Bosnia’s Straitjacket

Even though the 1995 Dayton Accords stopped more than three years of brutal interethnic warfare, the conflict between communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina has continued ever since, through politics and media. Despite the near-dictatorial oversight of the "international community," embodied in the Office of the High Representative and the NATO (now EU) occupation force, the fundamental question of Bosnia’s identity and organization remains as contentious today as it was in 1992.

No sooner was the Dayton agreement implemented on the ground, its international overseers began revising it in conformity with a vision of "integrated" Bosnia over half of the country’s population had emphatically rejected. U.S. and EU support of centralization was generally cheered on by the Bosnian Muslims, and viewed far less enthusiastically by the Serb and Croat population. Through intimidation, coercion and even brute force, Serb and Croat opponents of centralization have been suppressed by Bosnia’s Imperial overlords.

Muslims advocate centralization as "more efficient," claiming the country has too much bureaucracy. However, most of that bureaucracy is on their own side – the Muslim-Croat Federation, established in 1994 at Washington’s urging, is composed of 10 mini-states. Several other cases suggest that Muslims are committed to integration only when it offers them an advantage. When it became obvious they would be a minority in Mostar, for example, they completely reversed years of rhetoric demanding the city’s unification. Given that Muslims are the largest ethnic group in the country (over 44%, according to the 1991 census) – though not a majority – and that they have adopted a name for themselves ("Bosniaks") and their dialect ("Bosnian language") suggesting that Bosnia is their own nation-state, while Serbs and Croats are minorities at best, belligerent interlopers at worst, it becomes clear who stands to benefit from a centralized "citizen state."

Talks or Threats?

Last week, the U.S. Department of State summoned the leader of Bosnian Serbs Milorad Dodik and Muslim leader Haris Silajdzic to Washington, hoping to force through a new centralization package. According to Reuters, the State Department tried to persuade Silajdzic to accept a watered-down version of last year’s constitutional amendments, while Dodik was under pressure to accept a centralized police authority and change the Serb Republic’s name to something more acceptable to Muslims and Croats.

However, the talks collapsed after two days, with both politicians refusing American offers. Following the breakdown, Financial Times cited "sources close to [Dodik’s] delegation" to allege that Dodik was threatened with removal from office. A Texas-based intelligence outfit, Stratfor, further claimed Dodik had dared the U.S. diplomats to try.

As usual, there was no intimidation, much less criticism, of Silajdzic. The Muslim nationalist continued on to Seattle, where he thanked the "Bosnian diaspora" for supporting his opposition to the constitutional amendments, claiming this gave his "patriotic forces" a stronger bargaining position.

This is a repeat of events from a year ago, when Silajdzic led the fight against the proposed constitutional amendments, put together by American diplomats. Instead of threatening Silajdzic for "obstructing the peace process" (a charge invoked every time the OHR would purge Serb or Croat politicians), Americans instead criticized – Dodik! The man who refused further attacks on Serb autonomy and answered Silajdzic’s belligerent rhetoric with a defense of the Dayton accords was accused of "nationalism." Silajdzic easily won the Muslim vote and became not just a member of the state Presidency, but the new political leader of Muslims, replacing Alija Izetbegovic who died in 2003.

Standing Firm

Quite unlike his predecessors, or even himself in earlier years, Dodik has steadfastly refused to be bullied by the Empire. The day his talks at the State Department started, he published an editorial in the conservative daily The Washington Times, in which he reaffirmed his commitment to Bosnia’s integration into the EU, but rejected centralization as detrimental to human rights:

"Bosnia and Herzegovina can survive as a community of peoples and entities enjoying the same rights, and in which protective mechanisms are clear and unbiased. Any other BiH would be a country tailor-made by one ethnic group and it would certainly not be European or democratic. […]

"It is important that all of us understand that we cannot build Bosnia and Herzegovina on fears. We can only build it on a mutual understanding. The Republic of Srpska has only one tiny condition for BiH, and that is to be a part of it."

Dodik also gave an interview to the conservative magazine NewsMax, complaining that the U.S. was supporting militant Islam in Bosnia. The interview was condemned by the press in Sarajevo as "Serb propaganda," but no one saw fit to mention that a senior American legislator openly stated just last month that the U.S. supported a "Muslim country in the very heart of Europe." Granted, he was talking about the overwhelmingly Muslim Albanians in Kosovo, but the shoe fits…

Hatred Unrelenting

While Dodik felt more comfortable approaching the more conservative media, Silajdzic reveled in the attention of Reuters, Associated Press, the Washington Post, and other mainstream outlets. An AP report published on May 24 in the International Herald Tribune made no mention of Dodik, but quoted Silajdzic extensively. In his Washington appearances, we learn, Silajdzic "repeatedly referred to the genocide he said was committed against Bosnian Muslims by Serbs in 1995."

Silajdzic had displayed remarkable political opportunism when he officially broke with Izetbegovic in 1996 and created his own splinter party, which has been a part of every coalition government thereafter. But he managed to launch a successful bid for political leadership of Muslims only when he chose to ramp up militant nationalist rhetoric, call for the abolition of the Serb Republic as "genocidal" and harp endlessly on the issue of Srebrenica.

In March, when the International Court of Justice ruled against the Bosnian Muslim lawsuit accusing Serbia of genocide, Silajdzic spun the verdict as "vindication" of Muslim claims that what happened in Srebrenica was genocide. He has since urged Muslims to leave Srebrenica, and called for its secession from the Serb Republic – all in the function of creating a political crisis that would justify the abolition of Dayton and creation of a centralized state. Such a state would be dominated by Muslims, of course – and himself in particular.

It is true that Bosnian Serbs have taken to pointing out Muslim ties with Islamic terrorists (especially after 9/11), but it’s hard to blame them for trying to seize a propaganda advantage after a decade of demonization. Besides, the majority of their allegations have been well documented. Muslim response? "Serb nationalists are the real terrorist threat," claims a Bosnian Muslim "expert" employed by a Turkish NGO.

Promoting Insanity

At the crux of Bosnia’s conflict is the nature of the country itself. Since the Ottoman conquest in the XV century, it was never an independent polity till 1992, but always administered from the outside. Once Yugoslavia was renounced by half its inhabitants, and Communist doctrine of ethnic brotherhood was repudiated, Bosnia’s ethnic communities pursued different visions. Croats wanted to join with Croatia. Serbs sought to remain in Yugoslavia (with fellow Serbs), or secede. Neither wanted a centralized state dominated by the plurality of Muslims – which was precisely the desire of Izetbegovic and his followers (including Silajdzic). This is what caused the war in 1992, and a concession to Croat and Serb claims (in Washington and Dayton, respectively) is what stopped it.

Now the U.S. and the EU are once again seeking to re-create the Bosnia of 1991, unaware that this could easily turn into another ethnic conflagration. Meanwhile, they are also pushing for separation of occupied Kosovo from Serbia, justifying it by claims that Albanians refuse to live together with Serbs. There is no logic in those "solutions," except that of power and wishful thinking. They are madness, pure and simple – but don’t dare point that out, or you too might be demonized and condemned like Mr. Dodik.

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 debuted in November 2000.