November 9, 2000
The Tragedy of Bosnia
It would not be an exaggeration to say that everyone in the Balkans turned their eyes to Washington this week, eagerly awaiting word of the outcome of the US presidential elections. For at stake was not only the leadership of some 280 million people in the United States, but the fates of countless millions throughout the world for whom American benevolence or hostility over the years have meant the difference between life and death.
The man who is inaugurated as the 43rd President of the United States this January will also assume the mantle of the Emperor of the known world. This may not be right or just, but it is the way things are. And as the new Emperor, he will have to deal with crises and problems created or perpetuated by America’s military and political presence worldwide, in addition to handling domestic issues.
One of these problems will be Bosnia-Herzegovina, an unfortunate patch of mountainous Balkans heartland that has been occupied by NATO and the UN for the past five years, and has never recovered from a brutal civil war (1992-95). Another will be Kosovo, which has been under NATO occupation for sixteen horrible months. And the third might be Macedonia, a country still in the balance as its neighbors’ territorial and cultural aspirations ebb and flow.
This coming Saturday, Bosnia’s despondent citizens will themselves flock to the polls to try voting for a better government for the third straight time since the Dayton Agreement ended the bloodshed in November of 1995. Their electoral procedures, drafted and implemented by international protectors, will be flawed; but they will still offer more of a choice than Americans had this past Tuesday. Voter turnout in the Bosnian hills has routinely put Americans to shame. For the first time since 1990, Muslim hardliners stand to lose control of the central government. And yet, none of that will make one morsel of a difference.
Under the Dayton Agreement, Bosnia is a paradoxical, semi-viable pseudo-state, divided into two self-governing entities with their own constitutions, governments and militaries. In reality, this state is held together by a UN viceroy (High Representative/HR) and an army of NATO peacekeepers. Its budget is dependent on foreign handouts and outrageous taxes on local commerce – mainly trade and smuggling.
The High Representative has the authority to dismiss elected officials, impose and override legislation, censor the media and ban political parties. In the past, it has also dictated trash collection practices, imposed license plates, passports and other identity documents, and determined the country’s national anthem and flag.
Most of its dictatorial activity has occurred in the Bosnian Serb republic (Republika Srpska/RS). For the past two years the High Representatives have maintained in power a Prime Minister with only a fraction of parliamentary support. Right before NATO’s attack on Yugoslavia in 1999, Srpska’s president was sacked by then-HR Carlos Westendorp. Last year, after a statement by US Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke, the HR outlawed a Serb political party. Just weeks before the county elections this spring, the Hague War Crimes Tribunal cooked up an indictment against another Serb politician – who had served as one of three co-presidents of Bosnia from 1996 to 1998 – and NATO troops dragged him off to prison.
In addition to the indirectly administered territory of Bosnia, there is an actual sliver of territory under direct international occupation. The District of Brcko divides the RS in two and separates the Muslim-Croat Federation from Croatia proper. Until Serb control till then, Brcko was made a district by an American arbitrator in March 1999.
Over the past five years, Bosnia has made astonishingly little economic progress. The High Representatives have blamed this situation on corruption and nationalism. Both are certainly plentiful in Bosnia. How wouldn’t there be? Laws are changed every Tuesday, voted, vetoed or imposed at will. Economic activity is controlled in a feudal fashion, with local officials usually maintaining a stranglehold on all activities on behalf of their political party. Most parties are simply vessels for their leaders. Corruption is a natural consequence of personal politics. However, these two issues – however present and important – are not the key to understanding or solving the Bosnian situation.
The war that broke out in 1992 was not a case of external aggression against a peaceful Bosnian nation. Such a nation is a figment of imperial imagination – first Turkish, then Austrian, and finally American. The underlying cause of the war, as Misha Glenny pointed out in Fall of Yugoslavia, were irreconcilable political differences between ethnic communities. One could deny it as much as one wants, but it remains a fact that the Muslims wanted to claim the state as their own and dominate the other two groups, the Serbs wanted to keep Bosnia in Yugoslavia (and secede to form a separate state once that goal was no longer practical), while the Croats’ ultimate aim was annexation of their ethnic territories to Croatia proper. Those caught in between, or left behind, were given a choice to accept becoming a disenfranchised minority, move, or die.
Bosnia never actually had independence. Not counting a medieval kingdom whose population bears no cultural or national resemblance to the present inhabitants, it has always been a province of some empire or other, its peoples constantly played against each other. Even as a part of federal Yugoslavia, Bosnia existed only in an external context that kept its populace in balance. As soon as it left that external context in 1992, that populace split over who was to be in charge. It took three and a half years and 200,000 dead to end that argument – but not to resolve it. The Dayton Agreement left the matter open, but put a lid on passions. Bosnia’s embittered Croats, Muslims and Serbs still fear and mistrust each other, and far too many remain convinced that the argument will have to be finished some other way, some other day.
The current masters of Bosnia seem to believe that this division will disappear given time, education and money. Some of Bosnia’s inhabitants share this opinion, for various reasons. Given time and a benefit of a doubt they have a slim chance to succeed, but history and experience are against them. Attempting to bridge the gaps between Bosnia’s ethnic communities is comparable to pouring glue on the St. Andreas fault in hope to prevent earthquakes. And just like earthquakes, Bosnia’s ethnic tensions are a constant presence in that unfortunate land’s life.
Time, bribes and brainwashing may indeed accomplish some temporary semblance of unity, but it takes far more than that to wipe out separate identities of entire nations, especially if they have a vibrant historical memory. Any time someone tried to bottle up national identities in Bosnia, savage campaigns of murder followed. In the histories of Bosnia, the years 1914 and 1941 are written in blood right alongside 1992.
To add insult to injury, the bloody internal dispute among the peoples of Bosnia has been used to promote the agenda of the Empire in a most cynical way. From the last months of Bush the Elder’s presidency through the first three years of Clintonism, Bosnia was the linchpin of America’s Balkans policy. The United States sabotaged peace efforts and fed the flames of the conflict, then used the conflagration to promote its role as a peacemaker and security kingpin of the post-Cold War Europe. In the process, the half-dead Cold War dinosaur of NATO was reborn as an aggressive military alliance. From the very beginning of the bloodshed in Bosnia, NATO had accumulated more power and responsibility in the area. Its attack on the Bosnian Serbs in 1995 and the subsequent occupation of Bosnia paved the way for the attack on Serbia and the occupation of Kosovo almost four years later. Few question the need for NATO’s existence today as they did in the early 1990s, and even fewer see the horrible danger this metamorphosis represents.
Cynically used then half-forgotten, Bosnia is presently at peace because it is governed by a superior external force. When the Empire leaves Bosnia, and someday it will have to, the issue of control will flare up again and again, until it is resolved one way or another. Worse yet, the dysfunctional Bosnian confederacy will cause the old wounds to fester and rot until they are ready to spill their venom again, in a harsher and deadlier way than ever before.
The new Emperor probably has no idea how complex of a situation he has inherited, nor does he begin to understand what trouble the United States has gotten itself into over a land it used as the sacrificial lamb for reviving the American domination over Europe.
In that respect, one could say that this week’s US elections will be just as futile as the coming elections in Bosnia. The United States is set on its path of imperial dominance, which implies a continued involvement with the land it used to make that status a reality. Bosnia, on the other hand, is set on a path of renewed conflict sometime in the future. Those who are attempting to create a peaceful, united Bosnian society while ignoring the main obstacle in their path are brave idealists, but the odds are against them – and their efforts might even make matters worse in the long run.
Bosnia exemplifies the depth of the Balkans curse – a land where hostilities between neighbors run deep and parallel to friendships and intermarriages, alternating every so often. It also represents a tragedy the Empire cannot begin to fathom, arrogant and ignorant as it is, no matter who sits in the White House.
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