bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
What has not happened in Bosnia
by David Harland

Eight years after a devastating war, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a remarkable success story. Reconstruction is complete. Economic output has passed prewar levels and the republic's economy is now among the fastest-growing in Europe. Refugees have returned to their homes, war-time nationalist leaders are dead or in jail. Measured by the rate of marriage between young people of different ethnic groups, the hostility that recently led to so much blood-letting between Croats, Muslims and Serbs is receding. There is a palpable optimism in the air. What was recently one of the most backward areas in Europe is moving forward.

The year is 1953.

The Bosnia of late 2003 is different. Eight years after the Dayton peace agreement, GDP has yet to reach prewar levels, and economic growth is sluggish. Despite the return of many refugees, the country remains basically divided into three ethnic zones. War-time nationalist leaders remain in power, often undermining the political institutions that could bring the country together again. There is enduring hostility between the communities. Young people want to leave. Many outside the country wish never to return.

That was then, of course, and this is now. And 1953 was also no paradise. Religion was suppressed. Opponents of the Tito regime were jailed, at best, and dissent was gagged. But there is food for thought here for those of us who have tried to help in the rebuilding of Bosnia.

There are some real achievements. Most important among them was the US-led intervention that brought the war to an end shortly after the huge massacre of Muslim men at Srebrenica in the summer of 1995. One can carp about how long it took for the United States to rouse itself to action, or about some of the provisions of the Dayton peace agreement. But the Americans did - largely alone - what Europe, the United Nations, and the great power club known as the Contact Group had so signally failed to do for over three years, as 100,000 people or more were killed. It led a military intervention, and then followed through with a diplomatic initiative that secured the support of the warring factions themselves, of neighbouring countries, and of international friends and allies.

Yet in the eight years since, something has gone wrong. The international community has spent upwards of $10 billion in Bosnia, and many thousands of foreigners, military and civilian, have worked on the implementation of various parts of the Dayton agreement. Bosnia, however, is still far from being a self-sustaining state.

When observers note that things are moving slowly, and that some things - like crime, both common and organized - are much worse than ever before, foreigners in Bosnia preach patience. It is less than a decade, they note, since much blood flowed. Wars between neighbours take a long time to heal. Moreover, they note, Bosnia is undergoing a double transition: from war to peace, and from communism to a democracy and market economy. All of this is true. But it is also true that Bosnia has taught much to all of us about how not to implement a peace agreement. That includes the United Nations, but also, I think, NATO, the European Union and even the member countries of those organizations.

We were both too hasty and too slow. In our haste to construct a quick exit, we blessed flawed elections that legitimated the nationalist extremists who had led the country to war four years earlier. At the same time, we were slow to stabilize security on the ground. Even after the war ended, ethnic cleansing continued. A hundred thousand Serbs were removed from Sarajevo after the war ended - largely by their own nationalist leaders. Many of them ended up in the homes of Muslims earlier expelled from Serb-held territory further east. We did almost nothing to stop that, ensuring that the eventual return of refugees would be that much harder. We were slow to address the question of law and order, especially the criminal justice system. While we dithered, organized crime sank deep roots. We then watered those roots by channelling generous aid funds through local crime bosses. Worst of all, we allowed a culture of impunity to develop. To this day, the most wanted men in the country, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, remain at large.

Bosnia may yet find a stable and prosperous home in the new Europe. Certainly, it is the one thing most Bosnians can agree on, and even work together on. It will not be easy for the Bosnians, and it will require those of us on the outside to learn a few lessons of our own.

The writer served as head of UN civil affairs in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the signing of the Dayton agreement. This comment appeared in The International Herald Tribune, 27 January 2004.


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