Davos Man Meets Homo Balcanicus

Davos Man Meets Homo Balcanicus

Mini Teaser: Sumantra Bose, Bosnia After Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 352 pp.

by Author(s): Gordon N. Bardos

Sumantra Bose, Bosnia After Dayton: Nationalist Partition and International Intervention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 352 pp., $35.

Roger D. Petersen, Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 312 pp., $25.

And when it is said to them, 'do not make mischief in the land', they say, 'we are but peacemakers.' Nay, of a surety they are the mischief makers, but they do not understand.
--Quran, 2:11-12

TO ANYONE following the Balkan tragedy of the past ten-plus years, the horror stories from Kosovo are well known. Hundreds of thousands of people driven from their homes. Countless murders and kidnappings. Scores of religious sites destroyed. Widespread, systematic ethnic discrimination in educational and judicial institutions. Patients in mental institutions routinely subjected to beatings and sexual assault. Paramilitary and organized crime groups rampaging across the countryside, persecuting ethnic minorities and destabilizing neighboring states....

Unfortunately, this is not the Kosovo of Slobodan Milosevic. It is the Kosovo of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations over the past four years. Moving south to Macedonia, the situation is little better. Relations between Macedonian Slavs and Albanians remain tense since civil war between the two ethnic communities erupted in 2001--a conflict that began in no small part due to NATO's unwillingness to prevent extremists in Kosovo from exporting their violence into Macedonia, and the first time in history that a UN member-state was the victim of aggression launched from a UN protectorate. The ceasefire agreement sponsored by the international community to end the conflict, known as the Ohrid Accords, has since been repudiated by three of the five signatories to the document, and two of them have openly called for a partition of the country.

West of Kosovo, Montenegro remains divided between pro-independence forces and those who prefer to remain a part of the union with Serbia, and the tiny mountain republic itself is on the edge of total economic breakdown. Apart from some tourism on the Adriatic coast, much of the Montenegrin economy relies on organized criminal activity for its few signs of life. Some 40 percent of the vehicles in Montenegro are estimated to have been stolen in Western Europe, and the Montenegrin premier, long a favorite of official Washington, is currently under indictment in Italy for his alleged involvement in smuggling.

North of Montenegro, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, almost eight years into the Dayton peace process, few observers are satisfied with the progress made towards establishing a viable, self-sustaining state. Although the international community has done a laudable job in getting refugees and displaced persons back into their homes, the effort to find enough common ground amongst Bosniacs (Bosnian Muslims), Croats and Serbs to run the country on their own, or to develop a sense of loyalty to their common state, has failed. The city of Mostar, for instance, remains as bitterly divided today as it was almost ten years ago when the conflict between Bosniacs and Croats ended. Classified sections of newspapers throughout Bosnia are full of advertisements by individuals of one ethnic group offering to trade property in areas in which they are in the ethnic minority for property in areas in which they would be in the majority. Much to the chagrin of international officials, nationalist parties again won in Bosnia's 2002 elections at both the statewide and entity levels. Not surprisingly, public opinion surveys show that a majority of the country's young people see no future for themselves at home and would like to emigrate.

Finally, in the heart of the Balkans, the post-Milosevic reform process in Serbia now runs the serious risk of being hijacked by a clique of erstwhile reformers who have joined forces with business tycoons and organized crime figures from the Milosevic era. The current government has refused to recognize decisions handed down by the Serbian constitutional court, has been engaged in significant degrees of intimidation of independent media and is mired in a number of corruption scandals. Hard currency has begun to hemorrhage illegally out of Serbia to offshore bank accounts: $964 million in 2002 and $522 million in just the first five months of 2003. All the while, the holders of power in Belgrade have learned that all they need to be is "a little better than Milosevic": Proclaim the fight platitudes about Euro-Atlantic integration and regional cooperation, turn over a few Hague indictees, and U.S. and European officials will breezily overlook their attacks on democratic principles and procedures.

WHAT HAS gone wrong? Why have those areas in the Balkans that have seen the greatest levels of international involvement, investment and intervention also remained the most unstable? Although one could argue that it was the original instability of these entities that forced the international community to intervene in them in the first place, the fact that so much time elapsed and so much money and energy expended have resulted in so little progress suggests a more serious and complex problem is at work.

Since some pundits and politicians are now hailing the Balkan interventions as successful models of nation- and state-building for Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond, insights into the problems of international engagement in the Balkans have considerable relevance in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. Fortunately, enough time has elapsed for serious scholars to analyze what has gone wrong (and right) with the international community's Balkan interventions. Examples of these new studies include recent books by Sumantra Bose, a professor at the London School of Economics, on post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina, and a more theoretical study of ethnic conflict in 20th-century Eastern Europe by Professor Roger D. Petersen of MIT. Fortunately, too, there is still time to learn from the mistakes committed in the Balkans.

And mistakes there have been aplenty--both in outsiders' conceptual (mis)understandings of what has been driving disintegration and violence in southeastern Europe over the past decade, and in the tactical policy responses to these problems. Although approaching these issues from different angles, both books shed light on fundamental questions that have bedeviled American and European policy goals in southeastern Europe over the past decade: Can, or should, we impose Western-style institutions (constitutions, elections, judicial systems and models of interethnic societal relations) on other states and peoples? How will these institutions function if the attempt is made? What happens when popularly-elected institutions and politicians do not live up to the expectations of foreign bureaucrats? Can, or should, we impose the leaders we want on distant populations? Do outsiders have the political will and economic resources to see nation- and state-building projects through to successful conclusion?

Perhaps most important is the question of who can best design and carry out needed reforms in the region: the armies of international officials and experts, whom I dub "Davos Men", following Samuel Huntington's description of "Davos Culture", which accurately describes the background of so many of the individuals overseeing Balkan transitions,1 or "Homo Balcanicus", the local politicians, bureaucrats, intellectuals, etc., who may be somewhat more parochial in their outlooks but are nevertheless more in tune with the needs and functioning of their own societies?

The basic outlines of Davos Man's thinking and policies towards the problems of southeastern Europe over the past decade have been relatively clear. First, Davos Man has consistently believed that ethnic nationalism is a manipulative program of evil, corrupt politicians foisted upon masses that suffer from false consciousness and do not understand what are their own best interests. (This, in turn, makes one wonder whether transplanting Jeffersonian-style democracy in the region is even possible.) Richard Holbrooke, for instance, has claimed, "Yugoslavia's tragedy ... was the product of bad, even criminal, political leaders who encouraged ethnic confrontation for personal, political, and financial gain."2

For Homo Balcanicus, on the other hand, nationalism and ethnic conflict are mass-based phenomena. As Petersen notes in his book, for many of the significant violent events in Eastern Europe that he has studied, "leadership is superfluous." However, dealing with such mass-based phenomena is much more complex than issuing a few war crimes indictments or gerry-mandering ad hoc coalitions of parties who curry favor with international officials.

The experience of the former international High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Wolfgang Petritsch, is instructive in this regard. In one of his farewell interviews, Petritsch claimed that his three-year tenure could be divided into two periods: the first 18 months during which he removed more than seventy popularly elected officials from office, and the second 18 months, in which "new political forces" came to power in Bosnia (with significant help from the international community). Unfortunately for Petritsch, six months after he left office, the "new political forces" he had placed so much faith in lost power to nationalist parties in Bosnia's 2002 elections, leaving open the question of what, if anything, had been achieved in his three years of work.

Nationalism and ethnic conflict in the Balkans have proven to be mass-based phenomena, and Bose points out that democratization and state-building must be seen in the same light. This perception, however, contrasts with Davos Man's repeated propensity to focus on personalities rather than process or principle. In the case of Bosnia, Bose rightly argues,

Bosnia's future as a democratic country depends on institutions and institutionalization, not on particular individuals or political factions.... Individuals and cliques who are given to believe that they are the chosen favorites of powerful Western countries and international agencies tend to rapidly develop a sense of impunity, and degenerate habits of authoritarianism and corruption.

Or worse. In Kosovo, human rights groups now decry a newly developed "culture of impunity" in which violence against ethnic minorities goes virtually unpunished. Such violence has recently ranged from revelations that patients in psychiatric hospitals in Kosovo have been the victims of systematic abuse--including rape and physical beatings, generally on an ethnically-motivated basis--to the August 13, 2003, shooting of a group of Serb children swimming in the Bistrica river near Pec (Peja), in which two were killed and five were wounded. As with hundreds of murders in Kosovo over the past four years, the perpetrators will never be found.

A second characteristic of Davos Man in the Balkans has been the belief that constitutional engineering and democratic elections can rebuild essentially failed states and foster harmonious interethnic relations. But on both counts the evidence from the past decade has been to the contrary. In his second chapter, Bose succinctly points to the failings of both the American-sponsored, stillborn Bosnia-Croat Federation of 1994, and to those of the Dayton Peace Accords themselves. More recent failures-in-the-making include Macedonia's Ohrid Accords of August 2001, mentioned above, and the March 2002 union treaty for Serbia and Montenegro, largely drafted by EU officials--which, according to the former governor of Serbia's National Bank, Mladjan Dinkic, does not solve a single problem in Serbian-Montenegrin relations, but has in fact created new ones.

A corollary to Davos Man's belief in constitutional engineering has been the belief that elections in the ethnically divided Balkan statelets will bring democratic multiculturalists with pro-market orientations to power. The record over the past decade, however, shows that this has rarely happened. Moreover, the conditions under which newly-elected leaders have to operate are far from conducive to achieving these goals quickly. As Roland Paris has argued,

Not only are [war-shattered states] expected to become democracies and market economies in the space of a few years-effectively completing a transformation that took several centuries in the oldest European states--but they must carry out this monumental task in the fragile political circumstances of states that are just in the process of emerging from civil war.3

As with Davos Man's faith in constitutional engineering, the belief that elections will produce leaders supporting ethnic tolerance has repeatedly proven unfounded in the Balkans over the past decade. In fact, in many newly independent and democratizing states around the world, elections have often increased ethnic tensions and the potential for violence.4

Thankfully, this lesson is one Davos Man has recently begun to learn. Paddy Ashdown, the current international High Representative in Bosnia, now argues that the biggest failing of the international community in its post-conflict Balkans strategy has been to promote democratization without first establishing the rule of law. This, of course, has been the position of former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who has consistently argued over the past several years that it is impossible to lay the foundations for a stable democratic political system and a market economy without first establishing the rule of law.5

Although there is now increasing agreement on the need to establish the rule of law before democratization takes place, a whole host of dilemmas (currently confronting American efforts in Iraq as well) must still be resolved as Davos Man attempts to administer and occupy far-flung entities around the world: Who should ultimately be responsible for deciding when conditions are right for elections? What authorities and responsibilities should international officials turn over to local politicians? Davos Man and Homo Balcanicus have had considerable disagreements over these issues in recent years, and echoes of these disagreements (Davos Man meets Homo Arabus?) can now be seen in Baghdad as the U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, agonizes over the merits of holding elections and turning over power to emerging Iraqi political forces.

Finally, Davos Man believes money can solve most of these problems--jump-start the economy by rebuilding roads, bridges and factories, pump money into the local economy by organizing a few donor's conferences, and the ensuing economic prosperity will reduce or eliminate ethnic conflicts. While all these efforts are of course important and laudable, this "unwarranted exaggeration of the influence of materialism upon human affairs", as one scholar has noted, has led to "a propensity on the part of American statesman and scholars of the post-World War II era to assume that economic considerations represent the determining force in human affairs."6

Leaving aside the question of whether economic considerations actually do represent the determining force in human affairs, we might rightly ask whether Davos Man has the money it takes to get the job done. In Bosnia, for instance, it has been estimated that the international community had spent anywhere between $50-90 billion between 1992 and 1999 (by one estimate, the largest amount of democratization assistance per capita ever spent in a single country7) in an effort to keep Bosnia-Herzegovina united and turn it into a viable state. Bose and others who have studied the functioning of Bosnia's institutions and interethnic relations in the country know that the job is far from completed. Unfortunately for Bosnia, Kosovo and the rest of the Balkans, international aid and attention is already being diverted to other more pressing crises in other parts of the world.

The conclusion to be drawn is that, being mass-based phenomena and therefore not particularly susceptible to economic solutions, nationalism, ethnic conflict and state-building cannot be manipulated in short order--certainly not in the one to two years of the average international official's secondment to the region, or even the three-to-four years between American presidential election cycles. Simply put, the time-frame with which Homo Balcanicus or Homo Arabus look at their countries and societies is quite different from that of Davos Man. As Anthony D. Smith has argued, nationalism

implies a deeper need transcending individuals, generations, and classes, a need for collective immortality through posterity, that will relativize and diminish the oblivion and futility of death.... For only in the chain of generations of those who share an historic and quasi-familial bond can individuals hope to achieve a sense of immortality in eras of purely terrestrial horizons.8

Compare Smith's views with a recent admission by Paddy Ashdown that "international impatience"--that is, time--is one of his greatest enemies, and one begins to sense the almost metaphysical enormity of the challenges facing Davos Man in his efforts around the globe.

The conclusions Bose and Petersen draw are not encouraging for would-be state-builders who want to complete their jobs quickly and on the cheap. Rather, what emerges from these studies is the utter complexity, expense and length of time that must be expended in the attempt to impose or transplant American or Western European institutions, political cultures and models of social relations onto states and societies far less fortunate in their historical experiences--without any guarantee that the attempt will ultimately be successful. Petersen is fairly pessimistic about the ability of outsiders to deal with ethnic conflict around the world. As he notes, a major implication of his study is that "ethnic violence is very difficult to prevent." Bose is rather more sanguine about the possibilities for state-building, but he warns that "a clearly defined but relatively modest set of goals may in the end leave the least divisive and most usable legacy for Bosnians themselves, in cooperation with other ex-Yugoslavs, to build on in the future" (emphasis added). Altogether, these are not encouraging findings when we contemplate the challenges facing our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In a different context some eighty years ago, T.E. Lawrence warned, "Better to let them do it imperfectly than to do it perfectly yourself, for it is their country, their way, and your time is short." Given our recent experiences with imperial overreach, Davos Man may soon begin to feel the same way.

1 Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Touchstone, 1996), pp. 57-8.

2 Holbrooke, To End a War (New York: Random House, 1998), pp. 23-4.

3 Paris, "Peacebuilding and the Limits of Liberal Internationalism", International Security (Fall 1997), p. 78.

4 See, for instance, Jack Snyder, From Voting to Violence: Democratization and Ethnic Conflict (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).

5 See Damjan de Krnjevic-Miskovic, "Serbia's Prudent Revolution", Journal of Democracy (July 2001), pp. 96-110.

6 Walker Connor, Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), pp. 36-7.

7 See Gerald Knaus & Felix Martin, "Travails of the European Raj", Journal of Democracy (July 2003).

8 Smith, "The Origins of Nations", Ethnic and Racial Studies (July 1989), p. 362.

Gordon N. Bardos is assistant director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. 

Essay Types: Book Review