Remember Bosnia?

The Bush administration’s Iraq policy seems to be imploding rather affectively without much help from me this week. President Bush’s speech at the U.N. last week seems to have received the reception it deserved from the thugs standard-issue commentators are pleased to call the "international community" – about what you’d expect from somebody who says: "We were right, you were wrong, now come help us."

And now comes the rumor or whatever that somebody at the White House "outed" Valerie Plame, husband of former diplomat Joseph Wilson, who blew the administration’s cover on the Niger "yellowcake" story, as an undercover CIA agent. Not that I don’t have a certain sympathy with the general idea of outing CIA agents (or abolishing the agency altogether), but as nearly as I can figure, the conventional wisdom that this is against the law seems to be true – and if the story pans out it was people at the White House, perhaps Karl Rove, who leaked the name, to at least six journalists. These are the people who are charged by delegation with faithfully executing the laws of the United States, not with blatantly violating them.

All too delicious!


All that is great fun, but I had an opportunity last Thursday to talk with with Dragan Covic, currently chairman of the three-person presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I thought that might be of interest. We still have troops in Bosnia after all these years (and all those promises from Clinton that they’d be finished by Christmas of, oh, 1996 or so) and they’re likely to be there a bit longer. Mr. Covic was officially optimistic that Bosnia is on the road to being a democratic paragon worthy of membership in the European Union (for whatever that may be worth), but one could detect undercurrents in his comments. He danced around the question of whether Bosnia and Herzegovina could survive in its present ethnic and political form, for example.

The fact that the best way they can figure to provide a modicum of stability in the country is to have a tripartite presidency suggests how fragile the arrangement in Bosnia-Herzegovina is. To be sure, this is the Balkans, after all, where ancient resentments are always vulnerable to political exploitation. But this arrangement seems especially curious, and one wonders how long it will last when (or if) foreign troops leave the country.

President Covic, a former corporate manager with a Ph.D. in economics, is an intelligent and impressive person, tall, graying and articulate (at least in transalation, though I suspect he knows more English than he lets on). His small country (about 3.5 million to 4 million people in an area roughly the size of West Virginia) still faces numerous problems, some of which may well have been exacerbated rather than helped by Western occupation.


In its latest incarnation Bosnia and Herzegovina reflects the outcome of the fierce civil war (250,000 killed, 2.7 million refugees) that raged from the declaration of independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1992 until the Dayton peace accord in November 1995.

The population consists mainly of three ethnic/national groups, the Serbs (38 percent), Bosnian Muslims, called Bosniaks, presumably to differentiate them from militant Muslims (48 percent) and Croats (14 percent). Within the country is a mostly autonomous Serb Republic (about 49 percent of the territory) and a Muslim-Croat federation.

A joint presidency, elected for four years, runs the central government in Sarajevo, with one representative from each ethnic group. The chairmanship is rotated every eight months and major decisions have to be made by consensus. Dragan Covic is the Croatian president. The Bosniak president is Sulejman Tihic, while the Bosnian Serb is Mirko Sarovic. All were elected last October.

After the Dayton accords about 60,000 NATO troops (,000 from the U.S.) occupied Bosnia for peacekeeping and nation-building. Beginning in 1999 the number of foreign troops was reduced, and there are now about 12,000 troops, with about a third of them from the U.S.


According to Mr. Covic, Bosnia and Herzegovina has a reformed and independent judicial system in place and is working on economic reforms that will qualify it to enter the European Union within a few years. The banking system has been privatized, and 60 percent of former state industries have been as well. He says there’s a consensus on free markets as the basis of the economy.

Mr. Covic’s main purpose in visiting the United States was to speak to the U.N. General Assembly, which he did yesterday. But he also took advantage of the visit to try to drum up interest, mostly among Croation-Americans, in investing or starting businesses in Bosnia. After visits to New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Toronto, as well as Southern California, he said he has received interest from numerous businesspeople in an economic development conference in Sarajevo in February.

A country with an ethnic balance so delicate as to require a tripartite presidency, in which groups were literally killing one another with gusto just a few years ago, is obviously inherently fragile. The central government must rule with a light hand while making sure minority rights are respected.

The civil war and its aftermath decimated the economy – the GDP, while growing the last couple of years, is still below 1990 levels and unemployment is at 40 percent. But Mr. Covic told us the elements are in place for robust economic growth. It is encouraging to see officials interested in boosting the private sector and phasing out international aid, but one wonders how deep-seated or sincere this desire is. Qualifying for membership in the European Union, after all, would probably not be enhanced by establishing a small-government laisssez-faire economic system with cirtually no social welfare programs.


One is entitled to hope that conditions improve quickly enough for foreign troops to leave soon, although one should be skeptical about whether the continuation of foreign troops will have anything to do with improving conditions. After all, there are still U.S. troops in Germany and South Korea decades after any conceivable necessity relating to stability was eliminated decades ago.

Mr. Covic said he would like to see NATO troops remain a while longer but leave in two to three years. I hope he’s right, but I’m skeptical. One may also hope that Bosnia and Herzegovina builds its future on private investment, free markets and trade, and respect for individual rights and liberties, without entertaining too many illusions about how likely that is.

The most likely future for Bosnia-Herzegovina is eventual absorption of the Serb and Croat populations into Serbia and Croatia, which adjoin and almost surround the small country. That would leave a small mostly Muslim enclave surrounding Sarajevo that might or might not be economically or politically viable in the age of the Internet. If the country is admitted to the European Union before this partition – which is hardly inevitable however likely Imight consider it – and borders mean little when it comes to trade, it just might work out.

Another possibility is that the Republika Srpska will eventually be absorbed into Serbia while the remaining territory continues to be a Muslim-Croat confederation – at least if the Muslims don’t persecute the Croats, who will be a relatively small minority. This is possible because the ethnic Croats (who are rleigiously differnetiated, being mostly Roman Catholic while the Serbs are mostly Orthodox Christian) are not as clearly concentrated along the borders of Croatia as the Serbs are alng the border with Serbia.

One might hope that given all the recent bloodshed that the residents of the area would have had enough of it and might make reasonably strenuous efforts to tolerate one another just a bit. But this is the Balkans, after all, and it would be unwise to predict peace and comity.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).