bosnia report
No. 3 January - 1994
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 inÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ̼itiatives 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.

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.


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