Forgotten Neighbors

Yesterday, the People’s Assembly of Republika Srpska decided to organize a referendum concerning the judicial institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the shadow of this story, controversial changes to the long forgotten Law on Residence was pushed through in the Bosnian Parliament, seemingly without anyone noticing. What does this mean for internally displaced persons and returnees? 

In early 2013, the police in Srebrenica informed 294 people that their residence was being annulled. Shortly thereafter, reports about similar actions carried out by the police and the Interior Ministry began emerging from other municipalities in Eastern Bosnia, mostly affecting Bosniak returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had registered their ID cards and place of residence in 2012.

Many of them were accused of having given false statements and incorrect information to the police when registering their place of residence at their pre-war home address. All of the legal proceedings against them were eventually dropped, due to a complete lack of evidence of any wrongdoing. Yet the annulments remain in force, which has encouraged many Bosniak returnees and IDPs to simply register their home addresses in the Federation, out of fear that they might endure further persecution.

Yesterday, the People’s Assembly of Republika Srpska (RS) decided to organize a referendum concerning the judicial institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the shadow of this decision, the country’s state-level House of Peoples (the chamber of the Parliamentary Assembly composed of 15 members, five from each of the Bosniak, Croat and Serb communities) adopted the long forgotten law on residence, pushed through by delegates from RS. It’s a long story, and be warned: objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

Politically, the registration of residence remains an important and highly sensitive issue. The subject first surfaced in September 1996, during the first post-war elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were organized by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

With over two million refugees and IDPs, the fledgling democracy was faced with the challenge of dealing with the results of ethnic cleansing in the country. In that sense, the first post-war elections could be seen as a political acknowledgement of the newly established reality, and a confirmation of the political domination that roughly mimicked the lines previously set in trenches and war-fronts.

However, due to the Agreement on Return (Annex 7 – Dayton Peace Accords), and enormous pressure on the political leadership of the belligerent sides of the recent past, the international community had to find a means to ensure that the votes of those who were expelled from their homes during the war were counted towards establishing the post-war governance, on both local and national levels.

Through voting by post and at polling stations in embassies and consulates throughout the world, refugees living in Melbourne to Chicago were able to rejoin the communities from which they had been expelled in ethnic cleansing campaigns.

The politics of the dominant Serb and Croat parties demonstrated a distinct lack of interest in serious engagement in the areas of the country where their respective ethnic groups were a minority, while Bosniak parties nominally supported return to non-Bosniak controlled areas, but did little in practice to ensure long-lasting results. The returnee process came rather late, with many communities waiting up to five or six years after the end of the war for an organized return. Meanwhile, refugees and members of the diaspora gradually began to lose interest in participating in elections, diminishing the level of political representation of ethnic groups who were minorities in specific local communities.

The new election system ended the active process of registration. Instead, the new BiH ID cards were connected with the right to vote. The new IDs also determined citizens’ place of residence. This especially affected internally displaced persons, who despite having the right to ask for the issuance of temporary ID cards in the Federation as IDPs, very often registered as regular citizens in Tuzla and Sarajevo canton, losing their right to vote in Republika Srpska. The new rules were implemented for the local elections of 2008, yet the parties reached an agreement, under pressure from the international community, to postpone the implementation of these measures in the municipality of Srebrenica. Due to the genocide verdict and a wave of strong protests for the special status of Srebrenica in 2007, the municipality was under heavy monitoring. International missions feared that possible changes in the political leadership of Srebrenica could trigger revolt and destabilization among Bosniak returnees.

It was a lousy compromise: all other municipalities had practically banned pre-war citizens from voting who had new IDs in postwar places of temporary residence in the Federation, and Srebrenica’s special elections status was a one-time exception. In 2012, thanks to the massive mobilization of refugees, returnees, and internally-displaced persons from Srebrenica who went through rigorous procedures in order to be eligible to vote and reclaim their residence on the territory of Srebrenica, moderate mayor Ćamil Duraković won the election and the local municipal council sustained a balanced multi-ethnic majority.

Yet the defeat of Milorad Dodik’s candidate in Srebrenica was not something easily forgiven by the president of Republika Srpska. Our story now returns to where it started: the vengeful offensive of Dodik’s SNSD that led to annulments of residence not only in Srebrenica but throughout RS. Sredoje Nović, then Minister of Civil Affairs for BiH, was tasked with preparing changes to the Law on Residence for citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in order to establish a new means of control that the Interior Ministry of RS could use in order to prevent the mass mobilization of Bosniaks in the 2014 election, and in elections to come.

In 2013, the police in RS, acting on the orders of the government, jeopardized the basic freedoms of returnees, and incurred expenses in legal proceedings against around 300-400 citizens on the basis of false accusations. While the charges were ultimately dropped, fear of a basic lack of rights led an undetermined number of Bosniaks to register in the Federation. According to some estimates, hundreds have been administratively lost in the system.

In June 2013, protests for the adoption of a Citizen Identification Number Law (JMBG) were held in front of the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After much debate over JMBG, which received far more public attention than the Law on Residence, an agreement was reached to adopt the law and end the blockade, which had lasted for months. However, in a package with the Identification Number Law came changes to the Law on Citizenship, the Law on Travel Documents, and the Law on Residence. The House of Representatives passed the four laws, while in the House of Peoples, SDA delegate Halid Genjac questioned the ‘urgent proceedings’ on the Law on Residence.

The law was meant to be adopted without delay in order to escape any possible amendments. It called for the full revision of residents’ lists over the next five years. Formally, it claimed only to ask for a legal basis of registered residence, yet many feared this would be used as a legal pretext to justify the already existing practice of annulments of those not to be found at the address of residence during checks by police.

Vetoes made by Bosniak delegates in the House of Peoples postponed the adoption of the changes to the law, but it eventually appeared on the agenda. In February 2014, three out of five Bosniak members of the House of Peoples blocked the session, preventing it from taking place.

Pressure by associations of returnees and refugees brought delegates into silent agreement not to put the residence law back on the agenda for the remaining six months of their mandates. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about this controversial issue until last month, when it resurfaced in the paperwork before the House of Peoples. Yesterday, the law was put on the agenda by over-voting from the Serb and Croat delegates in the House of Peoples, and later adopted without the votes of Bosniak delegates.

It seems that summertime is always the best time to make serious political moves in Bosnia and Herzegovina: while nobody is watching. Sredoje Nović, former Minister of Civil Affairs and now a delegate in the House of Peoples, has fulfilled the task entrusted to him by Milorad Dodik himself, on that cold December night in 2012, when he faced the final confirmation from the Central Election Commission about the disappointing election results in Srebrenica. Now, the knocking on doors can begin.

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Nedim Jahić

Nedim Jahić (26, Sarajevo) has been engaged in various civic initiatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly related to human rights, political freedoms and war crimes. His articles have been published in Al Jazeera Balkans, NIN, BH Dani, Oslobođenje, Novo vrijeme, Today’s Zaman, Peščanik, Kosovo 2.0, RadioSarajevo.ba, Klix.ba, and various other media, publications and reports throughout the region. Jahić has also been engaged in political campaigns and various successful advocacy initiatives in Bosnia through which he's gained experience in political research and education.