Divided Bosnia Puts Forward a Jewish Face

By Marc Perelman

Published October 10, 2007, issue of October 12, 2007.

United Nations - More than a decade after the end of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s vicious civil war, ethnic and religious divisions in the country remain stark. The Balkan nation effectively exists as two autonomous mini-states, one for Christian Orthodox Serbs and one for Muslim Bosniaks and Roman Catholic Croats.

The hybrid form of government has been a hindrance to national unity and made Bosnia’s aspirations to membership in NATO and the European Union all the more difficult to realize. So it is perhaps surprising that in a country divided strictly along ethnic lines, particularly one where Muslims have the greatest numbers, the international face of the government is a Jewish one.

Sven Alkalaj, one of only 600 or so Jews remaining in Bosnia, was appointed foreign minister earlier this year, putting him in the select company of Israel’s Tzipi Livni and England’s David Miliband.

“I don’t think there are more than two other Jewish foreign ministers in the world,” Alkalaj told the Forward last week in New York, where he was attending the United Nations’ annual General Assembly. “But I am not the foreign minister of any ethnic group.”

Being the Jewish foreign minister of a country that has close relations with most Muslim countries has at times been a delicate enterprise for Alkalaj. At the annual meeting of foreign ministers of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, held last month in Islamabad, he politely rejected an offer from his Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, to visit Tehran. Alkalaj also skipped a meeting on the sidelines of the recent U.N. General Assembly between OIC foreign ministers and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“It was not the moment,” said Alkalaj, who will pay his first official visit to Israel next week.

Like the vast majority of Bosnian Jewry, Alkalaj’s family emigrated from Spain several centuries ago; his name derives from an area in Spain’s Castilla region. He was born in 1948 in Sarajevo, a city that before the Holocaust had such a large Jewish presence that it was nicknamed “Little Jerusalem.”

After graduating from university, Alkalaj went to work for Yugoslavia’s national energy company, spending several years in Thailand. His career as an energy executive came to an abrupt halt during the early 1990s when the Yugoslav federation violently disintegrated into war. Largely on the strength of his international business experience, Alkalaj was appointed in 1993 as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ambassador to Washington, a key post at a time when the newly independent country was seeking international and particularly American support in fighting off Serbia.

Alkalaj remembers his 10-year stint as ambassador as a “very difficult time” spent putting his country on the map. He was involved in the negotiations that in October 1995 led to the Dayton Peace Agreement, which divided Bosnia and Herzegovina into a Bosnian-Croat federation and a Bosnian Serb region, each with its own president, government and parliament operating alongside a central Bosnian government with a rotating presidency.

In 2003 he was posted to Brussels to serve as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ambassador to NATO. He stayed in the strategically important position until this past February, when he was appointed foreign minister by the newly elected Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Alkalaj first met the party’s leader, Haris Silajdzic, in 1993, when Silajdzic was serving as prime minister. The two men soon discovered that their histories were bound by more than just the war raging around them.

According to Alkalaj, decades ago his father and Silajdzic’s were ideological comrades in arms, of sorts. Before World War II, they served in the same Yugoslavian military unit. One time, Serbian soldiers tried to force Silajdzic’s father, who was an imam, to eat pork. Alkalaj’s father stood by him and eventually stopped the harassment. Alkalaj and Silajdzic also agree when it comes to treating all Bosnian citizens as equals. It is with such a goal in mind that both are advocating for a revision of the Dayton peace accords, which they argue maintain the country’s ethnic divisions.

An effort to rework Bosnia and Herzegovina’s constitution foundered in April, but further discussions on the issue are scheduled in the coming months. Such an overhaul, Alkalaj says, would smooth the way toward full membership in NATO, which Bosnia and Herzegovina has hopes of achieving in 2010 after recently entering into an interim partnership with the military alliance. Bosnia and Herzegovina has also signed a so-called association and stabilization agreement with the E.U. and is working toward consideration as a full member of the 27-country union.

The main obstacle to full E.U. membership is reform of the police, which has been slowed by ongoing tensions between the Muslim-Croat federation and the Bosnian Serb entity. Hostility between the country’s two governments is by all accounts firmly entrenched, but Alkalaj, who defines himself as a secular Jew, would like Bosnia to again become the model of coexistence it once was.



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