BOSNIA: COULD IT HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?
Today the internationally recognised state of Bosnia consists of a federation of two entities, both with considerable autonomy – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with 51% of the area of the country, divided into ten ethnic cantons, and the Republka Srpska , with 63 municipalities (and a population 82% Serb) . Bosnia is supervised internationally by a High Representative (from the EU) and a Deputy (from the USA). Each entity has its own president, government, parliament and police. The boundaries between the two parts are along the “Inter-entity boundary line,” essentially the military front lines as they existed at the end of the War and the Dayton Agreement. There is, in addition, an overarching central Bosnian government with a rotating Presidency. Elections held since 1995 have shown voters almost invariably voting along ethnic lines.
When the War began, in April 1992, the population of Bosnia was roughly 4.2 million. At least 100,000 died during the conflict, which saw over two million people, almost half the population, displaced, as well as at least 25,000 women and girls (some estimates are far higher), almost all Muslims, raped. Many refugees did not return. Today Bosnia’s population is 3.5 million. The War ended in November 1995, without victory by either side, after the forceful intervention of NATO, which bombed the Serbs to the negotiating table.
The main legacy, as well as an economy in ruins, has been a severely partitioned country, with the three ethnic/tribal groups overwhelmingly concentrated in their particular segments of the country. Though Bosnia’s economy has recovered slowly from the war it remains one of Europe’s poorest countries. It has aspirations for EU membership, but has a distance to travel, designated only as “a potential candidate country.” An unforeseen consequence was to help radicalize subsequently many young Muslims elsewhere, who pointed to Western indifference to Bosnian Serb aggression.
Could the War have been avoided? The war in Croatia obviously affected Bosnia, with the local factions and militias manoeuvring and jostling for several months in similar fashion to those in Croatia a year earlier. And certainly the search for solutions intensified after, and was influenced by, the outcome in Croatia, where EC recognition, with much fanfare, had been followed by a ceasefire and the introduction of UN troops. Bosnia was different and most observers feared that a conflict there could prove worse than in Croatia. One problem was that the three distinct ethnic groups were distributed in patchwork-quilt fashion throughout much of Bosnia, rather than neatly compartmentalised like in the Krajina, making any separation or partition difficult , zero sum and politically explosive..
The issue for Bosnia therefore was whether it was possible to secure international recognition and have a future as an independent unified state, with the further complication that there were rumours that the Serbs and Croats had done a deal to split Bosnia up. This in turn generated doubts about whether the Bosnian Serbs in particular were negotiating in good faith. This amid rumours that the JNA was rotating Bosnian Serb soldiers into Bosnia for the forthcoming struggle and the fact that much of the JNA armour evacuated from Croatia was in Northern Bosnia in areas controlled by the Bosnian Serbs. The alternative, some form of partition, difficult to implement fairly, was strongly pushed by the Bosnian Serbs.
In late February 1992 I was part of a delegation from the ECMM, headed by the Portuguese Ambassador, Joao Salguero, which. met Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, in a hotel in Sarajevo, The meeting took place just over a week before the fateful Independence Referendum which effectively launched the war in Bosnia shortly thereafter.
Karadzic spelled out the Bosnian Serb demands. He was, of course, tailoring his comments for his audience, and presented a position of sweet reasonableness. He rejected the notions of keeping Bosnia within Jugoslavia (the others didn’t want it) and of a Greater Serbia (this very much at odds with the line Milosevic was pushing). It was necessary for a common solution to be found for Bosnia which would exclude the possibility of any one group being dominated by the others. All three communities should thrive without fear of domination. It was important to do a good job on nation building lest the area become unstable for decades.
He compared the situation in Bosnia as somewhat similar to that in Switzerland at the commencement of the Swiss Federation. (One of the buzz word solutions at the time was “cantonisation” a la Suisse.) There was already “the reality of a canton system” on the ground. The Serbs advocated a three-level solution involving three separate ethnic assemblies, with three regional governments, one common national assembly, with each group having equal representation and one common national government. This was not unlike Switzerland, or indeed the EC. He added that the Serbs in Bosnia should have some “organic link” to Serbia, without specifying any details.
Karadzic was scathing on the proposed independence referendum (which the Serbs would boycott) claiming it was illegal and based on a defective law from 1977. He alleged the Muslims (and Croats) were hoping the EC would decide on recognition based on the referendum results without considering that it was done illegally by an unauthorised body. Any EC recognition should only be on the basis of agreement in talks subsequently with all three groups rather than on the referendum outcome. He finished, chillingly and prophetically, that to accord recognition otherwise would cause a catastrophe.
The referendum went ahead with a Serb boycott and an overwhelming majority for independence. Bosnian President Izetbegovic proclaimed Independence on 3 March. As tensions escalated and violent incidents increased, the ongoing EC attempt to broker a peace plan to head off war – the Lisbon Agreement – was amended and adapted in an effort to secure consent. On 18 March all three sides signed the Agreement, which provided in effect for a canton style arrangement for Bosnia with devolvement of many central government powers to local ethnic communities. Some classic fudge language was introduced at the end which stated that the three constituent units would be “based on national principles and taking into account economic, geographic and other criteria.”
Any slight hope that, based on the Agreement, conflict could be avoided was dashed within a few days when, on 28 March, after meeting U.S. Ambassador Zimmermann, Izetbegovic withdrew his signature and declared his opposition to any division of Bosnia. We know the rest. The War began in early April. On 7 April the EC and the USA recognised Bosnia. On 22 May Bosnia was admitted to the UN. By then all hell had been let loose.
So. Was an opportunity lost? The current situation is a mess, a mix closest to the Lisbon Plan. The Serbs seem to have got much of what they wanted. But who knew in March 1992 the horrors that lay ahead? The Serbs had prepared for war, and the JNA effectively delivered for them. It seems that the Bosniaks thought international recognition would be backed up by international support. A careful examination of what had happened over Croatia should have disabused them of that notion. Bosnia had no champion. It needed one.