Bosnia breaks through ethnic divide by merging Serb, Muslim-Croat forces

A soldier stands guard next to the grave of the Bosnian-Muslim’s first president, Alija Izetbegovic, who died earlier this year. The Bosnian army posts a guard at the Sarajevo grave every minute of the day. On Jan. 1, the Bosnian Serb army merged with the Muslim-Croat force.


By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 11, 2006

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — It may take a few years to snap it into shape, but Bosnia and Herzegovina now has a single, unified army.

Merging the Bosnian Serb army with the Muslim-Croat force is a monumental step for Bosnia, one it is making sooner rather than later in order to address corruption and to better position itself for the future, said Raffi Gregorian, a U.S. diplomat who represents NATO as co-chairman of the Defense Reform Commission for Bosnia. The unification of the two armies formally took place Jan. 1.

Expected to take at least a couple of years, the integration is part of a series of sweeping reforms that make up “the exit strategy” for Bosnia, Gregorian said.

The merger, agreed to in November, also represents a sharp departure from the 1995 Dayton peace accord, which permitted separate militaries to exist in Bosnia. Divided along ethnic lines and egged on by politicians, it was those armed entities that waged a three-year war that claimed over 200,000 lives and left countless refugees.

“The structure that led to the break up of the country has been resolved,” Gregorian said in an interview last month in Sarajevo. The separate armies, “one of the biggest problems left over from Dayton, has been done away with, and it was done willingly.”

Separate armies were perhaps a necessary evil a decade ago, given all the ethnic bloodshed and animosity. Now, Gregorian said, the arrangement just doesn’t make any sense if the goal is to grow a multi-ethnic democracy. About a year ago, the country went to a single defense minister after having three, one for each ethnic group.

The commission, jointly administered by Bosnia and NATO, accelerated the transition to a multi-ethnic army because of lingering concerns over the depth of support in the Bosnian-Serb army for Gen. Ratko Mladic.

Members of the military are said to have helped their former chief slip back into Bosnia in 2004. Gregorian said recently released documents indicate the Bosnian-Serb army continued to pay Mladic long after he was indicted for war crimes.

“The military in this country today is regarded with suspicion … because of the war,” Gregorian said. “The military in both entities is not something that is highly regarded, and that’s something we want to change. It’s one of the reasons why we want a professional army, one that is focused on collective defense missions.”

But first there are some basic matters to address, such as pay and benefits. Gregorian estimates it’ll take about nine months to shift everyone over to a new system.

“A lot of soldiers don’t get paid on time, particularly in the federation,” Gregorian said. “As a result, a lot of soldiers in the past have had to take jobs outside the military to make ends meet. Now they will be able to focus on being a professional soldier and getting paid for it.

“The situation was so bad in the federation,” he continued, “that if a soldier went to a bank to apply for a loan, the bank wouldn’t give him a loan because they would say, ‘you don’t get paid regularly.’”

The newly unified Bosnian army will also shrink, going from 72,000 to 15,000.

However, Gregorian described about 60,000 of those soldiers as “passive reserves,” saying they don’t train or get called up. The rest are full-time troops, including 1,400 who run the conscript and reserve program. Those jobs will disappear, bringing the active-duty rolls closer to the end state of 10,000. The 5,000 remaining slots will be filled by trained reserves.

In addition to reducing personnel, the Bosnian army will start divesting itself of unneeded facilities, such as barracks, schools, warehouses, training ranges and weapon storage sites, Gregorian said. Tuzla Air Base and the sprawling training area near Livno in western Bosnia would likely remain open.

The Bosnians even plan to overhaul their wardrobe. The army will soon receive its first shipment of digitized camouflage uniforms, similar to what U.S. Marines now wear.

But even more material to the Bosnian military will be its reputation as a reliable contributor to the “collective defense missions” undertaken by the U.N. or NATO. The army, for instance, recently sent a second explosive ordnance team on a six-month deployment to Iraq.

U.S. Army Sgt. Major David L. Price, who is based in Tuzla, believes such contributions by a small, struggling nation only serves to inspire others.

“They definitely are a good role model for countries like Kosovo,” Price said.

Politicians and the public “will come to see the military as the means by which they will eventually get into NATO as a member of the alliance,” Gregorian added. “It’s hugely important here. Psychologically, politically and practically, the idea of being in NATO is what most people associate with never going to war again.”