Bosnia’s Problem

A fascinating media phenomenon could be observed last week, following the arrest of Radovan Karadzic, wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Anyone who was even tangentially involved in the 1990s events in Bosnia rushed forth to offer their thoughts; ex-diplomats and politicians, journalists and commentators used Karadzic’s capture as an opportunity to remind the world not so much of the tragedy of Bosnia, but of their role in it. For all of their talk about the "Bosnian victims" and humanitarian compassion and "bombs for peace," the braying choir of self-righteous phonies made it obvious it was all about them. Everyone who had, in Chris Deliso’s immortal phrase, invested heavily in the Bank of Collective Serbian Guilt, showed up to claim a dividend.

Politics of Fear

The most facetious displays of self-aggrandizement dressed themselves up in the cloak of concern. It did not take long for the BBC, for example, to claim that Karadzic’s arrest "casts a shadow over Bosnia’s fate." Even though just last week it was argued that the Inquisition’s capture of the Bosnian Serb leader was a "triumph" over nationalism, it has all of a sudden become a boost to the nationalists!

An exemplary prophet of gloom was Paddy Ashdown. This former viceroy of Bosnia claimed on the pages of the Observer on Sunday that "there is a real threat of Bosnia breaking up again." He pointed the finger squarely at the Serb Republic ("Karadzic’s creation") and its Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik, charging him with "aggressively reversing a decade of reforms." Said Ashdown:

"He has set up the parallel institutions and sent delegations to Montenegro to find out how they broke away. He has used the autonomy granted by the Dayton Agreement to undermine the Bosnia Dayton envisaged."

Those who know Bosnia, of course, find it hard to take baronet Norton-sub-Hamdon seriously. These are the exact same things he used to say when he ruled Bosnia (02-2006) as a personal fiefdom, serving as the living embodiment of Lord Acton’s dictum. He was wrong then, and he is wrong now.

Dayton, Revised

What sort of Bosnia was envisioned at Dayton, exactly? The agreement achieved at the U.S. airbase in Ohio in November 1995 ended the civil war by establishing a loose federation between the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat "Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina," with a minimal central government granted strictly limited powers. An international envoy, called "High Representative," was appointed to oversee the agreement’s implementation.

However, in 1997 the "Peace Implementation Council" – composed of Western countries that backed the Dayton agreement – expanded the authority of the HR, making him a de facto dictator of the country. These "Bonn powers" were subsequently used to summarily dismiss elected officials, impose laws, change boundaries, create new entities (Brcko District), and effect "reforms" in the name of Dayton – even though the Dayton Constitution never actually authorized any of this. Then again, when has a "goddamn piece of paper," be it the one from Philadelphia or the one from Ohio, ever stopped those that crave power?

Further complicating things was that the warring factions in Bosnia perceived Dayton differently. For the country’s Serbs and Croats, it was the vindication of their wartime goal to secure territorial autonomy and protection from Muslim domination. For many Muslims, however, it was a temporary setback to the dream of a centralized, unified state they could dominate through superior numbers. Fighting may have ended in 1995, but the subsequent Bosnian politics was, to paraphrase Clausewitz, war by other means. Efforts to centralize Bosnia under the viceroys inevitably played into the hands of Muslim nationalists, even as Serb and Croat nationalists were blamed for all the ills that still plagued the country.

Ashdown talks about how Dodik’s actions go against the "Bosnia Dayton envisaged." Even a cursory reading of the actual agreement, though, is enough to conclude precisely the opposite. It was in fact the succession of viceroys that claimed to pursue the "spirit" of Dayton, contrary to its letter. The protesting Serbs and Croats were simply told, "I am altering the deal; pray I do not alter it further."

The Better Half

Just a day after Ashdown’s article in the Observer, however, an unlikely rebuttal appeared. Writing on the Guardian‘s online op-ed board, Ian Bancroft argued that "Ashdown’s scaremongering about [Bosnia’s] future misses the real reasons for the state’s fragility":

"From the fiscal frailty of [the Federation] to persistent discord amongst Bosnia’s Croats, the country is beset by a number of other structural vulnerabilities that cannot be blamed on the country’s Serbs."

While the government of Milorad Dodik that Ashdown so reviles has actually made the Serb Republic more prosperous and business-friendly, the Federation is almost broke. As Dodik himself described it to the Belgrade daily Politika this past weekend,

"The Serb Republic has a budget surplus; we have 1.3 million marks (650,000 Euros) in just the development fund… Our public spending is 36.7%… Our GDP is rising by 8% this year. In the Federation, their public spending is 63%, and their taxes are much higher. Our income taxes are 48%, and in the Federation they are 61%. Our corporate tax is 10%, compared to 30% in the Federation… We are the better half of Bosnia – why else would 427 companies from the Federation transfer their headquarters here, and become our taxpayers? Croat politicians dismiss the Federation as ‘charity state,’ because most of its budget goes to welfare payments."

And this is without mentioning the millions of dollars in foreign aid that disappeared since 1996…

But this isn’t just about the money. Bancroft’s most devastating criticism of Ashdown implies that the former viceroy fundamentally misunderstood Dayton: "The pillars of the Dayton Agreement are group rights and autonomy, not centralization and the creation of a unitary system" The EU operates on the principle of subsidiarity, yet refuses to implement it in Bosnia! It boggles the mind.

Against the Official Truth

Bancroft’s criticism of Ashdown – indeed, of Empire’s entire approach to the post-war Bosnia – is not the only one that dared burst the official bubble of self-serving propaganda, hatred and fear-mongering, inspired by Karadzic’s arrest. Two other essays appeared last week, challenging the dominant narrative of the Bosnian war and the perceived role of the West in it.

At the Brussels Journal, John Laughland explained the true war aims of the Bosnian Serbs, and described the commonly accepted story of aggression and genocide as "absurd." As if anticipating the argument Bancroft would make several days later, Laughland identified the issue crucial for peace in Bosnia:

"The Muslims continue to claim control over the whole of the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, while the Serbs merely want the preservation of their considerable autonomy within it."

But if the tropes of aggression and genocide are so evidently absurd, why did the West go along with them? Mick Hume at Spiked argues that it was a matter of self-absorbed projection. As the Cold War ended, activists in the West sought "salvation and a new sense of moral purpose" in a Balkans crusade:

"Journalists and politicians talked about Bosnia as ‘our Poland’ or even ‘our generation’s Holocaust’, the battle against the Serbs as ‘our Second World War’, a chance to emulate their fathers’ noble fight against the Nazis.

"To justify this cause they had to turn the complex civil war in the former Yugoslavia into a simple act of genocide by [Serbs]."

Now that Iraq has punctured the bubble of interventionism, "The notion that they were taking a stand against the new Nazis in Bosnia and Kosovo has become just about the only thing the pro-interventionists can hold on to as proof that they are on the side of right."

A Myth, Serving a Lie

A clear, if disturbing, picture emerges at last. The myth of the Bosnian war was invented by those who sought to profit from it, and expanded until it overrode reality itself. The actual suffering and subsequent troubles of Bosnians – be they Muslim, Serb, Croat or anyone else – never really factored into any of this, except when they made good copy, sound bite, or TV clip.

Bosnia’s real problem is that its communities cannot agree on whether they should live together at all, much less how; but they will never have a chance to even start meaningful dialogue so long as the Empire uses the myth of Bosnia to justify its tyranny of good intentions.

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.