Once Upon a Peace

Nine years ago this week, after lengthy and exasperating negotiations, leaders of Serbia, Croatia, and the Bosnian Muslims finally agreed to end the Bosnian war. The peace treaty was officially signed on Dec. 14, 1995 in Paris. It was seen as the capstone to American intervention in the Balkans, which supposedly solved the crisis Europe was unable to deal with. Little did anyone know that Dayton was just the beginning.

American "bombs for peace" diplomacy reared its ugly head within three years, threatening Serbia with bombing over its counter-terrorist war in Kosovo. Threats led to an ultimatum, and bombing of Serbia in the spring of 1999, after which NATO occupied Kosovo. The government in Belgrade was overthrown the following year, in a combination of popular protest and covert operations. Precedents thus established in the Balkans were subsequently used in Iraq, Georgia, and Ukraine.

The Dayton Agreement, once considered a landmark diplomatic success, was barely mentioned on its ninth anniversary. Remembering it was no longer useful.

Back to Square One?

"All over the Balkans region, the violence that burned in the 1990s has been doused, but the basic conflicts are unresolved," wrote Daniel Williams in the Washington Post on Nov. 6, 2004. In many ways, it is surprising this comment made it past the Post‘s editors, for few in Washington would dare challenge the prevailing orthodoxy that the source of all evil in the Balkans was Slobodan Milosevic, and everyone else was simply a victim of his diabolical scheming.

For all of the Empire’s attempts to impose its own realities on the Balkans, the widening rift between fact and fiction reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the 1990s conflicts. Every war – from Slovenia’s brief summer skirmish in 1999 to the 2001 terrorism in Macedonia – was defined wrong, and the imposed "solutions" therefore resolved nothing.

Bosnia’s problem, in 1991 as today, has been how to forge an independent nation out of three distinct groups separated by religion and history. During Ottoman rule (1463-1878), Muslims were privileged over Christians and Jews. Catholic Christians were briefly in charge between 1878 and 1918, under the rule of Austria-Hungary; Vienna’s attempts to forge a separate "Bosniak" nation ended in failure, but not before further polarizing the already strained ethnic relations. Orthodox Serbs were on top in the first Yugoslavia (1919-1941).

During the Nazi occupation (1941-45), Bosnia saw a brutal civil war and genocide. On Nov. 25, 1943, the Communist resistance in Bosnia – in line with the Communist Party’s stated policy of breaking up Yugoslavia – declared Bosnia’s statehood. But since Yugoslav federal republics had as much sovereignty as their Soviet counterparts, Bosnia-Herzegovina continued to exist within an external context: one which kept its ethnic animosities both at bay and alive, through a system of quotas and political correctness.

The introduction of democracy in 1990 led to the swift collapse of this system and the opening of Bosnia’s existential question: if Bosnia were to be an independent state, who would be in charge of it? Alija Izetbegovic argued it should be the Muslims, on account of their slightly superior numbers. Serbs and Croats rejected this out of hand. Izetbegovic’s unwillingness to allow for Bosnia’s federalization – indeed, to recognize any rights for Serbs and Croats – made conflict inevitable.

What was agreed in Dayton in 1995 seemed to prove Izetbegovic wrong. The foundation of the peace plan was territorial: Muslim- and Croat-controlled territories were federalized, and recognized the Serb Republic within Bosnia. But Izetbegovic and his followers have tried to overturn this arrangement right from the start. To its everlasting disgrace, so did the "international community," charged with overseeing the peace.

And so, nine years after the Bosnian War ended, most of Dayton has been rolled back. Under the iron fist of several international viceroys, the country has been forcibly centralized, until very little of the original federated arrangement remains. Universal license plates, passports, and ID cards were just the beginning; centralized border police, military, and intelligence soon followed. Earlier this month, a sales tax directly funding the central government was introduced. It may only be a matter of time before the Dayton arrangement is formally abolished, re-creating the conditions of 1991. Whether Serbs and Croats will be more willing to submit to Muslim domination this time remains to be seen.

Dayton’s Bastard Child

But Dayton had ramifications beyond Bosnia. It left the American policymakers, led by the arrogant and opinionated Richard Holbrooke, in mistaken belief its success was due primarily to American military intervention.

Holbrooke’s memoir offers a powerful account of what took place at the talks. Images simply jump off the page: Tudjman’s satisfied grin; Izetbegovic shuffling around in his bathrobe, testing the Americans’ patience; Milosevic’s eagerness to deal, and anger when he realized Holbrooke tried to cheat him. But Holbrooke and his associates completely misread Milosevic. Far from appreciating his pragmatism and willingness to accept their often unreasonable demands on behalf of Izetbegovic (who refused to actively negotiate, leaving that to his American protectors), they saw every concession as an admission of guilt, every compromise as a sign of weakness. Everything was colored by their perception of Milosevic as a priori guilty and evil.

Three years later, when Holbrooke tried to pull the same trick in Kosovo, Milosevic refused to play along again – but it was too little, too late. Holbrooke, Albright and Clinton were prepared to back their gambit with a full-scale war of aggression; Milosevic was not. After 78 days, he accepted what seemed a reasonable offer, only to see Washington renege on the deal within days.

The subsequent occupation of Kosovo, enacted under a sham armistice deal and a fig-leaf UN resolution, has led to massive ethnic cleansing of non-Albanians, a reign of terror by a "liberation army" both terrorist and criminal in character, a constant stream of murder and destruction, even a pogrom.

Yet the occupation authorities insist that "multiethnic society" is right around the corner, and attempt to legitimize the situation by organizing elections. The most recent one, in late October, was boycotted by 99% of the Serbs. It was nonetheless certified by Viceroy Jessen-Petersen. Worse yet, the likely "prime minister" in the sham government is a terrorist. Ramush Haradinaj, once a favorite of Washington, is rumored to be facing an indictment by the Hague Inquisition.

Despite concerns by even some Imperial officials, the viceroy applauded the agreement bringing Haradinaj’s party into the government, and seemed to defend his appointment as prime minister: "If I say no to this candidate, I would be saying no to democracy," he is quoted by Voice of America.

Albanians are rattled by the mere suggestion Haradinaj’s conduct was anything but exemplary. Indeed, they see any indictment against KLA members as an attempt to "equalize the war for liberation with the genocidal and occupying army of the Serbian state in Kosovo." Back in May 2003, the Albanian-dominated puppet "Kosovo Assembly" passed a resolution declaring the "liberation war" of the KLA a just and noble cause. Presumably, even atrocities committed in service of such a cause are therefore beyond reproach. This is Imperial logic, but will the Albanians be allowed to get away with it? If Haradinaj becomes prime minister, the answer will be yes.

Empire’s Path

It was obvious to all leaders in Dayton, if not their people at home, that the United States was in no way an honest broker. Washington had supported the Izetbegovic regime for years, even to the point of allowing clandestine and illegal weapons deliveries from Iran. It armed and trained the Croatian military, and gave it a free pass to violate UN resolutions and attack Serb-inhabited "UN protected areas," then invade Bosnia. And it was ever Washington at the forefront of activities aimed against the Serbs, from imposing UN sanctions on Belgrade and blaming Milosevic for the war, through conceiving and establishing the ICTY as a means of "punishing Serb aggression," to ultimately the bombing campaign against western Serbs that enabled the Croat-Muslim ethnic cleansing in the fall of 1995. Even the choice of venue seemed to underscore that: the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, a reminder of Imperial might just demonstrated. Yet what emerged from the coerced talks looked like peace.

Nine years later, it has been reduced to at best a ceasefire. As Dayton was eroded by viceroys, U.S. diplomacy degenerated into brute force. Rambouillet was not a peace proposal, but an ultimatum of unprecedented arrogance. The armistice at Kumanovo was not unconditional surrender, but it was treated as such.

If there is a lesson in any of this, it is that people who try to negotiate with the Empire will re-live the fate of the American Indians. Treaties with Washington aren’t worth the paper they are printed on, or the ink expended to sign them. The Empire that believes its will can bend reality does not consider itself bound by treaties with lesser beings. Or the constraints of logic, either.

There will be a new war in the Balkans somewhere along the line. It is inevitable, and in good part because Imperial attempts to substitute justice with force have made it so. While the suffering of the 1990s can only partially be laid at the Empire’s feet, that of the future conflict will be its responsibility entirely. One suspects the conscience-free "peacemakers" of Holbrooke’s ilk won’t be bothered by that in the least. But the rest of us should be.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.