Israel’s Foreign Ministry celebrated the recent appointment of Alexander Nikolić as Honorary Consul of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This follows a gala diplomatic reception at the Bosnia-Herzegovina Embassy in Tel Aviv last month, in which several attended from the diplomatic community. Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman came as an invited guest and friend of Nikolić whom he has known for many years. Lieberman addressed Nikolic by his more familiar first name.
“Saša, everybody knows you are a real pioneer and a big supporter of our friendship between Israel and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and I should say, for all the Balkans region, and in all the Balkan countries. I think that your knowledge and your personal contribution to this cooperation, to this friendship, is huge. And, our expectations, today, after your appointment, are even greater. I do not have any doubts that we will continue to cooperate, and you will continue to support all efforts. From my previous capacity as Minister of Foreign Affairs, again, I would emphasize that Saša is maybe the biggest expert in Israel in all Balkans issues, and in all complexities of the post-Yugoslavian era.”
This writer asked Lieberman, more specifically, how Israeli ties with Bosnia-Herzegovina are expected to improve.
“I think that we have enjoyed very good relations in past years, and have enjoyed political consultations. Today is a real challenge in how to translate good political relations to some fruitful and tangible cooperation. There are some fields that I think it is possible to improve this cooperation, especially in the field of agriculture, water management, and maybe some of our investments in IT in Israel. As you know, it is a Start-up Nation, and I think it is possible to share our knowledge and our possibilities. Historically, the Jewish community existed in Bosnia-Herzegovina for hundreds of years, and was an integral part of this region and this country, with very good relations with the local population. I hope that Saša will be able to upgrade our political relationships, and to achieve some real results for the best use of our two states.”
And, on the security issue, Lieberman explained Israel’s situation and that of the Balkans region:
”As you see, in Israel, we handle all security problems every day. I wish for Bosnia-Herzegovina, for the Balkans region, a much better environment. I think that the Balkans may be a good example for the Middle East, with all the complexities of the region. They finished all the confrontations, the bloodshed, and today, you have — despite political disagreements and sometimes tensions — all of the Balkans region looking towards a better future, to be part of the European Union. Despite all disputes, the solution, clear for everybody, is only a peaceful way. No violation, no war… Today, it is really a free world; democratic states; with all problems, but with all possibilities for a bright future. It is also a way for our country.”
During the reception, the member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency from the Republic of Srpska, Dr. Mladen Ivanić, gave his greetings through a recorded video clip. Mentioning his March 2017 visit to Israel, where he had fruitful meetings with Israeli heads of state, Ivanic also expressed his support for the appointment of Nikolić.
“Relationships between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel are quite good. But, there is a lot of space to improve these relations in all possible areas: economy, trade, education, technology, knowledge, and tourism… Mr. Nikolić is a member of one of the oldest Sephardic families in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The family of Baruh. And, members of that family are very famous, especially in the cultural life of Bosnia-Herzegovina.”
Accepting the position as Honorary Consul to Israel, Nikolić stated the fields in which he intends to be involved in constructive roles, promoting bi-lateral relations between Bosnia-Herzegovina and Israel. Calling on his many colleagues and friends, he asked for cooperation from those who were at the embassy gathering, mentioning, “There is a specific need of joint efforts in the field of water management, agriculture, trade, and exchange of knowledge between the scientists.”
Bosnia-Herzegovina Ambassador to Israel, Jelena Rajaković congratulated Nikolić in his new position. The population of her country is less than 4 million people, but Ambassador Rajaković wants as much cooperation as possible with Israel. Rajaković says she is more interested in health and science than the political connections, and wants to help children in her country who have special needs and heart disease. During the past five years, children with special needs has become an epidemic in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“I have an idea to make some connection with Hadassah Hospital here. Unfortunately, we have a lot of children who have special needs. And, I saw what Israel does in this area. I know something about medicine, it is my hobby. It will be my first task. You will be informed about it. I cannot speak of details. But, I am working on this, to bring several of the children from Bosnia-Herzegovina here to be helped, especially children with heart disease.”
Other programs where Rajaković hopes to receive Nikolić’s assistance in is the exchange of knowledge with experts in Israeli universities. “It will be most useful for Bosnia-Herzegovina to make some connection on the intellectual science level.”
Nikolić looks forward to working together with Rajaković on special projects. He explained how things will be different now as he takes on his new task as Honorary Consul. “It’s a completely different perspective being able to present myself officially. Until now, I asked and used connections and the good will of some in charge; individuals in various fields that found me also constructive for their fields of interest. But, now, when I will approach different institutions and organizations, it will actually be part of their job to be in connection with me.”
Though born in Belgrade, Nikolić made Aliyah when he was 23. He was active in a youth movement of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia, and in charge of it; then at Yad Vashem. He arranged for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina to come to Yad Vashem for studies and training. Now, each July, 10-15 teachers participate in a specific program at the Yad Vashem campus, aimed at embracing Holocaust knowledge, especially to use in educating students in third and fourth grades. In the future, he expects Bosnia-Herzegovina to deal with Yad Vashem on even more Holocaust related issues.
“It is definitely a complex matter; a multi-disciplinary one. Scholars in different fields should be involved.”
There is hope that Bosnia-Herzegovina will move forward with the restitution of the Jewish property issue. President Ivanić, in his recent trip here, said that it was his position to support it. But, there are three presidents who have to be unanimous in this decision.
Reportedly, a compensation law encouraged by Ivanić was formulated, although it has been shelved because of the difficulties determining who owns the property (which at one time was taken over by the communists, then privatized; and, in some cases, buildings were torn down and replaced). The property that is in dispute has a value of 3 billion Euros.
Nikolić is not sure how the issue will be resolved. He explained some of the complications. “It is going to be both very sensitive and difficult. Sensitive, because not all property that was in different periods of time, taken from the owners and their families within this framework of Jewish property, was embraced. We shall be very careful in dealing with this subject, having in mind the sensitivity of others peoples who lived there. And, what happened to their congregations, and their communities, such as churches. On the other hand, it is very complex because of the socio-economical state of the country. There is nothing that could be compared to what happened to the Jewish properties and perspective of institutions. Proportionally speaking, Jews owned so much more than any other ethnic group there, and in particular, they owned properties that were actually productive, capable of producing additional value.”
Dan Oryan, Director of the Balkans Department for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said that during the visit of President Ivanić, new voices were heard from the Bosnian side, but he doubts it will develop into a full solution to the problem, as is the case of Macedonia and Serbia.
Nikolić has had business and diplomatic ties with Bosnia-Herzegovina for many years. For example, from 2012 to 2014, along with many other achievements, he successfully fulfilled his responsibilities in the Economic Office of the Republic of Srpska, in Jerusalem. He has also assisted in creating partnerships between cities in Israel and those in Bosnia.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country divided into two political entities…. the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republic of Srpska. Each of the parts has its own constitution and legislative powers. In the Federation, most of the people living there are Bosniaks (Sunni Moslems), and Croats (Catholic Christians). In the Republic of Srpska, most are Serbs (Orthodox Christians). There are three members of the Presidency directly elected, representing each of these three ethnic diversities. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country that functions on a bureaucratic system, created from these three distinct groups that have had difficulty working together. Stability is a key factor as the Presidency chairmanship rotates every eight months.
The hope is that Nikolić’s connections, his understanding of the language and region, and his natural friendliness, will grant him the favor needed for Israel to experience flourishing ties with all groups represented in the country. Nikolic was granted the Honorary Consul appointment after recommendations from all three presidents of Bosnia-Herzegovina: Croat Presidency member and Chairman of the Presidency, Dragan Čović; Presidency member from the Republic of Srpska, Mladen Ivanić; and Bosniak Presidency member, Bakir Izetbegović. This is an encouraging sign.
According to Oryan, it is important for countries to help each other, especially in times of crisis. “When there were floods in the region, we were helping. The person that brought a lot of the medical supplies, in a special helicopter, was Alexander. I asked him to assist us and he was the one to give Bosnia-Herzegovina Israel’s medical assistance and other needed supplies at the time.”
Part of Israel’s foreign policy is based on the concept of soft-diplomacy, especially forming business partnerships. To begin, Nikolić is interested in two specific fields. One of them is waste water treatment and regulation of water supply and sewage disposal. The other has to do with trade of certain agricultural products, for example, apples, which yield good results. He would also like to involve Israeli experts in improving capacities of exporting beef to Turkey, due to already existing permission. “It has to be a win-win situation, otherwise it can’t last.”
One of the concerns about the Balkans region, especially regarding Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been less U.S. support and interest than expected. This has resulted in a lot of Iranian support to that country in the past. There are close relations with the country of Qatar, which has been influential, as well. Al-Jazeera television, which is not supportive of Israel, has impact in the region. These kind of influences create problems for Israel. Having the support of Balkan States, like Bosnia-Herzegovina, helps Israel in the global arena.
According to Nikolić, there are some positive new developments. The United Nations General Assembly recently voted whether to support or reject U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. While a majority of countries rejected Trump’s declaration, Bosnia-Herzegovina abstained in that vote – considered, by some, as a gain in relations with both the United States and Israel.
Israeli leaders hope that Nikolić can help influence and push forward topics supportive of Israel, while discouraging anti-Israel topics from appearing on the agenda. Nikolić has some experience in UN matters. In 2011, he was one of those responsible for connecting then Foreign Minister Lieberman, as well as other Israeli officials, with some of the Bosnia-Herzegovina’s presidents, right before an important United Nations Security Council vote on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Nikolić explained how decisions are made by consensus in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In certain areas of foreign policy, the interests and the vision of the three members of the presidency are not only different but actually opposing each other. “In such cases, a country abstains from a vote, and doesn’t give its vote to any of the sides. In that particular case, it was a break-even situation.”
Because Bosnia-Herzegovina abstained in that vote, it resulted in less than a majority of countries that supported the anti-Israel resolution. Therefore, the United States did not have to use its veto to stop the resolution from passing. So, Israel benefited.
“Traditionally, relations with members of the presidencies from the Republic of Srpska, are warm. And, it is on the Israeli side, to further contribute to those warm relations; at the same time, to find ways to contribute to mutual interests with the other members of the presidencies. The wisdom is to cooperate with everybody; to treat everybody equally… I do hope that, in the next coming period, Bosnia-Herzegovina will better understand the very complex position of Israel; won’t be supportive to those sides that are very negative to Israel; and, instead will be favorable to the State of Israel.”
In another diplomatic arena, Bosnia and Herzegovina submitted its formal application for EU membership in February, 2016. The country’s leadership is eager to enter the EU, and is in the process of accession. In this case, Israel can lend assistance to that process in specific areas of expertise, with Nikolić’s help.
Nikolić is co-editor of the book Kalmi Baruh – Selected Works on Sephardic and Other Jewish Topics, Moshe David Gaon Center for Ladino Culture edition; and, published articles about Baruh in Hebrew, English and Serbo-Croatian. He participated in scientific congresses in the field. He has a working knowledge of Ladino and has helped Israel with relations in the small Jewish communities that still exist in some Balkan states. He plans to be involved in advancing the Sephardic legacy, a passionate project of his, having to do with cultural ties to Israel.
”It’s an ethnic group that jealously guarded and protected their language from the time of expulsion… In the sense of scientific works, museum projects and music, it is very important to say that non-Jewish, non-Sephardic populations, are actually taking part in this way. They feel this is also part of their heritage.”
While finances are difficult to obtain when it comes to cultural projects, Nikolić believes there will be some monies to fund activities in this important field. He hopes to advance his ideas in a mix of culture and science programs, enhancing the cause of Sephardic Jewry in Bosnia-Herzegovina and throughout the Balkans region.