Another Good Deed Punished

October 23, 2002

Another Good Deed Punished

There's a rabbit called Tilly in the raspberry patch these days, but we don't mind.

There's a rabbit called Tilly in the raspberry patch these days, but we don't mind. She doesn't care for the fruit or leaves of the plant but is instead attracted to the shelter afforded by the sprawling canes; and her rattling around down there helps keep the birds at bay. We appreciate the favor, but we earned it. Tilly's favorite spot earlier in the season was snug up against the marigolds we planted around our tomatoes. Marigolds repel many an insect that can harm a vegetable garden and, apparently, that can get into a rabbit's fur. Tilly's smart, for a rabbit. So we helped Tilly itch less in July, and now she's helping us gather more raspberries in October. Ain't nature wonderful?


Too bad politics don't always work out that way. The United States and its NATO allies, accompanied by a veritable parade of well-meaning non-governmental organizations, established what amounted to an international protectorate over Bosnia after the wars of 1992-95. That protectorate's initial goals were to stop the war, establish minimum conditions for normal life, and make sure that none of the foreign soldiers and social workers there got killed. The protectorate's larger ambition, clearly led by the United States, was to build a multiethnic democracy in Bosnia. Everyone seemed to understand before very long that if the protectorate was ever to proclaim victory and close up shop, the "Bosniak" Muslims, Croats and Serbs of the Bosnia-Herzegovina state created at Dayton would have to achieve a self-sustaining social peace. Western tutelage, money, example and inspiration were going to be the ways to create such a social peace, and one of the benchmarks of progress to NATO's triumphal exit was going to be democratic elections that demonstrated the three publics' overwhelming rejection of the criminally inclined, primitively nationalist politicians that created their hell of a war to start with. That rejection, in turn, was going to justify the allied effort and ratify it as a working model for future humanitarian interventions. The West was going to plant marigolds, in other words, and the rabbit was going to shake some canes.

Well, a few days ago something not so funny happened on the way to the exit ramp. The peoples of Bosnia-Herzegovina spoke at the polls on October 5th, and all three communities were united, perhaps for the first time in many years, in telling their Western lords and princes, and their NGO pages as well, that they prefer platforms and now a second generation of ethno-nationalist politicians that can barely (if at all) be distinguished from the war parties of half a dozen years ago. Some gratitude.

While the official results will be known only on October 22, preliminary tabulations show the nationalist candidates from all three groups have emerged as clear winners at all levels. The executive branch is headed by a three-member ethnically-determined collective presidency. Results show that Sulejman Tihic of the hard-line Muslim-only party founded by Alija Izetbegovic, the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), leads his relatively pro-Western opponent, Haris Silajdzic, of the Party for Bosnia-Hercegovina, 38 to 35 percent; that Dragan Covic of the Bosnian branch of the party founded by Franjo Tudjman, the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ), leads with 62 percent of the vote, over 30 percentage points ahead of his closest rival; and that Mirko Sarovic, the candidate of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) founded by Radovan Karadzic, the fugitive former Bosnian Serb leader indicted by The Hague tribunal for war crimes and genocide, polled nearly 40 percent, about 15 percent higher than his closest rival. The election for the president of the Republic of Srpska was won by Dragan Cavic of the SDS, who carried more than 40 percent of the votes, close to double that of his closest rival, Milan Jelic of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, who polled a disappointing 24 percent.

Nationalists also made strong gains at the legislative level. Dayton made Bosnia into a two-entity federation, the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republic of Srpska. The Federation elects 28 out of the 42 representatives, Srpska the rest. The only four parties to pass the threshold in the Federation were SDA (31.98 percent), HDZ (16.64 percent), Party for Bosnia-Hercegovina (16.29 percent), and the SDP (16.18 percent). In Srpska, the results were similar, with the SDS leading the way, capturing 37 percent of the vote; together with other strongly nationalist parties, they will hold a majority of the seats allotted to Srpska. Of the four parties that passed the threshold level of the provincial parliamentary election in the Federation, the SDA took 32 percent of the vote, the HDZ about 17 percent, the former governing pro-Western SDP 16 percent, and the Party for Bosnia-Hercegovina a little over 15 percent. On the Srpska side, the SDS led the pack, polling at about 34 percent, with their more moderate colleagues, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and the Party of Democratic Progress of the Serb Republic (PDP) trailing behind, carrying 24 and 12 percent, respectively.

This is not a result that should have surprised anyone. All three Bosnian communities have been making similar statements for years in several previous electoral exercises, whenever they've been allowed to do so (i.e., when their favorite candidades were not barred from running by the High Representative's office). All along the way, the bad news has been fobbed off as marginal or temporary by Western governments who have created a stake in their own success in Bosnia. Official U.S. government statements over the years have acquired an almost theological quality, by which I mean no disrespect to religion. I only mean that these officials have felt pressed to sniff reality only in the presence of very strong incense, as if they could make pork rinds smell like chicken soup just by insisting on it.

But after last week's election, no amount of wishing can make what happened smell any different than it does. Excepting a Western-oriented but small urban elite in places like Sarajevo, neither Bosnian Muslims nor Croats nor Serbs want to live in a genuine multiethnic democracy. They certainly don't pine for the multiethnic part of that equation, and it's still unclear how much they care about the democratic part. Most likely, given Bosnia's historical context, normal people do not readily distinguish between individual and collective freedom. People understand communal autonomy and independence, including in this case the right of Bosnian Serbs to join with Serbia if they want, and of Bosnian Croats to join with Croatia if they want. How well they can distinguish between collective designations of political status and individual liberty is another matter. The habits of their hearts are liable to follow their historical experiences and memories, and whether under Ottomans, Habsburgs or Yugoslav kings and dictators, those habits admit little space for the ideals of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Perhaps that was why State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, when confronted with a pointed question about the meaning of the Bosnian elections, was reduced to the following answer: "We think the results are still being tabulated"-upon which the room, filled with jaded journalists, erupted in a cynical, graveyard sort of laughter best suited, it seems, to such studied evasions. To be fair, this was at least not an outright fib, and so represents some improvement over previous official statements. But it was no closer to admitting an obvious truth than a whore house is just two rungs from heaven.


In a way, you can't blame the locals for being suspicious of liberal democracy. It's not just that their own experience of it is so scant, but look at the lessons their teachers have taught them. The most significant High Representative to Bosnia was Wolfgang Petritsch, an honorable and a good man who was placed in a nearly impossible position. An Austrian civil servant, Petritsch was squeezed from the start between wanting to generate physical reconstruction on the one hand and a more liberal, democratic political culture on the other. But he soon learned that he couldn't get anything done physically unless he worked with the powers at hand, whose attitudes toward democracy fluctuated between incomprehension and outright hostility. Despite hounding pressure from the United States and Britain that he impose democracy, by whatever means, Petritsch knew that if he didn't find a way to improve lives, he would never wean the people away from their unregenerate "leaders", so that is how he tilted generally. He did achieve a good deal; for example, when he left office in May, nearly half of Bosnia's people had their homes back, compared to less than 10 percent when he arrived. There has been some economic stabilization, too, although what appears to be economic alleviation is mainly the result of foreign charity-more than $5 billion since 1996-rather than real productive enterprise on the part of the locals. Real unemployment remains very high (around 60 percent). Meanwhile, the level of corruption may be higher than ever-and that takes some doing-owing to the simple fact that because of international donor generosity there is now much more to steal.