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

Friedman Triggers Bosnian Controversy

American commentator Thomas L Friedman has sparked a storm of controversy with his calls for the partition of Bosnia.
By IWPR

Bosnian local and international officials alike have been deeply disturbed by remarks made by American columnist Thomas L Friedman over the past week in the New York Times.


In two articles for the paper, Friedman argued that multi-ethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina is incompatible with the emergence of democracy in the region and should therefore be "softly" divided among the neighboring countries.


Not only is this view based on erroneous interpretations of contemporary events, but it is also irresponsible.


According to Friedman, democracy is now "sprouting" in Serbia and Croatia, thanks to the new "democratic" leaderships who defeated "evil" dictators of the past.


Meanwhile, he continues, Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims are so stubbornly undemocratic in their support for nationalist parties, that NATO and the rest of the international community should pull out and allow the "soft" partition of Bosnia.


In the same piece, Friedman concludes that "pluralism and democracy are going backward" in Bosnia, where "ethnic identity and hatreds run so deep".


Let's see how some of these issues look from a slightly different perspective shared by a Bosnian and an American, who has worked in Bosnia during the post-war period.


"Sprouting" democracy in Serbia


The new Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica and his government are still refusing to come to terms with the The Hague tribunal's authority to try war crimes, including those committed by numerous Serb officials during the three wars that wracked the former Yugoslavia.


The "evil" former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic remains at large, despite the tribunal's repeated requests for his extradition. As a matter of fact, only a week ago Kostunica and Milosevic met to discuss, among other things, Milosevic's personal security, causing outrage even among his own political coalition.


Kidnapping, mafia clashes and assassinations are still occurring on a daily basis in Serbia. Meanwhile, Yugoslavia remains the regional center for drug-trafficking, cigarette and stolen car smuggling.


Kostunica himself, the new "democratic" leader, was photographed during the war in Kosovo, brandishing an automatic rifle among a group of Serb soldiers, somewhere on a Kosovo battlefield.


While Kostunica is certainly an improvement on Slobodan Milosevic, he and his colleagues still have a long way to go to prove themselves worthy. In the meantime, no one in the West, least of all the Americans, should be fooled by Kostunica's history, nor by this nascent democracy "sprouting in Belgrade".


Nationalists always "triumph" in Bosnia


Had Friedman just spent a few minutes examining Bosnian election results between 1996 and 2000, he would discover that nationalist parties have been losing between 10 to 20 per cent of their constituents per ballot.


In general elections last November, the three main nationalist parties "triumphed" (according to Mr. Friedman) and, for the first time since 1991, lost absolute majority by receiving together less than 50 per cent of votes. Because of this change in the political map, and again for the first time since 1991, there is an "opposition'' majority in the State and Federation parliaments, with a moderate as premier of the Bosnian Serb government.


"Ethnic identity and hatreds run so deep" in Bosnia


This statement reflects perhaps one of Friedman's greatest misunderstandings of the history and the current situation in Bosnia.


Some 550 years ago, when Sephardic Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Spanish Inquisition, they were welcomed to Bosnia, where they continued to prosper and lived side by side with Muslims, and Roman and Orthodox Christians to this day.


Over several hundred years, Serbs, Croats and Muslims have intermarried to such an extent that distinct ethnic identity was not a dominant issue until the rise of nationalism in the late 1980s.


While less than 20 per cent of Black and White Americans marry one another today, nearly 50 per cent of all marriages in Bosnia before the 1992 war were between different ethnic and religious groups. Mixed marriages were commonplace before, during and after the war.


"Soft partition of Bosnia"


First of all, Friedman should be aware that some ultra-nationalist leaders in Bosnia were advocating partition at the start of the war.


The fact that these same ideas are now published by the New York Times is, to say the least, frightening. If the international community agrees to the partition of one country because of a single war and few nationalist parties, then why not create a Greater Albania, Greater Greece, and Greater Macedonia?


This idea, put forward by Lord Owen, American political scientist Robert Mearsheimer, and now Friedman, is disputed by Theodore Couloumbis, Director of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, who believes partition and the redrawing of borders undermine the concept of a whole and free Europe.


If we start by partitioning one country, where would we draw the line? Wouldn't partition embolden those who advocate ethnic separation and are prepared to commit terrible crimes to achieve their goals?


"Pluralism and democracy are going backward" in Bosnia


Nothing could be further from the truth. If Friedman looked beyond NATO for information, he would discover that a small, but growing civil society is emerging and taking hold in Bosnia.


Only one of many examples is the increase in the number of elected women to parliaments and local governments.


In 1997, the international community worked closely with female activists and enacted quotas for women in Bosnian governments. Women made up just one per cent of parliamentary bodies before the war. The figure rose to 27 per cent last year.


The trend has also had a significant influence on politics, as women are now playing a role in the moderation of parties.


From women's groups to the citizens' domestic monitoring group, the Center for Civic Initiatives, local organisations are carrying out activities ranging from voter education to human rights monitoring.


Much has been done and more work is certainly needed. While it will take some time to evolve a democratic, civil society, improvements are clearly evident.


Conclusion


The fact is that a war happened in Bosnia and its post-war reconstruction and reconciliation faces many challenges and has been marred by numerous setbacks.


The situation, however, should not be analysed and explained in the simplified, black-and-white, good-and-evil terms Friedman has employed.


Distortions do not only threaten to create a gross misunderstanding of the real situation on the ground in Bosnia, but also insult the 4.3 million people living in Bosnia and the tens of thousands of Western diplomats and soldiers who live and work here, trying to implement the peace process.


What is really disturbing is that at a time when Western aid and future American efforts in the Balkans are on the wane, Friedman's assessment could be extremely damaging.


We believe in the principles of democracy and pluralism, which include the freedom of speech. Therefore, we acknowledge that Friedman has a right to air his views.


Yet, we remind him and the newspaper which published his articles, that democracy and civic freedoms bring about not only rights, but responsibilities as well.


In this regard, we believe, on reflection, that Friedman, with his erroneous and simplified vision of past and present Bosnia-Herzegovina, was not only irresponsible, but woefully inadequate in informing his readers about Bosnia.


Janez Kovac is an independent Bosnian journalist and analyst. Tanya Domi is an American who served as a spokeswoman for the OSCE mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina and is now pursuing a graduate degree in human rights at Columbia University, New York.