European Affairs

EUROPEAN AFFAIRS: How do you assess the current situation in Bosnia as regards its own aspirations and those of the international community?

Gerard Toal: Bosnia is on a slow road to hopefully joining the European Union. It is negotiating the agreements – chapters, as they’re called – that it  needs for its membership application. The process is slow and technical, and the European Commission is not very happy with the progress that Bosnia has made.  Bosnia’s shortcomings in functionality as a state have been a major impediment to progress. Bosnia has also had a proposal from NATO for a MAP (Membership Action Plan). That, too, is a positive development, but here again there are signs indicating less than satisfactory progress. In all these negotiations, Bosnia is struggling with some particular preconditions particularly involving military property inherited from the break-up of Yugoslavia.


EA: What are the main obstacles in the way of negotiating progress?

 GT: Some very specific ones have to do with Yugoslav state property that should have become property of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina when it became a recognized independent state. Then came the war and the emergence of a Serbian enclave that proclaimed itself the Republic of Srpska and it appropriated all of that property in the area it controlled. The Dayton Accords did not settle some of these issues, notably defense property. We’re talking about substantial matters -- bases, training areas, factories. Remember that before the civil war, Bosnia was known as “the fortress of Yugoslavia.” The ownership dispute continues between the Bosnian Federation, Republic of Srpska, and the central Bosnian state.  In NATO’s view, the owner should be the state Bosnian Defense Ministry, a state-level institution. NATO says Bosnia needs to resolve this issue in order to proceed with its MAP.

On the EU dossier, Bosnia has suffered over the last six years from a radical diminishment of the power of the High Representative – the major civilian authority put in place by the Dayton Accords to ensure their implementation by the ultimate guarantor of Dayton, the Peace Implementation Council. This office started powerfully, but subsequently it has retreated from the arena of Bosnian politics. The consequence of this vacuum has been the rise in power of a series of uncooperative sectarian politicians in Bosnia, the most prominent of whom is Milorad Dodik, whose is currently “President of Republika Srpska.” He has campaigned strongly to reassert “entity power” at the expanse of central state institutions like the Defense Ministry. Bosnia needs a High Representative with the diplomatic heft of someone like Paddy Ashdown, who had this role from 2002 to 2006. A phrase often-used to describe Bosnia since 2006 is “backsliding” – meaning a drift back toward polarization, division, and confrontation.


EA Does that mean, through the fault of whomever, that stalemate and backsliding could or should lead to partition as a solution?

GT: Partition is an option that was always favored by one side -- the Republic of Srpska and its founding fathers Ratko Mladi and Radovan Karadži.  They wanted to take a maximum of the space that had been shared among three different “nationalities” – Serbs, Croats and Bosnians  (and others including Roma and Jews) and create exclusive national territories in its place. So the idea of partition really emerged from the Yugoslav wars of dissolution and drove ethnic cleansing as territories were prepared for annexation to neighboring states. But partition didn’t succeed, because the various leaders could never agree on the borders, even among themselves. Nevertheless, the idea took hold in the international community that there was a cartographic fix to Bosnia, that somehow if you just drew new borders in the right places, you could solve the problem and there would be an outcome along the lines of “good borders make good neighbors.” But this is a cartographic fantasy. The problem with this so-called solution, aside from the continuing territorial quarrels, is that it is premised upon ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The international community – and Bosnians most of all – are paying a very heavy price for the fact that the great powers did not confront the plans of the leaders who set in motion the Bosnian civil war, Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. Early on, these two plotted together to carve up Bosnia between their states, and that resulted in a 51-49 percent divide of its   territory – 51 went to the Muslim-Croatian Bosnian Federation and 49 percent went to the Republika Srpska. This carve-up was the basis for the Dayton Peace Accords. The late Richard Holbrooke had a very interesting role here. When the war had turned against Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic and it looked like the Republic of Srpska was on the ropes, Richard Holbrooke and the U.S government were instrumental in stopping the joint Bosnian-Croatian offensive in order to cut a deal with Serbia’s Milosevic. That decision in mid-September 1995 was very consequential: if the Bosnian-Croatian drive had been allowed to conquer the town of Banja Luka, the whole “Republic of Srprska” project would have collapsed, and Bosnia wouldn’t be divided right now. Effectively, what we’re dealing with is a political geography created by leaders who were later slated for war-crimes trials at the Hague tribunal.


EA: What about partition now?

GT:  The idea that partition is a sustainable solution is absurd. The day a partition plan is announced is the day you’re going to have the emergence of a Bosnian Liberation Army – a force dedicated to undoing a Republic of Srpska and to re-unifying the country by force. It’s a recipe for going back to war. The goal of partition is the reason why the war occurred in the first place. Partition is something that has no legitimacy, because the inter-entity boundary between a Republic of Srpska and a Bosnian Federation has no historical basis at all. It was simply a sub-state arrangement that was accepted in Dayton. Partition now would be like taking a razor-blade to a wound that is slowly healing. It cannot be seen as a good or even viable alternative.

EA: Given this history, what do you think should be the way forward?

GT: The international community, in supporting Dayton, supported the compromise which allowed the Republic of Srpska to take territorial form at the arbitrary boundary which was agreed on, and conformed to the 49-51 split. They tried to make the best of it, and they gave a lot of money for the reconstruction of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and they have done a tremendous amount of good. Bosnia is nowhere nearly like what it was in 1995, and that is to the credit of the international community. A lot of people tend to decry the role of the international community in Bosnia. But they have done a tremendous amount of good there, and I think that should not be neglected.

The book that I have just written is about population returns, the return of displaced peoples to the places that they were driven from in 1991-95. What does that mean today? The international community is not unified in how it approaches Bosnia. It’s a sticky problem, and leaders – in Bosnia and in the international community – are trying to nudge the country towards becoming a more functional state. But effectively, the compromise at Dayton was one that left Bosnia as a barely viable country. The accords were really an armistice, a cease-fire agreement, not the basis for a sustainable state that can be readied for transition into EU membership.


EA:  So what do you recommend now -- undo Dayton?

GF: No, no, not at all. I think the international community is generally on the right lines. It has to build upon, and it has been building upon Dayton. I think that it needs to continue to do that. It needs some intestinal fortitude. It needs to stick with the policy of strengthening the central state. Bosnians need and deserve to have a more efficient state that is light and not overly bureaucratic and oppressive. They also deserve a democracy: one person, one vote, with anti-discrimination protections for all. Unfortunately, the post-war territorial division of the country has left Bosnia a welfare state for politicians, where the vast majority of the money goes to state apparatuses, which duplicate each other and create overly burdensome regulations. All this dysfunctionality is very functional for one group: organized crime. Bosnia remains a land of opportunity for ethnic politicians and criminals!


EA: So you want a bigger, new, better push by the EU and the U.S. to nation-build Bosnia?

GF: No, not nation-building, Europe-building! I would like more effort behind more muscular policies by EU members – nudging Bosnia toward the EU. That is still the right policy. There is no other good option for Bosnia.

Gerard Toal’s book  “Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and Its Reversal” – co-authored with Carl Dahlman -- was published this year by Oxford University Press. He is Director of the Government and International Affairs program at Virginia Tech.