Fetishes and Fantasies in Bosnia

Reality in Bosnia is—and always has been—a far cry from the Balkan Disneyland U.S. and NATO policy makers imagine.

Bosnia is undergoing itsmost profound political crisis since 1995. It may well be that all the great European-security players strongly support the country's existence and that Bosnia's neighbors have repeatedly expressed their support for the country's territorial integrity, but ten months after Bosnia's October 2010 general elections the country is still without a government. And most of the blame for this lies not with Bosnia's politicians but with the international diplomats and politicians charged with overseeing the country.

Indeed, the greatest failure of American and European policy towards Bosnia is that sixteen years after the war, neither NATO, the EU nor the United States have managed to reduce the existential fears each of Bosnia's ethnic groups have about their future. For Bosnia's Muslim community, it is the fear that they will eventually be left at the mercy of numerically larger Croat and Serb populations in southeastern Europe; for Croats and Serbs in Bosnia itself it is the fear that they will become discriminated minorities within their own state.

Such a failure to allay the most elemental security concerns of Bosnia's various ethnic groups, of course, is something of a paradox—after all, why has the combined economic, political and military power of both Washington and Brussels failed to create the stable democracy we claim as our goal? Moreover, why has it failed to resolve the most basic security dilemmas of some four million people essentially surrounded by NATO members?

The rather simple but unfortunate answer is that much of our policy towards Bosnia has been based on a fantasy version of what the country actually was (and, therefore, what it could be in the future). The fantasy was the belief that before the wars of the 1990s Bosnia used to be some kind of happy, tolerant, multiethnic and multicultural Balkan Disneyland. Rather than understanding Bosnia as a complex, ethnically divided society along the lines of Lebanon or Iraq, the predominant view in the media and amongst scholars and policymakers was that Bosnia was something more like Sweden with bad politicians. Exacerbating this fantasy has been the tendency to fetishize Bosnia as a test case for multiculturalism, even as leaders from countries with far more fortunate histories have begun acknowledging the failures of multiculturalism across the European continent.

If such a Bosnia ever existed, it was (alas) unknown to Bosnia's residents and to more serious scholars. Far from being a tolerant multicultural community where ethnicity was irrelevant, history was benign and peaceful interethnic relations were the rule rather than the exception, Bosnia was the very epitome of a deeply ethnically divided society—and it was so long before the 1990s. According to one count, there were 132 conflicts between the Ottomans and their Bosnian Muslim allies, on the one side, and the Habsburgs and their Croat and Serb military units on the other side—and this is before the twentieth century even began. Balkan violence being what it is, the accumulated legacy of such repeated warfare is not hard to understand. A popular thesis amongst Bosnian Muslim scholars today is that they have been the victims of "eleven genocides" over the past several hundred years. And if this is the historic memory of the population that was politically, militarily and economically dominant in Bosnia for centuries, then perhaps we should forgive Croats and Serbs for having a somewhat dimmer view of Bosnian history.

And these ethnic clashes were reflected in all other aspects of Bosnian life as well. Economically, as late as 1911 over 90 percent of Bosnia's landowners were Muslim, and over 90 percent of the tenant farmers working the land were Croat or Serb Christians. Mixed marriages in nineteenth-century Bosnia were unheard of, and despite the myth of high levels of interethnic marriage propagated in the 1990s, remained rare throughout Bosnia's twentieth-century history. As late as 1988, for instance, 93 percent of Bosnia's Muslims married within their ethnic group, and Bosnia's Croat and Serb Christians weren't much more inclined to intermarry. Of course, Bosnia's religious leaders and politicians haven't really encouraged interethnic unions either; for instance, Bosnia's leading Islamic cleric has called interethnic marriage "just another form of genocide" against the Bosnian Muslims (and he is not very fond of Santa Claus either).

From the twentieth century up until today, elections in Bosnia have been ethnic censuses, with individual voters casting their ballots for someone of their own ethnicity. In essence, Bosnia is comprised of three different voting publics, and maintaining consensus and equality between these three distinct ethnic voting blocs has always been the key to stability in Bosnia. Anyone who spends two days reading Bosnian media will easily recognize the deep cleavages separating Bosnia’s ethnic groups, yet many “Balkan experts” haven’t figured out such a mundane thing after two decades. Everything in contemporary Bosnia is divided along ethnic lines, from political parties to academies of sciences and arts to anti-fascist veterans’ organizations. Even so-called (and self-proclaimed) “human rights activists” in Bosnia and throughout the Balkans are in reality little more than ethnic lobbyists. There are of course many Albanian rights activists, Bosnian Muslim rights activists, Croat, Serb, etc., etc., down through the alphabetical list of ethnic groups, but the number of individuals in the region (and in this country for that matter) who defend the human rights and civil liberties of people regardless of their ethnic background are lamentably few and far between.

Indeed, to understand the politically inane non-starters bandied about by various pundits and analysts for "reforming" Bosnia, imagine someone suggesting, in the American political context, that U.S. governors turn over control of their state police forces to Washington, or that Delaware or Rhode Island or Oregon agree to proportional representation in the Senate. Some have suggested that Washington create a new special envoy for Bosnia, as if in 2011 one American bureaucrat with no budget can achieve what 60,000 NATO troops and 10,000 international civilian personnel with billions of dollars at their disposal were unable to do in 1996-97. In any case, this approach has already been tried in another Balkan country: in 1994, a US diplomat was appointed to resolve the Macedonian name dispute. After seventeen years and three US presidential administrations, he's still at it. Perhaps most ridiculous of all is a proposal frequently heard on the Hill to strengthen the Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia, essentially an international dictatorship in the country, something which makes about as much sense as suggesting that L. Paul Bremmer be sent back to Iraq in 2018 to reopen the Coalition Provisional Authority. The latest twist in this inability to understand the most obvious realities of Bosnian politics is the frequently heard view that the Social Democratic Party in Bosnia represents a "multiethnic party" even though less than 5percent of its votes come from Bosnia's Croats or Serbs.

Rather than accepting that Bosnia is a deeply divided multiethnic state and promoting stability there by building a political structure that corresponds to such a reality, we have spent the better part of twenty years repeatedly trying to build a centralized state based on a false understanding of the country and against the wishes of at least half of its citizens. If we continue to indulge in such fantasies, it's a good bet we will be discussing the same issues another twenty years from now. And by then, Bosnia's problems will be even more difficult to manage.