Cyprus Mail
CM Regular ColumnistOpinion

Lessons for Cyprus from the Bosnian conflict still resonate

BELGRADE, SERBIA, YUGOSLAVIA - Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic (R) shakes hands with US special envoy for the Balcan, Richard Holbrooke (L) prior to their meeting in Belgrade, 23 June 1998. Holbrooke and US ambasador in Macedonia Kristopher Hill, met with Milosevic after their talks with Kosovo ethnic Albanians leader Ibrahim Rugova and Macedonian president Kiro Gligorov this morning in Skopje. EPA-PHOTO/EPA/as/kr/ow

On Thursday the one-month long Pax Cypria Cyprus Institute for Peace training on Negotiation for Conflict Resolution training course concluded with a showing of the late Richard Holbrook’s presentation at Harvard describing the lessons from the Dayton Agreement. The agreement settled the Bosnian conflict in November 1995.

In his conclusion, Holbrook emphasised the need to focus on how the agreed settlement will be implemented and that it should be part of the documentation of the agreements. There are important implications in what he said for Cyprus.

In Bosnia, some 300,000 people were killed in what began as three-way fighting between the Bosnian Croats, Muslims and Serbs, and included some of the worst atrocities undertaken since World War II. Another 2.5 million people had been either displaced or became refugees in foreign lands. Holbrook was able to negotiate an agreement in only six months, culminating in 21 days where everyone involved was locked up until an agreement was reached in Dayton airbase in the United States.

Holbrook gives emphasis to a carefully planned system of implementation, stating that however good the agreement is, it can fall apart if the implementation is not well organised and attention to possible violent incidents not handled immediately and decisively.

The main issues raised regarding implementation were as follows:

  1. Bosnia Herzegovina would remain one country with a common border but would consist of two constituent states (using Cyprus terms), the combined Bosnian Muslim/Croat “federation”, and the Bosnian Serb Republic. He mentions there was a slow start, but amazingly the displaced are settling both in other parts of the country, but also in Srebrenica where the worse massacres took place.
  2. The most serious error was in maintaining the three armies that developed in the conflict. This problem could not be resolved because Nato insisted that it could not be done. Fortunately, this is unlikely with a Cyprus settlement because no settlement is probable if the military is not under the federal government. The problem in Cyprus is getting rid of foreign armies.
  3. The name of the Serb constituent state (Republica Serbsca) is another error mentioned since this was the name given to the area under control of the forces that wanted to break away from Bosnia and join Serbia. Holbrook admitted he did not appreciate the meaning of Republic to the Serbs. Nevertheless, the settlement has held and no “Republics have broken away”.
  4. A more serious problem is that the electoral system appears to have resulted in more nationalistic forces in all three main groups. This is a strange phenomenon, also witnessed in Northern Ireland where the peace movements and parties that supported peace, lost ground when the settlement was agreed and implemented.
  5. Holbrook states that the central government should have been given more. This is relevant to Cyprus where official views on both sides argue for a weaker federal government than is usual event among federal systems.
  6. He also emphasised a problem with passports, which are issued by the federal and constituent states in Bosnia. In Cyprus the issue of citizenship has been resolved by the UN Security Council in resolutions, placing citizenship at federal level, as well as allowing internal “citizenship for residents of constituent states” which are for local elections etc and not foreign travel.
  7. There were problems over telephone codes. The federal government in Bosnia and the constituent states all wanted country codes. In the end, it was agreed that there would be one country code for the country as a whole, and subcodes for the constituent states.
  8. A major problem was created by the car number plate systems. The Serb plates were in Cyrillic, the Muslims and Croats were in Latin letters. Irregular groups would shoot at the cars of the “opposing group”. It took a year to resolve. This was done by using only the letters that are the same in both alphabets. In Cyprus, it would mean that either number plates are a federal function or there should be a central registration system which keeps track, and the Turkish Cypriot two-letter system should be made a three-letter system. There have been problems for Turkish Cypriot cars in Cyprus most notably near the Apoel club building near the Hilton in Nicosia.


Cyprus has a lot to learn from the study of what has happened in Yugoslavia since the settlements that were negotiated, and efforts should be made to support such research.


Costas Apostolides is co-founder of Pax Cypria Cyprus Institute for Peace

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