Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Extremists Threaten to Tear Bosnia Apart

The international community's failure to confront the evils of ultra-nationalism lies at the heart of the current Bosnian crisis.
By Daoud Sarhandi

In 1995, shortly after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, British historian and Balkan specialist Noel Malcolm wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Dayton had created a dysfunctional country, hewn in two parts and pickled in formaldehyde like Damien Hirst's famous cow.


I found the comparison very apt and used it in my book, "Evil Doesn't Live Here: Posters from the Bosnian War". Malcolm concluded this "post-modern country" was destined to implode.


After a three-year absence, I returned to Bosnia in December 2001 wondering if Malcolm's gloomy predictions were valid.


In late 1998, just before I left the country, there were faint but discernible glimmers of hope - the killing had largely stopped; freedom of movement was improving; private, foreign investment was steadily increasing. People felt better days were on the way.


And such a time might have arrived had those overseeing Bosnia's return to the European mainstream been willing to confront head-on the thorny, residual problem of ultra-nationalism.


But they have not done so effectively, and it is this issue which is at the heart of a current Bosnian crisis - and still threatens to tear the country apart.


Everywhere I went, people told me the same thing: that the situation is bleaker now than it was three years ago; that opportunities are fewer and the outlook dismal.


The night before I was due to leave Bosnia, I went out for dinner in Tuzla with a few old friends. A very bright young man called Ensar came along, and I asked him how his education was going? He told me he would finish five years of university next year.


"What will you do then?" I asked.


"Nothing, of course!" he replied.


Peels of laughter rang out from the Bosnians around the table.


"And in the future?" I asked, trying to inject a tone of optimism into my question.


More laughter...


"Haven't you heard?" he said, "There is no 'future' for us."


As things stand, he is probably right.


Take employment - or rather unemployment: it averages 40 per cent. In many areas - especially in the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska - almost the entire adult population is out of work.


Meanwhile, the black economy has mushroomed. The smuggling of goods, drugs and people has become a way of life for many communities. Countless children are growing up seeing crime as the only way of making a living, and expecting little else.


Education for nearly all Bosnians is now ethnically exclusive. Segregated from their fellow pupils, Muslim, Serb, and Croat children rigidly follow partisan curricula in most subjects - but especially in all-important, opinion-forming topics like History, Religion, and Literature.


Opposition to integrated education is fierce among all groups. And so the Bosnian adults of tomorrow are becoming more distrustful of and alienated from one another than their parents ever were.


More than 250,000 Bosnian refugees are still living abroad. Most are now thought unlikely ever to return, but there are a further 500,000 internally displaced people. Their plight is becoming increasingly desperate: many continue to live in collective centres - trapped in a downward spiral of poverty, depression, and despair.


Returning to their original homes remains practically impossible as many are occupied by other refugees or are in hard-line areas hostile to returnees.


Indeed, apart from a small elite group, material hardship is growing for most Bosnians. Ragged beggars of all ages are now a common sight on the streets of towns and cities.


To put it simply - after more than six years of peace, and more than five billion dollars of international aid - Bosnia isn't working.


And although the international community may well wish to improve the economic landscape - and has even scored some successes by stabilising the currency and creating a functioning central bank - overall it has failed, and for one fundamental reason: the deterioration over the past three years of the political landscape.


Widely respected for its insight into Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia, the International Crisis Group, ICG, wrote recently:


"By recognising Republika Srpska as a legitimate polity and constituent entity of the new Bosnia, the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement embraced a contradiction. For the RS was founded as a stepping stone to a 'Greater Serbia' and forged in atrocities against non-Serbs."


The report goes on to highlight how the Serb Democratic Party - the same party founded and led throughout the war by the indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic - is now back in power in the RS, busily consolidating its control - octopus-like - over all aspects of society.


Furthermore, not only is the RS fundamentally unreformed and dedicated, violently if need be, to restricting access to non-Serb returnees, it is now being kept afloat solely by the international community.


As the ICG puts it, "Were it not for the continuing flow of direct international budget support and soft loans, the RS government would be bankrupt."


While the international community continues to embrace and prop up a political entity created through a campaign of brutality and mass-murder, RS ministers - at local and federal levels alike - seek to undermine, in every way they can, the functioning and future viability of the Bosnian state.


Critics of Dayton are oft reminded by Bosnians and non-Bosnians alike that, "at least it stopped the killing." And while every life saved by Dayton is to be celebrated, this is hardly a justification for the absurd reality, which has followed in the conflict's wake.


Six years on, Dayton's achievements, goals, tenets, and methodology need to be seriously reassessed. Those parts found to be patently defunct should be scrapped and replaced.


By failing to call a spade a spade, by failing to curb extremist tendencies and the separatist aspirations and actions of the ultra-nationalists, especially in RS, the international community is betraying multicultural Bosnia, in spirit and in fact, on a daily basis.


So long as the overall territorial and political structure of Bosnia remains etched in the stone tablets of Dayton, Bosnia will remain an unattractive economic proposition; forever tied to international aid and unable to function without a Western military presence. Bosnia will continue to float around in Malcolm's formaldehyde tank - struggling to find the stability forever denied her.


Whether or not Malcolm's prediction of "more war in Bosnia" comes to pass, it is certain that the current state of limbo is dangerously stultifying and that the people of Bosnia are already paying a heavy price for their peace.


Daoud Sarhandi is the author, with Alina Boboc, of "Evil Doesn't Live Here: Posters from the Bosnian War".