bosnia report
New Series No: 37-38 January - March 2004
For and against Dayton
by Marko Attila Hoare

Sumantra Bose, Bosnia after Dayton: nationalist partition and international intervention, Hurst and Co., London 2002

David Chandler, Bosnia: faking democracy after Dayton, 2nd edition, Pluto Press, London 2000


The contradictory and multi-faceted Dayton Accord that ended the Bosnian War in the autumn of 1995 is a subject that continues to inspire controversy, representing as it does a number of compromises: between Serb, Croat and Bosniak/Muslim nationalist projects; between Bosnian unity and Bosnian partition; between US and British or French foreign-policy goals; and in general terms between principle and expediency. Equally controversial is the character of the labyrinthine Bosnian state - if ‘state’ is the right word - established by the Dayton Accord. Sumantra Bose and David Chandler are two authors who have approached the same topic - post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina - from opposing standpoints.

Measuring up the arguments for and against Dayton and for and against Bosnian unity, Bose gives a measured endorsement of both, and of the second as dependent upon the first. In Bose’s opinion, Western politicians and diplomats rightly seek to work within the status quo created by Dayton, ‘since they know that any revision of Dayton in response to pressure orchestrated by a particular faction will not only open up a Pandora’s Box of competing claims, but reopen issues lying dormant since the war’ [emphasis in original]. For Bose, the contradictions inherent in Dayton Bosnia are merely reflections of a contradictory reality in which there are no simple solutions.

Chandler, by contrast, argues that the international overlordship of Bosnia is responsible for the latter’s problems: the international community’s restrictions on what he sees as the democratic rights of Bosnian citizens are, he believes, responsible for aggravating poor inter-ethnic relations and retarding the growth of a stable political order. Chandler sees the alternative as ‘granting people greater autonomy’. In other words: ‘Allowing Croat-governed areas of Bosnia to have closer links with Croatia and allowing greater independence for Republika Srpska would take away a lot of the insecurities felt by ordinary Bosnian people.’ For Chandler, the international presence is the problem, not the solution.

What both authors share, however, is an image of Bosnia-Herzegovina viewed entirely through the lenses of current affairs, as a problem to be resolved in the here-and-now. Neither attempts to situate contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina and its problems in the context of past Bosnian history. Each adopts a theoretical rather than a historical approach, but even a cursory look at Bosnia’s pre-Dayton history raises serious questions about such theoretical models.

Bose attempts to steer a middle course between the pro-partitionist or ‘pro-Serb’ and the pro-integrationist or pro-Bosnian currents of opinion over post-Dayton Bosnia. Although he rejects the standpoint of supporters of partition such as Robert Hayden and Chaim Kaufmann, he nevertheless feels that they have some valid points to make. He believes that the question of whether it was the Bosnian Serbs under Radovan Karadžić or the Bosnian regime of Alija Izetbegović that was the true separatist party cannot be resolved objectively, on the basis either of international law or of political philosophy. Both positions are equally legitimate or illegitimate. He consequently views the refusal, as he sees it, of the pro-Bosnian and pro-integrationist current of opinion in the West to recognize the legitimacy of any solution other than a unified, multinational Bosnia as ‘a form of moral righteousness that can assume troubling dimensions in some versions’. Given the equal validity, in Bose’s eyes, of the opposing Serb, Croat and Bosnian/Muslim standpoints, Dayton is for all its flaws the lesser evil: the model of compromise most likely to bring about reconciliation between Bosnians.

Ignoring the context

Bose is in principle right that the legitimacy of a unified, multinational Bosnia is not unquestionable, and that the national aspirations of Bosnian Serbs cannot be dismissed out of hand. Yet in treating the two positions - pro-Bosnian and pro-partitionist - as equally valid in theory he neglects the historical context of the 1990s. The present author would agree that the Bosnian Serbs had traditionally striven for unification with Serbia - either on a Greater Serbian or a Yugoslav basis; that identification with the matrix-land of Serbia was part of the national identity of a majority of Bosnian Serbs; and that this striving and this identity were as legitimate as the Bosnian Muslim identification with a unified and sovereign Bosnia (and what applies for the Bosnian Serbs applies equally for the Bosnian Croats). It is also true that the fact that a majority of Bosnians voted in favour of independence in the referendum of 1992 does not in itself make the desire of a majority of Bosnian Serbs to remain in a union with Serbia illegitimate.

Bose, however, fails to see that in the spring of 1992 it was not simply a question of three conflicting national ideologies in Bosnia. Serbia attacked Bosnia-Herzegovina, aiming to destroy it as a state - a central fact that Bose entirely ignores, choosing to label the conflict as a ‘civil war’ between Bosnians. The assault on Bosnia was carried out by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and militias from Serbia proper, while the Army of the Serb Republic was organized by the leadership of Serbia and the JNA. The Bosnian Serb population was mobilized behind a genocidal project involving not just secession from Bosnia, but both the territorial conquest of lands in which Serbs formed a minority and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of non-Serbs. Serbs comprised 31% of the Bosnian Serb population, yet Serb forces occupied and ‘cleansed’ approximately 70% of Bosnia, including predominantly Muslim and/or Croat areas such as eastern Bosnia and Posavina. Bosnian Serb nationalists repeatedly rejected Western ‘peace plans’ that offered them even a disproportionately large share of Bosnian territory. The territory they conquered was treated as purely ‘Serb land’, disregarding the rights of Muslims and Croats.

The project of a unified Bosnia-Herzegovina, by contrast, was not an ethnically exclusivist project, but one in which Serbs and Croats as well as Muslims could participate. Prior to the 1990s, even Bosnian Serb nationalists who viewed Bosnia as a ‘Serb land’ and who believed Bosnian Muslims and Croats were respectively merely Islamicized and Catholicized Serbs, nevertheless generally viewed Bosnia as their homeland and rejected its partition. In the 1990s, many Serbs as well as Croats remained loyal to their Bosnian homeland and sought to participate in its state institutions, rather than joining the nationalist camp. The Muslim-oriented politics of Izetbegović and the Party of Democratic Action undoubtedly alienated many Bosnian Serbs and Croats, so that it bears a large share of responsibility for the failure of the Bosnian project. But the Izetbegović regime did not claim that Bosnia was a purely Muslim land, or that Serbs and Croats had no place in it. It did not seek to incite nationalist hatred against Serbs and Croats. In this context, the division among Bosnians was not between two or three conflicting national projects - arguably each possessing legitimacy - but between a project based on territorial conquest, genocide and ethnic exclusiveness and one that, however flawed in its implementation, represented a possible model of coexistence between Bosnians.

A parallel may serve to illustrate the point. In principle, an independent Croatian state is entirely legitimate. Yet the ‘Independent State of Croatia’ established by the Croat Ustasha fascists in 1941 was entirely illegitimate, based as it was on genocide and ethnic exclusivism. In other words, the legitimacy of a given national project must be judged according to the concrete historical circumstances in which it appears and the form that it takes in practice, not simply on the basis of abstract principles.

Bose fails also to situate the Dayton Accord in its historical context. This Accord did not represent a compromise between the Bosnian and the Serb-nationalist projects; rather it was a compromise between the British and French desire to appease Belgrade, the US Congress’s desire to defend Bosnia, and the Clinton Administration’s desire to reconcile the two. Whether a more just solution to the Bosnian conflict was possible is, of course, a moot point. But to ignore the Dayton compromise’s roots in the conflicting policies of the Western powers, as opposed merely to the conflicting ideologies of the Bosnian parties, is to miss half the story. A Bosnian recovery requires political change in the West, not merely in Bosnia.

False dichotomies

If Bose is to be faulted for presenting a false dichotomy between two national projects that are in reality hardly equivalent, Chandler presents an equally false dichotomy between the alleged democratic rights of Bosnians, as he sees them, and the international community’s restriction of these rights. Yet the question that Chandler’s writing continuously begs, and which he never answers, is whether ‘democracy’ can have any meaning in a country whose population has been largely expelled from its homes. The Bosnian towns of Zvornik and Foča had Muslim majorities before the war, but were ‘cleansed’ of their Muslim inhabitants; the towns of Glamoč and Bosansko Grahovo were emptied of their majority-Serb inhabitants, and the town of Vareš of its majority-Croat inhabitants. If today Zvornik has a Serb administration, Glamoč a Croat administration and Vareš a Muslim administration, this simply reflects the effects of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and forced population transfers, rather than the will of the indigenous population; for the international community to respect the ‘rights’ of officials ‘elected’ in these places would mean respecting the results of ethnic cleansing, not of democracy. Wholly absent from Chandler’s narrative is any discussion of the democratic rights of the displaced; in reality, recognizing the ‘independence’ of the Serb Republic and the Croat-controlled areas of the Bosnian Federation would mean consigning these rights to oblivion.

What Chandler is really arguing is that the triumph of the ethnic cleansers should be recognized. Again, we can draw a parallel with the Ustasha project. Eugen Dido Kvaternik, one of the architects of the Ustasha genocide, hoped that by exterminating the Serb population in disputed areas of Croatia and Bosnia he could create ‘facts on the ground’ that would force the Great Powers to recognize Croatian possession of these areas, even if the Allies won. This is precisely what the nationalist regime in the Serb Republic attempted, though somewhat more successfully. Chandler’s disregard of the democratic rights of the victims of ‘ethnic cleansing’ is further highlighted by his opposition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which he believes has done much ‘to promote tensions between the communities and international administrators’. This implies that the international community should appease warlords and nationalist politicians by abandoning war-crimes prosecutions, and consequently repudiate the right to justice of all those who have suffered at the hands of these same warlords and politicians. Chandler is undoubtedly right in thinking this would reduce tensions between the latter and the international community, but it would have nothing to do with democracy.


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