Bosnia’s Past, Present and Future

In: Forum Bosnae, 2024

original version, 1,9MB




Minister Jan Pronk. We are sitting here at your home in The

Hague together on the 24th of August, 2023, remembering

being in Bosnia on several occasions during the war. I would

like to ask you a few questions that Professor Mahmutćehajić

of International Forum Bosnia has for you for the anniversary

volume of their journal, Forum Bosnae, due to come out

this fall. What has Bosnia meant to you in your life and


My career goes back to the 1970s. That was a period in which

I – as a Dutch politician and already a minister from 1973 onwards

– was quite involved in the relationship between my country, the

Netherlands, and Yugoslavia. We had a very unique relationship

in the field of international development cooperation with

Yugoslavia, because we saw Yugoslavia as a model for many

other countries. There had been major conflicts within the state of

Yugoslavia before the Second World War and then during it, but,

at a certain moment, the Yugoslavs had been able to come together,

bringing stability to their own country, their state, a nation-state,

on the basis of sophisticated legal and political constructions that

they created themselves. Many different languages, many different

nationalities or sub-nationalities, many different religions, all

with their different histories, were brought together, I would say,

under the leadership of somebody I admired very much at the

time, Marshal Tito, in order to have peace. Now, of course, there

was still inequality, particularly economic inequality between the

northern and the southern parts of Yugoslavia. But problems were

solved at a political level, in negotiations based on national law,

and decisions were implemented. We worked together, Yugoslavia

and the Netherlands, in the 1970s, within the framework of the

United Nations too, spreading a message of peace and


Yugoslavia, of course, was also a very important member of

the Non-Aligned States – President Tito, together with President

Sukarno of Indonesia and others, such as Indian Prime Minister

Nehru, had created the group of non-aligned countries. I was

thrilled by this, because my feeling was that in the Global South

– there was a different terminology at the time – what was needed

were forms of emancipation, development, and peace that had not

been dictated by the West or the North. And, in the 1970s, it turned

out that many countries were thinking in much the same direction.

Developing countries, of the non-aligned Group of 77, as it

was called within the United Nations – and Yugoslavia was one of

the leading countries of the Group of 77 – came forward with

ideas on how to build a new future, a new international economic

order in the world as a whole based not so much on Western

values as on common values. Of course, the values of the United

Nations and the Bretton Woods system, were meant to be common,

but they had a Western flavour.

Well, I still had these contacts in the 1980s, when I was

Deputy Secretary-General of one of the United Nations’ organizations,

UNCTAD, I met many Yugoslav politicians there. In

1982 we organized a major world conference in Yugoslavia,

where countries came together to discuss future financial and

trade relations. It was a difficult period economically, a worldwide

recession. Many countries were highly indebted. All countries

had to adjust their economies to the new circumstances. During

the negotiations we tried to protect the interests of developing

countries, and Yugoslavia played an important role.

Then at the end of that period, there it was, all of a sudden, but

of course you could foresee it: the end of the Cold War. I became

a Minister again in the Dutch cabinet in the same week that the

Berlin Wall fell down. We were confronted with a totally new situation.

We were thrilled because, after the end of the Cold War, it

would now be possible to bring forward a message of peace in the

world as a whole. No arms build-up anymore. Conservation of the

environment, of nature, sustainable development, and poverty

reduction, that was the essence. As a matter of fact, those were the

challenges that had already brought the Netherlands and Yugoslavia

together during the two decades before.

The euphoria did not last long. A couple of years later, that

new situation of peace between countries had changed into a situation

in which domestic conflicts were escalating within many

different countries. This was not the case only in Yugoslavia. It

also happened in many African countries, in Sudan, in Rwanda, in

Congo, in Burundi, in Liberia, and in a number of Asian and Latin

American countries. Domestic conflict – sometimes based on

national differences, sometimes religious differences, sometimes

of an ethnic character – escalated into armed conflict. Yugoslavia

was unique, however, because it was on the European continent.

All the other conflicts escalating into war were taking place on

other continents.

I became involved again, because in the Dutch cabinet I held

the position of Minister for Development Cooperation and also,

for a short period, Minister of Defence. We discussed what we

could do and we participated in UN peacekeeping operations in

Yugoslavia, bringing food, medical and other care to places where

there was a lot of violence and destruction. And there was the

United Nations peace operation, with the Dutch Blue Helmets in

Srebrenica. I went many times, together with my collaborators, of

whom you were one, Marion, to Sarajevo, where we had discussions

with members of the government and with non-governmental

organizations, trying to help a little to improve the situation in

Bosnia itself. But we failed.

I would say we failed particularly when the genocide took

place in Srebrenica. I went there with you in the days after, and

we saw the women and the children arriving in Tuzla. It was quite

clear that the men and the boys had been and were being killed,

killed by the Serbs. So, we in the Netherlands felt a certain coresponsibility,

because we had not been able to protect the people

– which was the mandate given to us by the UN Security Council

– together with a strong feeling of solidarity. We had to do everything

we could to help the people of Bosnia in particular, but also,

victims of violent conflict in other parts of the former Yugoslavia.

I, we wanted to demonstrate solidarity not just in the field of

development and humanitarian assistance, but also politically.

The question was how to assist Bosnia in particular, because

Bosnia was the main victim in Yugoslavia as a whole, how to help

keep it alive and become, once again, a model of pluriformity.

Before the war Bosnia had been such a model. a bastion of

pluriformity. In Bosnia Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks, different

religions, different cultures had been living together within one

community. Bosnia was attacked from outside rather than from

inside. When the war broke out, well, how could we help this

former nation-state, young, of course, but existing, to stand up

again as a model? I met several politicians in the country. One of

them was Rusmir Mahmutćehajić. I had many and long discussions

with him. After the war, he asked me whether I could help

him by funding a project, a forum, a platform for discussion and

thinking about the future. And that’s what we did – Forum Bosnia.

It is a Bosnian forum, not a foreign forum for Bosnia. And we

were very pleased that we could help.


What do you see now? What do you think of Bosnia’s right to

exist as an entity? That right is being questioned by others.

Do you do you see a role for Europe in this respect?

Bosnia was and is a small country, with different groups

within its borders. It is not a foreign construct. It is the result of

decisions made in Yugoslavia at a certain moment to have different

states, independent, within borders that existed already when

Yugoslavia was a federation. In Bosnia, Bosniaks, Croats, and

Serbs had lived together in the past peacefully. It was, as I said

before, a model of coexistence and cooperation. There were differences

– definitely – but there was a model. Maybe it was precisely

because it was a model that it was attacked by the Croats in

Croatia and the Serbs in Serbia. Maybe there was a certain jealousy.

And of course, nationalist feelings in these two other states

went back in history to before the period of stability that started

after 1945. So, if there is any nation which we should respect and

cherish, even though there are differences within that nation as an

entity, then it should be Bosnia. We must do all we can to keep it

all together. Again, it was not a foreign construct, though, of

course, the way in which it continued after the war was very much

the result of decisions taken under the Dayton Peace agreement.

But it is worth fighting for Bosnia as it is, rather than give up on

the idea of a pluriform but common nation-state as some politicians

are advocating at the moment, in particular in Srpska. So,

let’s try to keep Bosnia as it is. And, of course, within Bosnia,

political negotiations will have to take place. They will have to

reach compromise. They will have to give up some of their own

feelings and ideas and wishes. But that is true for all the parts

which together make up Bosnia. That’s my first answer.

Second, it is even more difficult at the moment than 20 years

ago, because of the new situation on the European continent.

After the end of the Cold War, we had a new major change – the

beginning of a new millennium – which resulted in a new cold

war between Russia on the one hand and the West on the other.

And you see the war in Ukraine and the many Russian efforts to

destabilise other countries in Europe. We have to stand up against

these efforts to destabilise Europe by splitting up countries,

because that would have a domino effect in many other parts of

Europe. So, it is in the interest of Europe and in the interest of

Bosnia as it is, as an entity, to withstand this tendency and so

maintain, as far as possible at the moment, peace on the European

continent as a whole. And that requires cooperation between

groups in Bosnia and Europe.

Does Europe have a role to play? I am strongly in favour of

Bosnian membership of the European Union. I think it’s important

for Bosnia. It would create prospects for young people, so

that they don’t need to leave the country to find jobs or an income

somewhere else, which is catastrophic for the economic, social,

and cultural future of the country. I think it’s also important for

Europe. Presently Europe is very reluctant as far as membership

of new states is concerned. And I understand that because many

of the potential new members of Europe bring their own risks of

domestic conflict escalating into violence. Europe wants to be a

stable group of countries, the European Union. So, why bring in

sources of instability? It is a reasonable question, but I have a

different view. The sources of instability are there anyway. At the

moment Bosnia is not stable. So, do we in Europe prefer sources

of instability within our frontiers of the European Union or at our

borders? The easy solution is to keep them away, beyond the

European frontier, but then they still exist. And, nowadays, that

offers the Russians, or others, a chance to use and manipulate

those sources of instability. They will escalate and threaten peace.

Violent conflict at the other side of European borders will bring

potential conflict to Europe itself. In my view, in order to tackle

the sources of conflict within those countries, bringing them in is

better than closing our borders to them. I say this not only so far

as Bosnia is concerned, but also with regard to a number of other

countries, potential new members of the European Union. I am

strongly in favour of an enlargement of the European Union as an

alternative to something others are advocating – enlarging NATO

by bringing new countries into NATO. In my view, that would be

risky, because it would lead to more confrontation and greater

chances of international conflict and war than offering them

membership of a stable European Union.

So, firstly, it is important for both Europe and Bosnia that

Bosnia stays together. Secondly, Europe has to integrate fragile

neighbouring countries within its own EU community and assist

them to become stable and prosperous. Thirdly, within those countries,

and Bosnia is not the only one, people have to work together.

And, I would say to the Croats and the Serbs and the Bosniaks, be

proud of your history, the history you yourselves created after

1945, when you were able to work together – you kept your differences,

politically, ideologically to a certain extent, ethnically and

religiously, but you were able to work together economically. You

could travel everywhere, you could study everywhere, you could

leave the country and come back to it. Yugoslavia was a source of

stability. It enriched Europe. So, be proud of that contribution,

which you delivered to Europe as a whole. And go back to that

state of affairs and show the world that you can live together and

that you can resolve your conflicts by political means, rather than

by splitting up completely or by fighting.


We were in Tuzla when the women and children came in,

during and after the genocide in Srebrenica, and the

Netherlands tried to help in the aftermath of that terrible tragedy.

What is your view now on how things have developed

since Srebrenica and after the creation of Dayton and the

creation of Bosnia as a unitary state?

Let me first say something more about Srebrenica. I felt great

guilt. Dutchbat was there to protect. We were not able to protect,

but the mandate was to protect and we didn’t do it. Those who

slaughtered the people of Srebrenica, Mladić and his soldiers,

were fully responsible and guilty. But, the Dutch, what about us?

As a politician, I felt guilty, because I was responsible, of course,

for sending Dutch soldiers as UN peacekeepers to Srebrenica in

order to protect civilians. I felt that, as member of government I

was co-responsible for the way in which they fulfilled the mandate.

We have sent them with light arms equipment only. There are

some other excuses as well, but it does not take away the fact that

we failed to protect the people and that as a consequence nearly

eight thousand Bosniaks were massacred.

So, I felt ashamed and may other people in my country feel

the same However, many others in the Netherlands tried to forget

and deny any co-responsibility for the failure. In the Netherlands,

we tend to blame others rather than ourselves. This attitude has

led to a difficult political climate and I would say it is still difficult.

Since 2002, on the 11th of July I attend each year the commemorative

events in The Hague, where Bosnian people living in

the Netherlands think again about what happened and mention

the names of all the newly-found dead, reburied in Potočari. It is

a moving event. People in the Netherlands do not deny that genocide

took place, but they deny our having been involved in it.

Bosnian people in this country put pressure on the press, and on

political parties, to rethink, again, what happened and how they

should react to it. Some Bosnian people in the Netherlands are

active in the fields of education, theatre and art. They have been

able to bring the message, but not everyone is listening. There is,

again, no denial of genocide, but there is a denial of our involvement,

co-responsibility and failure. And there is always a risk that

people deny that a genocide even took place. That is what people

in Serbia believe, and also in Republika Serpska and elsewhere.

This is deplorable and we should not get tired telling the truth in

order to prevent that new generations will become indifferent.

However, I would like to offer a word of consolation. I have

been involved in many conflicts around the world and there have

been many genocides. I was involved at a late stage in assistance

to the people of Cambodia. In the nineteen eighties the world

didn’t even want to know that a genocide had taken place there.

Later on, I was in Mozambique, in Rwanda, in Somalia, Sudan

and in Darfur. Two years ago, genocide took place in Tigray, in

Ethiopia. Last year it started again in Darfur. Presently there is

mass slaughter in Gaza. I could continue. It’s always denial, not

only of involvement, but also of the facts themselves: “It didn’t

take place. There were no mass killings, or, anyway, it wasn’t

genocide”. However, and the world has to learn and politicians or

opinion leaders or the press or churches or whatever must learn

that the victims who say that they are being attacked, that their

brothers and their sons have been or are being killed, that their

mother or their daughter is being raped – that they speak the truth.

The victims are always right. They have the right to speak out,

and others have a duty to listen. If we do not fulfil that duty to

listen to the victims, then the killings will continue. The cry of the

survivors and of the children of the dead must be heard

Now, of course, having fulfilled your duty to listen, you have

to set further steps: organise justice, establish courts and trials and

offer reparations. To a certain extent all that is taking place, but

always too little and too late. That was also the case for Bosnia

and Srebrenica. However, and this is another word of consolation,

people in Bosnia are not the only ones who are being forgotten.

The same applies to victims and survivors of injustice



What is more, you have to think about the future, to create a

society, a national society as well as an international society, in

which the sources of conflict can be eliminated. Sometimes it’s

an economic source, sometimes it is the jealousy of one group

against another. Sometimes it is a long-standing history, whereby

groups have been fighting each other for ages, Muslims, Hindu,

Christians, Jews, or, within these religions, sub-religions and

ethnic groups. And after the end of the Cold War, the old idea of

nationalism became alive again. Nationalism had led to the world

wars – the First World War, the Second World War. In order to

halt nationalism and war the United Nations were created.

Bringing countries together, in which Yugoslavia played an

important role, included an effort to keep nations alive, stable and

safe, and to make clear, within nation-states that different

minorities should be able to live together. That was the message

of the United Nations, based on the rights of minorities and on

human rights. Nowadays, nationalism is not only rising again in

Europe, but also in the Middle East and in Africa.

Basil Davidson has written a brilliant book about nationalism

in Africa. He blames Europe because we had nations, we

were fighting each other, and, after the end of the fighting, we

created nation-states. And we exported this European idea of the

nation-state to Africa, without also bringing the message of stability

and coexistence within the nation state. This has become a

major problem for Africa, because most wars in Africa take place

within the borders of individual nation states. These countries are

not disputing each other’s borders; they are disputing the basis of

the nation-state. By applying in Africa during the period of colonisation

the model of the nation-state, model as had been developed

in European history, Europe has given the wrong example

and the wrong message. As soon as African countries became

independent, their leaders were eager to follow the example of the

colonial empires. Instead Europe should give a different example,

the present-day European Union, within which nations are staying

together, whereby problems within nations – and they do

exist, in Spain, for instance, or in Sweden, where minorities are

marginalized, or, even though it is no longer a member of European

Union, in the United Kingdom, where there are the problems of

Northern Ireland and Scotland and Wales – are being solved at the

political level. There is never a definitive solution, but there are

temporary solutions based on talks rather than fighting. This

European example is also valid for all the states in the former

Yugoslavia. Taken seriously, it would have consequences not only

for Bosnia, but also for Serbia and its relations with Kosovo. It

would also have consequences for Albania. Macedonia, Moldavia,

Hungary, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Turkey. In all these countries

within or just outside Europe we must do all we can to avoid the

escalation of the sources of conflict into violence. European integration

of nation-states together with integration of all minorities

on equal footing within individual nation-states is the only way to

establish sustainable peace.

I’m saying this as a has-been. I’m 83 and I have been politically

active for many decades, including within the framework of

the United Nations. But I’m no longer an active politician. I’m

standing aside. I’m studying what’s happening in the world. And

people like me should not preach. What we can do is openly admit

our own mistakes, so that young people, who have to carry on,

know what the possible pitfalls are. It is not up to older people to

design the future of Europe. Not in Western European countries or

in Bosnia or in the other countries of the former Yugoslavia either.

That is the task of young people – it is their future, their culture,

their employment prospects, their views on what’s going on in the

world. They are also the ones who will benefit most, because the

present situation of instability and threats and recession is making

young people in particular suffer. And it is important for all those

countries and particularly, for people in Bosnia, that they be able

to get access to good education, if possible in a multicultural

framework, so that they can learn from each other’s views.

There could lie, in my view, a task for Bosnia Forum, a task

to shape the future. You don’t have to share other people’s views,

but you do have to understand them, even if you do not share

them – the fact that you know them enriches you. Then you can

work together to make the group in which you co-exist with other

people, whatever their background, better off. Now that’s education.

That is culture. It is theatre. It is music. It is also employment.

And that is what previous, older generations have to make

possible for young people. Older generations very often think too

much in terms of their own past interests, and past interests are

not future interests. Take for instance, climate change. It is a major

threat to all people, everywhere, women, men and children.

A threat to old, young and yet unborn people. A threat to people

with different colour or belief. All will have to live together, not

to fight, but to address together the two main risks for future life

on our earth: rapidly increasing climate change and escalating violent

wars within and between countries. These are threatening

the future of all generations and of young people in particular.

When we insist on thinking along the lines of nationalism and

self-righteousness, perhaps we are making the survival of future

generations impossible.