bosnia report
New Series No: 19/20 October - December 2000
The partitionist delusion and the Bosnian elections
by Allan Little

The partitionist delusion and the Bosnian elections

Allan Little

Lord Owen, the former EU Peace Envoy, made a speech earlier this week calling for a radical rethink of Balkans policy. He said that if Kosovo were be granted independence from Yugoslavia, then Yugoslavia should be compensated with a chunk of Bosnia ‘hectare for hectare’.

There are many reasons to oppose this. The first is that the territory now known as ‘Republika Srpska’ could only be created through ethnic cleansing. In the summer of 1992, when UN commanders were overwhelmed by the siege of Sarajevo and steadily condemning all sides in equal measure, three quarters of a million people - most of them Muslims, some of them Croats - were being expelled from their homes in northern and eastern Bosnia. The prime minister of the Bosnian Serb entity told me cheerfully at the time that he policy was to reduce the non-Serb population of those territories to fewer than five per cent. Typically, those being driven out were characterised by Western governments as refugees ‘fleeing the fighting’. In reality there was no fighting going on in most of their home towns and villages. It took the world many months to face up to the reality of ethnic cleansing. And by then it was too late. Recognising the secession of Republika Srpska would be to reward ethnic cleansing. It would set an almighty precedent.

Second, if you grant the Serbs of Bosnia the right to secede, then you cannot deny it to the Croats - and they will not let up until they have it. This would be to undo the great progress that has been made in reintegrating the Croats of western Bosnia. They have produced some brave and principled non-nationalist leaders who have taken stands that can easily be represented as unpatriotic and even treacherous by their hard-line compatriots. They’ve done this in the name of civil society and the rule of law. To concede the principle of secession - to accept the partition of Bosnia - would be to betray the very ideals that Western democracies are supposed to represent.

And it would leave a slither of territory in the centre of Bosnia for the Muslims - or Bosniaks - of Bosnia. This would be economically unsustainable and permanently dependent on outside support. The Muslims of Bosnia have the least nationalist record of the three ethnic groups. Their leaders have shown the most co-operation with the international community from the start. In last week’s elections they voted in large numbers for the Social Democratic Party - the only party with mass support that is not only non-nationalist but actively anti-nationalist. The High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch told me last week that if you took the Serb and Croat entities out of Bosnia you would be left with a small impoverished ‘Gaza Strip’ in the heart of Europe. The Islamic countries would rush to its aid. A European people that has shown more loyalty to the democratic ideals of western Europe than either of its two predatory neighbours would look increasingly to the East for its political inspiration and its economic support. The security and stability implications are obvious.

Finally there are those who argue that a reconstituted Bosnia would in some sense be an ‘artificial’ creation, and that if the ‘gravitational’ pull of the region is towards separation then - however noble the ideal - it is futile to try to hold it all together.

I’ve been reporting on the Balkans for the last decade. My own view is that there is nothing artificial about Bosnia as an integrated entity. Nothing in its geography, its shape, the way it functions economically, argues for partition. The regions of Bosnia complement and need each other. When the country is performing normally - and not straight-jacketed by the artificial distinctions of nationality - the gravitational pull is absolutely towards integration. That’s why the peoples of that republic are so intermixed in the first place. That’s why, in 1992, when you asked a Sarajevan how many of the students in his final year high school class were Serb, how many Muslim and so on, he could not answer the question. It seems to me that it is these distinctions that are artificial.

I am convinced that the peoples of Bosnia will want to live together again, in a state that is decentralised and in which the rights of minorities are properly enshrined in law. The alternative is to create three small dependencies, ham-strung by artificial borders, that will be permanently antagonistic toward one another and whose political leaderships will never have to answer to their respective electorates because they will always be able to blame the enemy at the gate for the woes of the day.

To partition Bosnia would not only be to reward the ethnic cleansers. It would also be to condemn the region to a semi-permanent state of fear, conflict and poverty.

This report was broadcast on BBC Radio Four, 21 November 2000


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