Issue No. 281 - July 18, 2002


1. Bosnia and Herzegovina: STEP TOWARDS NORMALIZATION
    by Radenko Udovicic

    by Paulyuk Bykowski and Yuriy Arekhau

    by Slobodan Rackovic


by Radenko Udovicic

    On July 15, Sarajevo hosted a significant meeting of presidents of three central Balkan countries that for almost ten years have passed through war and hostilities. The tri-partite Bosnian presidency, headed by its current president Beriz Belkic, Croatian president Stjepan Mesic, and their Yugoslav counterpart Vojislav Kostunica proved with this meeting on “home” territory that dark times of conflict are now left behind and that open problems must be solved with direct talks.

     The summit of heads of state from FR Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina yielded the signing of a joint declaration supporting each state’s dedication to good neighborly relations. More importantly was the stated support of the three statesmen to solve directly — face to face — many concrete issues stemming from the recent war.

     The statement also emphasizes that full progress of relations among the three countries can be best achieved in the framework of European integrations. There is stated support for peaceful resolutions of all future conflicts, in accordance to European standards. There is also strong support for the Dayton Accord, the return of refugees, and a readiness to fight terrorism and organized crime. An important point especially for FR Yugoslavia is a commitment to canceling the current visa system. Bosnian citizens do not need visas for entry into Croatia and Yugoslavia, but there is a mutual visa regime between Yugoslavia and Croatia. The Yugoslav government has recently decided to unilaterally cancel out visas for Croatian citizens, but the decision is not yet implemented fully. Croatian president Stjepan Mesic said that cancellation of visas was a necessary step towards normalization, but also added that it would not come immediately.

     Bosnian President Beriz Belkic said that he asked his colleagues to give support to Bosnian authorities in their task to centralize communication and energy and military systems, which will make full regional cooperation easier. Vojislav Kostunica said he insisted that all citizens respect the country they live in and asked Bosnian Serbs to accept that Bosnia and Herzegovina is also their country, expecting the same feelings of others towards FRY. Stjepan Mesic expressed pleasure that the time for insisting on border change had passed, especially in regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and he hoped that greater Serbia or Croatia are now past.

     Sarajevo was a logical host city. Sarajevo is a symbol of suffering in the Balkan wars. For three and a half years, it was under harsh siege. Bosnia and Herzegovina was the overall victim of Serbian and Croatian aggression. The war resulted in 240,000 dead (140,000 of them Bosniaks) and 1.5 million refugees. The Bosnian and Herzegovina capitol was thus a logical choice for opening a new chapter in relations among the three countries.

     Besides moral issues, there was also a political advantage for Sarajevo. Mesic and Kostunica were both eager to come to Sarajevo, which is in the middle, as opposed to going to Belgrade or Zagreb, which would have been seen as a concession by one or the other.

     The meeting passed in a relatively friendly tone. At least publicly, there were no personal animosities that could have been seen in statements given during previous months.
     For example, there weren’t any indications of Mesic's or numerous Bosnian views that Kostunica is “a front man for a new Serbian nationalistic option” or that he “did not distance himself enough from crimes or the dark side of the Serbian past.” On the contrary, the presidents were in a good mood and gave the impression of a friendly and truly respectful attitude.

     Several days before the summit, the president of the tri-partite Bosnian presidency Beriz Belkic said that he would ask President Kostunica to “apologize or at least express his regrets” for war and casualties in Bosnia. However, Belkic immediately added that if Kostunica refused, it would not impair the summit or neighborly relations. As he said, it was more of a moral issue and at that phase it would not have any practical affect in relations between the two countries. It is a general impression that Belkic's insistence on an apology (one in a string of requests) was issued more in response to pressure of the Bosniak public, which is demanding on not only a Serbian apology but also an indictment against FRY for genocide, rather than in any real expectation that Kostunica would assent to it.

 If the generally tolerant Belkic was a generous host, it certainly cannot be said for his party chief, Haris Silajdzic (chairman of the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina), who was very suspicious towards the tri-partite summit in Sarajevo. In his comments to foreign media, Silajdzic said that he was still uncertain whether the FRY still had pretensions towards Bosnia and more concrete actions were needed to remove the doubt. It seems that Sarajevo citizens feel the same way. In a poll published in the daily newspaper Oslobodjenje, majority of Bosniaks said that they had full trust in Mesic but did not trust Kostunica. Yet, most all of the respondents were welcoming such gatherings, deeming that neighborly relations will improve with such discussions and statements.

     Some Islamic and quasi-civic organizations expressed more extreme intentions. A few days before the summit, Sarajevo was pasted over with billboard posters depicting Kostunica brandishing an AK-47. Billboards asked citizens to organize demonstrations against the arrival of the Yugoslav president. However, there was no response to these calls.

     The High Representative Paddy Ashdown was the only important person who described the Sarajevo Summit was “historic,” which is natural for an international official wanting important things to happen on their watch. Bosnian politicians, on the other hand, characterized the meeting as “desirable,” adding that its value has to be proven in terms of solving concrete issues, such as the dispute over Ploce harbor, where the Croatia government withdrew from a previous agreement about free use and joint management, or the graver matter of the Bosnian indictment against FRY.

     Oslobodjenje commented that the generalized joint statement was, unfortunately, the most the three presidents could make. As one article said, none of them have any significant power: “Mesic is opposed by HDZ and Budisa, Kostunica has no real power in Serbia, not to mention Montenegro, while the Bosnian presidency reflects the fluidity of the country’s political situation.”

     The joint statement confirmed already established principles without referencing “hot” political issues among three countries. What is encouraging is the agreement to hold similar meetings every three months until there are not any more painful and disputed problems. Already on October 5, 2000, when the regime of Slobodan Milosevic collapsed, relations between Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia began warming.

     There was a series of trade agreements, crossing borders was rendered easier, and contacts between economists, artists and politicians became usual. Although slow, it is clear that relations among the three countries, which have a common past and the same or similar languages, national makeup, and geographical proximity, are on the rise.

     Vojislav Kostunica announced that the next meeting will be in Belgrade in September.

• • •

by Paulyuk Bykowski and Yuriy Arekhau

     The proposed law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” remains the center of attention for religious organizations and human rights activists, even though it had not yet come before the National Assembly (parliament) before the closing session. Protestants and leaders of religious minorities have harshly criticized the bill. But Orthodox Christians are praising the law, while Catholics, Jews, and Muslims are assessing it favorably, but with reservations.

     Anatoly Novikov, chairman of the Commission on Social Issues in the Republican Council (the upper house of parliament), said that the proposal will be heard in the fall, “unless it is necessary to call an extraordinary session.” The speaker of the Republican Council, Alexander Voitovich, also told journalists before the beginning of the parliament's break that it is possible that the proposal may be heard at an extraordinary session. The constitution calls for the president to hold an extraordinary session to hear especially important legislation.

     The Belarusian Orthodox Church (the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church) is the largest denomination in the country. Its support for the proposed law is unequivocal and unfailing and it is distressed by the delay in its hearing. BOC press secretary Andrei Petrashkevich admitted in an interview with the Keston Institute, a British organization concerned with freedom of conscience, that “we had hoped that it would pass this session.” He added that the BOC had repeatedly made it known that it favors prompt passage of the law. But, Petrashkevich emphasized, they are not criticizing the parliamentarians. “The members of the Republican Council wish to study the law in detail. That is their right,” he said.

     Keston Institute member Felix Corley noted that, if it were adopted in its present state, the law would be the most repressive legislation on religion in any post-Soviet state with the exceptions of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It prohibits activities by unregistered religious organizations (Article 17); it imposes mandatory preliminary censorship on all religious literature (Article 27); it allows only organizations that have been registered in Belarus for at least 20 years — that is, under communist times — to engage in publishing, educational and charity activities (Articles 15, 27, 28); it prohibits religious meetings “in premises or in the open air in places not specially intended for it” without permission from a committee (Article 26).

     The Union of Evangelical Christians (Pentecostals) is the largest of the Belarusian Protestant movements and is among the most active opponents of the proposed law. That is not surprising since Pentecostals were forced to exist mainly underground in the USSR. Should the law pass, it and the Union of Evangelical Christians to which it belongs could lose its registration as a religious group. They are not the only ones who may have trouble confirming that “no fewer than ten congregations of the same confession” have been active in the Republic of Belarus for no less than 20 years, as required by Article 15. That long ago, there was no Republic of Belarus, nor a Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church; the Constitution of the USSR was in force, giving the leading role to the Communist Party, while the state preached atheism.

     The founding of a citizens' initiative called For Freedom of Confession was announced in Minsk on June 18. Its goal will be to hold up the passage of the new version of the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations,” until the opinions of religious organizations and the public have both been taken into account. According to Alexander Velichko, the press secretary of the Union of Evangelical Christians and joint coordinator of the citizens' initiative, many Protestant denominations, as well as Bahais, Jews, Catholics, and members of the Society for Krishna Consciousness oppose the law. Others, such as the Orthodox Old Believers, the Reformed Church, and some Baptists groups, are willing to support the law if fundamental changes are made to it.

     Representatives of the majority of faiths that the law describes as traditional for Belarus have, with only rare exceptions, not spoken out against the law. Islam Alexandrovich, mufti of the Muslim Religious Group, told BelaPAN that “we are satisfied with the basic provisions of the proposed law on the equality of all religions before the law. True, it is not good that it separates out the Orthodox Church, but it has existed in Belarus for a very long time and is historically tied to the Belarusian people. We are newcomers, and with us came Islam 600 years ago. In addition, we make up 0.3 percent of the population. There are many more Orthodox and Catholics. Therefore, we cannot even pretend to the same position in society as the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.”

     The mufti criticized the doubling of the number of members necessary for a congregation to be registered (from 10 to 20). Yury Dorn, chairman of the Jewish Religious Organization, levels the same criticism against it. But, he says, “the proposed law is a significant step forward in the reinforcement of religious tolerance and ethnic harmony in Belarus. The document conforms to the aspirations of those who hold traditional teachings of Orthodox Judaism and, to a certain degree, allows the observant Jew to satisfy his religious feelings.”

     Opponents of the proposed law claim that the situation is just the opposite. “The proposed law goes against canons and organizational structures of Protestantism, Judaism, and the Roman Catholic Church. By proposing the law, the legislators have set a course for religious conflict and declared war on the three major religions of Belarus,” stated Ivan Pashkevich, founding member of For Freedom of Confession and a member of the House of Representatives. Pashkevich holds that Article 15 of the law “will completely undermine progressive Judaism” and that, if the law is passed, 30 percent of the 700 Protestant congregations in the country will cease to exist.

     It is interesting to note that Roman Catholics have not publicly commented on the proposed law, even though it will seriously affect them. Archbishop Ivan Yurkovich, Papal nuncio in Minsk, called the law “definitely typical” for a law “in this part of the world.” In an interview with the Keston Institute, Yurkovich said that the Catholic Church offered a long list of observations at various stages of the drafting of the bill. He added that some of the observations were heeded. “We expect to see that we will be able to continue our work and existence here just as we have for the last ten years,” he said.

    Only Sergiusz Gajek, the Rome-based apostolic representative of the Greco-Catholic Church in Belarus, openly criticized the proposed law. He said that “the prohibitions of the Brezhnev era are the shadow principles behind the current legislation.” In particular, he said, the preamble to the law, which grants the Orthodox Church a special position and acknowledges the importance of the Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish and Muslim traditions, is inappropriate. “The law would obviously limit the rights of minorities, including Protestants and Greco-Catholics, who have been in Belarus for centuries,” Gajek is convinced. “The limits on freedom of religious confession will benefit no one, not the state and not even the Orthodox Church.” The archimandrite is supporting the For Freedom of Confession protests.

     The U.S. Embassy in Minsk issued a statement saying that “the embassy of the United States expresses concern over the proposed law on religion that is now being considered by the Belarusian parliament. We call on the parliament and administration of Belarus to take the necessary measures so that the law on religion will guarantee all citizens, regardless of their faith, equal rights to unhindered worship in accordance with international norms of freedom of religion.” The statement also calls the fundamental goal of the proposed law the hindrance of the activities of religious groups that “the Belarusian government considers 'nontraditional.’”

     Four Protestant leaders, Bishop Nikolai Sinkovets of the Union of Baptists, Bishop Sergei Khomich of the Union of Pentecostals, Alexander Sakovich of the Full Gospel Association, and Moisei Ostrovskii of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, sent a letter to the president of Belarus on July 1 in which they expressed their alarm at the rushed passage of the law through the lower house of parliament and to ask that meetings be held to discuss the further progress of the law. “The impression is made that someone very strongly wants to pass this law without serious discussion and without taking into account the real religious situation in our country. This will lead only to opposition and conflict,” the letter read.

     It was against such a background that the spiritual leadership of the Minsk Eparchy of the Belarusian Orthodox Church held an assembly on July 25 and 26. BOC press secretary Petrashkevich stated that “the Orthodox Church, along with the other traditional confessions of Belarus, the Roman Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Lutheran, support the provisions of the law.”

     When the law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” was just being presented in the House of Representatives, Valerii Lipkin, head of the commission on human rights, ethnic relations and the mass media expressed the opinion that this version of the law represented “a compromise between authorities and religious groups” and that it would bring Belarus closer “to the best European legal norms and provide protection against destructive cults.”

     Former Belarusian KGB chairman and current legislator Vladimir Egorov disputes those claims. He cited KGB findings that passage of the law could “lead to protest actions and the introduction of foreign observers and institutes.” Olga Abramova, legislator and head of the Yabloko public group holds the same view. If the law is passed, she says, “we are guaranteed to come to conflict within ten years.” Moreover, she sees in it “both anti-Protestant and anti-Orthodox tendencies.”

     Abramova's colleague Pashkevich calls the swirl of activity surrounding the law a provocation by the authorities against the religious: “The proposed law is a blow to the Jews, Protestants and of course the Catholics. The real question is how these Jews, Protestants, Catholics, and Krishnaites will follow the law. That can be a problem. I recall how, in our glorious past, Comrade Kostyan's people knowingly went to prison, and spent decades there. I seriously doubt that today's believers will uphold that law. . . . This is a conscious provocation against the religious, against the citizenry and against the country. If those in power do not heed the voice of protest, then it is a provocation by those in power.”

     The proposed law requires the re-registration of all religious groups within two years of its passage. Keston Institute advisors say that its effects will be felt immediately, however, because any charters of those groups that do not conform to the law will be instantly rendered void. About half of the people of Belarus have religious affiliations and so, one way or another, the new law will impact about half the country's populace.

• • •

by Slobodan Rackovic

     The Federation between Serbia and Montenegro (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) that is soon bound to be transformed into a loose confederation named Union of Sovereign Countries is really a country out of this world: there are two completely different economic and monetary systems, two currencies, two national banks and two custom systems.

     While a special committee composed of well known politicians and experts from Belgrade and Podgorica has been making no progress in reaching agreement on the constitution of the future community, Serbian and Montenegrin governments wasted no time in coming to agreement on regulating their economic relations. The result is an economic model that is probably unique in the history of statehood and the law. In the same country a citizen or a tourist will not be able to buy bread or milk in the same currency: customs will be three times higher in Serbia than in Montenegro; banking systems in the two formerly brother countries are further apart than between USA and Russia. . . .

     How does this disparity relate to common people? Tourists coming to Montenegrin beaches from Serbia cannot buy two-way bus or plane tickets in their hometowns because the monetary systems of Serbia and Montenegro are so far apart that there is no possibility of them ever coming together. Furthermore, the Serbian dinar which has recently gained convertibility status by the IMF and can be exchanged in banks of many European countries is unacknowledged in Montenegro! But Mladjan Dinkic, presently governor of the National Yugoslav Bank, which is soon to change its name to the Central Serbian Bank, threatens in vain that he will never go on holiday to Montenegro again. On their side, Montenegrins have too fresh memories of numerous inflationary periods, especially in 1993 the when dinar set a world record for devaluation, to accept the dinar if it appeared at the Frankfurt Currency Exchange!

     “It's not rational for us to use the dinar. The Euro is the official Montenegrin currency and nobody should have any doubts about it. On that level, Montenegro is sovereign enough that we can almost envision being at the gate of Europe,” said the head of Montenegrin Commercial Bank Milka Ljumovic. On the other hand, the Brussels-approved Dinkic and his associates did everything in their power to force the Central Montenegrin Bank to re-accept the dinar, even resorting to comical methods. Several days ago, a special plane that was transporting tons of coins from Germany to Montenegro was prevented by Belgrade air traffic control to land at Montenegrin airports so it finally landed in Dubrovnik instead.

     “Problems caused by Belgrade on this occasion cost us several million euros. All of this is beginning to look like the forgotten times of Slobodan Milosevic,” said the president of Montenegrin Central Bank Ljubisa Krgovic.

     Border customs in Montenegro are as low as 3 percent. In Serbia, they are at the high 11-12 percent, so goods imported in Montenegro often end up as police confiscation in Serbia. Also, any foreigner who enters Montenegro via its harbors or airports, or by roads leading from Croatia, Bosnia, or Albania, doesn't need any visa, road tickets, and vehicle insurance (if he already has green card). However, if tourists want to cross over Serbian territory, they will need all of the above. Besides, the economic agreement defined an administrative and customs border between Serbia and Montenegro, and consequently also custom offices on both sides.

     “The agreement accepted by the two governments is in fact a confirmation of now old relations between two republics. It clearly says that there are two completely separate financial systems, two central banks, two currencies and two customs. System is completely transparent, whole and will function,” said Montenegrin finance minister Miroslav Ivanisevic. He added that during the next three years (the probation period for the Union), there will be a certain change of customs rates, which will increase in Montenegro and decrease in Serbia, but that won't have any negative consequences on the economy or populace because Montenegro also enjoys out-of-custom protection. “At the EU level, member states of the Union completely define their economic systems. On one hand, Montenegro is left completely satisfied with its long constituted economic system, while on the other, Serbia’s wishes for harmonization of the two systems are fulfilled, and Union can now start adopting EU standards,” said minister Ivanisevic.

     “The goal of both Montenegro and Serbia is to apply for membership in European Union by 2005 and to be accepted into WTO by then. That's why the two parties accepted very different custom rates.” said Serbian finance minister Bozidar Delic. Both ministers emphasized to the press that the starting point during negotiations was acceptance of the current situation. Ivanisevic added that the Belgrade Agreement (signed on March 14, with the presence of Javier Solana) stated that “state and economic sovereignty of Serbia and Montenegro are completely clear.”

     Since there is need for some institutions of the future community, Serbia and Montenegro will participate in their financing according to each country’s GDP.

     All things considered, the creator of this new community — the European Union — as well as Serbia and Montenegro themselves are entering into an experiment without precedent in international law. Consequently, there are many constitution experts, economists, and politicians who are skeptical towards ideas emerging between Podgorica and Belgrade, even towards such that are evidently brought in a constructive atmosphere, without politicizing and national majorizations. There are voices in both countries saying that Serbia and Montenegro should drop the fruitless task of creating a new union and initiate procedures necessary for each country’s complete independence.