The Uncertain Future of Bosnia

By Nenad Kecmanovic
Tuesday, 22 May 2012

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Almost 17 years after the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still an international protectorate. The unelected UN/EU “International High Representative” (IHR) still enjoys arbitrary and dictatorial powers. Foreign meddling has stifled the development of local democracy. It has prevented Bosnia’s three constituent nations – Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims) – from developing a consensus on the future of the country.

 A case in point was a statement broadcast by the Voice of America on May 19, which continues Washington’s long practice of singling out the leaders of the Serb entity under the Dayton peace Accords – the Republika Srpska (RS) – for allegedly engaging in nationalist rhetoric and seeking the dissolution of the state. Such statements merely encourage hard-line attitudes in Sarajevo.

 The atmosphere of chronic political uncertainty provides fertile ground for speculative forecasts on what will happen to Bosnia and her three discordant nations in the decade to come. Some of those forecasts merely reflect the narrator’s rosy wishes or dark forebodings, fears and hopes. If we look at the political facts on the ground and dominant trends, however, it is possible to articulate a number of distinct scenarios.

 A new civil war – Let us start with the worst but also the least likely scenario, a new round of ethnic bloodletting. If it does happen, it will be caused yet again by the Muslim side and with the same intent as in 1992: to force their neighbors into a centralized, unitary “citizen state” in which the plurality of numbers would secure the Bosniaks’ political dominance. In 1992, with foreign support, they followed this scenario by imposing their dominance over the joint institutions in Sarajevo and thus forcing the Serbs to defend their constitutionally guaranteed equality with the force of arms. In the years to follow, a similar bid for dominance could be presented as Sarajevo’s “legitimate resistance to the Republika Srpska’s pending secession.”

Bosniak politicians and the media are engaged in the propagandistic groundwork by constantly fanning animosity against the Serbs and the RS, by exaggerating the war crimes against the Muslims and thus encouraging the spirit of revenge, by denigrading the Dayton Agreement as “legalization of genocide,” etc. All along, the Bosniak advocates of violence count on the American military support, which would be quicker and more robust this time, and on the passivity of Serbia, which is militarily weakened and paralyzed by her EU aspirations. When the former Croatian President Stipe Mesić provocatively stated that “the Croatian troops if necessary could cut the RS in two,” some Bosniak politicians eagerly rushed to the current Croatian president, Josipović, with an offer to stage-manage the pretext for such action. Embittered by Catherine Ashton’s visit to the RS president Milorad Dodik, some pro-Bosniak commentators in the United States have hinted darkly that – if there is another war – the Europeans cannot claim that they had not been warned.

 Such warnings have a hollow ring, however, as the United States has too much on her plate as it is; adding an optional Balkan burden is not on the cards. That effectively rules out another war, as Bosnia’s unitarization by force is impossible without foreign prompting and assistance.

 Creeping disintegration – The second and far more realistic scenario starts with the fact that Bosnia has not been a state for the past half-millenium, that it is not a state today but a foreign protectorate, and that it has no viable prospects of becoming a state in the foreseeable future. In fact, there isn’t much to disintegrate to start with. That much is clear not only to the Serbs, Croats and many Europeans. It is also clear to Bosniaks and Americans – although they may have different feelings about the fact.

 In the spring of 1992 Bosnia disintegrated because the Serbs did not want it. Today it cannot be put together again because neither Bosniaks nor Croats want it in its current form. In reality, Bosnia-Herzegovina is an unfinished state for which nobody cares internally. It lingers on because nobody outside of it knows what to do with it. Over the next decade it will simply follow the path of all other post-communist federations, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. It may be but a matter of time when someone will have to ask for an international team of experts to come and diagnose death – and that call does not necessarily have to come from Banja Luka.

 A federation within a confederation – The Clinton Administration arranged the Washington Agreement (March 1994) which ended the Muslim-Croat conflict and created a joint entity, the Muslim-Croat Federation. It was also postulated that this “federation” would establish confederal links with Croatia after the war. This prospect was a sop to the Croats, an attempt to compensate them for giving up on a separate entity of their own known as “Herzeg-Bosnia.” This part of the Washington Agreement has never been applied, although it has not been abrogated either. It stands to reason that Croatia, under its late president Franjo Tudjman and under his successors alike, was hardly willing to enter into any arrangement that would bring it together – however loosely – with Bosnia’s Muslims, so soon after getting rid of the Serbs. The Bosniaks, on the other hand, were not eager to see this part of the Washington Agreement applied because they enjoy the overwhelming majority in the Muslim-Croat Federation within Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 Reactivating this neglected aspect of the 1994 Agreement would work to the advantage of the Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina (around 12%). It would be likely supported by the Serbs because the same document leaves it up to the RS whether it wants to join this contraption of its own free will (which of course it does not) or whether it would maintain its self-rule.

 Republika Srpska joins with Serbia – Kosovo’s de facto secession from Serbia, however problematic under international law, inevitably created a parallel with the almost identical position of the Republika Srpska within Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition to the analogy itself, there is the necessity of compensating Serbia for her loss of territory. Although Serbia still insists on maintaining a formal title on Kosovo, and the RS political elite prefers independence, there is a strong and natural desire for unity among the Serbian people on both sides of the Drina River. It would be, after all, merely the final step in the well-advanced process of redrawing boundaries in the Balkans in accordance with the political and ethnic realities on the ground.

 By recognizing a host of new states emerging from the ruins of Yugoslavia, the “international community” has opened Pandora’s Box that can hardly be closed by postulating inviolability of all borders in the region now that the redrawing is done. The expansion of Albania into western Macedonia and its ever-tighter union with Kosovo will be hard to stop. The same applies to an eventual change of the boundary on the Drina River.

 Is the European Union a solution? – Some supporters of unitarism, and notably the former “High Representative” Paddy Ashdown, have maintained that Bosnia’s decentralized structure as designed at Dayton is an obstacle to European integration. The Bosniak leaders have chimed in with the claim that belonging to the EU would make internal divisions and partitions meaningless and obsolete. This is wrong. The demand from Brussels that Bosnia speaks with one voice does not imply centralization, unitarization and domination of the Bosniak majority. It simply means that the EU expects a well functioning federation within which the three constituent nations will devise a quicker and more efficient method of reaching compromise. The true message from the EU is, “First agree on everything back home and then come to Brussels, because we are not going to arbitrate.”

 The claim that Bosnia’s EU membership – even if it were a feasible option, which it is not and won’t be for many years to come – would make internal boundaries and autonomies obsolete is also wrong. The Germans wanted unification. The French or the Poles are likewise not saying, “the boundaries no longer matter now that we are all Europeans,” and the Basques, Catalons, Scots and Flemings are not giving up on their self-rule for the sake of “Europe.”

 Bosnia’s NATO membership would be a problem rather than a solution. It would be dangerous for the RS and for the Serbs (1) by placing the country inside an alliance long inimical to Serb interests, (2) by further detaching the RS from Serbia (presuming that Belgrade sticks to neutrality), and (3) by potentially confronting the Bosnian Serbs with Russia. It is not unimaginable that Turkey, which is unabashedly pro-Muslim in Bosnia, uses its NATO membership as a pretext to bring its forces into Bosnia and station them under some form of U.S.-approved agreement.

 The above scenarios notwithstanding, what the Republika Srpska needs to guard against is a major destabilizing campaign by the “NGO” specialists for “non-violent democratization.” The unemployed and impoverished people may prove susceptible to the argument that “corrupt local politicians are to blame for everything” and not the global banker gangsters who have crippled the world. A color-coded attempt in Banja Luka is always a possibility.

 The realist option: the union of three republics – This is not only the most realistic scenario for Bosnia-Herzegovina in the decade ahead, it is almost the reality now, in 2012. The problem is that the very term “partition” has become odious. By contrast, back in 1991, before the war started, some form of union of three ethnically based republics (Serb, Croat and Muslim) was seen as a perfectly legitimate solution. It was freely discussed by the political representatives of those three communities. Swiss and Belgian models were considered, foreign cartographers were in great demand, and some form of partition was the basis of all peace agreements, from Lisbon (1992) to Dayton (1995). Before the war even the Muslim leader, Alija Izetbegovic, declared that his party seeks only as much of Bosnia for the Muslims as it can prosperously control. During the war some of his followers wrote bitterly humorous graffiti”, “Sign, Alija, it isn’t hard, even if it be as big as the back yard!” Izetbegovic only changed his tune after the U.S. Ambassador in Belgrade, the late Warren Zimmerrmann, encouraged him to renege on the Lisbon Agreement in March 1992. The Department of State subsequently admitted that the US policy was to encourage Izetbegovic to break with the partition plan. The result was war.

 The only guarantee of parity and equality is the break-up of the Muslim-Croat Federation and the establishment of a third, Croat entity. It would also give the Muslims a piece of real estate that is indubitably theirs, while freeing the Serbs from constant anxiety about the Bosniak centralizing ambitions. This tripod would be the only way to prevent Bosnia from tipping over. 

Professor Kecmanović is Dean of the School of Political Sciences at the University of Banja Luka