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The Siren Call of Partition Could Lead Only to Disaster for Bosnia     Print Email

Whenever the going gets rough in Bosnia, someone revives the idea of separating Croats,Bosniak Muslims and Serbs to preserve the peace. This idea is wrong.

Not only would partition fail to preserve the peace, it would restart war, precipitate ethnic cleansing, cause untold human suffering, set back Croatia and Serbia from European Union membership and produce a Bosnia inimical to U.S. interests.

It was precisely the effort to separate ethnic groups that caused the last war. The Serb war objective was to reduce the Muslim and Croat populations on territory controlled by the Republika Srpska Army (VRS). The Croat objective was analogous -- to reduce the Muslim and Serb populations there.

Unlike Belgrade, Zagreb realized that the ethnic cleansing would create an Islamic state in central Bosnia, something that the Croatians did not want to see. That is why Croatia cooperated in forming the Muslim/Croat Federation and its joint armed forces, which Zagreb saw as a vital bulwark against an Islamic Republic.

Nowadays, post-Milosevic Serbian officials confirm their solid support for “One Bosnia” because they realize that anything else would not only put an Islamic Republic on their border but also aggravate Serbia’s difficulties with its own substantial Muslim minority. While some Americans imagine that Serbs might take Republika Srpska in exchange for giving up Kosovo, that idea is anathema in Belgrade: many policy-makers want Serbia in the EU as quickly as possible and others are still attached to Kosovo (and would only contemplate a partition of Bosnia in conjunction with a partition of Kosovo, too).

Indeed, Belgrade’s war objective in Bosnia was to enable 100 per cent of the Serbian and other refugees and displaced people to return to their homes there, Bosnia, if they wanted to do so. During the conflict, I talked about this many times to the Bosnian army’s commander, the late Rasim Delic, and it was also the key demand of the Bosniaks at Dayton. The Bosniaks are committed to a single Bosnian state (although not necessarily a “unitary” one since that term in its accepted sense could certainly not be applied to the population of Bosnia during the Dayton negotiations, a time when most of the Serbs and many Croats in Bosnia wanted their own statelets).

Why did the U.S. and Europe come down on the Bosniak side of this question in the mid-1990s? There were many reasons, but two were predominant. The idealist one, used a great deal in public, was preservation of multi-ethnic democracy and rejection of the ethnic cleansing and genocide committed principally by the forces of the VRS and their Croatian equivalent, the HVO. The realist one, often high up in confidential memos to the U.S. secretary of state, was to prevent the emergence of a “non-viable, rump Islamic republic that would act as a platform for Iranian terrorism in Europe.” (Jihadist terrorism in the U.S. had not been invented yet.)

Was there reason to worry about a radicalized Islamic republic in Bosnia? Is there reason to worry about it today? The answer is “yes” to both questions. While the Bosnian Muslims are generally moderate to a fault, the crimes committed against them during the war caused noticeable radicalization, as did the military supplies that flowed to them from Iran and the mujahedeen who came from all over the Arab world. Give them a postage-stamp country -- or maybe two, since their population is not concentrated only in central Bosnia but also in its western part – and you are guaranteed serious radicalization. Try to herd them all into central Bosnia and you can be certain of jihad. It is hard to imagine that an Islamic Republic (or two) in Bosnia would be any more welcome to Washington today than in the 1990s.

It is easy (one might say facile) to claim that Bosnian Croats want to be part of Croatia and that Bosnian Serbs want to be part of Serbia and so we should let them. In fact, Croatia does not want the Bosnian Croats or their territory and never did. Zagreb even during the war preferred to have the Bosnian Croats lined up along the country’s edge as a kind of buffer zone inside Bosnia separating Croatia from the Bosnian Muslims. Likewise most Serbs do not want the Bosnian Serbs inside Serbia, since they would radicalize politics there. Neither Serbia nor Croatia, which anticipates EU membership this year or next, would want to risk delaying EU entry by a so much as a month as the price to pay for absorbing their compatriots in Bosnia.

Nor, as some claim, is it a “majority” of Bosnia’s population that does not want Bosnia to remain an independent, multi-ethnic state within its current borders. No census has been done in Bosnia since before the war. But a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that close to half of the population, if not more, is Muslim. They were already well over 40 percent of the population before the wars, and subsequently more Croats and Serbs have left the country than Bosniaks.

Moreover, there are Bosnian Croats and Serbs who are loyal to the Bosnian state and fought for it during the war. Though Bosnia is much more ethnically segregated than before the war, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians today live or work in areas where their ethnic group is not the majority: these are people who either refused to move during the fighting or who returned there afterwards and would not be interested in moving again. I am confident that this point would be borne out by a referendum on maintenance of a single Bosnia, provided the referendum occurs in the entire country. Advocates of partition never propose that.

Nor would a referendum quiet the faction of Americans who want to dismantle Bosnia for the sake of pursuing another policy agenda of their own -- demonstrating that what they like to label “nation-building” is pointless and therefore the U.S. should not be doing it. After all, this activity, what I prefer to call “state-building,” requires that the U.S. government have serious capacities to help fragile states and states emerging from conflict to establish a safe and secure environment, rule of law, stable governance, a sustainable economy and a modicum of social well-being. That means a Federal government with a serious civilian expeditionary capacity to ensure that when required that America’s interests in international stability can be served. Anyone hostile to enlarging the staff and capacity of the government in Washington is not going to like that.

But in the end it is Bosnians who have to take responsibility for maintaining their own state. When given reasonable incentives, like the EU offer of a visa waiver, Bosnians have regularly managed to organize themselves to get what they want. All of Bosnia’s political parties support elimination of the discriminatory provisions in the Bosnian constitution that have been ruled in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is time Bosnians amended the constitution accordingly.

The most important step Bosnians could take is to amend their Dayton-dictated constitution to permit legislation required for EU membership to pass without any of the “vital national interest” and “entity” vetoes that have plagued Sarajevo’s EU aspirations for the past 15 years. Bosnian Serbs and Croats will get into the EU a lot quicker through that route than by challenging borders in the Balkans, returning the region to war and trying to annex themselves to Croatia and Serbia, where they would be unwelcome.

Daniel Serwer is professorial lecturer at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a Senior Fellow in its Center for Transatlantic Relations. He served as State Department Special Envoy for the Bosnian Federation from 1994 to 1996.