The Bosnian Roulette

Someone who has only been exposed to the mainstream Western coverage of Bosnia-Herzegovina could rightly conclude that the country is a "riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma" — to borrow the phrase from Winston Churchill. Year after year, legions of do-gooders, greedy adventurers and down-on-their-luck politicians have tried to "help Bosnia." Time and again, they keep getting it wrong, then wondering why they fail.

Bosnia’s problem is not easy to resolve, but is ultimately very simple. For all its turbulent history, layered traditions and richness of character, Bosnia (and Herzegovina) has never been a country, much less a nation. Trying to forcibly make it into one is a textbook case of hammering a square peg into a round hole.

Killing Dayton

The perfect illustration of this is an essay in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs — a bimonthly published by the Council on Foreign Relations — by Patrice McMahon and Jon Western, professors of political science and international relations, respectfully. According to them, the Dayton constitution did stop the war and that was all well and good, but it created too weak of a state. Their recommendation is clear: a stronger central government that would subdue the evil "nationalists" and usher Bosnia into the well-deserved EUtopia.

This sort of thinking is not new. For a decade or so now, various viceroys and the legions of their helpers and enablers have thought the same way, or close enough, seeking not to enforce the treaty made in Dayton but to "improve" and "surpass" it — all in the name of some mythical greater good. These omnipotent moral busybodies have roundly ignored facts and reality, preferring instead their prejudices and nobly sounding misconceptions to inform their decision-making.

What they have persistently and stubbornly ignored was reality.

Ever since it was recognized as a state in 1992, Bosnia has existed more as a myth than anything else. This myth, created in the West for internal consumption, was of a brave, noble, multi-ethnic urban society beset by uncouth rural barbarians; of peaceful secular Muslims and aggressive Orthodox Christian fanatics. In short, this mythical "Bosnia" was a projection of what do-gooders and imperialists in the West needed it to be. "Helping Bosnia" was useful for a military and political alliance bereft of purpose at the end of the Cold War, a ready cause for politicians with a superhero complex, and even a way to improve America’s image in the Islamic world.

Richard Holbrooke and his cohorts, whatever their other failings, at least dealt with the reality of Bosnia at the Dayton talks fourteen years ago. The chief undeniable fact, documented by what turned out to be 100,000 corpses and two million displaced, was that Bosnia’s three major ethnic communities could not agree how to live together in peace. They may have had a lot of help in that, but the failure was ultimately theirs. Dayton offered them a chance to work it out without bloodshed, and opened up possibilities for something more beyond hatred and fear. This time, the Bosnians’ failure to do so was not theirs alone.

The Democrators

The only clear winner in Dayton was the proclaimed American Empire, of course. The peace talks represented the pinnacle of the interventionist, "bombs for peace," cavalier — nay, cowboy — approach to international relations, disregarding history and law in favor of cruise missile power.

As for the country’s conflicted ethnic communities, one could argue that the treaty resolved the fundamental conflict between the Muslim desire for a centralized state dominated by one people and the Serb and Croat desire for ethnic autonomy squarely in favor of the latter. Except that, almost from the very beginning, those charged with supervising Dayton’s implementation began to chip away at this foundation and look for emanations and penumbras pointing to centralization and "reintegration" of the country that disintegrated precisely because centralization didn’t work. Before long, those who believed Dayton was just a useful truce on the road to "final victory" became convinced that the so-called international community was more than willing to help them bend the rules, helping further their war aims through political means. One after another, the various viceroys reinforced that conviction.

Why would anyone bother to actually negotiate, or find ways to work within a system, if petulance and appeals to an omnipotent democrator could get them what they want? Those who blame the "nationalist politicians" for not putting aside their squabbles to create a functional state (i.e. government) are right, but miss the proverbial elephant in the room that is the Office of the High Representative — whose slogan ought to be "All of the power, none of the responsibility."

Dysfunction and Duplicity

Henry Ford once famously said that his customers could have their Model T’s in any color, "so long as it is black." From the very beginning, the viceroys have been telling the Bosnians, "You can order the country any which way you want — as long as it’s the way we want it." Even that wouldn’t be an insurmountable challenge, if only the viceroys — and the conglomerate behind them, led by Washington and Brussels — would actually spell out what they wanted. No matter how much they get, though, and how far beyond Dayton Bosnia strays, they always demand more. For the past couple of years the refrain has been a "functional state" that would satisfy the commissars in Brussels — a modern nanny-state, in other words. It’s worth noting that the supposedly more freedom-minded Americans haven’t raised a single objection to these designs.

Such a state, however, would have entirely too much power for anyone’s comfort — in particular that of the Serbs and Croats, who have both had bad experiences with Muslim domination. The additional wrinkle in that plan is that the Bosnian Serb Republic, which is supposedly "holding back" the country, is functioning better than the Muslim-Croat Federation. It may not be as prosperous as its Prime Minister claims, but it isn’t dealing with an empty treasury, hordes of angry war veterans, or striking teachers, cops and farmers.

It was the Federation that received most of the generous international aid over the past decade, aid that seems to have vanished. Streets were repaved, buildings repainted and many mosques built, but of the economy, jobs and production there has been little to nothing. But why bother investing in the future, when one could count on the "international community" to continue providing charity? After all, aren’t they entitled?

If the "international community" really wanted to do something about the sprawling, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy that squandered away millions in aid and is suffocating the life out of the Federation, it could have done something long ago. The Federation is based on a 1994 agreement (PDF) between Muslims and Croats into which they were strong-armed by Washington. There are no obstacles in the Bosnian constitution to reforming the Federation into something less wasteful. Yet nothing at all has been done in this regard. Ever. All the effort has focused onto making Bosnia more "functional" by making it more like the dysfunctional Federation and abolishing or reducing the functioning Serb Republic!

Delaying the Inevitable

Reality is that which doesn’t go away when one stops believing in it. Fiction, then, is that which doesn’t materialize no matter how hard one believes in it. This is why the latest push by Brussels and Washington to conjure a Bosnia to their taste, which began today at a NATO base outside Sarajevo, appears doomed from the start.

No information has leaked as to the content of the proposal to be presented to eight Bosnian political leaders (from both entities and all three communities) by Sweden’s Foreign Minister Karl Bildt and the Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Jim Steinberg. Yet one can guess with a degree of certainty that it will entail more centralization, and more revisions of Dayton in the name of EU membership.

Why now? Not for the sake of Bosnia, but rather their own. Tensions may be high enough for open conflict to break out, but the spiral of mutually forced escalations by the Serbs and the Muslims has only been encouraged by the country’s foreign overlords. Now that both sides have bet everything they have (with Croats hedging their bets again), the wheel has been spun and the ball has to stop somewhere.

And that somewhere will have to be reality, as opposed to fiction.

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.