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Bosnia in Our Future

And then we get to the point: that we were simply not ready to do it then. But who is “we” in this sentence? The talk turns to the reluctance of parliaments, to how public opinion would have reacted to our soldiers coming back in body bags. Actually, the British and French publics are probably less sensitive to the famous body bags than the American public, so long as they can be persuaded that the end is good and the means patriotic. But nobody even tried to persuade them. Whatever you think of Margaret Thatcher, you can’t help wondering what might have happened if she had still been in charge.

In the second line of excuses, there is a whole regiment of arguments from cultural prejudice. Here are the old saws about ancient hatreds and atavistic tribes. “We can’t stop people who want to kill each other,” I recently heard a senior EU official say. Here is the view that, after all, what else can you expect of the Balkans? This is a view particularly associated in the United States with the work of Robert Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts), but implicit in many other analyses and commentaries. Unfortunately, too, the idea of “Central Europe,” revived in the 1980s (not least in the pages of this journal3 ) as a political-cultural distinction against the Soviet “East,” has now been turned southward against “the Balkans,” in effect trying to make it easier for Poles and Czechs to get into the EU by suggesting that Croats, Bosnians, or Bulgarians belong to a different continent. Cultural determinism as an instrument of foreign policy. And then there is the view, quite widespread among the Western diplomats and soldiers involved,4 that each side is as bad as the other—meaning, in particular, that the Bosnian government side is no better than that of the Serbs or Croats. So a plague on all their houses.

Plainly, it is important not to fall into the opposite mistake: selective idealization rather than collective demonization. To suggest that Bosnia was, as it were, a Switzerland invaded by a Nazi Serbia; that Sarajevo in 1990 was a hotbed of European genius, like Vienna in 1900; that the victims must always be guiltless because that makes things morally and aesthetically easy for their foreign supporters; and that the current Bosnian state is a model multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-everything liberal democracy. “Sarajevo, shining white,” to quote the words of a poem which Julie Christie read out at the beginning of a Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly meeting in Tuzla in October. This is the story that some Bosnian politicians will still try to tell you, but it is not the story that Messrs. Kohl, Chirac, and Santer will be told when I have sat them down in that café in Ciglane.

With a self-restraint and honesty that is, in the circumstances, remarkable, the surviving liberal intellectuals of Sarajevo (who are obviously, by definition, not typical, here as everywhere else) tell a much more subtle and therefore more convincing story. They are the first to be ironical about the ideological flag of what they call “multi-multi-multi” which has been hoisted over their city.

In crude summary, the story they tell goes something like this. For centuries Bosnia was, as everyone knows, a unique meeting place of east, west, and south, Orthodox, Catholic, Bogomil, Muslim, Jew, of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule, and, from the late nineteenth century, of self-consciously national Serb and Croat. Coexistence was often fragile. People respected rather than accepted the other’s customs. And of course coexistence was punctuated in the first half of the twentieth century by two horrible periods of war and conflict along both ethnic and political lines. After 1945, however, under Tito’s iron roof of “brotherhood and unity,” not only was coexistence restored but mixing advanced. To this mixing many factors contributed, not least urbanization, secularization, and some assimilation to a Yugoslav identity.

Naturally, this process went furthest in the city of Sarajevo, and furthest of all among the younger generation, who had their own zany version of post-‘68 youth culture. An editor of the monthly Dani tells me they are fighting for “democracy, human rights, and urban culture,” and when I query the term “urban culture,” he shoots back, in English: “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.” It may not have been the world’s most creative or exciting place: many of the most talented people left. But it had genuine beauty and charm, a civilized style of life, with the café raised to an art form.

However, and here’s the rub, all of this was still under the political roof of an undemocratic, Titoist Yugoslavia. If you talk to the Croat Catholic Cardinal Puljic of Sarajevo, or to one of the spiritual leaders of the Muslim religious community, they both start by explaining how their communities were oppressed under communism. The contortions of Tito’s own nationality policy only made things worse by identifying the Bosniak5 part of the population as a national group called Muslims with a capital “M” (as opposed to the faith, with a small “m”). So here, as elsewhere in communist Europe, there was at once the assimilation and the exacerbation of ethnic/cultural/religious differences by communist rule and repression.

The end of communism was therefore bound to be a critical moment, and there was always only a small chance that the repressed grievances and tensions between the different traditions and communities could ever, even in the most favorable circumstances, have been peacefully negotiated into a stable democratic state. After all, even in the peaceful, prosperous, democratic West, Switzerland is still a great exception. Look at Belgium. Look at Canada. This was true of Yugoslavia as a whole, but above all of Bosnia, which had a Bosniak plurality, but no majority.

Even the slim chance that still existed was, however, then denied them. Tito’s heirs, and specifically the post-communist politicians of first Serbia and then Croatia, either adopted a manipulative nationalist program in order to gain and retain power (Milosevic) or used manipulative postcommunist methods of gaining and retaining power in order to realize a nationalist program (Tudjman). As they pulled Yugoslavia apart, they of course found Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat leaders ready to join them in the enterprise, and Bosnian politics, especially in the country outside Sarajevo, rapidly divided on these lines. The West, and specifically the EU, then recognized the independence of the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and, yes, Bosnia-Hercegovina, without beginning to think through what it would need to turn this unique and delicately balanced historic entity into a workable independent state.

Of course, Alija Izetbegovic and his Bosniak-led Party of Democratic Action (SDA) were not blameless in this whole process. Of course there are many nasty, corrupt, manipulative, and authoritarian aspects of the present SDA regime. Perhaps if you are a UN commander or a civilian negotiator it is the Bosnian government and army representatives who are the most slippery to deal with (as British and French soldiers and diplomats will hasten to tell you). But to jump from that current experience to an assertion of moral equivalence between the three sides is to lose sight of their real differences and to forget how we got to where we are now.

There is an important difference in the degree of responsibility between the Serbian and Croatian regimes, but there is a difference in kind between the responsibility of the Serbian and Croatian regimes, on the one hand, and that of the Bosnian regime on the other. Bosnia was the victim of aggression, first from Serbs and then from Croats. So also with the results. Bosnia and the Bosnians have suffered most, lost most, and are still most likely to lose more.


It is important to grasp that the reality on the ground today is a Bosnia split three ways: between areas of Bosnian Serb, Bosnian Croat, and Bosnian government control. This reality is best represented on paper by an internal UNPROFOR map entitled, pithily, Warring Faction Update. It shows that the Bosnian Serbs—with their “Serb Republic” para-state—control some 48 percent of the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina, in an unwieldy shape, like two lungs (see map), almost cut off in the middle at the so-called Posavina corridor. The Bosnian Croats control some 21 percent, with the Hercegovinan part relatively coherent and conveniently contiguous to the Croatian fatherland, and then some awkward enclaves in the central Bosnian government region. Bosnian government forces themselves actually control less than one third of the territory, and theirs is much the most fragmented part.

Their capital, Sarajevo, is still encircled, with the Serbs still in the surrounding hills and, in the suburb of Grbavica, just a stone’s throw across the river Miljacka. Their main portion of central Bosnia is still separated by Croat-held territory from the Bihac pocket in the northwest. And then there is the remaining enclave of Gorazde—Bosnia’s Leningrad—separated from Sarajevo by some 25 miles of Serb-held land. Following the terms of the cease-fire, I was able to visit Gorazde, courtesy of a US Embassy armored Land Rover, but there was still nothing like safe access for ordinary Bosnian civilians. Some call this territory “rump Bosnia,” but at least a rump is one piece. This fragmented territory is also landlocked. Some supplies come in by air (including arms purchased with Arab money), but for the most part they have to come by land through Croatia—and the Croatians have apparently been taking a large cut of the incoming money, goods, and arms.

In theory, the Bosnian government and Bosnian Croat parts are united in a “Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina” created in last year’s Washington Agreements (and now relaunched in the first agreement to emerge from the Dayton, Ohio, peace talks). But the evidence on the ground is of a continued, almost total division, with the Croat parts run by the parastate of Herceg-Bosna, which has its own insignia, police and armed forces closely linked to the Croatian Army. Its children are taught from Croatian schoolbooks, and since Croatia’s parliamentary elections in October, it even has its own “diaspora” representatives in the Zagreb parliament. In a wood outside the Bosnian Croat exclave of Kiseljak you suddenly come upon two dirty trailers, two disheveled frontier policemen: it’s a Bosnian Croat-Bosnian government frontier post. The EU administrator in Mostar, Hans Koschnick, will tell you how all the peaceful pressure that the EU has so far been able (or willing) to exert has not brought the Bosnian Croat authorities in the western half of Mostar even to let people pass freely across the Neretva River from the pulverized and miserable Bosnian eastern half of the divided city. Even though Croat forces supported Bosnian ones in the recent campaign, they reportedly twice went back to fighting each other. And President Tudjman’s generous offer, in an interview with Le Figaro, to help “Europeanize the Muslims” hardly makes things any better.

  1. 3

    See Milan Kundera’s “The Tragedy of Central Europe” [NYR, April 26, 1984] and my “Does Central Europe Exist?” [NYR, October 9, 1986].

  2. 4

    For a recent example see the article by General Charles G. Boyd in Foreign Affairs (September/October 1995).

  3. 5

    Bosniak” is a historic term which has now been revived by the Bosnian government to describe the nationality of the non-Serb, non-Croat citizens of Bosnia. I use it in preference to “Muslim,” because “Muslim” immediately suggests to the Western reader a kind of religious identity and culture which really does not seem to be characteristic of much of this population. Interestingly, a leader of the muslim religious community, the deputy reis, told me that he objected to the term “Muslim” being used to describe all members of the nationality, however secular, rather than being reserved for the believers.

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