Commentary

The Balkans: International Mission Is Now a Mockery of Democratic Principles

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 31, 2000.
With the signing of the Dayton peace accords in 1995, the United States and its NATO allies committed themselves not only to helping bring peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina but also to helping build a democratic political system after the breakup of Yugoslavia. That effort has failed. Despite systematic attempts by Western powers to undermine them, nationalist parties fared well in the November elections, as they have in every election since 1995. Bosnia is a Potemkin democracy: a colony of the West run by increasingly arrogant and autocratic international bureaucrats. Equally troubling, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has adopted similar tactics in Kosovo, and that pattern threatens to become the norm wherever nation-building missions are undertaken.

One glaring abuse has been the lack of respect for freedom of expression. Officials from NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations harass or suppress media outlets that dare to criticize the Dayton accords, the conduct of the NATO peacekeeping force, or the decisions of the special war crimes tribunal. How far such powers can go became apparent in April 1999, when the OSCE’s puppet media commission ordered a Bosnian Serb television station to carry an address by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright on the Kosovo crisis. Apparently freedom of the press in Bosnia means that media outlets can be required to transmit statements by a foreign official dealing with events in a neighboring country.

The international authorities also have used questionable tactics with regard to a core component of any democratic political system: the holding of elections. Candidates for public office have been barred from the ballot by the Office of the High Representative (the top international civilian body in Bosnia)—often for transparently cynical reasons. In the 1998 national elections, for example, commissioners disqualified four Bosnian Croat candidates because of alleged biased coverage in their favor by television stations in Croatia.

The authorities also toyed with the idea of disqualifying the Bosnian Serb Radical Party’s Nikola Poplasen, who ultimately won the presidential election, for making a television appearance in neighboring Serbia on the eve of the election. Such an appearance, some election watchdogs argued, violated the 24-hour “media blackout period” imposed in Bosnia.

Matters escalated before the spring 2000 municipal elections, when the commission in charge banned the entire slate of the Radical Party (which had won the presidency in the previous national elections). That action would be akin to the Federal Election Commission in the United States disqualifying the Republican or the Democratic parties.

Banning candidates they dislike is not the only method international authorities have used to manipulate election results. Manipulating voter-registration lists has been a more pervasive tactic. Instead of requiring a voter to cast a ballot in the district in which he or she currently resides, election rules allow the voter to cast a ballot for candidates in the place where he or she resided in 1991, before the Bosnian civil war erupted.

But most of the refugees have little prospect of returning to their prewar homes. In the 1997 elections, six municipalities elected exile governments. About one-fifth of the parliament in the Bosnian Serb Republic (one of the two political entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina) consists of delegates of Muslim parties “elected” by voters who are unlikely ever to set foot in the Serb republic. Indeed, the 1998 victory of the West’s favored candidate for the Serb seat on Bosnia’s three-member presidency was due almost entirely to the votes cast by about 200,000 displaced (primarily Muslim) voters. Allowing massive numbers of nonresidents to cast ballots delegitimizes the democratic process.

When all else fails, international authorities simply remove elected officials they dislike. The most prominent official purged to date was Poplasen, but he is hardly the only one. Literally dozens of Serb, Croat and Muslim officials have been ousted—and often prohibited from running for office again.

The international authorities are running Bosnia as a protectorate with an increasingly tattered democratic facade. The high representative’s dictatorial tendencies include matters large and small. He has imposed his own choices for the country’s currency and the design of new coins. His office even directed the selection of a new national anthem.

What is occurring in Bosnia today is not the evolution of a democratic system, but the ugly face of new-style colonialism. Worst of all, ambitious would-be nation-builders apparently see the Bosnia intervention as a template for similar missions in the Balkans and beyond.

The same pattern of media control, for example, is already emerging in Kosovo. NATO forces shut down one Albanian-language newspaper in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, for publishing a story contending that the peacekeeping force was biased in favor of the Serbs. Another was threatened with a fine and closure for having the temerity to describe KFOR, the NATO-led peacekeeping force, as an occupying army. Political correctness reigns supreme in Kosovo, with international officials decreeing that one-third of the candidates for the recent municipal elections must be women.

The nation-building effort in the Balkans may have begun as a well-meaning attempt by Western leaders to help construct pluralistic, democratic societies from the ruins of civil war. The results, however, confirm Lord Acton’s observation that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Regardless of the initial motives, the international missions in Bosnia and in Kosovo have turned into a mockery of democratic principles.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign, policy studies at the Cato Institute and the editor of “NATO’s Empty, Victory: A Post-Mortem on the Balkan War.