Tag: bosnia-herzegovina

Meanwhile, back in Bosnia….

Long-time Bosnia watchers Vlado Azinovic, Kurt Bassuener, and Bodo Weber from the Democrtization Policy Council in Sarajevo issue a warning to the EU and NATO to restore a deterrence capability in the country:

The deterioration of the prevailing political dynamic is not only continuing, but accelerating one year after the general elections of October 2010. The mix of variables makes political miscalculation all the more likely. The costs of such miscalculation by local political actors are likely to be far greater than they were prior to 2005 because of the perceived potential to realize long-held – but previously forbidden – goals. Social pressures, particularly on issues of employment and transfer payments, may also compel political actors to move more precipitously to redirect popular anger that might otherwise be directed at them. There are numerous potential ingredients that could come into play to produce significant violence. Given the reduction of countervailing external deterrence, this creates – as one interviewee put it – “a very dangerous cocktail.”

“Political miscalculation” — in Sarajevo? We’ve never seen that before….

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Much Ado in Mostar

OK, so I’ve been bit pessimistic of late — an impending war between Israel and Iran, the rise of religious fundamentalisms around the globe, Bosnia’s leadership taking the country back to the brink, etc…. But here’s an upbeat story. I helped Steve Nemsick and Jane Applegate a bit on their new documentary about Andrew Garrod’s work with Youth Bridge Global in the southern Bosnia-Herzegovina city of Mostar. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Mostar in the past several years and I’ve lectured at both Mostar “”East” and Mostar “West” universities. The students really are hungry for an end to the ethnic politics of the Balkans. If there is a lasting solution to the problems in the region, it will likely be with the help of these students.

Here’s the trailer:

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Are you #^&@%! kidding me?


Our political discourse is seriously out of control. Retired Marine Corps General John J. Sheehan — an ardent opponent of gays in the military — testified before the Senate Armed Services today that the decision by the Dutch government to allow gays to serve in its military contributed to the events at Srebrenica in 1995. Apparently, the Dutch decision –and the overall “liberalization” of the Dutch military — contributed to its “weak” combat capabilities.

This is just absurd. The Dutch failure at Srebrenica is one of the most thoroughly investigated events of the past twenty years. These reports include extensive reviews of a wide range of things — including the structural flaws of the UNPROFOR mission, the small force-to-threat ratio in support of the six UN designated safe areas, weaknesses in the Dutch training and doctrine, and a host of other issues. Not one, not one suggests that gays in the military contributed to the failings. Seriously, you just can’t go before the Senate Armed Services Committee and make stuff up.

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Bosnia Faltering


As Charli pointed out a while ago, I co-authored a piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs on the backward slide in Bosnia over the past three years. My co-author, Patrice McMahon, and I noted that the institutions created by the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 successfully ended the war, but created a decentralized duel-entity political system based on ethnic quotas and divisions that are now contributing to the current crisis. For the better part of a decade, the international community poured money and resources into Bosnia’s post-war state-building experience. In large part, the extensive international effort hid (and ignored) the underlying problems of ethnic segregation in many communities, pervasive corruption, and the disfunctionality of state institutions. By and large, the successful end of the war and the absence of any organized inter-ethnic violence convinced many in Washington and Brussels that Bosnia was a great success story.

However, for reasons we unpack in the article, the contradictions left unresolved at Dayton began to intensify beginning in late 2005 and we began to observe a series of disturbing trends: the re-emergence of ethnic chauvinism, heightened nationalist discourse, economic stagnation, and international missteps, complacency, and fatigue. These have contributed to an intensifying crisis this year in which there is complete political deadlock on all major issues and there is almost no functioning central governing institutions. Serb leaders are now openly talking about secession of Republika Srbska (RS) while many Bosniak leaders are calling for the effective dissolution of the RS.

Since that piece went to press in early August, things have continued to deteriorate.

In the past two weeks, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Carl Bildt, former High Representative for Bosnia (OHR) and current Swedish Foreign Minister (Sweden currently holds the EU presidency), initiated two separate meetings in Sarajevo to try to break the current impasse. They presented a package of reforms ostensibly designed to establish some functionality to state institutions and told the Bosnian parties that no EU or NATO membership talks would be forthcoming without the reforms. However, the latest talks on Tuesday broke down as the Serbs balked at efforts to shift some powers from the entity level to a stronger central government while Bosniak and Croat officials criticized provisions that would leave in place entity voting structures (thereby allowing the Serbs veto authority over most national legislation).

While both Bildt and Steinberg tried to put a positive spin on events, the international effort had an air of desperation to it.

Much of the problem is that the international community is divided on its overall assessment of the situation in Bosnia and in its approach to resolving the sitution.

The Europeans do not view the current situation as a crisis. For the most part, Brussels sees the political stalemate as an irritant, but ultimately its position is that nothing will move forward in Bosnia until the international community closes OHR and ends Bosnia’s status as an international protectorate of sorts. As a result, Bildt’s general approach to the recent talks has been to secure some small concessions from the three ethnic groups but not to shake things up fundamentally. The priority seems to close OHR as quickly as possible regardless of the potential consequences.

The Obama administration, by contrast, is much more inclined to view the situation as serious. The political stalemate not only hampers EU ascension efforts, but will also contribute to greater nationalist rhetoric, and possible return to some levels of violence. The Americans wanted to get an agreement on constitutional reform before the end of the year and the start of next year’s campaigning for national elections. However, Obama’s commitment to a multilateral effort led the administration to defer some of the initiative to Bildt and the EU. In the end, the compromises and constitutional reforms put forward by the US and EU representatives were too weak to garner support from any of the three major groups in Bosnia.

For my money, I applaud the renewed attention to Bosnia. However, Brussels and Washington will have almost no influence in the internal Bosnian political dynamic until they get their collective act together. The various factions in Bosnia clearly see the gaps in the US and EU positions and will not even begin serious discussions unless they see a unified international front. I don’t envision a return to a full-blown war as we saw between 1992 and 1995, but I am very concerned about greater political fragmentation that could very easily spark a return of organized militia violence.

Perhaps I’m being a bit over-sensitive to that threat, but I recall the level of complacency in 1991 and early 1992 when too many folks in Brussels and Washington seemed to dismiss the idea the war could come to Sarajevo — which, as we were told over and over was a very cosmopolitan city that had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, war won’t happen there….

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Bosnia On the Brink?

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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