Bosnia's Uncertain Future

By Timothy Donais | 1997-05-01 12:00:00

Of all the lessons to be drawn from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, one of the most important is that the end of the story has not yet been told. Five years after the first shots were fired in the war over Bosnia, the country remains suspended in a state of political limbo, neither fully united nor fully divided. While the Dayton Peace Accords of late 1995 ended the worst of the fighting, and NATO peacekeepers have managed to prevent renewed hostilities, the situation in Bosnia remains, at best, an uneasy truce. There may be an absence of war, but there is not yet peace.

The dilemma of creating sustainable peace in Bosnia was one of the central themes of The Lessons of Yugoslavia conference, held at the University of Toronto in mid-March. Most participants agreed that however tortured, Bosnia's current peace is preferable to the alternative-more war. As Elizabeth Cousens of the International Peace Academy noted, the Dayton agreement may be "resolutely imperfect," but it has succeeded in ending the fighting and has bought some badly needed time to build the foundations for a lasting peace in Bosnia. As the past 16 months have shown, creating those foundations may ultimately require more effort and international support than was required to end the fighting in the first place.

Many of the current obstacles to peace in Bosnia are rooted in the very peace agreement which silenced the guns. As Bogdan Denitch of the City University of New York argued, the compromises required to reach a deal in Dayton have seriously undermined the long-term prospects for peace and stability in Bosnia. The Dayton Accords, he suggested, legitimated and set in stone three tribal divisions-Serb, Muslim, and Croat-and in the process sacrificed the idea of a multicultural Bosnia as well as ignoring all those who considered themselves Yugoslavs. Worse, Dayton has made the citizens of Bosnia hostages to the forces of ethnic nationalism which continue to run the country. "It is a process which recognizes the bandits in power at the moment," he said, "and which was forced to guarantee that they would stay in power."

The political legitimacy of those nationalist "bandits" was in fact reinforced by the national elections which took place last September. The timing, two months before U.S. presidential elections, led to widespread suspicions that the Bosnian elections had more to do with ensuring Bill Clinton's second term than with respecting the rights of Bosnians to decide their own political future. As Denitch put it: "Dayton had to hold together long enough to re-elect Clinton." As it was, the Bosnian vote took place in an environment that was far from conducive to free and fair elections. Ruling parties on all three sides maintained a virtual press monopoly, fear and intimidation were widespread throughout the country, and freedom of movement was virtually non-existent. The predictable result was the re-election of the same ethnically-based parties which held the reins of power during the war. In a political environment where perhaps the greatest peace-building challenge lies in marginalizing the hardline nationalists, said Cousens, "one of the great mistakes was the holding of early elections, which consolidated the power of the ruling parties."

Regardless of the impact of the elections, however, weakening the forces of nationalism in Bosnia will be a long-term process. After years of killing and dying on the basis of ethnicity, the ethnic identities of Bosnians have become firmly entrenched. As Denitch noted, "victims are not made more noble by their suffering," and the war has hardened considerably the positions of all three sides. Even the Bosnian Muslims, who occupied the moral high ground during the war as the defenders of a multicultural Bosnia, are seen as increasingly dominated by Muslim nationalists within the ruling SDA party.

An equally problematic issue for would-be peace-builders in Bosnia is the absence of a solid political framework around which peace is to be constructed. One of Dayton's creative ambiguities is that no one knows for sure whether Bosnia will remain united, whether it will split into two or perhaps even three separate states, or whether it will disappear altogether. Officially, the Dayton Accords divided Bosnia into two separate entities of roughly equal size: the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska and a Muslim-Croat federation. The entities are held together by a common legislature and a rotating three-member presidency made up of representatives of Bosnia's three ethnic groups. In reality, however, Bosnia remains bitterly divided along many lines. Joint institutions such as the presidency, while up and running, remain largely dysfunctional. The inter-entity boundary line which snakes through Bosnia feels more like the Iron Curtain than an inter-provincial border. And recent violence in Mostar, including attacks on NATO peacekeepers, reveal the largely fictional nature of the Muslim-Croat federation. In fact, 16 months after the end of the war, it remains impossible to place a telephone call between Croat-controlled West Mostar and Muslim-controlled East Mostar.

Dayton's territorial divisions have also complicated the pressing issue of refugee return. Some 2.5 million Bosnians, more than half of Bosnia's pre-war population, were displaced during the war, with the vast majority still unable to return to their homes. Cousens noted that while nearly a quarter million refugees have been repatriated, most have returned to areas controlled by their own ethnic group, and an additional 90,000 Bosnians have left areas in which they are in a minority. Muslims and Croats are abandoning Serb-controlled areas in which they feel neither safe nor welcome, while Serbs are leaving areas granted to the federation under the Dayton agreement. In the absence of a safe and secure environment and of guarantees of minority protection, de facto ethnic cleansing continues in post-Dayton Bosnia.

If Bosnia is to remain unified, suggested Denitch, a radical change of strategy by the major powers of the West will be required. Rather than legitimizing the Bosnian nationalists, he said, the West should instead be pouring its support into Bosnia's nascent institutions of civil society-opposition parties, independent media, and non- government organizations. Without massive support for the institutions of democracy, including a robust regime of human rights protection, he argued that it is "rank hypocrisy" for the West to expect Bosnia to remain united and to develop stable, democratic institutions. Sonja Licht, President of the Open Society Fund of Belgrade, echoed these sentiments, noting that whatever institutions of civil society currently operate throughout the former Yugoslavia have struggled into existence without any support from the outside world. Breaking the iron grip held by the ruling parties over the news media, she argued, is particularly critical for the democratic future of all of Yugoslavia's former republics. "Without independent media," said Licht, "there is no way out of the deadlock we are in."

Ultimately, however, any long-term political solution may depend as much on events outside of Bosnia as on events within it. Both Croatia and Serbia, key players in the Dayton process, are facing the prospects of potentially destabilizing political successions over the next year or two. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, has been weakened considerably by the sustained public demonstrations over Serbia's "stolen" municipal elections, while Croatian President Franjo Tudjman is seriously ill. While both men bear more than their share of guilt for the war in Bosnia, Denitch warned that their departure may not necessarily be good news for Bosnians. None of the possible successors appear to be demonstrably less nationalistic than the current presidents, and whoever ultimately takes over in both countries may feel less obliged to deliver their end of the unpopular Dayton compromise.

Peace researcher Johan Galtung, however, proposed that the solution to the political problems of the former Yugoslavia may lie in the very idea of Yugoslavia itself. "Is it," he suggested, "too much to ask for a Yugoslavia III?" Because of the complex ethnic mix in the former Yugoslavia, Galtung said, some sort of loose confederation among the former Yugoslav republics may in fact provide the best guarantees for the security of the region's various ethnic groups. Albanian Muslims would feel more secure with political links to a Bosnian state, while Serbs in Croatia's Krajina region would feel more secure if connected to Serbia.

In fact, the basic elements of such a political solution may already be in place. The agreement which created the Muslim-Croat federation established a confederation between it and Croatia, while the Dayton Accords provide for a similar "special relationship" between Republika Srpska and Serbia. Such linkages could form the basis of a "reassembled" Yugoslavia, comprising loose linkages between the various independent republics based on mutual guarantees of respect for minority rights.

The strength of such a confederation approach, said Galtung, would lie in the very looseness of its structures. He compared the political challenge in the former Yugoslavia to building a country on top of the San Andreas fault, suggesting that maximum flexibility is the key. "Precisely because it is weak it is strong, and precisely because it was strong it was weak." Such a process is both essential and unavoidable, he said, because the peoples in the former Yugoslavia, whether they like it or not, share the same geographical neighborhood, and will need at some point to work out mutually-beneficial political, economic, and social arrangements. Any permanent solution will have to come from the citizens of the former Yugoslavia themselves, he said, which is precisely why the Dayton agreement cannot succeed.

While rejecting the notion that Yugoslavia can be put back together, Denitch agreed that there may exist some room for "soft" political solutions to some of the ongoing ethnic problems. He suggested that permeable inter-state frontiers, ease of travel, and the wide use of dual citizenship might all help alleviate ethnic tension in the region. Such arrangements, he noted, recognize that "it is extraordinarily hard to wake up as a minority in a country in which your ancestors have lived for centuries."

While Galtung's proposed solution left open the possibility of border revisions, Denitch insisted that it would be a mistake to begin re-drawing borders. Once one border is revised, he said, all borders in the region would become open to challenge. The solution to most of the problems of the region lies not in more map-making, but in greater human rights protection. "It shouldn't matter on which side of the border you live," he suggested, "you should have the same rights on either side."

In the absence of a substantial degree of post-war reconciliation, such long-term political solutions seem remote. The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, considered one of the cornerstones of that reconciliation process, has been crippled by a lack of international support and the non-cooperation of governments within the former Yugoslavia. Worse, NATO has refused to arrest indicted war criminals such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a symbol to the victims of the Bosnian conflict that justice has not yet been done. As Darko Silovic, Yugoslavia's last ambassador to the United Nations, put it: "This is a clear example of where we have failed."

Despite the challenges faced by the Hague tribunal, many believe that its work is essential to healing Bosnia's war wounds. Attaching responsibility for war crimes to specific individuals rather than to entire ethnic groups, Silovic argued, "is the only way that we don't carry collective guilt." Others are not so enthusiastic. Galtung suggested that the tribunals were akin to the occupants of a sinking boat holding a judicial process in order to determine who drilled the hole. The truth commission approach, such as the one currently underway in South Africa, may provide a better model for post-war reconciliation. By asking questions such as when things went wrong, what could have been done, and how similar situations can be prevented in the future, said Galtung, truth commissions represent "a fantastic instrument of reconciliation."

Whether Bosnia ever has its own truth commission, or whether individuals such as Radovan Karadzic ever stand in the dock in the Hague, the long and difficult process of reconciliation will have to take place if Bosnians are to put the war behind them. And while it may not take place immediately, it cannot be put off indefinitely. Earlier this year, U.S. Defence Secretary William Cohen said that U.S. troops will be out of Bosnia by July of 1998, regardless of the political situation on the ground. An international withdrawal, combined with the explosive issue of the divided town of Brcko which is also to be decided next year, Denitch said, would be a recipe for a renewed war.

As Denitch's warning suggests, perhaps the greatest mistake the international community could make with regards to Bosnia is to assume that the conflict is over, and that everyone can now simply pack up and go home.

Timothy Donais is a graduate student in political science at York University, and a former communications officer at the United Nations Association in Canada.

Peace Magazine May-June 1997

Peace Magazine May-June 1997, page 15. Some rights reserved.

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