The Bosnian Question

By Ambassador Charles Crawford
Thursday, 20 Sep 2012

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As part of a debate at on constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Charles Crawford explains how the much-criticized Dayton constitution drew directly upon the political traditions and legal forms that existed previously in the former Yugoslavia.

I served as British Olympic Attache for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games, standing up for human rights: "What was Sarajevo like then? It had a new Yugo-cool atmosphere, a place where young people from across the country would go to hang out. The fave Yugo-rock group Bijelo Dugme (White Button) came from there, to deserved acclaim. Yet there was a much darker side. Because of political tensions between the different ethnic factions unresolved since WW2 within the League of Communists, both within Bosnia and more widely, local tolerance for ‘anarcho-liberalism’ and ‘clero-nationalism’ was nil."

A group of alleged Muslim nationalists including future BH President Alija Izetbegovic was imprisoned in 1983 on charges of wanting to create inter alia an ethnically pure Bosnia. Also into prison around then went future ICTY indictee Serb Vojislav Seselj, a talented law scholar, jailed for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’. Biljana Plavsic, another Serb who ended up being sentenced for war crimes by the ICTY, told me with tears in her eyes how she had listened to the prison doctor describing the appalling torture injuries inflicted on Seselj by Muslim prison authorities – “his extremism came from that”. Another more lowly Serb was jailed for singing an allegedly nationalist song in a bar.

In 1983 I joined a group of other (mainly Eastern bloc) Olympic Attaché diplomats on a tour of the Olympic facilities then busily being finished. We were given a long and ridiculous lecture by a senior Bosnian Communist on the glory of Bosnia-style democratic ‘Brotherhood and Unity’. I eventually lost my patience and asked about the trial of Izetbegovic and others – where did that fit in? The Commie looked at me intently. “When you are shown a rose, do you see only the thorns?” he sneered, not exactly answering the question.

Having spent most of my life living in socialist authoritarian countries, and countries trudging the long sad path back from socialist authoritarianism, I admit I have little time for socialists of any shape or size. Mr. Mujanović is proud to come from an anarchist-left part of the spectrum:

I reject all forms of systemic coercion and violence, politically and economically, including the state and capitalism (sic), and it is why I am very interested in promoting co-operative, participatory forms of democratic social organization – in particular in BiH, where such a progressive politics are, to my mind, unjustifiably obscured.

He also asks why my piece on Bosnia and its observations on the balance between individual and ‘group’ rights did not concern the manner in which West European or more broadly “Anglo-American” states have dealt with this problem:

… namely, through the empowerment of individual citizens through liberal-democratic practices while constitutionally protecting the rights of minorities, practices similar to what I have been arguing for all along. Rather, Mr. Crawford is more concerned with the failures of Soviet and Yugoslav authoritarianism.

Silly me. I confess. It struck me as highly-relevant that those designing the Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) constitution drew directly upon the political traditions that existed in that territory. Let’s remind ourselves again what they were.

The key thing to grasp is that the modern post-Yugoslav misery arises almost exclusively from the systemic coercion and violence of the state and socialism. The Titoist communists decided in 1943 to build a post-war Yugoslavia of six republics on the explicit basis of self-determination for specific national communities. They then massacred/brutalized in prodigious numbers, during and after World War Two, anyone favouring the sort of participatory, democratic, non-ethnic social organisation that Mr. Mujanović says he supports.

The ‘national’ characteristics of Yugoslav political identity in fact grew more powerful over time. As I previously described, the Muslim community of Bosnia/Sandzak pressed hard within the Yugoslav system for recognition as a full narod. The ‘national key’ (Yugo-style positive discrimination) came to dominate official appointments – a massively cumbersome attempt to ensure equal treatment between the different narodi led to all sorts of dismal people getting promoted solely on the basis of ethnicity.

The most perverse outcome of this were the attacks from some people within the League of Communists against people calling themselves ‘Yugoslavs’ as a specific category in the census. By the time Yugoslavia started to fall apart, Yugoslavs were roughly as numerous as Slovenes. Hence the deep dilemma facing international policy makers:

That genuinely hard question at the heart of Westphalianism – nation or state? – posed itself in acute form. Should the rest of us recognise the former internal borders of the USSR and Yugoslavia as the borders of the new countries concerned? Or should we negotiate border changes in some cases, better to reflect the principle of self-determination? Who or what should be sovereign? … The West looked at Slovenia (predominantly Slovene-populated, borders mainly not contested) and decided to have its cake and eat it. Slovenia handily ticked both boxes: internal borders as new international borders, and self-determination. Which was fine for Slovenia. But not for Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro or Serbia, the other five republics in communist Yugoslavia each with different ethnic/national identity tensions. Not to mention the sizeable category of ‘Yugoslavs’ – people not identifying themselves with one or other ethnic community… You know the rest. Calamity. War. Refugee columns. Ethnic cleansing. War crimes. ICTY. NATO bombing. In today’s Europe! Dayton. Rambouillet. More NATO bombing. Kosovo run by the UN. Milosevic sent to ICTY and dies in prison. Kosovo declares independence in 2008, but is still not recognised by the majority either of countries or of the world’s population. … Diplomacy. Building on what exists (i.e. racial, ethnic, religious tensions going back centuries) and accept that Good Fences make Good Neighbours? As we (HMG/West) did in accepting the break-up of what remained of Yugoslavia into Serbia + Kosovo + Montenegro? Or building towards what we insist has to exist, hoping to compel people to cooperate nicely within single state frameworks which they dislike and distrust, as we (HMG/West) have done in Bosnia?

These existential questions of how to give political expression to issues of identity and language have nothing to do with ‘capitalism’ or indeed any particular ideology.

Bosnia and Herzegovina within the Yugoslavia framework was crassly socialistic. The post-WW2 BiH ethnic balance was delicate: the ruling communists defaulted to a severe interpretation of socialist self-management and cracked down on anybody looking like a human rights activist. There was nothing in Sarajevo comparable to the size and energy of the self-absorbed, liberal-minded, intelligentsia of Belgrade, Zagreb or Ljubljana. This showed after the Bosnian conflict ended. Not only did BiH lack credible leaders pressing for European-style pluralism and the rule of law – there simply was no significant tradition of thinking that way among the wider population.

It was worse than that. The Communists strove mightily for decades across Yugoslavia to wipe out memories of communist atrocities in WW2 and to portray as devils anyone who had opposed Titoism. This was especially true in Bosnia, where so much inter-communal mayhem had taken place during WW2: grievances and local hatreds were not tackled in a generous, inclusive, reconciliatory way as happened elsewhere in Western Europe.

Basically, Yugoslavia was a set of sui generis contradictory and dishonest nationalist-socialist structures that for 45 years played down ‘national’ ethnicity for some purposes, while cementing it in to political life in others. Approaching Dayton, the Americans were dimly aware of some of this, but it did not much matter to them. They were not interested in changing local mindsets or being reluctant imperialists.

The Americans defined the Dayton process not to fit Bosnia, but to fit Dick Holbrooke’s ambition and Bill Clinton’s timetable. They felt that they had made a huge new dangerous commitment to agree to US troops being on the ground in Bosnia – now the overwhelming priority was to get them home as soon as possible, preferably immediately after the 1996 BiH elections.

There was no prospect of the Americans or anyone else taking on a long-term responsibility to run Bosnia as a protectorate and sternly transform it into a modern democracy. On the contrary, the Dayton deal was designed to give Bosnians themselves and not the international community the leading role in running their country after its first ever free and fair elections. The so-called Bonn Powers of the High Representative (that I helped invent) were imposed later (arguably illegitimately) to try to make up for lost time.

Lingering swipes in Op-Ed pages of The Guardian at the supposedly duplicitous British role in the whole Bosnia business (repeated by Mr. Mujanovic, who wasn’t there) are as facile as they are irrelevant. On the contrary, many British and European attempts to press for more subtle, pluralist outcomes were rudely brushed aside:

In 1995 Pauline Neville-Jones and I sat in the US Ambassador’s Residence after dinner in Moscow after the final Contact Group meeting before Dayton, talking about how best to build Bosnia after the war and in particular how to foster some sort of shared national identity. Pauline produced an English pound coin, to show that money could be used for different symbolic purposes, having a national motif on one side and different regional/ethnic symbols on the other. Holbrooke rudely brushed that idea aside as a typical example of convoluted, too clever European pointy-headed thinking: “They’re going to have normal money like the US dollar, and that’s it!”  He was wrong. Failure to think creatively before, at and after Dayton about issues like this led to new stalemates and frustrations, with the result today that Bosnia is one of the worst-governed countries on the planet and a dismal return on huge amounts of foreign support.

Thus Dayton was a grimy US-driven deal cut with the territory’s “violent chauvinist elites” to stop the Bosnian war and create some chances for sensible pluralist political evolution. To make that happen the Americans incorporated their own unhappy creation of the ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ and this meant ceding to the Serbs ‘their’ Entity. Yes, ‘Others’ as a distinct category were marginalised at Dayton and so thereafter. But their numbers, like the numbers of ‘Yugoslavs’ in SFRY, were small enough to be ignorable – and ignored. And that will remain the case far into the future.

Mr. Mujanović here has a strong if overstated point:

Dayton has created, instead, an exclusionary and particularistic linkage between particularethnic groups” (whose homogeneity is falsely assumed, as I have previously argued) and particular territories whose present demographic structures are the direct result of ethnic cleansing and genocide. In the process, such a constitutional order has effectively disenfranchised persons of other ethnicities, minorities, persons from mixed-marriages and, most of all, civically-inclined individuals who do not identify either as Bosniak, Serb or Croat.

All I am saying is that Dayton drew heavily (and necessarily) on legal forms and precedents taken from the Yugoslav coercive socialist self-management ideological toolkit, which in turn drew on wider European/Soviet precedents. And I say that this was not illogical or malevolent or even unwise.  Because Dayton was set-up in this way, it gave the three dominant different ethno-religious communities as such strong political internationally supported guarantees. This ended the war, allowing generous international assistance to flood in.

Have the Bosnian elites used this investment well? No. The excuse that their wretched failings and corruption over 17 years are caused by the evils of the Dayton constitution does not convince me. Within that flawed framework, a transformative amount more could have been done – and still can be done – to improve living standards and bring in good democratic civic processes.

Why did that not happen? A final story. President Izetbegovic once told me that the Bosniacs as a community could not afford “ethnic disarmament” for 50 years – they had no margin of error in a tough neighbourhood. This is the nub of the issue. If ethno-religious armament is the dominant paradigm among the largest Bosnian community, articulated by a demand that their Islamist-Lite vision of the future constitution of the territory be accepted as the only honourable one, where to find any real hope for anything better?

Bosnia represents a fierce ethno-religious identity struggle echoing down many centuries. People in local Bosnian communities form their political allegiances not from DNA tests or the latest fashionable political theories, but via their family memories and instincts for survival.

Who is right? Nobel Prize-winner, Ivo Andric:

But what I have seen in Bosnia – that is something different. It is hatred, but not limited just to a moment in the course of social change, or an inevitable part of the historical process; rather, it is hatred acting as an independent force, as an end in itself.

Or Bosnian writer and thinker, Ivan Lovrenovic:

…”if we in Bosnia are only Bosniac Muslims, only Serbs, only Croats then we have nothing more to talk about…if you want Bosnia you have to be a Bosnian and if you want to be a Bosnian you can not be ‘only’ a Bosniac, ‘only’ a Croat, ‘only’ a Serb’.  I am not less a Croat because I am not only a Croat. If all Bosnians from all national identities can say the same for himself we are right on the road towards rebuilding Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

Maybe it’s so tough precisely because they both are?


More on (Moron) Bosnia

Balkanic Eruptions (16th August 2012)

Here's even more from me at TransConflict on the Metaphysics of Bosnia:

Izetbegovic’s problem was real enough. If the Serbs, Croats and Muslims/Bosniacs retained their equal status as ‘constitutive peoples’ of Bosnia and Herzegovina, that allowed the Serb and Croat leaders an effective veto against the Muslims/Bosniacs, worked up in coordination with Belgrade and Zagreb. In other words, by piously insisting on ‘equality’ they could jam up the works and guarantee strategic inequality in their own favour in Bosnia.

On the other hand, if he asserted (as he did) the argument that Bosnia was primarily ‘for’ the Muslims/Bosniacs, the republic’s Serbs and Croats necessarily would feel that they risked ending up as second-class citizens.

As Izetbegovic later put it to me himself, he represented two million Bosniacs hemmed in by 14 million Serbs and Croats. One false move and his community could be lost for ever. What room for manoeuvre did he have? I could see his point. He was in a Bosnian-style asymmetrical Mexican stand-off, in which the other two sides might well be bent on ganging up on him...

... Mr Mujanovic tries to be reasonable:

I should like nothing more than if every significant government post in the whole of BiH were occupied by a self-identifying Serb, provided they were actually qualified for the position and pursued responsible, responsive, and democratic policies, which reflected the interests of all the citizens of BiH

Fine. But what if a large bloc of responsible, responsive democratic self-identifying (sic) Serbs (or Croats, or Bosniacs, or Kosovars) conclude that they would rather the borders of the region’s republics were changed to allow them to run their own affairs, in much the same way that Switzerland’s different ethno-linguistic communities do within their cantons? Is that to be ruled out a priori, and if so on what moral basis?

The Dayton deal (messy as it was) created conditions for ruling out certain options and managing the remaining options peacefully, thereby enabling other, slower processes to unfold. These, as it happens, probably favour the Bosniacs in the greater scheme of things.

The smart short-term policy for the largest community in Bosnia (ie the Bosniacs) in such circumstances was to use generous international assistance to create a dynamic, transparent mini-tiger economy that Serbs and Croats clamoured to join.

Not what happened. Instead we see stagnant political manoeuvres with an eye on longer-term demographic trends:

From the point of view of this Bosniak nationalist policy, it is not important that Bosnia will fall behind on the road to modernisation, because the harder life is in Bosnia the faster will the project of a two-thirds majority be realised, since Croats and Serbs will simply move to Croatia and Serbia.

In this historical perspective, twenty or thirty years signify little when it comes to the one thousand years of Bosnia’s history; and a degree of economic decline of the country is a worthwhile price to pay for the realisation of their supreme project – the creation of a national Bosniak state in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

That’s the nub of it – how to deal with mutually incompatible claims to territory as an insurance policy for existential security?

Serbia’s former Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic in 2000 told me how an elderly Albanian in southern Serbia had put it to him straight: “Mr Covic, you have two children. I have six. I am prepared to sacrifice two of my children to the cause. How many of yours are you prepared to sacrifice?”

Not a question that academics in Canada or ex-diplomats in the UK can easily answer within the usual analytical categories?

By the way, @JewsandBosniaks (sic) on Twitter accuse TransConflict's Ian Bancroft of being a "Serbian sympathizer and moral relativist". You have been warned.