The break-up of Bosnia

2:30 pm - November 19th 2009

by Dave Osler    

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They found another mass grave outside Srebrenica this week. But that’s not a particularly unusual event; some 70 such makeshift cemeteries have come to light since the massacre of thousands of Muslim men and boys by Serb irredentists in July 1995.

The Balkans is famously a part of the world where history  impacts on the present, and in that context, the 14 years that have elapsed since the Dayton Accords stilled a conflict that claimed more than 100,000 lives will count for little.

But such a convoluted structure as that concocted by the peace deal was never likely to last. Increasingly there is talk that the centre cannot hold, and that post-Dayton Bosnia is just about to fall apart.

Even as I write this, diplomats are meeting in Sarajevo to discuss how the Office of the High Representative, which bills itself as ‘the chief civilian peace implementation agency’ in the country, can be wound down.

Consideration is also being given to ending the international troop deployment, which has since 2004 technically been under the auspices of the EU-led EUFOR Althea, over the next year or so.

In normal circumstances, it would be fairly automatic for the left to welcome such developments as a return to national self-determination. But in this case, any EU pull-out has to come with a health warning; the resumption of hostilities could rapidly follow.

Under Dayton, Bosnia was divided into two semi-independent entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dominated by Muslims and Bosnian Croats, and the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska.

The West has done everything it knows how to do to somehow render the resultant lash-up stable. Tens of thousands of troops have been devoted to peacekeeping efforts, and aid outlays have been lavish. In real terms and on a per capita basis, more cash has been bestowed on the 4m or so residents than was spent on efforts to rebuild Germany and Japan after world war two.

Yet nothing has worked. Tensions between the three ethnic groups remain strong, and are intensifying. The economy is at a standstill, with 27% unemployment and 25% of the population living in poverty. Corruption is rife, and ethnic patronage throughout public sector employment is pervasive.

Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik is openly seeking to secure secession from the federation. By contrast, Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim representative on the collective presidency, wants to see a more centralised state. Silajdzic is after the dissolution of the RS, which he regards as essentially a reward for the Serbian genocidaires.

As in Afghanistan and as in Iraq, it has proven easier to break up a state than it is to build one; these two men and the constituencies for which they stand are on a collision course. And the historical experience underlines that flare-ups in Bosnia tend not to remain restricted to Bosnia for long.

In the situation we now face, the back-of-an-envelope formulations of both the mainstream hard left and the humanitarian interventionists reveal themselves as problematic. Of course socialists of both schools should want to see local people running their own affairs, sooner rather than later. But what if the price of getting out is several more Srebrenicas?

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Reader comments

I doubt if the conflict will re-start so you don’t really need a military presence there, but I would say Serbian secession is more or less inevitable in the medium term. The Croats would also probably use that opportunity to swallow up their own chunk leaving the Bosniaks the rump that they had immediately after they declared independence. The problem is that the only thing that is holding the place together is the High Commissioner’s dictatorial powers and the financial subvention. But once you start re-drawing boundaries on ethnic grounds, the Serbs of Northern Kosovo and the Albanians of Southern Serbia would demand the same and then what would happen to Macedonia?

I remember the moment when I first realised the complexity of the Balkans during the Kosovan war 10 years ago when my driver pointed to a map of Greece, put his finger on Corfu and said ‘Albanian’.

Is there any evidence that interethnic tensions are intensifying to anything like the levels of 1991? The two federations system has been fairly stable since its inception, and referring to it as a “lash-up” is pretty disingenuous IMO.

Accusations of “rewarding genocide” is one thing, but the idea of forcing concessions from a force that had conquered 60% of Bosnia by military means and had achieved the exact territorial status they were seeking is risible at best. An autonomous Republika Srpska was all that would bring the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table; even the most hardline Bosniak or Bosnian Croat will acknowledge that.

What exactly are Bosnian Serbs going to agitate for? For all their constant secession rhetoric, they wouldn’t actually gain anything from secession and they’re hardly well-positioned to deal with the nuclear grade political fallout that would inexorably ensue. Serbia are hardly going to support it either; for all Tadi?’s (necessary) placating of the hardline elements of Serbian society, ascension to the EU is essential for their economic future—but that’s never going to happen if they recognise a secessionist Republika Srpska. Hell, they’re already pushing their luck over Kosovo.

I’ve served in Bosnia and my opinion then and now is that the breakup of Bosnia is inevitable. It will start with the Republika Srpska, probably after a referendum. The Croats will follow. The RS have been playing a waiting game ever since Dayton.

I’ve served in Bosnia and my opinion then and now is that the breakup of Bosnia is inevitable. It will start with the Republika Srpska, probably after a referendum. The Croats will follow. The RS have been playing a waiting game ever since Dayton.

Why, though? Why risk the ire of the international community and ensure that your new state will never be recognised in return for a marginal increase in sovereignty? The Bosnian Serbs have shown themselves to be pretty accomplished political operators, they’re well aware that secession would be suicidal. It’s just a bargaining chip.


I’m trying to think of a good analogy to illustrate it. Imagine you are in a room with five SNPers, of the diehard variety. Now try to explain to them, rationally, why it would be better for Scotland to stay part of the UK. Then amplify it multiple times.

Welcome to the Repulika Srpska.

1 question-how to put nearly 50% people in 28% teritory??
2.why to get one part accused and prouved for genocid to the table and equaly give them right to negociate for same teritory where they make whorstest think after 2 world war??
its just my 2 cents …

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Political Animal

    RT @libcon < Good (and worrying) piece on future of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

  2. Claire Butler

    This piece makes some interesting points, worth a read – RT @libcon Liberal Conspiracy

  3. Paul Evans

    Have a look? The break-up of Bosnia

  4. Liberal Conspiracy


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