Bosnia, rebuilt but still divided
Nov 23rd 2005
From The Economist Global Agenda
Ten years after the Dayton accords, the testing ambition is to bring Bosnia and the rest of ex-Yugoslavia into the European Union
IT IS a beautiful, sunny Sunday. The church door is open to all comers and the abbot of the little monastery is entertaining guests over cups of thick black Turkish coffee. In the fields, a couple of men are working; on the nearby road, a few cars pass on their way to the coast, perhaps families off to lunch by the seaside.
A normal enough scene, but one that tells an amazing story. Ten years ago, when the peace deal on Bosnia-Hercegovina was agreed at an American airbase in Dayton, Ohio, on November 21st 1995, ending a war between Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats and Muslims (known as Bosniaks), in which Serbia and Croatia sought to carve up Bosnia, this peaceful scene in the village of Zitomislic would have been unimaginable. For the monastery is Serbian Orthodox, and it was left after Dayton in an area controlled by Croats and Bosniaks. In 1992, when the war began, Serbs fled; the church, built in 1566, was dynamited. The message was clear: “Don’t come back!” Yet some have.
The church, lovingly rebuilt, reopened in May. There are similar scenes across Bosnia. Catholic churches have been rebuilt in areas where Croats once lived. Hundreds of mosques, dynamited in Serb-controlled areas, have risen from the ruins. In Mostar, a few miles from Zitomislic, the Ottoman bridge, also built in 1566 but destroyed in fighting between Croats and Bosniaks in 1993, reopened last year.
Explaining why there is no longer any active hostility to Serbs returning to Zitomislic, Abbot Danilo, aged 29, says simply that “we have to show that we are willing to live here and people recognise that.” Yet the rebuilding of the church symbolises something profound. To build a country takes more than bricks, mortar and constitutions. In Bosnia, restored security and repaired roads have encouraged hundreds of thousands of refugees to return. Immediately after the Dayton deal, a NATO-led peacekeeping force of 60,000 troops took over the country. Today, only some 6,000 soldiers from a European Union military force remain.
All Bosnians now share common passports. They can travel freely and safely wherever they want across the country. A single customs and border-police service staffs the frontiers. Separate armies have been abolished. Next year a single value-added tax (VAT) regime for the country will come into force. And on Friday November 25th, the EU, recognising how far the country has come, plans to begin talks with Bosnia that could lead to its eventual accession.
From Dayton to Brussels
Bosnia has been transformed, but still has far to go. Dayton ended the war but by imposing a complicated and costly system of government, divided between a Serb part, the Republika Srpska, and a Bosniak-Croat federation, each with its own government and one autonomous district, belonging to neither. Central administration is weak.
On top of all this is the Office of the High Representative. Despite its neutral-sounding name, this hugely powerful position would once have been recognised as an imperial governorship. Lord Ashdown, a former leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, is about to end three and a half years in the post. He can claim that, thanks to the forceful use of his powers (sacking intransigent elected officials, for example), he has led Bosnia “from Dayton to Brussels”.
Foreigners are more impressed than the Bosnians themselves with all this. For them, change has been agonisingly slow. The economy—as far as statistics mean anything—remains weak. Unemployment stands at 43%. Dirk Reinermann of the World Bank argues that, if the grey economy is factored in, true unemployment is around 16-20%. However, he concedes that 18% of Bosnians live below the poverty line, and another 30% just above it.
Bosnian leaders are talking about revising the Dayton constitution. Under American pressure, the eight leading political parties signed a deal this week in Washington, DC, promising to make changes by next March. As it stands, the constitution cannot deliver an efficient government, nor can it bring the reforms needed for Bosnia to enter the EU. All parties agree it must be changed, but they have not yet been able to agree how.
Few Bosnians now fear that a new conflict might break out. Most Serbs and Croats who wanted to create a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia now recognise that Bosnia is here to stay. But they do not like it much. When Serbia beat Bosnia at football, young Serbs in the Republika Srpska came out to celebrate. The Bosnian flag, as opposed to the Serbian one, is rarely seen in Serb areas; the Bosnian Croat flag festoons Croat ones.
Some of the claims made for post-war Bosnia may be exaggerated too. Churches and mosques have been rebuilt but the numbers who have returned to territory controlled by former enemies are not as impressive as they seem. Before the war, the Bosnian population was 4.4m. The war displaced some 2.2m, of whom 1.2m are believed to have gone abroad. Some 150,000 are thought to have died. Today the population may be 3.5m but it could be less (no post-war census has been held). The Bosnian foreign ministry thinks 300,000 Bosnians are now citizens of countries outside ex-Yugoslavia.
According to the UN refugee agency, just over a million displaced people have returned home, of whom nearly 450,000 are so-called “minority returns”—eg, Bosniaks in the Republika Srpska, or Croats and Serbs in Bosniak-dominated Sarajevo. But there may have been fewer minority returns than the figures suggest. Many people “returned” only to regain possession of their property, which they then sold. Minority returnees may have stayed on in parts of the countryside but the towns and cities are overwhelmingly dominated by one or other ethnic group.
Drive through Bosnia at night and you notice something else. Much of the countryside is dark. Many people have repossessed and rebuilt their houses but no longer live there. Thanks to the war and its aftermath, their children have grown up in cities and do not want to live a tough rural life. In many cases, only elderly people have returned, and their families come back just for holidays. Although the post-war returns have dented ethnic cleansing, they have not reversed it. And the war accelerated the drift from country to town.
Mostar should be different: on paper, it is the only truly mixed Bosnian city. But few Serbs have returned, and Bosniaks now live on one side of town and Croats on the other. The dividing line is a street with two names: the Boulevard of Croatian Defenders, or of the People’s Revolution. Yet to a foreigner the change in Mostar is palpable. Even four years ago, the atmosphere crackled with hate. Now that feeling has subsided. Since 2004, the administrations of the two halves of Mostar have been unified. In the old Ottoman (now Bosniak) part of town, souvenir sellers say that, after the reconstruction of what is now called the “New-Old Bridge”, this year has been their best since before the war.
Yet schools are strictly divided on ethnic lines and people simply do not mix. In that sense, Mostar is a template for the rest of the country. Richard Williams, who has worked for Lord Ashdown in (re)uniting the city’s administration, says that, having created the mechanisms to run one city, “it is up to the citizens of Mostar to carry those processes forward.” The same might be said of the country as a whole.
What of the common Bosnian institutions—including state border police, customs and a defence ministry—that have been created in the past few years? The good news is that they exist; the question is how real they are. Nerma Jelacic, the Sarajevo head of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, a news service, dismisses them as “Hollywood sets. They are two-dimensional and have no substance.” Senad Slatina, a political analyst, agrees: “They are so fragile that they would collapse in any tense situation.” Yet the movement towards EU integration is designed to lock the country into a process from which there is no return, in which what is now fragile becomes solid.
One problem is that this process cannot be completed without the arrests of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb wartime leaders, who are still at large a decade after having been indicted by the Yugoslav war-crimes tribunal. The EU has made clear that their arrest is a precondition for entry talks. In Washington this week, Bosnian leaders called for the two men to surrender.
Making the best of it, perhaps
Bitterness still bubbles beneath the surface. Yet in the words of Milos Solaja, head of the Centre for International Relations in Banja Luka, in the Republika Srpska, “[Bosnia] is a country, like it or not. We live here and are citizens of Bosnia.” In Bosnia, even to say that is progress.
At its core, Dayton was a compromise. Bosnian Serbs were forced to give up their war aim of independence and union with Serbia. In exchange for autonomy within Bosnia, they agreed, reluctantly, that it should be a sovereign state. Now, ironically, as discussion focuses on how to reform Dayton, the Bosnian Serbs are its staunchest defenders. Not so Bosnian Croats, a minority in the Croat-Bosniak federation, who feel squeezed between Serbs and Bosniaks. Of Bosnia’s pre-war Croat population of some 830,000, only half remain. Many, especially the young, have gone to Croatia, which, since independence, has offered them automatic citizenship. Some Bosnian Croats demand a “third entity” for Croats, but it is a demand that stands no chance of success.
Since 1999, with the death of the then Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, Bosnian Croats have seen their support from Croatia, financially and politically, cut drastically. The reason is that Croatia’s leaders made a strategic decision: that accession to the EU is more important than Greater Croatia. Serbia’s leaders, too, have come to the same conclusion.
With both Croatia and Serbia in talks, albeit at different stages, with the EU on eventual accession, Bosnia’s borders are (mostly) no longer contested. Hence, says Osman Topcagic, head of Bosnia’s Directorate for European Integration, the EU should see his country as an “economic development and transition issue”, rather than a “political and security problem”. Apart from keeping a beady eye on a few Islamic radicals, he is probably right. But several problems loom for the coming year, many to do with the neighbours.
Trouble in the neighbourhood
Croatia is on track to follow Slovenia into the EU and NATO. Macedonia is also set to be given EU candidate-status in mid-December, an achievement which is designed to lock its Macedonian and minority ethnic-Albanian leaders into a process that should stop any return to the inter-ethnic violence of 2001.
But problems for the region still flow from the final acts of the drama of Yugoslavia’s disintegration. The lesser of two great unsolved issues is the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro. The two states remain locked in a “state union”, although the two function more or less independently of each other. Serbia has a population of 7.5m; Montenegro only 650,000. Yet Montenegro’s government is determined to hold a referendum on independence next year. If it passes, a new state will be born, albeit supported only by a slim majority of its citizens.
The worst unresolved legacy is Kosovo. Of its 2m people, well over 90% are ethnic Albanians who want full independence. Technically Kosovo remains part of Serbia but, since the end of the war there in 1999, it has been under the jurisdiction of the UN. Now, talks on its future status are starting, led by Martti Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president. Serbia’s leaders say that Kosovo can have “more than autonomy, less than independence”.
The talks will probably end with Kosovo getting so-called “conditional independence”. Between now and then, however, violence is a distinct possibility. Some Serb leaders, in Serbia and in Bosnia, are hinting that, if Serbia loses Kosovo, it should be compensated with the Republika Srpska. They know this will not happen, but by using it as a threat, they hope to extract concessions.
Ten years after Dayton, many in the former Yugoslavia are still gloomy. The region suffers from low standards of living and a serious brain drain, and frustration is widespread. Yet it is slowly progressing towards EU membership. And if the church at Zitomislic is anything to go by, what was once unimaginable may yet be possible.