Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Stop Nato's War

Balkan flashpoints

Bosnia: the great carve-up

Bosnia partitioned by the west

It is nearly five years since the Dayton peace agreement was initialled by the governments of Croatia, Bosnia and rump-Yugoslavia. This brought an end to the civil war in which between 200,000 and 300,000 Bosnians lost their lives. It was hailed as a new start for Bosnia, bringing democratisation and an end to ethnic cleansing.

How successful has the peace agreement been? If it is a model of what the west can achieve by intervention, there are some salutary lessons to be learned.

Far from the Bosnians now being in collective control of their destinies, quite the opposite has occurred. Ethnic divisions are more entrenched, democracy is a hollow concept, living standards have fallen, and the west is treating the country in much the same way as the turn of the century imperial powers treated their overseas possessions.

Under Dayton, international administration was only meant to last one year. Three years on, that 'transitional' administration has been indefinitely extended. As David Chandler points out in Bosnia: Faking Democracy after Dayton (Pluto 14 99), huge powers now lie with the UN High Representative, currently Spanish diplomat Carlos Westerndorp, who is effectively Bosnia's foreign governor. He can 'impose legislation, veto political candidates and dismiss "uncooperative" elected members of Bosnian governing bodies'--and has done so in large measure. Internationally run elections are consequently 'little more than glorified opinion polls'.

The Wall Street Journal noted in August last year that 'there are perhaps 10,000 foreign nation builders in [the capital city] Sarajevo alone; at least 40,000 others are scattered across Bosnia, including 35,000 soldiers from around the globe'. Foreigners are in key positions, with a New Zealander as chief of the central bank, an ex-cop from Los Angeles as deputy police chief and a French born American as deputy in the Office of the High Representative (OHR)--the closest Bosnia has to a government.

So the more Dayton's 'democratisation' process unfolds, the less actual control Bosnians have over every aspect of their lives. They do not even have the freedom to negotiate disputed issues like the content of the media or housing policy. These are imposed by the external regulators.

Foreign officials find themselves in a paradoxical situation. The New York Times quoted one as confessing, 'It troubles me that the less democratically we act, the more success we have.' The OHR is worried that it will perpetuate 'Bosnia's culture of dependency'. One academic commentator has drawn the logical conclusion: 'The sad but important point is this: the meddling western "outsiders" are far better representatives of the genuine interests of the Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian peoples and states than their patriotic leaders.' Could there be a purer expression of the old colonial mentality, which claimed that the natives were incapable of ruling themselves in their own best interests?

The justification for this control is that the Bosnian people are so prone to ethnic passion that they lack the necessary democratic culture for resolving conflict. Yet opinion polls in May and June 1990 and in November 1991 showed overwhelming majorities against separation from Yugoslavia and against dividing Bosnia along ethnic lines. Indeed, some six months before the elections, 74 percent of the population had been in favour of a ban on parties operating along national or religious based lines (a ban overturned by the constitutional court). Only with the collapse of Yugoslavia (in which Germany's unilateral recognition of Croatian independence played its part) was Bosnia's multi-ethnicity stretched to breaking point. The result was the rapid polarisation of voting along ethnic lines--the product of fear and despair rather than lack of education.

Dayton was meant to offer a new political structure for Bosnia with careful checks and balances to prevent any one ethnic group being in a position to ride roughshod over the wishes of any other. The hope was that, under the supervision of peacekeeping forces, voting along purely ethnic lines would gradually dissolve, allowing more 'normal' forms of electoral politics to emerge. That has been a hopeless failure. However much the OHR rewrites the rules or disallows election results there has been no real shift from voting along ethnic lines.

This is not surprising. Dayton is based on policing segregated communities. For all the west's condemnation of ethnic cleansing, particularly by the worst offenders, the Serbs, Dayton is no challenge to the idea that people can only live in their own ethnic communities (indeed, the west colluded in ethnic cleansing towards the end of the war by endorsing Croatia's recapture of Krajina and expulsion of the entire Serb population). Voters for the three member Bosnian presidency, for example, are not allowed to vote for anyone outside their community. So Bosniaks (as the Muslims are called) can only vote for one of the Bosniak presidential candidates, Croats and Serbs likewise.

This conception also explains the lack of success the UN has had in returning the total of 2.1 million refugees and internally displaced people. Only some 250,000 had returned to their pre-war homes by the end of 1996. This is often attributed to intimidation. In reality the picture is more complicated. Many refugees simply do not want to return. For instance, 540,000 Bosnian refugees abroad had been granted permanent status or new citizenship by the end of 1997. They prefer to stay in their place of displacement for both political and economic reasons.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) does not anticipate any further returns. Bosnia is not the only country affected. Of the 180,000 to 200,000 Serbs who fled Krajina only 50,000 returned to Croatia once the fighting ended, but few have gone back to Krajina.

In view of talk about turning Kosovo into an international protectorate in order to allow ethnic Albanians to return to their homes, it is instructive to consider what happened to the protectorate the UN set up in Eastern Slavonija at the end of 1995. This was a strip of Croatia along the Danube's west bank that had been ethnically cleansed by the Serbs in some of the nastiest fighting of the war. The town of Vukovar was reduced to ruins after a 90 day siege.

When the two year protectorate was set up with the most heavily armed peacekeeping force in the UN's history, the US ambassador to Croatia boasted, 'Not anywhere else has the peace process significantly reversed ethnic cleansing, but it's happening here.' Of the 86,000 Croats driven out of Eastern Slavonija, no more than 32,000 have been persuaded to return. Again, one of the key features has been the lack of economic opportunities. There are simply not enough jobs to return to--and this is an area relatively rich compared to the impoverished Kosovo.

The 'success' in getting Croats to return to Eastern Slavonija has to be set against the exodus by Serbs. Of the 73,000 Serbs living in the region in 1991, 18,000 left during the two year protectorate. Since then they have been leaving at an official rate of 1,200 every three months but the real figure is likely to be much higher. This doesn't sound much like a successful reversal of ethnic cleansing.

The economic factor is a significant one in explaining the failure to overcome ethnic partition. Just as the political process is controlled by the west, so too is the economy. Dayton lays down that the central bank is to be managed by a governor appointed by the International Monetary Fund who cannot be a citizen of Bosnia or any of the surrounding states. The governor is to run the bank as a currency board, forbidding it to create money by extending credit.

Dayton also created the Economic Task Force, charged with economic reconstruction, which is, according to the High Representative, 'One of the most potent instruments at our disposal to influence the reintegration of the country.' It coordinates such agencies as the World Bank, the European Commission, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the International Monetary Fund. Their aim is to ensure the Bosnian economy is reconstructed along market lines. Money has therefore not been allocated according to needs, but in line with political priorities decided by the 'international community'. Compliance by the elected Bosnian politicians is an absolute precondition for external financial donors.

Shortages of housing and employment caused by the war remain--50-65 percent of housing stock was damaged during the Bosnian conflict. As even the OHR conceded, 'Possibilities for people to return to their homes of origin are limited not only by their concerns about the security environment, but also by the lack of available housing, employment and social services, as well as the level of infrastructure and communications.' No wonder Croat population has moved to Croatia since hostilities ceased in search of a better standard of living. According to the UN International Police Task Force, 90 percent of returnees remained unemployed two years after Dayton.

The OHR claimed in July last year that the Bosnian Federation's economy had grown by 50 percent since the war. However, this is still less than half of what it was in 1990, and growth rates are slowing. Such averages mask economic decline in the Serbian part of the federation. The Serb self governing entity of Bosnia, Republika Srpska (RS--indicated by the shaded area on the map), received less than 5 percent of international reconstruction aid. Its economy has now shrunk to less than a quarter of its pre-war level. Chandler quotes figures to indicate that in 1997 the monthly wage in the RS was around a quarter of what it is in the federation, and that unemployment is some 20 percent higher. He concludes, 'The absolute level of poverty in Bosnia and the growing economic divide between the two entitles has not only discouraged return but also led to tensions, with even majority returns being seen as putting existing livelihoods under threat and returnees becoming frustrated with their poor living conditions.'

One such tension is shown in the political turmoil in the RS, with the OHR's sacking of its elected president, Nikola Poplasen, at the beginning of March. Poplasen is a hardline nationalist who wishes to see the RS integrated with Serbia proper. As the Guardian's Chris Bird pointed out, 'The Bosnian Serb entity shares trade currency, police uniforms and international telephone code with neighbouring Serbia.' The OHR's hope was that Poplasen's dismissal would strengthen the position of the RS's moderate, pro-Dayton prime minister, Milorad Dodik. But even he felt compelled to resign over the decision to keep the disputed city of Brcko under international control. Brcko is vital to the Serbs because it links the two halves of RS territory and had been under de facto Serb control.

It is not only the Serbs who want to strengthen their position. Croatia is also intent on creating its own ethnic area in the Bosnian hinterland to its Dalmatian coastline. This is at the expense of its Muslim allies. Dayton has done nothing to bring about the peace and end to ethnic partition which the west claimed was the justification for its intervention in the Balkans. If anything, we seem closer to the original carve up of Bosnia which President Tudjman of Croatia sketched on the back of a menu card in May 1995 and predicted would come true in ten years time. Perhaps he only got the date wrong.
Gareth Jenkins

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page