Bosnia: A Kind of Progress

25 November 2005

Bosnia: A Kind of Progress

 By Gwynne Dyer

Now that I am in this crazy fervour of mine

 I could do just about anything

So your stupid, rotten, vain souls

Wouldn’t stare at me with their stupid peaceful eyes

Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs during their 1992-95 attempt to cleanse the areas where they were a majority of all other ethnic groups, destroy Bosnia and unite with Serbia, is a rotten poet, but his recently published volume of poetry shows that, after ten years as a fugitive, he is still filled with rage and hate. Unfortunately, so is the Bosnian state he tried to destroy.

Things have been looking up recently in the “west Balkans”, the phrase that European Union bureaucrats use to describe the space occupied by Albania and the splintered remains of former Yugoslavia. The prospect of eventual EU membership has drawn the various successor states into reforms that are gradually transforming them from chaotic post-Communist autocracies into democratic states under the rule of law. Slovenia was actually admitted to the EU last year, and the others are rapidly joining the queue.

Furthest along are Croatia, which began entry talks last month, and Macedonia, which will probably become an officially recognised candidate for membership next month. Albania is well along in the process of negotiating a “Stabilisation and Association Agreement” with the EU, the essential precondition to candidate status, and Serbia and Montenegro began SAA talks with Brussels last month.

Bosnia, however, is bringing up the rear, mainly because of the physical and moral devastation inflicted on the country by the Balkan wars that began when Slobodan Milosevic, an ultra-nationalist Serb, achieved near-dictatorial powers in Belgrade and launched his project to unite all the Serbs of former Yugoslavia within one country. There was no fighting in Serbia itself, but Croatia, with a relatively small Serb minority, endured years of war — and Bosnia, where Serbs are 40 percent of the population, was virtually destroyed.

By 1995, when international intervention and a NATO bombing campaign against Serbia ended the slaughter in Bosnia, a quarter-million of its 4.5 million people were dead and almost half had been driven from their homes. Even now only a half-million of the two million refugees have dared to return to the homes from which they had been “cleansed,” and the country’s Gross Domestic Product is only 60 percent of what it was when the fighting began. At the current rate of growth, it will not return to the 1992 level until 2015.

The reason for such slow growth, as for much else that plagues Bosnia, is the peace agreement that was more or less imposed on the local factions by the United States at the talks in Dayton, Ohio in1995. It stopped the fighting, but at the cost of carving the county into two “entities”, one for the Serbs who had been responsible for most of the cleansing and other atrocities, and the other a shotgun marriage of the Croats and the Muslims of Bosnia (who had also been fighting each other).

Republika Srpska, as the Bosnian-Serb entity is known, has generally elected governments made up of ethnic nationalists who openly say they would rather unite with Serbia than stay in Bosnia. The Muslim-Croat federation has two separate ethnic governments, but is also divided into ten cantons with populations that are dominated by one group or the other, each with its own parliament and government. Counting a very weak central

government (with a three-man presidency that rotates between a Serb, a Croat and a Muslim every eight months), Bosnia has a total of fourteen governments. No wonder it’s stuck.

The old, tolerant, ethnically integrated Bosnia is gone forever: every municipality save one has a population that is 90 percent or more from a single ethnic or religious group. But EU membership is a great carrot, and Brussels and the United States are both using that prospect to push Bosnian leaders into a new constitution that would strengthen the central government greatly at the expense of the ethnically defined “entities” and simply eliminate the ten cantons.

Since most of Bosnia’s multitudes of politicians have strictly ethnic political bases, it’s a bit like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas, but last week, at a meeting in Dayton to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the peace accords, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice extracted a commitment from Bosnian leaders to create a single presidency and strengthen the central government by next March. At the same time, the EU rewarded them by agreeing to open talks on an association agreement — and the two separate “entities” have already agreed to integrate their separate armies next year. Genuine reconciliation is still a long way off, but there is some progress.

As Lord Paddy Ashdown, who leaves Bosnia this January after three and a half years as the international community’s High Representative, recently told the Guardian: “This country is about history, and unless the Serbs in particular — although terrible things were done by the (Muslim) Bosniaks and the Croats too — come to some understanding of this history, we cannot build a stable state. The major burden of guilt is on them, and they have to acknowledge it, just as the Germans acknowledged it….I don’t think Bosnia is ready for reconciliation, but I do think it is ready for truth.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Furthest along…month”; and “Republika Srpska…stuck”)