Book review: Christopher Bennett examines whether the Balkan state is on the cusp of war in Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace

Given the events in Bosnia, it is hard not to feel that Bennett’s book has been rendered obsolete by reality. But if the current crisis should somehow be defused, Bennett should be thanked for producing this remarkably timely book – and making it compulsory reading.
Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia Herzegovina’s ‘entity’ Republika Srpska, during a rally after the referendum in the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale near Sarajevo. AFP
Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia Herzegovina’s ‘entity’ Republika Srpska, during a rally after the referendum in the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Pale near Sarajevo. AFP

The Balkans are once again on the boil. And Bosnia, the most diverse of the six countries that rose from the fratricidal dissolution of Yugoslavia, is again the theatre of turmoil.

Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, has been threatening to secede from Bosnia for years. Much of the world ignored him. Then, to the astonishment of all, he called for a referendum in his province on an explosive question: should January 9 be declared a national holiday? The Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) protested because January 9, in addition to being the Christian Orthodox feast day, is also the day on which Serb chauvinists declared their independence from Bosnia in 1992. It struck them, understandably, as an unacceptable assertion of Serb nationalism – a prelude to the break-up of Bosnia.

The Constitutional Court found the referendum unconstitutional. Even Serbia, defender of the Serbs who live in Bosnia, opposed the idea. The issue should have died at that moment. But Dodik appealed directly to Vladimir Putin. Russia regards itself as the protector of all Slavs – but Bosnian Serb leaders do not ordinarily enjoy direct access to Moscow. Their first port of call tends to be Serbia, and they usually obey Belgrade’s orders. But the Russian president, always eager to irritate the West, received Dodik with some ceremony in Moscow on September 22 and blessed his proposed plebiscite.

The Serbian government immediately fell in line. The vote was held last Sunday. The Dayton Agreement that has held Bosnia together for 25 years was brazenly breached; its enforcer, the High Representative, could do nothing.  

Christopher Bennett’s Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace was written to avert the very questions that will now be asked: is the Dayton Agreement dead? Is Bosnia, having only two decades ago been rescued from the worst violence in post-war Europe, poised to plunge into another sectarian war?

It is hard not to feel, looking at the events in Bosnia, that Bennett’s book has been rendered obsolete by reality. But if the current crisis should somehow be defused, everyone with a stake in Bosnia and the wider region should first thank Bennett for producing this remarkably timely book – and then make it compulsory reading.   

Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace begins with a brisk history of the region and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s that fractured Yugoslavia. Bosnia itself is a country claimed by three peoples and divided into two “entities”.

One, Republika Srpska, is the home of Bosnia’s Serbs; the other, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is predominantly Bosniak, with a sizeable Croat minority. Both entities have shared ownership of a multi-ethnic self-governing district called Brcko. This division along ethnic lines, written into the Dayton Agreement that was signed in 1995 by representatives of the three groups, was not intended to be permanent. Its purpose was to halt the violence, end the siege of Sarajevo, and forge something resembling a state.

But the Dayton Agreement ended up bequeathing to Bosnia the most convoluted system of government in the world. Each entity has its own government, and each has significant autonomous powers. Hovering above them is the central government, representing all peoples of the country. At the head of that is the presidency, peopled at all times by three individuals: a Bosniak, a Serb, a Croat.

Bosniaks, being the largest ethnicity, regard the entire country as theirs and worry that the Serbs will seek to hack it apart. The Croats, who form the smallest minority, would prefer to have an entity of their own. Bosnia is flanked by Serbia and Croatia – the spiritual homelands and guardians of its minorities – and the Muslim majority looks to Turkey, the one-time seat of the Ottoman Empire that brought Islam to the Balkans, as its defender. An overarching Bosnian identity that transcends ethno-religious differences has not evolved.  

The aid given to Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement was so significant that its dispensers believed that ethnic divisions would rapidly dissolve in the solvent of economic prosperity. To their puzzlement, the sectarian passions deepened.

The Dayton Agreement did not cure old hatreds; it froze them. Conflict did not erupt because the Office of the High Representative – occupied by a succession of western diplomats with omnipotent powers appointed by the alliance of countries that financed the peace settlement by bypassing the United Nations – was backed by the muscle to enforce peace.

But the early resolve of foreign peacemakers began to wane, local politicians started mastering ways to subvert authority, and High Representatives stopped being feared.

The pretence of peace – which really meant the absence of outright war – started unravelling at an astonishing speed. 

Bennett is blunt in apportioning blame. Without denying the agency of Bosnia’s politicians, he enumerates the many failures of the foreign peacemakers. The Dayton Agreement, in its understandable haste to end conflict, conferred legitimacy on the very ethno-nationalist claims that had ravaged Bosnia. It gave ownership of the individual to the community: one was a Serb, a Croat, or a Bosniak before one was a Bosnian. The high offices of the state could only be occupied by members of the three ethnic groups. A Jewish or Roma Bosnian, or a Bosnian of mixed origin, could never aspire to lead the country; in fact, he or she couldn’t even be a full citizen of the state.

Washington and Brussels sought to foster harmony among the three factions by dangling before them the prize of membership to the European Union. The Bosnians, they felt, would surely grasp that it was in their long-term interest to rise above ethno-national divisions – only to find that they clung even more fervently to their identities.  

Twenty-five years on, the mistrust persists and corruption is rife. Many of the benignant billions poured into Bosnia’s coffers by foreign donors have disappeared or been diverted to ethno-nationalist causes by local politicians.

Bennett sheds light on an absurd world in which American aid money, intended to prevent ethno-nationalist flare-ups, has been used to hire American PR firms to help glamorise ethnic nationalism. Dodik, for instance, has spent millions on Washington PR execs and lawyers whose job it is to lobby the US government to give him more money.

A 2014 investigation by Lily Lynch of the Balkanist, the finest English-language resource on the region, revealed that, in relative terms, Republika Srpska is the largest European spender on US lobbyist: nearly four million dollars. Some of Dodik’s lobbyists once worked in the administration of Bill Clinton, the president who effected the settlement in Bosnia. Others are people who, in the late 1980s, decamped to former Soviet states to teach democracy to the natives.

Now, without a hint of irony or remorse, they serve a man who, in the eyes of many Serbs, is the heir to Slobodan Milosevic.  

Bennett advances “centripetalism”, a form of democracy he has devised, as an answer to Bosnia’s woes. He offers a blueprint for a state that – if I have understood it correctly (he concedes that there are no existing models for such a framework) – draws people to it by eschewing exclusive control over its citizens.

It is, alas, still a state that is shackled to ethnic identity because its enactment requires the creation of electoral rolls based on ethnicity. No one can predict if it will work – but, as Bennett suggests, it might be worth testing. 

Whatever the merits or demerits of Bennett’s proposal – and we won’t know until it is put to the test – Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace is an important book. Bennett is a highly original thinker and his prose reflects the brilliance of his thought. He ought to be applauded for the labour he has expended in devising his electoral mechanism; and he deserves gratitude too for his clear-eyed view of the failures of the foreign powers.

Bosnians, Croats, Serbs were not long ago part of a formidable country that commanded respect on the world stage. A long period of killing later, they have all collapsed into ethnic enclaves – immense ghettoes where people believe that the only route to security is to build walls around themselves. Where the idea of human multiplicity is seen as a threat. Where difference is feared and comfort is sought in atavistic notions of identity.

In his last public speech, given in Bosnia in 1979, Marshal Tito, the father of post-war Yugoslavia, reminded Yugoslavs that Bosnia was a “Yugoslavia in miniature”: it belonged to no one group but all who lived in it. In a continent that had so recently escaped extinction, this mattered.

He left behind an extraordinary country. It took his successors a decade to destroy it. They are now objects of other people’s charity, mendacious and mendicant.

It is hard to decide if Bosnians are worthy of pity or contempt. 

Kapil Komireddi, a frequent contributor to The National, has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Published: September 29, 2016 04:00 AM


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