Déjà Vu

What strikes me about the recent election victories of Milorad Dodik and Haris Silajdzic in Bosnia is that their fundamental viewpoints are exactly the same as those of their counterparts fifteen years ago (without the threats of violence.)

William Montgomery Source:

Two of the regional leaders with whom our government had great respect and sympathy were Kiro Gligorov, President of the Republic of Macedonia and Alija Izetbegovic, the President of Bosnia. They met several times with Eagleburger and had a consistent message. Both men wanted Yugoslavia to stay together, recognizing the dangers of separation. But both also were firm that they could not stay in a Yugoslavia abandoned by Slovenia and Croatia and consequently fully under the thumb of Slobodan Milosevic.  They pled for our help to keep Yugoslavia together and failing that, our understanding that they would have to declare independence as well, following in the footsteps of Slovenia and Croatia.

The United States totally supported the Presidents on both issues. We were determined to keep the former Yugoslavia together for two reasons. The first was that President Bush trusted Mikhail Gorbachov and believed that if the Soviet Union broke up, it could lead to tremendous instability and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He saw the breakup of Yugoslavia as setting a bad precedent in that regard. Secondly, we recognized the dangers of violence and instability in any breakup, particularly in Bosnia where the ethnic map was so intertwined.

Consequently, the United States with the support of Great Britain led the battle to keep Yugoslavia together. Opposing them was Germany, which single-handedly persuaded, cajoled, and browbeat others in the EU to permit recognition and then unilaterally recognized both Croatia and Slovenia even before the Badinter Commission set up expressly by the EU to evaluate their candidacies, could issue a report.

Once it became clear that the independence battle had been lost over Croatia and Slovenia, the United States shifted positions, along the lines of the Gligorov/Izetbegovic requests and supported the efforts of those two republics to have referendums and become independent as well.

One of the memorable meetings in my diplomatic life occurred in Washington on February 2, 1992 between Eagleburger and Borisav Jovic, the Serbian member of the Presidency of the former Yugoslavia and a very close associate of Slobodan Milosevic. About a month or so earlier the Deputy Secretary had met with a delegation from Dubrovnik and was given photographs of the destruction done to that city by the Serbs from land and sea.  Despite his sympathies with keeping the country together and his unhappiness with the steps taken by Croatia and Slovenia to precipitate the breakup, the photographs had moved him, as he knew the city so well. It was a critical time, a turning point in the conflict. Until then, international public opinion had been divided. Now, it was uniting in opposition to the violence and aggression, which seemed to be coming overwhelmingly from the Serbian side. 

Eagleburger was very blunt, direct and strong with Jovic. He slammed his hand down on the table a few times for emphasis, showed the photographs of Dubrovnik, and stressed repeatedly to Jovic that the Serbs had to stop their aggressive behavior overall, as well as accept the idea of a Bosnian referendum peacefully and constructively. He warned of dire consequences for our relationship with Serbia if this did not happen. There is no way the message could have been clearer or made more forcefully. 

Jovic sat across from Eagleburger during the tirade, calmly, neatly attired, and diminutive.  When Eagleburger finished, Jovic blithely dismissed the photographs as propaganda and then calmly and matter of factly said, "If there is a referendum in Bosnia and independence there, there will be war." Those words and the way he said them will remain with me forever.

What strikes me about the recent election victories of Milorad Dodik and Haris Silajdzic in Bosnia is that their fundamental viewpoints are exactly the same as those of their counterparts fifteen years ago (without the threats of violence.)  The basic Bosniak position is that Bosnia should be united like any other country, with a strong central government based on democratic values.  The Bosnian Serbs are absolutely convinced that under this sort of system, they would suffer severe discrimination and are therefore determined to emphasize the autonomy of the Republika Srpska. 

The Bosniak argument carried great weight with the United States in 1992 because it follows so closely with our own democratic, melting pot system. It also is fully in keeping with European ideals, where elaborate protections have been in place for ethnic minorities for decades.  It is no surprise, therefore, that we supported that position then and that we and others have been urging steps along these lines for some time even now.

What we failed to appreciate then was the depth of the Serb fear and distrust of the consequences of "democratic rule" in Croatia and Bosnia. We overlooked the violent history of the past hundred years; we didn't fully appreciate that the Serbs were going overnight from a privileged status to a minority; we underestimated the impact of nationalist statements and actions by other ethnic groups on the Serbian mindset; and most of all, we underestimated the degree of ruthlessness and violence which Slobodan Milosevic would personally support and encourage in a volatile and unstable situation.

So now, fifteen years later, after billions of dollars of financial assistance, the presence of NATO and EU soldiers numbering at times up to 60,000, pro-consul powers delegated to the High Representative, several "democratic" elections, the return of refugees, and a stabilized security situation, we are confronted with the fact that underneath it all, the Bosnian Serbs and Bosniaks still maintain the same positions as before with equal vigor and determination.

It is easy to find those to blame for this lack of movement. The Dayton Peace Agreement, everybody now agrees, was perhaps the best that could be achieved at the time, but it codified ethnic divisions, which made it almost inevitable that the differences in outlook would continue. The Bosniaks look to the Central government; the Serbs give their allegiance to the Republika Srpska. Nationalist politicians in all ethnic groups continue to fan the flames, as does the lack of real economic progress in the country.

One other basic problem is the stubborn, determined and naïve refusal of the international community to accept the strength of the Serbian fears of being subject to what they perceive as the "tyranny of the majority" in Bosnia.  Just as we fail to fully appreciate that the Bosniak desire for a strong central government and institutions is at least in part based on the group's simple calculation of the numbers in Bosnia today.

This impasse remains a massive roadblock to progress in democratic transition, stabilization of the region, and integration with Euro-Atlantic Institutions. And yet, I fail to see anyone on the side of the International Community discussing this objectively, let alone trying to develop some positive solutions. Like so many other issues in the world today, the operative word seems to be to "stay the course," even when the course is so clearly flawed. I admit that I am not sure of the best way forward, but I do know that simply making threats that the statements by these politicians are "anti-Dayton" and failing to appreciate that they reflect the consistent, strong views of a substantial percentage of the citizens of Bosnia is at the very least, ineffective. I see no real signs that this issue is being addressed, leaving Bosnia to face continued instability and uncertainty regarding its future.

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