Western Realpolitik Damns Bosnia
by By Bojan Bujic
Douglas Hurd recently wrote that the role of the UN in Bosnia was `to help [the
Serbs, Croats and Muslims] to the right decisions, so that this winter of
suffering in Bosnia is the last' (The Sunday Times, 12 December 1993). `The
right decisions' in EU terms are ones leading to the partition of Bosnia for
which reason some considerable pressure has been exerted on the Bosnian
government to accept the `realities on the ground' produced by Bosnia's two
militarily stronger neighbours. Bosnia will thus either disappear altogether or
be reduced to an unviable miniüstate. In spite of some token signs of compassion
the underlying belief in Hurd's article is that Bosnia does not matter at all
and this discloses an old and well-established pattern of thought.
The belief in a balance of powers in the Balkans has very deep roots in the
minds of British politicians. In the nineteenth century it was generally
accepted that Western powers should not disturb the then balance of power, since
any weakening of Turkey's position in that part of the world would only benefit
Russia and Austria.
When after the Congress of Berlin Austria did advance in the Balkans in 1878 by
taking Bosnia-Herzegovina from Turkey, it became imperative to re-establish the
balance of power and Serbia received some French help, especially after the fall
of the Obrenovic dynasty in 1903. The link between France and Serbia was
dictated by political convenience yet it has been fancifully explained by
Serbian historians as the West's reward for the `democratic tradition' in Serbia
ü although in reality Serbia was a corrupt police state.
After the formation of Yugoslavia in 1918, the Serbian tradition of ruling the
country through the police and the army continued, if anything in a more intense
manner, since the state was able to identify its main opponents - the Communists
and Croatian and Macedonian nationalists. The regime nevertheless continued to
enjoy the support of France and Britain since, though by their standards
brutally repressive, it served to counter the threat of German and Italian
domination of the Balkans.
After the Second World War Tito was able to understand the political history of
the region and adroitly placed Yugoslavia outside and indeed between the new
power blocs. After Tito's death the weakening of the Warsaw Pact coincided with
increased calls for political reform within Yugoslavia.
The failure of Yugoslav Communist reformers to initiate any reforms in the army
meant that, on top of historical, cultural and economic divisions, there
appeared a division between reformist Communists and emerging non-Communist
political groups on one side and the orthodox Communists and the army on the
other. It was then relatively easy for the Serbian nationalist leadership to
harness the army to its cause.
The old theory of the desirability of the balance of power was clumsily revived
at the point when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. Both Britain and France, the
theory's traditional supporters, appeared unwilling to back any inÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ¼itiatives for
intervention in Croatia and Bosnia. They adhered to the old belief that German
influence, seen in Germany's support of Slovenia and Croatia, had to be
countered by some gesture on behalf of Serbia. This led towards a reluctance to
engage in any action likely to alienate Serbia. This may sound absurd in the
light of the UN sanctions but it has to be remembered that the sanctions became
possible only when the United States, unencumbered by the traditional view of
the Balkan balance of power theory, was able to concentrate the minds of the
Europeans. The subsequent American relucü tance to get involved may have more to
do with internal US politics than with their scant interest in the Balkans.
The balance of power principle crashed in the case of Bosnia since the West
failed to re-think it and apply it imaginatively. The reason for this is again
to be sought in ingrained patterns of thought: in the modern past Bosnia has
never been politically a subject in its own right but always an object of
Austro-Turkish or Austro-Serbian disputes.
Now, when from the Western point of view Bosnia could have been upheld as an
example of multi-ethnic coexistence and a buffer zone eventually diffusing the
SerbianüCroatian conflict, the West failed to recognize the full advantage of
its existence as a separate state and allowed Serbia and Croatia to undermine
It is clear that Western politicians are seeing Bosnia as an unfortunate third
element in an otherwise `clean' bipolar balance. By applying an anachronistic
version of the balance of power principle through which they hope to resolve the
conflict between Serbia and Croatia without preserving Bosnia, Western powers
are making a grave mistake. The mistake will ensure that Bosnia will remain an
area gripped by prolonged suffering and turmoil. This is the solution now on
offer from the EU, but if Douglas Hurd and those advising him know anything
about the political history of the western Balkans they should realize that this
road will not lead to `the right decisions'.
Bojan Bujic was born in Sarajevo. He teaches music at Magdalen College, Oxford.