Whither Bosnia?

To describe Bosnia as a country of contrasts and paradoxes is at the same time a cliché and a statement of the blindingly obvious. Almost fifteen years after the war that tore it apart before it could properly come into being as an independent country, Bosnia is no closer to reconciling the interests of its ethnic communities. Millions in foreign aid from the West and the Islamic world have vanished into thin air, giving portions of the country a facelift but doing nothing for the moribund economy. Rather than help the ethnic leaders negotiate a modus vivendi for the country, the presence of U.S. and EU nation-builders has actually impeded such a settlement. And the renewed clamor for increased U.S. involvement, following the return of Clinton-era policymakers to Foggy Bottom and the White House, has pushed the already fragile Dayton settlement to the breaking point.

War By Other Means

Last December, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that Bosnia’s Constitution discriminated against minority communities by not allowing them to be elected to high office. Both the Constitution and electoral rules need to be amended very soon if the general elections scheduled for this October are to be considered legitimate by the EU. Simply abolishing ethnic quotas, as proposed by Muslim nationalists, led by the country’s current president Haris Silajdzic, is not an option. Serbs and Croats are still mindful of the Muslims abusing precisely such a provision to stack the pre-war Presidency in their favor with Ejup Ganic, arrested earlier this month in the UK on war crimes charges.

The ruling Muslim, Serb, and Croat parties can’t seem to agree on anything, actually, from the new census to the country’s official holidays. Bosnia has not had a census since 1991, and no one knows precisely how many people live in the country and where. Meanwhile, there are no official state holidays recognized by all of Bosnia’s inhabitants: the Serb Republic observes its own holidays, Croats their own, while the Muslims pretend that their holidays apply to the entire country. Then there is the issue of condemning war crimes…

To paraphrase Clausewitz, politics in Bosnia truly is continuation of warfare by other means.

The Partisan Press

To be fair, things are somewhat less dire than they appear. Despite the acrimonious debate concerning certain matters, the lawmakers actually managed to pass a number of bills important for the everyday functioning of the government. It’s just that none of that was reported in the media.

With very few Bosnians online, the infosphere of the country is still dominated by the traditional, mainstream media. Most people get their news from TV and the newspapers. Controlled directly or indirectly by the ruling political circles, the media have always been partisan and given to editorializing, hysterics and chauvinism. In recent months, however, their tone has become increasingly belligerent, stoking the fires under the already simmering general mistrust.

In addition to simply ignoring anything even remotely positive, the partisan press generates scandals and controversy from anything it touches. Last week the country’s top cop was implicated in a prostitution case involving an underage Roma girl, but whether he actually patronized her "services" or the whole thing was a complex and deliberate setup (as some Muslim media allege, blaming the Bosnian Serb authorities) is anybody’s guess.

Earlier this week, a summit of Western Balkans prime ministers took place in Slovenia. Serbia was boycotting the event, protesting the inclusion of its occupied province of Kosovo as an independent state. Bosnia has not recognized Kosovo, either, and its PM left the room while "Kosovo" PM Hashim Thaci spoke, and returned afterwards. The media in Sarajevo immediately declared this a colossal embarrassment for Bosnia, expressed relief that Thaci "didn’t mind" and accused the PM of having a "personal" foreign policy.

Trouble is, there is no official foreign policy. The only time one of Bosnia’s three rotating presidents was backed by a consensus was last year, when Bosnia applied for membership on the UN Security Council. Muslim member of the Presidency Haris Silajdzic always conducts a personal foreign policy. Given that Bosnia does not recognize "Kosovo," the PM’s actions at the meeting were both diplomatic and appropriate. Had he been a Muslim or a Croat, they would have been taken in stride. But Nikola Spiric is an ethnic Serb, so the Sarajevo media cranked the hate-o-meter to eleven. Tired of the constant Serb-bashing, Bosnian Serb PM Milorad Dodik has instructed members of his party to refuse contact with the media from the Muslim-Croat Federation.

Media hatemongering goes beyond ethnic politics, though. In 1995, funded and supported by the Muslim nationalist party SDA, former Bosnian Army spokesman Fahrudin Radoncic established his daily, Avaz. Access to power and privilege has enabled Radoncic to create a veritable media empire over the following 15 years. Long a kingmaker in Muslim politics, he eventually decided he would be king and founded his own party a few months ago. The Avaz papers and TV stations have been attacking everyone else viciously ever since, reserving particular vitriol for the SDA. This week, the SDA finally decided it had had enough, and its leader, Sulejman Tihic, called for a boycott of Avaz and its media. Results remain to be seen.

Back to Square One?

As the socialist federation of Yugoslavia was torn apart in the early 1990s, the resulting collapse of not just the political order, but also culture, morality and society helped make the succession wars particularly brutal, and has impeded reconstruction and healing. This holds true not just for Bosnia, but for Croatia and Serbia as well.

In Bosnia, ethnic warfare was the direct result of the complete destruction of trust between the communities as the regime of Alija Izetbegovic pushed for independence at the expense of everything and everyone else. The Dayton settlement did not restore that trust, but offered a framework in which it could be re-forged if Bosnia’s peoples so chose. When the U.S. and the EU made Bosnia into a de facto protectorate shortly after the war, and began to impose their often conflicting but always confused visions of what Bosnia should be, they created a powerful disincentive for internal dialogue.

When Bosnian Serb PM Milorad Dodik said recently that it might be time to talk about a consensual separation, president Silajdzic angrily replied that this was impossible. "Those who dislike this country are free to leave, but they can’t take an inch of the land with them," Silajdzic said.

This very argument, that Bosnia belonged "100 percent" to Silajdzic and the Muslims, while everyone else is welcome to get out, is precisely what ignited the 1992-95 war and claimed 100,000 lives. After fifteen years of peace and "nation-building," Bosnia seems to be back at square one. And this is what the State Department describes as a great "success."

One shudders to think what failure would look like.

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.