Putting Bosnia together again
This is a guest post by Quintin Hoare
Hardly a day goes by without some domestic or foreign voice being raised to lament the deplorable state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Even official EU spokes-people scarcely attempt any longer to deny the country’s dysfunctional political structures, or to hide their frustration with its squabbling politicians – a frustration mirrored by that expressed by Bosnian commentators with the international players whom they blame for their condition. A measure of the problem is the fact that the country’s prospects for European integration lag behind even those of Serbia.
In the past couple of weeks, two former US diplomats who played significant roles in the 1995 peace agreement in Bosnia – the Dayton accords – and both of whom may harbour ambitions for fresh roles in an Obama administration, have spoken out in sharply contrasting ways about the 1995 settlement that created the country’s present political order.
On 17 October Peter Galbraith, former US ambassador to Croatia (1993-8), in an interview with the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz described the wartime political and military leadership of the Bosnian Serb rebels as ‘fascistic and genocidal’, then continued: ‘Maybe it would have been better, and the region would have been more stable, if we had allowed their total defeat [in autumn 1995] instead of opting for a compromise’.
The compromise in question, of course, was Dayton – itself the outcome of an earlier compromise that in May 1994 established the so-called Contact Group, made up of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the USA (later joined by Italy and the EU). The Contact Group resolved previous differences (see Brendan Simms’s authoritative Unfinest Hour, London 2001) between US policy on the one hand, British and French on the other – but did so essentially on the latter’s terms. It adopted the formula that was to underpin Dayton according to which 49% of the country’s territory would go to the Serb supremacist movement led by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, both of whom have since been indicted with genocide by the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague. This territory, from which practically all its non-Serb population had been deported, and to which few would be allowed to return after the war, was constituted as Republika Srpska (RS). More fundamentally, however, Dayton was a concession to their mentor and paymaster, the Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, subsequently also charged with genocide, in the hope that, satisfied in Bosnia, he would become a ‘factor of stability’ in the Balkans. That this hope was quite unwarranted became obvious a few years later, when a triumphant Milosevic initiated yet another genocidal war, this time in Kosovo. But whereas Serbia was in the end expelled from Kosovo, it retained its presence in Bosnia, which in turn ensured Bosnia’s continued division and instability.
This much is clear: the cause of Bosnia’s continued instability lies in the US – and Western – decision not to end for good a fascistic and genocidal project that keeps it divided.
A few days after Galbraith’s lucid intervention, however, the principal negotiator of the Dayton peace settlement Richard Holbrooke struck a very different note in a 22 October article for The Guardian (co-signed by Paddy Ashdown, high commissioner in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006). Under the sensationalist title ‘A Bosnian powder keg’, this began with the misleading elision: ‘American leadership brought an end to Bosnia’s three-and-a-half-year war through the Dayton peace agreement’. This assertion is questionable in a number of ways.
First, on the issue of American leadership. It is true that US policy following Yugoslavia’s break-up was far less willing than such European governments as those of Major and Mitterrand simply to accede to Belgrade’s war aims. It is likewise true that the American decision to coordinate a first serious use of air power against RS forces with a successful large-scale ground offensive by allied Bosnian and Croatian units proved decisive. However, the decision not to inflict a total defeat on Mladic’s retreating troops but instead to impose a cease-fire leaving the opposed forces in situ was less commendable. And the Dayton peace agreement was imposed only after these events, not in order to stop military operations that had already been brought to a halt, but in order to articulate a settlement according to the Contact Group’s agreed formula, upon which Washington had long been negotiating directly with Slobodan Milosevic through the good offices precisely of Richard Holbrooke. A settlement that the Bosnian leaders in Sarajevo would be induced to accept.
Secondly, and following from the above, the Dayton peace agreement, which endorsed Milosevic’s main war aim of dividing Bosnia, was the least likely way to bring about a stable peace. On the contrary, by endorsing Bosnia’s de facto division, it ensured a continuation of the war by different means, with the aim of achieving what the military weakness of Belgrade and its Bosnian satraps for the moment made unattainable: Bosnia’s break-up. In short, the United States imposed a settlement that was neither necessary, nor moral, nor workable.
All sides involved in the Bosnian war agree today that the Bosnia-Herzegovina which emerged from the peace settlement imposed at Dayton is unviable. Where they differ is on how to proceed from here. The major defects of the settlement, which are of both a practical and a principled nature, are obvious, including as they do: de facto partition on the basis of existing military positions; de jure division into ethnically based ‘entities’ (one of which, RS, includes an ethnic designation in its very name); destruction of the nationally equitable constitutional and civic order under which Bosnia-Herzegovina had functioned since the end of World War Two, and its replacement by one enshrining ethnic separation at every level; provision for Serbia and Croatia to establish special relations with the two entities, RS and the Federation; absence of any provision for a functioning central government, with most real powers being devolved to the entities; lack of a binding agreement on the return of refugees; the list could be extended. No country could function under such conditions, which are a travesty of the normal order pertaining to a democratic state.
Unlike Galbraith, however, Holbrooke makes no connection between the terms upon which Dayton settled Bosnia’s future in 1995 and the country’s alleged impending collapse today. His argument is that, if only the US and the EU were to concentrate their minds anew, the Dayton peace agreement could be made to work. Their main task should be neither more nor less than ‘finding ways to untie Bosnia’s constitutional knot’ – which, however, precisely lies at the heart of that agreement. Here in a nutshell is the main problem of current US and EU policy: how to change Dayton while professing full commitment to it. The RS leader Milorad Dodik has adroitly played on this contradiction by calling every attempt to reform Bosnia’s dysfunctional structure an attack on Dayton. Uncomfortable as it may be for Holbrooke, Dodik – the main target of his criticism – has in fact been the staunchest defender of the agreement that he helped to craft.
Two mantras have thus been endlessly repeated since 1995, both of which sound plausible but contain at best only particles of truth. The first is that if Dayton were observed and implemented as intended by its architects, the way would be open for Bosnia to become a viable state. The second is that only the Bosnians themselves can in the last instance achieve this. The first has ostensibly inspired the activity of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) over the past thirteen years, while the second has been the OHR’s alibi for the poor results achieved.
In reality, the first major – and defining – acts of the ‘international community’ (in the shape of OHR and NATO) after Dayton were to prevent key aspects of its implementation: the RS authorities were given a free hand to ethnically cleanse (of Serbs!) areas of Sarajevo like Grbavica or Ilidza due to be handed over under the terms of the accords; and Bosniak and Croat refugees from territory controlled by RS were forcibly prevented from returning en masse to their homes (in sharp contrast to what happened in Kosova once NATO moved in).
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that successive High Representatives (HR) have done nothing towards implementing aspects of the Dayton agreement. Paddy Ashdown, himself, indeed (who only months earlier had offered a very different and far more honest appraisal of the situation in ‘Bosnia is on the edge again’, The Observer, 27 July), did more than any other HR to transform the Dayton set-up pragmatically ‘from within’, notably by cajoling or bullying Bosnia’s politicians to agree to a significant transfer of powers to the centre – the ‘real progress’ that he now says has been largely reversed in the past two years, above all by Dodik.
Hobrooke and Ashdown are nevertheless right to describe Bosnia as a ‘bigger and more dangerous challenge’ to peace than Kosovo. This for two reasons. First, because a Bosnia-Herzegovina independent from both Serbia and Croatia has been a foundation stone of the regional settlement reached at the end of Second World War, when Yugoslavia became a federal state with Bosnia as one of its republics. This settlement, breached by Milosevic in 1991-2, was not reconstituted at Dayton – despite the agreement’s nominal endorsement of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territorial integrity – precisely thanks to the settlement’s division of Bosnia into Serb and non-Serb parts. Unlike Croatia, which no longer harbours any designs on Bosnian territory, successive governments in Serbia (perhaps excepting that of Zoran Djindjic) have treated RS as effectively part of Serbia, while the EU and the US have regularly turned a blind eye to Belgrade’s interference in Bosnia’s internal affairs. This Serbian dimension of Bosnia’s problematic state was well identified in Ashdown’s earlier text, but unfortunately vanished from ‘A Bosnian powder keg’. A key condition to be met by Serbia in its progress towards European integration should be that it ceases treating RS as anything other than an integral part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Any secession of RS from Bosnia-Herzegovina, furthermore, would inevitably re-open a Croatian dimension to the latter’s crisis, since Zagreb could not allow the country to break up, so would be obliged to engage there once again, if only to uphold Bosnia’s integrity. This prospect greatly exercises Croatia’s leaders, and explains their increasingly open criticism of Dodik’s provocative rhetoric and obstructive behaviour.
The second reason why the situation in Bosnia demands urgent attention is linked to the European desire in the medium term to bring the rest of the Balkans into the EU. The ease with which the latter has in Bosnia’s case allowed overlapping sovereignties to be created – in the form of dual citizenship, special agreements and territorial claims – has not merely enabled the criminal underground to survive the war, but also helped to consolidate its stranglehold on the Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian judicial systems. Absorption of these countries, at a time when their administrations do not fully control their borders, will pose a grave threat to the EU’s own internal security. Holbrooke and Ashdown are right to point out that the EU is leaving itself with few tools to heal Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite its strategic position in the region. It may be that EU officials cling to the hope that all these grave problems can somehow be resolved during the process of negotiating Serbia’s and Bosnia’s entry; but why this should happen in the light of a decade of failure remains to be explained. The time has come for EU and US politicians to bite the Bosnian bullet and finally end the country’s division one way or another. Where there is a will, the way will be found.
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