Open Skies over Bosnia

Hartwig Spitzer
Universität Hamburg
Arbeitsgruppe für Naturwissenschaft und Internationale Sicherheit (CENSIS)

On June 17 and 18, 1997 I had the opportunity to participate in a joint Hungarian-Romanian Open-Skies trial flight over Bosnia and Hercegovina. This flight was one of those rarely reported events outside of the limelight of international media attention which support confidence building and reconciliation amidst a deeply split population and high levels of tension. The actors behind such steps are representatives of international organizations like the OSCE as well as courageous members of non-governmental organizations which are engaged in Bosnia and Hercegovina. The addressees are both official representatives and the threefold divided "general" public.

How do you facilitate multiple communication after a war when almost everyone feels as a looser? The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) took a threefold approach: Firstly, OSCE supports the mutual verification of (modest) arms reductions according to the Dayton accord through multilateral on-site inspections. E.g. an OSCE representative escorts officers from Republika Srpska for an inspection of a military site operated by the Bosnian army or by the HVO (the military of the Bosnian Croats). Bosnian Serbs would not dare to pass the border of their ``canton'' in their own cars. Secondly OSCE (with the help of other organizations) organizes elections. Thirdly - and least known - OSCE has arranged a number of voluntary confidence building measures in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

The Open-Skies flight in June was one of these confidence building measures. The earliest foundations for this flight were laid in 1992 when the member states of NATO and the former Warsaw Pact signed an Open-Skies Treaty, which foresees mutual cooperative observation (imaging) flights over any site in their territories. One of the fathers of the treaty was Ambassador Marton Krasznai of Hungary, whom I met first in 1994. He was also one of the architects of the Hungarian-Romanian Open-Skies Agreement, which is successfully in force since 1992. In 1996 Krasznai was appointed as personal representative of the chairman in office of the OSCE for the implementation of part (Article 2) of the Dayton Accord in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Kraznai believed that Open-Skies would be a viable tool for overcoming suspicion, because the opening of ones own airspace to the ``eyes'' of the other side is an important gesture.

In consequence observers from the three Bosnian parties as well as observers from Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were invited for joining an Open-Skies trial flight over Hungary in October 1996, which was jointly organized by Hungary and the United States. I witnessed how the officers from the divided camps slowly opened up after four days of joint bus rides, flights, discussions and meals. The next step was a seminar on Open-Skies and regional confidence building measures which was held in Sarajevo by OSCE in February 1997. The seminar brought me to Sarajevo for the first time. In March of this year Hungary and Romania agreed to take aside one of their bilateral Open-Skies flights, offering it as a trial flight to the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina (the only diplomatically accepted entity). A final agreement was only obtained after including the army leadership of the Bosnian Croats, Serbs and Muslims in the negotiations. Although the State of Bosnia and Hercegovina represents the country to the outside, state agencies lack functionality and authority. Most decisions are made by the leaderships of the three ethnic groups.

I flew into Sarajevo on board of the Hungarian Open-Skies aircraft, a Russian-made twin engine cargo plane (model Antonov 26). Arriving in Sarajevo is still a breath-taking experience. South of the airport quite sizeable mountain ridges rise into the glaring summer sky. On the other side the former Olympic Village got so heavily destroyed by the fire of light arms that it is now nearly uninhabitated. The airport itself, which was on the former front line, resembles a busy military camp. It is one of the main entry and exit points of the multinational force (SFOR), which brought the war to a standstill. Parts of the airport have recently been opened for civilian flights.

I was one of many observers invited from Germany, the UK, France, the United States, Denmark, Russia, The Ukraine, Croatia and Slovenia. Part of the delegation was housed in the nearby Serbian canton (which calls itself Republika Srpska), the other one - an hour's drive away - in Kiseljak, in the Croat canton (which calls itself Croat Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina). Kiseljac lies in a charming valley surrounded by lush green fields and wooded hills. The place looks well off. In contrast to Sarajevo you might forget that this was a place of war. However, when you stroll down the main street, you pass a heavily destroyed mosque and a fenced off orthodox chapel. Whereas Croats made up 52% of the population before the war, they are now at 99%.

In the hotel we found ourselves heavily guarded by soldiers of the Croat army (HVO). This was not needed for security reasons but was rather meant as a demonstration of the self-confidence of this well-equipped and well-payed army (in contrast to the Bosniak and Serbian army). A sergeant told me that he earns DM 1200,- per month, definitively more than the Hungarian and Romanian officers in our group. The soldier could not comment on the financial sources of HVO.

On June 17 and 18 two flights were carried out from Sarajevo, which led to Mostar and to Tuzla passing various military sites. Representatives of the three ``entities'' had agreed -- after substantial bargaining -- on a joint list of nine targets to be photographed (four in the Bosnian canton, three in the Serbian canton and two in the Croat canton).

A dual camera on board of the aircraft took two identical pictures each time. In the end the pictures from both flights were evenly divided between the military representatives of the three entities and the State. Everyone took home both pictures of own sites and of sites belonging to the other entities. This is one of the elements which express the open and cooperative nature of the Open-Skies approach. Observers from all Bosnian parties and international observers were on board during the flights.

They also met formally and informally before and after the flights. The outcome of the flights were welcomed by all parties concerned . Ambassador Krasznai reminded us that a successful test flight in 1991 was at the beginning of the formal Hungarian-Romanian Open-Skies Agreement. The Open-Skies practice of Hungary and Romania definitively has contributed to the fact that political tensions between the two countries were eased and never incited to the level of military tensions.

It can be expected that more Open-Skies demonstration flights over Bosnia will follow, carried out by Romania and potentially also the United States and Germany as lead nations. A formal offer has already been submitted by Romania to the Foreign Ministry of Bosnia and Hercegovina. A distant goal - envisaged by some - is a regional Open-Skies Agreement, which might also involve Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

What is the outlook for lasting peace in Bosnia? We cannot tell. Whenever I talked to representatives of the three entities, I heard words of polarization, blaming the other sides. At the same time the outside world is being held responsible for solving the internal problems. Everyone believes that an international force like SFOR has to stay present for years in order to prevent the outbreak of new fighting. An Open-Skies Agreement could be one of many measures (most importantly economic reconstruction) which could support the parties in a true normalization of their relations. This will take time, persistence and dedication. The goal is a transformation of hate, fear and helplessness into an attitude of taking care of oneself, and of accepting the others.