bosnia report
New Series No. 6/7 September - December 1998
Failure of Bosnian Peace
by Tom Hundley

The growing roster of fancy eating establishments in Sarajevo includes a stylish Lebanese restaurant, an Indian restaurant and three Chinese restaurants. At the other end of the food chain, McDonald's is trying to create a network to supply buns, burgers and fruit pies so it can open its first outlet in the Bosnian capital. The city is awash in new cafes. By unofficial accounts, Sarajevo has more cafes per capita than any other city in Europe. And they are filled, day and night.

Three years after the Dayton peace agreement stopped the shooting in Bosnia, Sarajevo still bears the scars of the 42-month battering it took from Serb artillery. There are plenty of crumpled buildings and hollow-eyed lost souls. But the anti-sniper barriers have come down, the trams have been running for some time, and there is a score of new boutiques to admire in the main commercial district. Benetton was the pioneer; now Sarajevans can shop for Versace clothing and Swatch watches.

Normally, all this consumer activity would be taken as a good sign, but in Sarajevo, the reality is far different. Bosnia has become a ward of the international community, and Sarajevo has the feel of a colonial capital with a foreign ruling class and a downtrodden local populace. Bosnia provides something of an object lesson in the difficulties of intervention in the former Yugoslavia, even as NATO considers whether to hit the Yugoslav army with air strikes to deter it from further attacks against civilians in the restive province of Kosovo. Western intervention stopped the killing in Bosnia, but beyond that significant accomplishment, things have not exactly worked out as planned.

In Sarajevo, the expensive restaurants and boutiques are servicing the ever-expanding bureaucracy of international experts who have come to help spend the $5 billion in reconstruction aid that was promised at Dayton. There are an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 expatriates working in Bosnia, most of them from Europe and the US. They work for 463 organizations, employing about 50,000 to 60,000 locals. The local Bosnians generally work in low-level capacities - drivers, translators, secretaries. For a Bosnian, landing one of these jobs is considered a real plum. That's because there is nothing else. The official unemployment rate is 60 percent. The real unemployment rate is probably closer to 80 per cent.

Despite the nice veneer of the Versace mannequins in Sarajevo shop windows, the Dayton peace process is not working out as well as its American creators had hoped. Only a tiny fraction of the 1.7 million people displaced by the war have been able to return to their homes, and there is no longer much talk of an exit strategy for NATO. The new government structures that were designed to share poÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ wer among the three ethnic groups and reintegrate the country simply do not work.

Critics jump on design flaws, but the real problem is that Dayton's signers - Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Croatia's Franjo Tudjman and, to a lesser extent, Bosnia's Alija Izetbegovic - never believed in the unified, multi-ethnic Bosnia envisioned by Dayton. This was readily apparent in last month's national elections. Ultra-nationalists, backed by their counterparts in Belgrade and Zagreb, took all the key Serb and Croat positions. The Muslim side continued its drift toward a harder ethnic line. The federal parliament and other 'joint' institutions such as the three-member presidency do not function. The Muslim-Croat Federation exists on paper only. A phone call from the Serbian entity within the country, the Republika Srpska, to the other in-country ethnic ruling council, the Muslim-Croat Federation, requires an international operator. The Republika Srpska still uses the former Yugoslavia country code.

For all practical purposes, Bosnia is governed by the Office of the High Representative, an agency originally created by Dayton to oversee the implementation of the civilian aspects of the peace agreement. The current 'high rep' is a no- nonsense Spaniard, Carlos Westendorp. He has been forced to function pretty much in the manner of a colonial governor because local governmental structures are paralysed by ethnic mistrust. The most basic issues - the design of the national flag, the design on the common currency and car license plates that do not advertise the driver's ethnic origin - ended up hopelessly deadlocked in the federal parliament. Westendorp unilaterally picked the flag, delivered a compromise on the currency and removed nationalist symbols from license plates.

Bosnia's politicians seem to prefer it this way. It allows many to spend their energies lining their pockets and grandstanding on ethnic issues rather than governing. They don't have to worry about the practical consequences; they know the high rep will be there to clean up the mess.

'How long is the high rep going to be running things around here?' a very senior Bosnian Cabinet adviser, a man who always has an hour or three to sip cognac with foreign journalists, was asked recently.

'Forever,' he replied. The idea didn't seem to bother him in the least.

This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 12 October 1998


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