Bosnia: Peace and Reconciliation
Sumantra Bose

Introduction The political and ethnic landscapes of Bosnia-Herzegovina have changed radically since the war in 1992. The cosmopolitan pot-pourri that existed before hostilities broke out has been irrevocably shattered, and the diverse residents of Bosnia-Herzegovina now lead a tense, segregated existence. Many of the problems that the region has faced since the end of war were due to fatal misunderstandings of the situation: peace plans faltered and broke down time and time again. In this interview Sumantra Bose, Ralf Dahrendorf Fellow and lecturer in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, considers the various plans and options for peace and reconciliation in this scarred land.

How easily have ethnically mixed communities co-existed since the war?

Sumantra Bose: Since the war, Bosnia has been a nominal single state, because its borders are internationally recognised. The greater Serbia and greater Croatia projects which sought to carve up Bosnia-Herzegovina in a formal partition during the war have been thwarted.

However, since the war, Bosnia has been divided into three zones of control. I would refer to these as three national and nationalist statelets with an overwhelmingly homogeneous population. Very roughly, the Serbs control about half of the country, which is known as Republika Srpska, a radically autonomous unit formally within Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Croats control about 20 percent of the territory, and the Muslims control the remaining 30 percent, including the city of Sarajevo. There have been some returns of refugees and evicted peoples from all three communities since the war. Nonetheless, each of these three statelets--Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat--still have an overwhelmingly homogeneous population. The old population mosaic of Bosnia-Herzegovina is destroyed, possibly forever.

What is happening as a result of some of the refugees' returns is that there are now some minority enclaves within these homogeneous zones of control, these national and nationalist statelets. But if you go, for example, to Sarajevo, it is quite clear that this is a Muslim city and the capital of the de facto Muslim statelet with Bosnia-Herzegovina, which covers about 30 percent of Bosnia's territory, rather than in any meaningful sense the capital of the common multi-national state. Similarly, Banja Luka in northwestern Bosnia is the largest city in the Serb part of Bosnia. However, it had 16 mosques, all of which have been razed to the ground. It is an overwhelmingly Serb city now, even though there were sizeable concentrations of Croat and Muslim minorities until the war. If you go to some of the Croat-held areas of Bosnia, you will find very few non-Croats. Each part of the country is not exclusively but overwhelmingly homogeneous, and although returning minorities are present in each of these zones, they are barely tolerated. So things have changed radically.

Why didn't the Vance-Owen plan succeed?

Bose: The Vance-Owen plan wanted to cantonise Bosnia-Herzegovina. It planned three cantons each controlled by Serbs, Muslims and Croats. That made nine districts, with Sarajevo as an internationally administered special district, a tenth mini-canton.

The Vance-Owen plan was the last international proposal that sought to salvage a mixed, united Bosnia-Herzegovina. All subsequent international proposals, including the ones that culminated in the Dayton peace agreement in November 1995, were essentially partitionist even though they claimed otherwise. Vance-Owen was the last heroic effort in early to mid-1993 to salvage some sort of a common multi-national state in the real sense of the term. Why didn't it work? I think it didn't work primarily because it had been overtaken by events on the ground. By 1993, Bosnia was already divided into three separate statelets and military zones of control.

The Vance-Owen plan had many points to commend it, but it was obsolete given the pace at which events unfolded in the year since March/April 1992, and the degree of real territorial division and fragmentation, aided by ethnic cleansing, that had taken place.

What did the the Dayton peace agreement, hope to achieve and do you think it has been a success?

Bose: The Dayton plan has created a strange limbo state: formal sovereignty for the whole of Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is only one subject of international law, but based on radical autonomy for the three peoples. Formally Dayton divides the country into two entities, not three. One half is the Republika Srpska, the Serb statelet, and the other half is something called the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the Muslim-Croat Federation is completely dysfunctional. The Muslims and the Croats have proved unable to co-operate in any meaningful sense since the federation was established as a shot-gun marriage between the two, with American blessing, in 1994.

In reality, the country is divided into three entities, not two, and three zones of control as I have outlined, in close to 50 percent Serb, 30 percent Muslim and 20 percent Croat. Dayton has also put in place a strangely convoluted and Byzantine governmental structure. There is a weak central government with some institutions, and the efforts of the implementers of Dayton in the post-war period have been directed at strengthening those central institutions so that the common state becomes viable and has some chance of becoming a state in a real sense. By and large however, that hasn't worked.

Though the architects of the Dayton peace agreement would deny it strenuously, I think it is more or less fair to say that Dayton formalised the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina that resulted from the break-up of Yugoslavia and the ensuing war, even while maintaining the nominal integrity of the common state. So real power resides at the Entity level, and in the Muslim-Croat federation, also at the canton level. Most Croats and Serbs would not want to live in one of the Muslim-majority cantons; similarly for Serbs and Muslims in Croat-dominated cantons. There are a couple of mixed cantons, but even those are divided territorially, as well as otherwise. I think the basic problem is that it is extremely difficult to sustain an island of multinational coexistence in the context of the fragmentation that has taken place in the former Yugoslavia over the past decade.

The overwhelming logic of this fragmentation and the overwhelming impetus of this fragmentation has been the creation of nationally homogeneous states and statelets of various sorts. So, in a way, what the international community is trying to do in Bosnia is buck the tide, and it is not easy to fight against the current, especially when the vast majority of both Serbs and Croats in Bosnia disagree with the idea of a common Bosnian state.

What do you believe have been the biggest obstacles to peace in Bosnia?

Bose: The legacy of wartime conditions, the ghettoisation of the three peoples into these three compartments, these de facto national and nationalist statelets. There is a serious problem of legitimacy of the Bosnian state as far as the vast majority of Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats are concerned, and the Bosnian Muslims are confused, frustrated and themselves divided. Some of them now probably believe that a formal partition would have been preferable to the strange limbo arrangement of a state that exists on paper as a subject of international law, but is paralytic and dysfunctional in almost all other ways.

However, we must remember that as long as there is an independent sovereign Serbia next door, and an independent sovereign Croatia next door to that, the loyalties of the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats will at best always be divided. There will always be a competing focus for their loyalty and their allegiance. The former Yugoslavia had avoided this choice because people could be both at the same time. They could be Bosnians and they could be Serbs because there was an overarching political framework that accommodated all these different layers of identity. That is no longer an option. This is the crux of the problem. It is an interlocking constellation of very adverse domestic and international--i.e. regional--circumstances that keeps the Bosnian state as a tenuous, internationally sponsored construct.

How contingent is the situation in Bosnia on a peaceful and democratic Serbia and Croatia?

Bose: Both Croatia and Serbia have experienced changes of regime within the past year. First, the autocratic strong man of Croatia, Franjo Tudjman, attempted a land grab in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the expense of the Bosnian Muslims in 1993-94. It didn't quite work, but it showed that Croatia was by no means any less ruthless than nationalist Serbia towards the integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina and towards the Bosnian Muslims in particular. Second, on October 5 2000, Mr Milosevic was finally toppled from power in Serbia. There is no doubting the immense significance of both these changes. Changes of regime in both Croatia and Serbia and the arrival of more decent, democratic, civilised governments in Zagreb and in Belgrade are a very important step forward towards democratisation and normalisation throughout the post-Yugoslav region. Nonetheless, these developments haven't solved the internal problem of legitimacy and coexistence with Bosnia-Herzegovina. A lot of people thought, rather simplistically, that if Belgrade becomes tolerant, or Zagreb becomes civilised, suddenly Bosnia-Herzegovina will work as a state.

However, as you might know, in November 2000, elections were held at various levels of the complicated governmental structure put in place in Bosnia by the Dayton peace agreement. Nationalist parties with rather shady wartime records won large-scale victories among both the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats. The Muslim electorate was more split, but even their parties that could be classified as Muslim nationalist parties managed to do quite well in the vote. So it wasn't that democratisation in Croatia or Serbia had this great transformative impact on Bosnia-Herzegovina, which highlights what I believe is a serious, endogenous, internal problem of legitimacy of the Bosnian state, of course related to the broader regional context--it's impossible to separate Bosnia-Herzegovina from the two surrounding countries and from the former Yugoslav region as a whole--but I think Bosnia is destined to remain divided territorially and psychologically for some time to come. There is a serious internal endogenously generated problem of legitimacy, the fact that the three communities--Serbs, Croats and Muslims--cannot agree on the legitimacy of the Bosnian state as yet. That is the bottom line.

Have there been any provisions made for the Bosnian army, and how would that be divided along ethnic lines?

Bose: That is an important question. In fact it is being debated at this very moment. The possibility of creating a unified Bosnian army is crucial as a long-term security guarantee for the country and the region. One of the accomplishments of the international presence in Bosnia since the end of the war has been the relative stabilisation of the security situation, to the extent that freedom of movement is now a reality in most parts of the country. For example, in the summer of 2000 which I mostly spent in Bosnia, I travelled by bus like most ordinary Bosnians. I noticed that there were Bosnian Serbs travelling to Sarajevo, Bosnian Muslims travelling to Banja Luka, which is the largest Serb city in Bosnia, in northwestern Bosnia, and so on and so forth. The situations is not such that people can't go to "enemy territory".

Freedom of movement has been assured by the presence of the military-implementation forces which were initially known as I-FOR (Implementation Force), and since 1996 have been known as S-FOR (Stabilisation Force). This is a NATO-led enterprise, even though there are troops contributed by various non-NATO countries as well. However, S-FOR is not going to be around in this divided country forever. That security guarantee will not be there forever, though it will be there for the foreseeable future.

There is talk of a unified Bosnian army. The war left three different armies on the soil of Bosnia. There was the VRS, which is the Bosnian Serb army; the HVO, which is the nationalist Croat army; and there's the Armija BH, which is an overwhelmingly Muslim Bosnian force. Under the federation agreement, the shotgun marriage between Croats and Muslims under American auspices which I referred to earlier, the Croat militia, the HVO, and the Muslim army, the Armija BH, were nominally integrated into a single force. If you go to Bosnia you would see that they sport identical uniforms, common insignia and so on, but they are not functionally integrated because these people still distrust each other way too much in order to co-operate. After all, the Croats and the Muslims fought a very bloody war of their own, in parts of Bosnia in 1993-1994.

Then there is the Bosnian Serb army, which is a tale unto itself. There is some international pressure now to integrate these three into one force, but even if that happens it would be nominal rather than real, functional integration. One needs to point out that the Bosnian Serbs are now the weakest of the parties militarily, while the Bosnian Muslims are now the strongest of the factions militarily. This is a radical change from most of the war period when the Bosnian Serbs were by far the strongest, and the Bosnian Muslims by far the weakest. Since then, the Bosnian Serb army has basically disintegrated, while the Bosnian Muslim army has been built up under the aegis of an American train and equip program, involving everything from supply of heavy weapons to expert training by American military professionals. So the balance of military power is very different in Bosnia today from the war period. But a common standing army of Bosnia remains a very distant prospect. The people are too divided.

This feature was taken from an interview with Sumantra Bose at the London School of Economics and Political Science on November 16, 2000. Copyright the London School of Economics and Political Science.