services, which have recently been merged into one single agency.

  • Full transcript of the documentary - see below
  • Available in English, Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian and International version
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INTRO SEQUENCE (with texts appearing on the screen, and quotes)

Three former enemies under one flag
“We are trying to leave the past behind and to look to the future”
Ten years ago, they were fighting each other
Can they wear the same uniforms?
Can they swear the same oath?
“This country needs a small professional army, no conscription nor reserve”
“All obstructions to defence and security reforms are coming from Republika Srpska”
Building a State requires a single army
«There is no other country on the planet with two armies »
“BiH could join PfP tomorrow, except for one thing”
“If it`s written in stone that Radovan Karadzic has to be in The Hague, I can speak only about our good wishes”
“If you want to join NATO you adapt to NATO standards, not the other way round”
Building a State requires a single intelligence service
“The intelligence sector in BiH still operates in total darkness”
“The model of accountability of the intelligence service in Bosnia is the best in Europe”
„They are spying on each other and send reports to their political bosses“
“In any normal country the head of the intelligence service and the government who did that, would end up as political history”
Does BiH want to become a State?
« It was an unbearable situation to have two states within one state »


In 2004, nine years after the war, a joint Ministry of Defence was established in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a Joint Military Staff. The once warring armies are now under a single command. In this building, Generals from the three ethnic communities work under the same roof. The Head of the Joint Staff is Bosniak. His two deputies: a Serb and a Croat. They are now formally in command of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

General Sifet Podzic (Bosnian Muslim)

`We are professionals, we are not into politics, we shouldn`t be into politics and our task is to strictly stick to the Bosnian Law on Defence. I must, however, admit that we sometimes read the laws two or three times in order to see whether we are on the right path or when we have to reach a common conclusion.

Most of the Generals who are now working together here, were fighting each other during the war.

General Sakib Foric is the youngest Bosnian general. When he first joined the army, he met General Slavko Puljic. Serving in the same unit of the former Yugoslav army, they became friends. But then the war started. They were on different sides: one Muslim, the other Croat. By a twist of fate, in 1994, their units clashed on the front line in Central Bosnia.

General Sakib Foric (Bosnian Muslim):

`Our units clashed in the war, we even had several wounded and at that time our reconnaissance people made contact. We agreed that the two unit commanders would meet on the division line near Bravnica, close to Jajce. That`s where we met face to face.`

General Slavko Puljic (Bosnian Croat)

`Both units had wounded soldiers. We agreed to meet on a minefield. When we recognized each other, we hugged. The soldiers around us just stared at us, and they could not believe what they saw.

Sakib Foric:

`Half an hour earlier they were shooting at each other, they were evacuating the wounded to treat them on the road where the clashes took place. And all of a sudden the two of us are greeting each other so warmly ` what`s up Sakib, what`s up Slavko, how`s your family` and so forth. And then we both moved those landmines off the road, got in our cars and went on our way .`

Slavko Puljic:

`After that we didn`t see each other for a couple of years. Today we are working together, we carry out our duties, we remember those moments and it makes us feel good . We are great friends and we even meet privately.`

The long years of war and destruction left deeps scars and divisions. But Generals Foric and Puljic want to leave the past behind. They know they have an historic opportunity to build a new defence structure that will allow Bosnia to join the Partnership for Peace Programme and NATO.

In the years following the Dayton agreement, the priority was to establish peace. After a time of relative stability, it became obvious that the Dayton framework was too narrow for Bosnia`s ambitions. And if membership of the EU and NATO was to be on the cards, Bosnia first had to decide whether it wanted to be a state or not.

In July 2001, the then NATO Secretary General George Robertson paid a visit. A chance for the Bosnian Presidency to declare its wish to join the Partnership for Peace programme. Robertson responded with a long list of conditions which all came down to one main point: Bosnia must establish a single army.

George Robertson, former NATO Secretary-General

There is no other country on the planet with two armies and without a central MOD. So that`s why it was a big priority. For NATO it was an absolute precondition. There would be no question of Bosnia getting into any NATO institutions so long as they have two armies that were largely interested in fighting each other rather than any external enemy.“

The Armies of Republika Srpska (RS) and the Federation of BiH might have been tired of fighting, but they were certainly not thrilled with the idea of joining forces.. The greatest resistance came from the Bosnian Serb side.

Although much lip service was paid to the reforms, no progress could be seen, and Bosnia was slowly moving towards isolation.

But then two major scandals hit the Bosnian Serb army which prompted strong action by Bosnia`s international administration.

On the eve of the Iraq war, it was discovered that the aviation firm ORAO, based in Bijeljina, in the Republika Srpska, was selling arms to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Rafi Gregorian, NATO

Co-Chairman of BiH Defence Reform Commission

„The military of Bosnian Serbs was caught red handed selling weapons to Iraq and thus undermining the sovereignty of BiH which as a member of the UN wanted to apply sanctions. So you had a rogue army doing basically what it wanted in terms of illegal activity, although constitutionally it was supposed to be under control of the presidency of BiH“

The office of the High Representative laid the responsibility firmly at the door of Mirko Sarovic, then Serbian member of the Bosnian Presidency.

The President of Republika Srpska, Dragan Cavic, says that the scandal was used as an excuse to put all the blame on the Serb Republic. He says that companies from the Federation were equally involved in the arms trade that passed through Belgrade.

Dragan Cavic, President of Republika Srpska

“We discovered documents proving that the company Jugoimport from Belgrade had also imported spare parts for rocket launchers from a company in Travnik in the Federation (of BiH). We passed this evidence to international representatives, but nobody seemed to care about this problem in the Federation”.

In March 2003, even before the Orao case had been closed, a new scandal emerged. On March 7, SFOR - the NATO peacekeepers- uncovered illegal bugging activities carried out by Army Intelligence in the Republika Srpska. The documents and material seized proved that Intelligence center 410 had - for years- been wiretapping the Office of the High Representative, SFOR, the army and the government of the Federation, as well as private citizens. All controlled from offices right next to the cabinet of the Speaker of the Serb Parliament.

Igor Gajic, Analyst

“What sort of intelligence service is that, when they were so easily discovered in offices? This is nonsense. It only illustrates the stupidity and powerlessness of these services. They did a little bit of eavesdropping on SFOR communication lines, and on some politicians and journalists. It only shows how incapable they are and how reorganization is needed, a thorough reform and clear out. .”

Dragan Cavic

`The report I got about this case confirmed that they (intelligence service 410) were operating illegally. It was an abuse of power – they were doing things they were not supposed to do. So I took the only possible decision:

I disbanded Intelligence Centre 410.`

After this second scandal, it was clear that Mirko Sarovic, the Serbian Member of the Bosnian Presidency, would be sacked. He chose instead to resign.

At that point, the international community called for serious and systemic changes.

High Representative Paddy Ashdown established the Defence Reform Commission, to get the whole process on track.

Dragan Cavic says that the Serb Republic didn`t need that pressure of the OHR to realize that changes were needed.

Dragan Cavic

` It was an unbearable situation for this country that possesses undeniable state sovereignty - a seat in the UN and in the Council of Europe – to have in fact two states within a state.”

But in Bosnia, each Entity has its own perception of the role of the State…

Sulejman Tihic, Member of the BiH Presidency (Bosnian Muslim)

«They pay lip service to reforms – in reality, they want entities to behave like states, with their own defence capacities and their own police system. They want Bosnia to be some kind of a loose state which would not be in charge of anything. But the international community – NATO and the EU – they want one State to talk to »

The changes proposed by the Defence Reform Commission have been adopted unexpectedly quickly. In late 2003, a new law was passed, establishing a state-level Ministry of Defence and a common Joint Staff. Putting the Army of Republika Srpska and the Federation Army under joint command was described by many as a quiet revolution.

Paddy Ashdown, High Representative for BiH:

„Just think how rapidly we have created the single Ministry of Defence and staffed it, I think minister Radovanovic has done a brilliant job, arguably one of the real stars of the present Bosnian government. It has moved far faster than NATO believed it would. BiH has actually surprised NATO at how fast it has moved to put together the basic institutions of the state. “

For others in Republika Srpska, changes came too fast. Last April, at the swearing in ceremony of new conscripts to the Army of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian anthem was greeted with boos.

The conscripts themselves were openly defiant and changed the words of the solemn oath. Instead of swearing allegiance to Bosnia and Herzegovina they swore to defend the Republika Srpska.

«I shall defend the territorial integrity, constitutional order and the political independence of BiH… (the soldiers: of Republika Srpska!)

Serb politicians initially tried to make light of the incident. But there was pressure from the international community to strongly condemn what happened. The incident occurred just three days before a NATO meeting in Vilnius, which was supposed to assess the readiness of Bosnia to join the Partnership for Peace.

John Colston, NATO Assistant Secretary General:

„I hope that it will provide an opportunity for the minister of defence, minister Radovanovic, to make clear his own authority and to make clear that he is not going to accept this kind of behaviour in future. So I hope that on the basis of an unfortunate and unhelpful incident this can provide the way to show that the state level institutions are willing and capable of exercising their own authority“

Behind the reluctance of Republika Srpska to establish institutions at State level, is a fear that the Serb entity will gradually disappear.

Which is why defence reform in Bosnia is much more convincing on paper than in reality.

But for many, Bosnia has already accomplished enough to earn an invitation to join the Partnership for Peace.

Paddy Ashdown:

„Bosnia has broadly and remarkably ticked all the boxes. It has done all that is necessary to join PfP and in my view it could join tomorrow. Except for one thing: and that is that it has to complete the process of transferring war criminals to The Hague tribunal and that process is not complete as long as Karadzic and Mladic are not in The Hague.“

Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic have been at large for a decade. Their arrest is a precondition for Bosnia to move towards the EU and NATO. Although there has been some cooperation from the Republika Srpska with The Hague, the two former Serb leaders remain untouchable. Both NATO and the OHR claim that Mladic is supported by elements in the army of Republika Srpska. It was said he was even hiding in their bunkers in Han Pijesak.

And it was discovered that Mladic only retired from the Army of Republika Srpska in 2002. And now he receives a military pension.

Rafi Gregorian, Defence Reform Commission co-chairman:

„From my own conversations with RS defence minister at the time, Slobodan Bilic, when I asked him the question about payment of pensions he said everyone in RS is entitled to pensions under the law, therefore Mladic too. So we know he gets the pension, we know where he gets it and who picks it up, we just don`t know how the money gets from point A to point B and who is involved in moving it and certainly hiding it“

In late 2004, the Peace Implementation Council concluded that the lack of cooperation with The Hague was not the fault of single individuals, but the whole system. That`s why it was decided to speed up reforms, and to abolish the defence ministries at entity level in 2005.

Last March, Rafi Gregorian presented a reform plan to the Assembly of the Serb Republic. The Members of Parliament didn`t buy it. They decided not to allow their representatives in the Defense Reform Commission to even discuss scrapping the entity ministries of defence.

They came up with other options, such as the demilitarization of Bosnia, suggesting that the Serb Republic would prefer no army at all than a common Bosnian army…

Ostoja Barisin, Military Analyst:

“Gregorian says demilitarization is unacceptable for the international community. I would have preferred that he said that demilitarization did not suit the people of BiH or the state of BiH, because that would make sense, that kind of explanation. But that the international community does not want Bosnia to be demilitarized, that`s strange.”

While Serbs suggest demilitarization, Bosniaks think that the country cannot give up on its army if its neighbours don`t do the same.

Sulejman Tihic, member of the BiH Presidency:

“Here we have again the ideas that led to the well-known events in BiH. It is totally illogical for a citizen of any country to promote demilitarization, while at the same time neighboring countries that have waged war against this country remain armed to the teeth.”

A small professional army seems like a compromise that everyone could gradually come to accept.

So far, the new common Bosnian army has only managed to put two small units together. This is one of them. Fifty soldiers, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, side by side ,training for mine clearance missions in Iraq. It`s a first step. But for Bosnia to play a more serious role in multinational military operations remains blocked due the lack of cooperation with The Hague.

Adnan Terzic, Chairman of the BiH Council of Ministers:

“I think that a major problem for Bosnia is the obligation to arrest Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic prior to joining the Partnership for Peace. After all I think it`s unfair to the Bosnian authorities, after we have done everything to fulfill the technical preconditions for the Partnership for Peace.”

Nikola Radovanovic, BiH Minister of Defence

“The fact that we expected Bosnia and Herzegovina to join the Partnership for Peace in June last year, and that one year after it still hasn`t happened, is used as a strong argument by those who are against reforms, and who are trying to prove that reforms are not necessary.”

John Colston:

„We want to ensure that those who genuinely believe in reform, who genuinely believe in bringing BiH closer to the Euroatlantic institutions need to be encouraged in that belief and NATO will want to encourage that process as strongly and as firmly as possible. But let me be quite clear: bringing Karadzic and Mladic to justice is still at the very top of the conditions which NATO is setting for that process of closer integration. “

To hunt down Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic should be the top priority of the Bosnian intelligence Agency. The problem is that such a service doesn`t exist. Until recently, the Bosnian intelligence service was made up of three separate agencies, one Croat, one Serb, one Bosniak. Their main activity was to spy on each other. Even worse: the Serb intelligence service was suspected of protecting war criminals instead of chasing them.

Just as with the military, the three intelligence services have now been merged into one common agency at Bosnian state level, known as the OSA. Bosnia`s national ruling parties are satisfied with the new professional service.

But three hundred intelligence staff lost their jobs in the merger. The sacked employees, as well as the political opposition, now claim that it was a politically motivated purge.

Kalman Kocsis is the former chief of the Hungarian intelligence service. He was sent to Bosnia on mission impossible: to supervise the merging of the three intelligence agencies. He insists that the decisions on job losses were completely impartial:

Kalman Kocsis, Supervisor for Intelligence Reform

„We never experienced any kind of attempt of politically influencing the decisions and recommendations of the commission. Even the Director General, his deputy and general inspector very carefully kept the distance from that review commission and the Director General automatically accepted all the recommendations.“

Kocsis says that a small group of sacked intelligence staff who still have ties to the service and good media contacts continue to attack the reforms. He gives the example of “Slobodna Bosna”, a Bosnian weekly, which constantly criticizes the new intelligence service and the international community.

Suzana Mijatovic, journalist Slobodna Bosna magazine:

“We have a situation where international supervisors have fulfilled their criteria on paper, because they have to show that they are doing a good job. But the real situation is that we still have three separate parallel secret services, that are unified only in theory.”

Paddy Ashdown believes that, in spite of all the imperfections, a tremendous job has been done. The main challenge was to achieve two changes at the same time: to merge three agencies into one and to transform the old communist intelligence system into a modern European agency.

Paddy Ashdown:

„This is the first intelligence service in the whole of the Balkans that has now a national intelligence service which is accountable to parliament. There is no other one. And indeed I would say that the model of accountability of the Bosnian intelligence service to parliament is probably the best in Europe. “

But those who lost their jobs in the process see things differently:

Predrag Ceranic

former employee of the Republika Srpska Intelligence service (OBS)

“The intelligence service of BiH operates in complete darkness. Its chiefs still look to the service of the former Yugoslavia from the seventies as a model. It is headed by some untouchable people that nobody dares to criticize. They are in the shadows, behind some kind of iron curtain. You don`t see them, you don`t hear them and yet – they decide about everything.”

Predrag Ceranic states that the chiefs of the new intelligence agency, Almir Dzuvo, Risto Zaric and Ivan Cosic, each members of the ruling national parties, have carefully selected the staff of the new agency according to political criteria. Each of them received “carte blanche” to “clean up their backyards”. Ceranic says he was fired because he supported Biljana Plavsic and Milorad Dodik against the ruling SDS. Old rivals used the opportunity to take their revenge on him.

His colleague from the Federation, Edhem Besic, thinks that his fate in the service was sealed when he raised questions against the interest of the ruling SDA. Questions o n war crimes, unsolved assassinations and paramilitary organisations.

Edhem Besic, former Executive Director of the Federation Intelligence Service (FOS)

“The head of the service Vuksic simply let me down. He denounced me to the SDA party and I became the black sheep in the service. They wanted to get rid of me in every possible way. They finally succeeded, they didn`t manage to expel me before, when they suspended me for six months without any procedure. Now they managed to kick me out with the transformation of the service – using these so-called new criteria.”

The International community and the ruling parties are criticized for achieving reforms only on paper, while the same people with their old methods remain in place.

Paddy Ashdown

Has it been done perfectly, I can`t give you a guarantee. But what I do know is that most of the people who complain that the wrong people have been chosen, are the people who haven`t been chosen. And I guess there is a connection between those two facts.

Adnan Terzic, Chairman of the BiH Council of Ministers:

I presume that in Bosnia we have a circle of people interested in intelligence work. You know, there are not tens of thousands of them. It is a group of people just a little bit bigger than this agency. If we had sacked them all, I doubt we would find enough people to work in the intelligence service.”

Many employees sacked from the Federation secret service are believed to be close to the former Head of the service, Munir Alibabic. He was himself sacked by the High Representative amidst allegations over leaks of confidential information to journalists..

Shortly after that Alibabic found himself, together with the opposition leader Zlatko Lagumdzija, at the heart of a new intelligence scandal.

Zlatko Lagumdzija, SDP Party Leader

“One day there was on the front page of the biggest daily newspaper, which is under the direct influence of of the ruling nationalists – above all the SDA – the information, so to say “leaked” from the secret services, that I, together with journalists and policemen, was preparing a Coup d`Etat.”

In what became known as the “Coup d`Etat Affair”, Zlatko Lagumdzija and the former head of the secret service were accused of conspiring against the state. Alibabic had been bugged by his former secret service. Other people`s phones had been tapped too- including journalist Snezana Mijatovic :

Suzana Mijatovic, journalist of Slobodna Bosna:

”I do not know what was the goal of this affair except maybe to discredit a number of key people – police officers, secret service chiefs and of course opposition leader Zlatko Lagumdzija. I was crazy even to think that they could finally end up in jail”.

The state prosecutor rejected the request of the secret service to arrest the alleged conspirators. A Parliamentary Commission established that the Coup d`Etat plans never existed. The public condemned the affair and its instigators, but no one has ever been held accountable.

Zlatko Lagumdzija:

“The High Representative didn`t fire the people responsible for such a scandal, while he did sack a great number of intelligence officers from all three communities for much less important failures. This raises questions about the role of the Office of the High Representative in this affair.”

Paddy Ashdown denies the allegations of certain journalists and politicians that his office had anything to do with the affair.

Paddy Ashdown:

„This is the world capital of conspiracy theorizing. If I paid attention to every conspiracy theory that was floated by these ...... local politicians I would never get down to my job and work. All I can tell you straight forwardly, this has no connection with OHR what so ever or if it did it`s on the level which I knew nothing about and I don`t believe it did by the way.“

Paddy Ashdown says the creation of the new single intelligence agency should ensure that similar scandals won`t happen again and that Bosnian citizens can sleep without fear of secret services plotting behind their back. The success of the new Bosnian intelligence will be measured by their results in the fight against organized crime and the hunt for war criminals.

The reform of the armed forces and the overall security sector in Bosnia is key to the state building process.

The honorary unit of the Bosnian Army, whose main task is to welcome foreign delegations, might be the embryo of the future single army. The Serb, Bosnian and Croat platoon, each with their own insignia, regularly rehearse their limited performance. Will they extend their repertoire, or will they continue singing the same old songs of mistrust?

Zlatko Lagumdzija, SDP leader:

“You have today people in the intelligence services, in the Army and in some financial centres of power who, while we are rowing on the way to Brussels like galley slaves, are rowing back. Nevertheless, they can`t change the course and that`s the good news. The course can not be changed. This country will end up becoming a normal European country. The bad news is that I might have more than one grey hair when it finally occurs.”

Bosnia is one step away from the road to NATO and EU integration. However, it first has to decide whether or not to take it. Bosnia faces one more challenge than other countries. Like them, Bosnia has to thoroughly reform its state. But before reforming it, that state must first be built.