Wrong Again

The Empire took another step deeper into the Balkans quagmire this week, with the admittance of Croatia and Albania into NATO. In a sense, it was just the official recognition of these two countries’ status as Washington’s clients, proxies and "junkyard dogs." However, membership in NATO also gives Zagreb and Tirana the opportunity to drive U.S. policy, and not just serve its ends. If either of them invokes Article 5, NATO may have to get involved in their wars, or cease to exist. While the second possibility would not be a tragedy by any means, the first is downright scary. Albania is deeply enmeshed in the renegade Serbian province of Kosovo, now styling itself an independent state under NATO protection, while Croatia’s longest border is with the dysfunctional and conflict-ridden Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It was seventeen years ago that political disputes between Bosnia’s ethnic groups escalated into civil war, which only ended in November 1995 with a complicated compromise known as the Dayton Accords. Dayton tried to be all things to all people – it preserved the outer appearance of Bosnia as a sovereign state, while functionally dividing it into two "entities" which delegated a limited, precisely defined set of competencies to a small joint government. Some 60,000 NATO troops were deployed to ensure the fighting would not resume, and an international envoy – dubbed the High Representative – was appointed to oversee the implementation of the accords.

Fighting has not resumed, and most troops have been withdrawn. Politically, however, relations between Bosnia’s Muslims, Serbs and Croats are as bad as they’ve ever been. This is a direct consequence of some twelve years of "reforms" implemented by a succession of EU-appointed High Representatives – viceroys, in effect – that distorted the Dayton provisions beyond recognition, gradually building a central government in the name of efficiency and EU accession. In doing so, they have disturbed the very essence of the Dayton compromise: the guarantee to Bosnia’s Serb and Croat communities that they would not be dominated by the Muslims.

New Viceroy, Old Policy

On March 26, Austrian Valentin Inzko became the seventh viceroy of Bosnia. He is the second Austrian in that post, after Wolfgang Petritsch (August 1999-May 2002), and succeeds Miroslav Lajcak of Slovakia. Lajcak left in January, to take the job as Slovakia’s foreign minister, but appointing his replacement took some time, as Washington supported a British diplomat while Brussels preferred Inzko. Meanwhile, American diplomat Raffi Gregorian was the acting viceroy.

Washington’s resistance to Inzko is puzzling, given that he was Austria’s first ambassador to Bosnia (1996-1999) and wrote the introduction to a three-part biography of Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, published in 2005. Ideologically, he’s as committed to the dogma of centralizing Bosnia as anyone in Foggy Bottom, and he has already expressed willingness to use the absolute power of the viceroy’s office to effect further "reforms."

Meanwhile, Swedish Foreign Minister Karl Bildt (who was the very first viceroy of Bosnia) dismissed Bosnia’s chances of getting anywhere near the EU so long as the international supervision continues.

Whose Hurdle?

For months now, following the return of the Clinton foreign policy team to Foggy Bottom, a variety of characters involved in Bosnia over the years – such as Morton Abramowitz and Daniel Serwer – have clamored for a more forceful action to scrap the Dayton agreement and impose a "functional" state.

Joining the chorus this week was Borut Grgic, with an opinion piece in the European edition of the Wall Street Journal. Described as the founder of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Ljubljana and "Balkans investor," Grgic argues that Bosnia is a "hurdle" for the full integration of the entire Balkans into the EU, and that "a new generation of leaders" is necessary to create prosperity and stability.

The crux of Grgic’s argument is the Clinton-era slogan: "It’s the economy, stupid":

"A functional economy should be at the core of Bosnia’s political turnaround, and privatization should be at the core of Bosnia’s economic recovery. The country is rich with human potential and has vast hydropower resources. Even in this global economic downturn, the interest in Bosnia from foreign companies and investors is high. The problem is that the conditions for doing business in Bosnia are not ideal. Corruption among high-level officials is still prevalent: Companies are bullied into bribing officials administering tenders. And the government is not committed to carrying out privatization."

There are at least two major problems with this argument. First, while talking about the "Bosnian government," Grgic is clearly complaining about the Muslim government in Sarajevo. They are the ones controlling BH Telekom, the one example Grgic uses later in the article. They are the ones that have selectively "privatized" several industries for pennies on the dollar, with the difference ending up in offshore bank accounts of politicians like Haris Silajdzic. They are the ones that somehow "misplaced" up to a billion dollars in donations from both the West and Islamic countries. Meanwhile, the Serb Republic has actually created a business-friendly climate, with lower taxes and simplified regulations, and runs a budget surplus. The Serbs may not be as well off as last year, due to the worldwide economic downturn, but they aren’t broke. The Muslim-Croat Federation, however, is.

Cart Before The Horse

The far more serious problem is the delusional belief that economic prosperity can transform Bosnian politics. If ever there was a case of putting the proverbial cart before the proverbial horse, this is it. That is not to argue against economic development; but such development is impossible as long as the key political issue remains unresolved. Production and trade are natural activities, part of human character; they have existed, and thrived, without government "stimuli" for millennia. What governments do is make these activities more difficult, costlier, tedious, and even dangerous.

The Muslim-Croat Federation, with its voracious, gargantuan bureaucracy and mammoth social programs, is a textbook example of a government that suffocates and strangulates economic activity. The Serb Republic – while certainly not free of excess bureaucracy or onerous regulations – is a paragon of efficiency in comparison. Yet all the "reforms" and initiatives by viceroys and their Imperial backers have focused on abolishing the Serb Republic and making the entire country more like the Federation.

Of course the principal problem of many Bosnian citizens is putting food on the table. But the principal problem of Bosnia as a country is that its inhabitants – the three major ethnic communities – cannot actually agree on whether they even want to live together, let alone how.

One doesn’t have to be an economist or a diplomat to understand the simple truth that economic progress is impossible without a clear understanding of ownership. Bosnia itself is one colossal property dispute.

Continuum of Stupidity

In a way, Brussels and Washington do understand this. Their actions over the years clearly indicate that they’ve embraced the notion of a Muslim-dominated, centralized Bosnia. Never mind that over half the country’s population refuses to accept this; their objections, being in collision with Imperial will, are deemed irrelevant. They are just unable or unwilling to state this openly, so they "reform" the country, twisting and stretching the provisions of Dayton until they snap. What is the logic of fighting government corruption and abuse by creating a more powerful government? None – yet that is precisely what the proponents of a centralized Bosnia have advocated for years.

On April 6, 1992, the U.S. and twelve members of the EEC (soon to become the EU) recognized Bosnia-Herzegovina as an independent state. Officially, they did it to prevent the kind of war that devastated Croatia the year prior. By extending international recognition to the rogue regime of Alija Izetbegovic, however, Washington and Brussels killed all hope of a negotiated, political settlement of the dispute between Bosnia’s ethnic communities. On that very day, fighting between militias broke out in Sarajevo; over the next several months, it would escalate into full-scale war that ended up killing 90,000 people, leaving 2 million displaced and most of Bosnia in ruins.

Clearly, both the U.S. and the EU were wrong about Bosnia in 1992. They are wrong about Bosnia now. And they have been wrong about Bosnia every step of the way in between.

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.