bosnia report
New Series No: 29-31 June - November 2002
Partitioning Bosnia all over again
by Ivan Lovrenovic

Lovrenovic photo mediumOn the eve of the uncertain formation of a new government that is to rule over the important, perhaps decisive, coming four-year period, what are the prospects of Bosnia-Herzegovina, stretched and suspended like a thin film between a multitude of international opinion-makers and domestic benefactors?

I was asked the other day by a young Polish journalist - and well-informed Slavicist - to explain the ineffectiveness (this was his word) of the international community in Bosnia. I explained to him at some length as I always do on such occasions - so much so that I have become bored with myself - that Dayton is a political machine designed to maintain the status quo; and that - given the absence of any kind of active agenda entitled ‘What is to be done with Bosnia?’ - the essential mandate of all the international teams that periodically replace one another here is precisely not to do anything at all. Or rather, not to do anything that could provide that critical impulse - the dramatic tangential step away from the closed circle - which would permit us to emerge from stagnation and enter upon an irreversible process of transformation. Another factor is time, the pitiless time whose passage in and of itself petrifies and makes ‘normal’, even desirable, the deviant social, political and cultural relations and ideas that have already largely come to shape the current generation of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s children and young people. The sad truth is that few people are paying attention to this alarming fact of our post-war, Dayton reality: that today the greatest captives and victims of ethnic autism and separation are the young, who have no memory of there ever having been another kind of social and group identity. This is true even for the last residual urban milieux in places like Sarajevo or to a lesser extent Tuzla - not to speak of other milieux.

My interlocutor did not hide his excitement, mingled with anger: 'I was afraid that was the case, but have nevertheless been hoping all this time that the answer to my question would be in terms of incompetence rather than lack of will. It would be a more bearable and optimistic explanation!'

So I experienced a sense of satisfaction when I heard what Paddy Ashdown asserted, during his promotion of six measures that the new government should implement in the next six months: introduction of VAT; reform of the Council of Ministers; activation of the state court; promulgation of a law on the civil service, etc. Ashdown summed up the urgency of these measures in the following sentence: 'The status quo is not a solution. Time is not working for Bosnia-Herzegovina, so we must act now.' Ashdown's warning coincided with a prognosis issued by Erhard Busek, an Austrian politician well acquainted with the situation in the Balkans, who plays a key role within the Pact for Stability. This consists of two parts, like some Pythian riddle. Thus Busek first says that Bosnia-Herzegovina's peoples and politicians must themselves provide the optimum political solutions, rather than expect the international community to supply them; after which he adds that the Dayton settlement continues to stimulate nationalistic forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

That the old story of partition and new territorial demarcations as the best solution for the region is not yet dead is shown by a recent proposal from former CIA boss Stephen Mayer, advocating a reduced Macedonia, a reduced but independent Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia enlarged by parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a small Muslim Bosnia. And while the views of a former American intelligence man need not necessarily concern us, it is more difficult to ignore the views, even though they reflect no official policy, of the highly respected journalist and commentator William Pfaff.

A week ago, in an article suggestively entitled ‘Time to concede defeat in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ published in the International Herald Tribune [10 October 2002] and dealing with the election results, he wrote: ‘The electoral victory of nationalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina suggests that it is time for the international community to make a serious reexamination of what is going on in that country and of what eventual outcomes can reasonably be expected.’ After a brief and accurate overview of the process beginning with Milosevic's aggression and ending with Dayton, Pfaff offers a diabolic alternative to the Dayton agreement. In his view, the establishment of a new government will demand compromises and coalitions in which the main losers will be the liberal, secular and multi-ethnic forces. It is necessary, therefore, for the international community to understand that the Dayton agreement is not a solution. It has not created the foundations of a modern state or offered a structure that would bring about national reconciliation. It may be better simply to admit the failure and grant the nationalists what the international community mobilized to prevent.

One must be practical, Pfaff continues: since most of Bosnia-Herzegovina is already ethnically cleansed, the easiest way to solve this part of the problem associated with Yugoslavia's break-up would be to unite Republika Srpska with Serbia and the ‘Croat parts’ of the Federation with Croatia. A new state could be formed from the ‘Muslim territories’, centred upon Sarajevo, which could perhaps be a city-state under international guarantees or maybe an independent republic. This way the Serb and Croat nationalists would be politically disarmed and melt into the wider communities that they have pursued, which in any case are undergoing a transition towards democracy.

At this stage, God have mercy on my soul!, it seemed to me I was listening to the voice of Franjo Tudjman back in 1992, when he was proposing Bosnia's partition as the best way of ending the ‘Serb-Croat conflict’ and generously offering the Muslims a ‘buffer state round Sarajevo’, and when we vainly wrote him an open letter of protest from Sarajevo ... Or to the voice of my former friend from the management board of Preporod, who publicly admonished me - I can hear it as though it were yesterday - that people like myself and Marko Vesovic were doing great harm to the Bosniaks, by encouraging among them the illusion that there were Croats and Serbs who supported the survival of Bosnia-Herzegovina and multi-ethnic existence.

So far as the Muslims are concerned, Pfaff goes on, nationalist and integrist forces would survive within the 'new Muslim identity', but as component parts of a community dominated by traditionally cosmopolitan Sarajevo. On the other hand, Muslim integrist forces might be strengthened in both Albania and Kosovo and given new ambitions.

Pfaff concludes his macabre scenario with a paradoxical twist which, viewed from here and from the perspective of people whose very survival is at stake, can be described only as extremely cynical. He writes that for the international community and the surviving liberal forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina this does indeed represent a defeat. But the defeat would be to a political artifice with a dim future. Democratic values may stand a better chance if Bosnia-Herzegovina is partitioned once again. Realism demands that this be discussed.

Pfaff does not clarify what he means by this last sentence, but it surely alludes to what Stephen Mayer is talking about: a new international conference that would adopt this new solution. The fact that, by contrast with Mayer, Pfaff's summary of Bosnia-Herzegovina's neuralgic situation is not unfounded and that his opinion is not devoid of influence, is testified to by Paddy Ashdown's swift response. Despite his involvement in the labyrinthine construction of Bosnia-Herzegovina's new political leadership, he found time to contest with great vigour Pfaff's main arguments in the letter pages of the Herald Tribune (16 October).

The solution proposed by the respected journalist, argues Ashdown, ‘is both unacceptable and dangerous. It would deliver a dishonourable victory to individuals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia with "crimes against humanity", it would lead to a new conflict, and it would immediately block the whole region’s path to Europe.’ Pfaff also shows himself to be ill informed when he writes that Bosnia-Herzegovina is ‘already ethnically cleansed’, since ‘more than 800,000 refugees have returned, and 300,000 have gone back to parts of the country where they now represent an ethnic minority.’ This is a unique case in European history. ‘A new human right has been developed - the right of refugees to return to their homes. Ethnic cleansing has taken its toll, but Muslims, Croats and Serbs still live intermingled.’

If one were to accept Pfaff's solution, Ashdown adds, what would happen to Sarajevo's 30,000 Serbs and 20,000 Croats? What would happen to hundreds of thousands of citizens who live peacefully with their neighbours in towns and villages where they are in a minority? And what would a ‘Bosnian statelet’ look like, where terrorism would be ‘a plausible response’?

Any new division of Bosnia would produce more bloodshed. Map drawing is easy and tempting, but this country has had more than enough of that. Bosnia-Herzegovina could not endure a new war, while its partition is not in the interest either of its neighbours or of Europe. ‘Some 250,000 died the last time people tried to partition Bosnia-Herzegovina. I hope we will not repeat that mistake’, Ashdown concludes his epistle against Pfaff.

The discussion in the pages of the Herald Tribune is impressive because it is sharp and categorical, reflecting the fact that it embraces sharply counterposed themes and ideas: for and against partition. So it is clear that the sympathies of all responsible and well-intentioned people, even when they are no great lovers of Bosnia, are on Ashdown's side. On the other hand, the emotional and ethical distaste provoked by the type of political realism advocated by Pfaff should not lead us to close our eyes before the parts of his diagnosis that lucidly and expertly point to the fundamental problem in the functioning of the international community in Bosnia ,which Ashdown in his reply fails to acknowledge for the simple reason that, having no counter-arguments, he cannot do so. This refers first of all to that part of Pfaff's analysis in which he charges the international community with responsibility for Bosnia-Herzegovina's 'uncertain future'. This is the same thing that so dismayed my Polish interlocutor, and that appears also in Erhard Busek's warning that the European Union has failed to forge a common vision of the region's future, and that this inevitably reinforces the nationalists.

So we come back to the beginning, which is where we always were: to the question of the political character of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the coming period. It is this - and not the outcome of journalistic debates, even when these are waged on the pages of the most respected papers by the most respected journalists and politicians - that will decide the future of this country and its citizens.

What then is the significance of the dramatic change of discourse we have recently witnessed, in which the main roles have been played by Paddy Ashdown on the one hand and the leaders of a victorious (or relatively victorious) national party on the other? In one of his post-election interventions, Ashdown caused much surprise by stating that the SDA - in contrast to the other two national parties, which according to him ‘in fact lost votes’ - won votes because it ‘made the effort to move to the centre and to modernize’. To be sure, he hastened to praise Dragan Covic [of the HDZ] too for a ‘non-nationalistic’ interview given to a Sarajevo paper. And one may easily imagine Mirko Sarovic waiting in line to be patted on the shoulder by Ashdown, since he too has acquired the habit of emitting such cooperative and pro-European messages that even Jadranko Prlic [former B-H foreign minister from HDZ, now leader of a small pro-European movement] would be proud of them.

Does this change of discourse signal that our politicians have indeed had enough, and that their grey cells have finally registered Busek's message that they themselves should find the optimal solutions? And that for the first time since the end of the war we will witness a healthy search for common positions and aims that are in everybody's interest? Or is this simply a well-rehearsed play, that will last until those gentlemen take up their posts, after which we will be presented with all the terrible consequences of the other part of Busek's statement - about Dayton as the generator of nationalism? And will the torture of the status quo continue to swallow up lives and deform the younger generations, by nurturing the dark idyll of final ethnic emancipation (read: self-isolation) and social collapse.

This article has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 18 October 2002


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