Reality Bites Back

One could always count on Bill Clinton for two things: "feeling your pain" and shameless self-promotion. The former Emperor got to combine both earlier this week, with a symposium at his presidential library extolling the virtues of his administration (and the CIA) during the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

The event was dedicated to the release of some 300 recently declassified CIA documents pertaining to the Clinton administration’s efforts to leverage the conflict in Bosnia for the rising American Empire. Among the keynote speakers were former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former general Wesley Clark, whose careers reached the zenith during the 1999 attack on Serbia.

To hear Clinton and his hands tell it, this was the shining moment for America, a white knight riding to the rescue of beleaguered Muslims against a new Nazi menace. This became the founding myth of "humanitarian" imperialists, who first arose under Clinton and became dominant during the Obama Restoration.

Those imperialists have been in a spot of trouble lately, with their plan for yet another evil little war thwarted by popular opposition and Russian diplomacy. Releasing the carefully selected documents about Clinton’s involvement in the Bosnian War could be a calculated move to give the "humanitarians" a much-needed shot in the arm, bolster the scandal-plagued CIA, and even set up a plank for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. And though it is unlikely the event was timed to coincide with the government shutdown, the overlap was certainly serendipitous.

There is only one problem with the narrative presenting the American Empire as a "force for good" in the world: it isn’t true.

Washington’s involvement in the Bosnian conflict is best described as arranging a fight in the first place, in order to look heroic breaking it up. Few policymakers ever understood Bosnia’s problem, and have gotten it wrong time and again. The actual suffering of Bosnians – Muslim, Serb, Croat or any other kind – has never really factored into any of this. When it isn’t used to bolster the narrative of American exemptionalism, Bosnia is chump change in the game of power.

Lawfare Blowback

A perfect example of this is the political conundrum called "Sejdić-Finci." In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Bosnia’s constitution discriminated against minorities, because the office of Presidency was open only to Muslims ("Bosniaks"), Croats and Serbs. Reasonable at first glance, the case actually threatened to unravel the entire peace agreement, of which the Constitution is an annex. This was the stated goal of the militant Muslim political party backing the plaintiffs.

As such plots often do, it backfired. The Bosnian Serb legislators complied with the verdict by amending their own constitution, dropping all ethnic qualifications from presidential eligibility. However, the Muslim-Croat Federation – the very definition of dysfunction – has been unable to do the same. In fact, electoral shenanigans led to a 14-month standoff in the Federation after the 2010 vote.

Now the EU and the Council of Europe have threatened to reject the results of the 2014 election unless Bosnia complies with the 2009 verdict. Leaders of the country’s seven (!) major political parties gathered in Brussels on October 1 in an effort to resolve the crisis. Though Federation parties have been unable to reach a compromise so far, they now have a powerful incentive to do so before the October 10 deadline. Namely, the EU has threatened to cut Bosnia’s aid funding, and the Federation in particular is desperate for cash.


Though the war wrought havoc on Bosnia’s infrastructure, most of the damage has long since been repaired. Unfortunately, Bosnia’s politicians have taken rent-seeking to the level of a dark art, systematically siphoning profits from public utilities and corporations to line party and personal pockets. This is on top of millions pilfered from billions in foreign aid that have been poured into the country.

As a result, many companies are deeply in debt. Over 60,000 bank accounts across the country have been blocked. Utility companies are among the worst offenders, as demand for water, power and gas is inelastic, and the public has no choice but to pay the ever-rising prices. With unemployment estimated at over 40%, however, there are hard limits to people’s endurance.

The situation is particularly dire in Sarajevo, the country’s capital and a major province of the Federation. A recent hike in water prices has prompted anger among the populace. In a remarkable coincidence, on three occasions over the past week faucets across Sarajevo went dry – ostensibly due to "scheduled maintenance" of pumping equipment.

On Monday, streetcars and trolleys across Sarajevo stopped in their tracks, as power was cut to the city’s public transit company over millions in unpaid bills. Debt was also cited by gas utility officials as the cause of Tuesday’s disruption in natural gas service, though the story quickly changed to "technical difficulties" later in the day.

The impact of these shutdowns goes beyond money and politics, though. During the war, Sarajevo faced frequent disruptions in power, water and gas supply, not always due to the fighting. If the utilities are once more being used as a political and propaganda weapon, this does not portend anything good.

Down for the Count

Amidst all this drama, the country’s first ever census since independence launched this Tuesday, and is expected to wrap up by October 15. The 1991 census was conducted while Bosnia was still part of the Yugoslav federation, and was never properly verified. Even so, it was adopted as the baseline for setting ethnic quotas in government and tax revenue appropriations. Getting the current census organized took over a decade, and was an arduous slog through ethnic politics.

In the preceding weeks, citizens have been bombarded by propaganda in newspapers, on TV and even YouTube, instructing them how to declare their citizenship, ethnicity and language on the forms. Muslims in particular have been urged by their political leadership to identify as "Bosniaks", who speak "Bosnian".

Even though the early reports have indicated that the census was proceeding smoothly, there have already been multiple complaints. Some census-takers were caught filling out forms themselves, or in public places. Because of a procedural glitch, census materials are being stored in census-takers’ homes. Some census-takers quit, unhappy with their wages. Potentially the most problematic is the influx of Bosnians (of all kinds) residing elsewhere, but traveling to the country in order to be counted. If enough of these improprieties add up, it is entirely possible that Eurostat might refuse to certify the census results.

Then again, they might not. This is Bosnia, after all, where myths keep trumping reality. But the thing everyone forgets, from the local robber barons to Empire and the CIA, is that reality has a way of biting back.

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.