Last week’s issue of the Economist included a glowing discussion of successful nation-building in the former Yugoslavia:

Almost 20 years after political bonds were severed by war, day-to-day links between companies, professions and individuals are quietly being restored. This huge shift in the daily life of the western Balkans is happening without fanfare. Few people have even noticed it. Those within the sphere take it for granted. Those outside are blithely ignorant. Perhaps that is not surprising. Good news is no news: the preparatory meeting to set up a south-east European firefighting centre, part of the Regional Co-operation Council, is hardly worth mentioning even in Sarajevo (where it took place), let alone anywhere else.

Yet it is precisely the fact that soldiers who were fighting one another not long ago now train together, or that firemen co-operate on a routine basis or that everyone from vets to central bankers meets with almost dreary regularity which constitutes the good news. That Regional Co-operation Council in Sarajevo has been patiently ploughing through a mass of dull, necessary work. It is a process, not an event.

Patricia Mahone and Jon Western laid out a more pessimistic view recently in a Foreign Affairs article entitled The Death of Dayton, and reiterated his claims on NPR’s Sunday edition yesterday. He argues:

As successful as Dayton was at ending the violence, it also sowed the seeds of instability by creating a decentralized political system that undermined the state’s authority… In the past three years, ethnic nationalist rhetoric from leaders of the country’s three constituent ethnic groups has intensified, bringing reform to a standstill… Most worrisome is the inability of the leading political parties to agree on a basic political structure for the country. The political order established by Dayton seems to be careening dangerously off course, just as the guardrails that for 14 years prevented a descent into violence are being dismantled. As local fret about the future, international organizations have already begun to withdraw from Bosnia.”

How can these two different narratives be reconciled?

I haven’t been to Bosnia in a couple of years, but both views ring true to me based on my time in the field. That is because one narrative is about state-building and the other is about nation-building. We often use these terms interchangeably, but they describe different processeses that don’t necessarily coincide.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is extremely decentralized, making routine decisions about who is responsible for what difficult and deadlocking political reform. And ethnic divisions are literally written into its national institutions. This has many concrete policy implications. When I was in the region tracking the state’s response to vulnerable multi-ethnic children born after the war and their mothers, it was precisely these factors that prevented a coherent response to war victims’ pressing needs. So Jon Western is right about the pitfalls of state-building post-Dayton.

At the same time, most Bosnians I connected with are looking forward not backward; civil society is thriving; 20 and 30 somethings in the “Yugosphere” talk nostalgically about pre-war days when Sarajevans embraced a common identity; their younger siblings walk around with Ipods crammed full of music from other ethnic communities . These impressions are consistent with the Economist’s discussion of people’s emergent sense of common identity and common economic interests in the region. State-building may be failing in Bosnia, but nation-building (or, rebuilding) is making slow but steady gains at the societal level – at least in cosmopolitan, urban areas.

Unfortunately, if you want a prediction about stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the near future, my money is on Mahone and Western’s analysis, because ultimately it is political institutions that control the military, police and media. Politicians responding to the incentive structure of their institutions are capable of overcomng interpersonal ties – that precisely what happened in the early 1990s; and ties of commerce, as Peter Andreas has showed, are not dependent on a peacetime economy or a stable state. In that sense, Mahone and Western’s precautions that the West rethink its disengagement strategy from the region are worth reading.

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