From Bosnia to Iraq: The Failure of Forced Coexistence

Image: Type 59 tanks. Wikimedia Commons/public domain.

The obsession with inviolable borders often creates dangerously divided societies.

The U.S.-led military interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, rump Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq have revealed Washington’s inclination toward forcible regime change and external democratization, but also its propensity for the maintenance of the status quo in regard to international boundaries (with Kosovo’s secession from Serbia as an obvious exception to the rule). In three out of four cases, the interventions have included neither border changes nor the diplomatic recognition of breakaway regions; in two, they’ve comprised the foreign imposition of experimental federal arrangements as part of a larger policy of compulsory coexistence between disparate ethnic and/or religious groups.


Legal But Illegitimate

In 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina became a sui generis (con)federation, incorporating three constituent peoples but only two territorial entities, even though the second largest ethnic group—the Bosnian Serbs—clearly expressed the wish on a referendum in 1991 to remain within rump Yugoslavia, and boycotted the official Bosnian independence referendum of 1992. A decade later Iraq was established as an asymmetric federation of Shia and Sunni Arabs and mostly Sunni Kurds, although the second largest ethnoreligious group—the Sunni Arabs—overwhelmingly rejected the proposed constitution on the Iraqi constitutional referendum of 2005 (e.g., the predominantly Sunni Arab Anbar Province voted with 97 percent against the proposed document).

The severe lack of political loyalty among the Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations to the new Shia-dominated Iraqi state became brutally obvious in the summer of 2014, when it disintegrated within weeks, making room for a revived Islamic caliphate (ISIS) and a de facto independent Kurdistan. Even though the country practically broke apart along ethnic and sectarian lines, just as former U.S. diplomat Peter W. Galbraith predicted in his 2006 book The End of Iraq, the U.S. government stood firm on its One Iraq policy, frustrating the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil to the point of reevaluating its staunch foreign political orientation toward Washington.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other hand, lingers on, despite the fact that Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serb entity since 2010, threatens Sarajevo with separation on a regular basis. The Balkan country remains mostly peaceful (it experienced three small-scale terrorist attacks with an Islamist background in the last five years), yet at the same time it is chronically dysfunctional due to its enormous and deeply corrupted public sector and debilitating model of power sharing between the three constituent ethnic groups: Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.

While state building created a bureaucratic monstrosity, Bosnian nation building wasn’t even seriously attempted, as the dominant ethnic parties cater to and draw support exclusively from their respective ethnic electorates. Add to this the persistent identification of Bosnia’s Croats and Serbs with neighboring Croatia and Serbia, three mutually irreconcilable collective memories, especially regarding the bloody Bosnian War of the 1990s, and an unemployment rate of roughly 40 percent, and you have all the necessary ingredients for a renewed ethnic conflict. Nevertheless, U.S. policymakers occasionally point out the Bosnian “success story” and even recommend its unique (con)federal model for use in other post-conflict societies.


Internal Geopolitics

Beside the shortage of political legitimacy, another feature shared by Bosnia and Herzegovina and Iraq is that federalism in either country means three territorial units for three major ethnoreligious groups. In fact, an equitable allocation of land was deliberately avoided in order to hinder secession and avoid state disintegration. In Bosnia, only the Serbs enjoy an entity of their own, the Republika Srpska, while Bosniaks and Croats were rounded up in the Federacija BiH, a federation within the (con)federation, to the detriment and continued chagrin of numerically inferior Croats. The special Brčko District in northeastern Bosnia was created as a condominium of both entities, with the primary purpose of splitting the Serb Republic in two halves, thus obstructing its sedition and possible unification with Serbia.

In Iraq, only the Kurds have been allotted a quasi-state, in the form of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, whereas the Shia and Sunni Arabs haven’t received anything above provincial level in the rest of the country—an outcome clearly favoring the Shia segment, considering their numerical advantage. However, the Kurdistan Region has been intentionally crippled similarly to the Serb entity of Bosnia. With the goal of discouraging Kurdish secessionism, Iraqi Kurdistan has been deprived of the city of Kirkuk and the adjoining oil fields, the rationale being that the KRG wouldn’t dare embarking on the course of independence without full control over the only giant oil field in the north of Iraq. Yet Baghdad lost its leverage over Erbil following ISIS’s offensive in 2014 and the subsequent Kurdish capture of most of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk. With the advantage on his side, Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani announced the organization of an independence referendum in 2016—the symbolic hundredth anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up Ottoman possessions in the Middle East.


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