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The Baffling Balkans 2 – Bosnia Herzegovina

As we entered from East Croatia the difference was dramatic. Suddenly we were in Russia or so it seemed – all the signs are in some form of Cyrillic, the people appear to be speaking a form of Russian, the flag hanging from many of the lampposts is the Russian one hung on its end. What we hadn’t realised is we had entered the Republika Srpska, one of the two politically autonomous regions that make up the country, the other being The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Srpska, the would-be state has a rotated Russian flag as its own.

We were brought down to earth immediately of the distance we are now from the affluent climes of Western Europe – not in terms of miles but certainly in terms of wealth. We find whole families hanging around the ATMs begging, the road conditions are far more reminiscent of New Zealand than of Western Europe – although here the safety barriers are all rusted. And most significantly the people have the dour disposition we are so familiar with from our previous rides in Russia. They are Slavic, we are in one of the homelands of the Serbs. It’s Saturday afternoon and there are convoys of boy racers and motorcycle morons revving around town resplendent streaming their “Russian flag” behind – nationalism is staunch here and on display.

These days the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina has largely lined up in the two autonomous regions – the Serbs to the north and east in Srpska, and the Bosniaks and Croats cover the rest. The population of Banja Luka for example, the de facto capital of Srpska is 90% Serb & the religion 90% Serbian Orthodox. It was ony 50% Serbs in the 1970’s. That of Sarajevo is 81% Bosniak with 50% Muslim.

Our digs the first night are not far to the west of Srebrenica, site of the genocide of 1995 where 8,000 men and boy Muslim Bosniaks were murdered by the Serb army of Srpska – and now well inside Srpska. That was the worst genocide in Europe since World War 2 and was just one element of the ethnic cleansing that characterised the removal, relocation and fleeing of hundreds of thousands from one part of Bosnia to the other during the 1990’s.

After some days in the north it’s into Sarajevo, home of the Bosniaks and a city nestled in a valley with the famous gondola to the top of Mt Trebevic. The gondola was first opened in 1959 but during the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnia War the mountain became the spot from which the Serbs launched mortars and sniper fire into the city streets below. Indeed the gondola operator was the first of 11,500 slain in the city during the siege. Even now when we take the 2km ride to the top it’s rather eerie because Mt Trebevic’s summit is the border between Srpska and Bosnia & Herzegovina. As the map attached shows Srpska in effect surrounds the whole of the rest of Bosnia & Herzegovena.

Looking forward, Srpska looks to have the potential of becoming another Ukraine, most definitely should any attempts to promote integration with the rest of Bosnia be made. We were surprised to be sharing the roads of Srpska with motorcycle gangs – as opposed to just bikers such as ourselves and those that proliferate the mountain roads of Western Europe. No these were patched gangs riding 2 to 3 abreast on the roads in close unison making it impossible for traffic to navigate around them. Srpska played host just a couple of years ago to Moscow’s Night Wolves gang (known as Putin’s Angels). It is clear that the desire of Srpska, formed from the bloodshed of the Bosnian war, is to secede and become a totally independent Russian-backed satellite. That desire is very strong. The whole experience It reminds us of our illicit bike ride into Transdniester, the rebellious state in Moldova some years ago. That too was like a time warp economically, but there was no doubt where allegiances lay.

Before returning to the Balkans I thought the flash point here remained most likely to be Kosovo. But now I think the ambition of Srpska is right up there, especially if it attracts stronger Russian endorsement.

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