Commentary

Bungling Democracy in Bosnia?

By Gary Dempsey and Aaron Lukas
September 22, 1998

ZAGREB, Croatia — Nearly three years after the Dayton Peace Agreement brought an end to the fighting in Bosnia, the international community is in a panic over the probable outcome of the latest general elections. By most estimates, Serb nationalist candidates made significant gains.

Upset with that prospect, election organizers abruptly postponed releasing early results. What’s worse, Western officials are now discussing disregarding the election results altogether. Speaking anonymously, one Western diplomat said that extreme measures are a possibility. Specifically, he suggested that U.N. High Representative Carlos Westendorp, the Western diplomat in charge of implementing the Dayton Peace Agreement, might dismiss the incumbent Serb member of the tripartite national presidency, if he wins, and turn Bosnia into an outright protectorate. Another plan being considered would divide the Serb half of Bosnia into five cantons, or governing districts, thereby salvaging an enclave for the defeated U.S.-backed candidates.

Apparently, Western-style democracy is only applicable when voters pick the “right” candidates. A nationalist victory would be troubling, but less so than the West’s willingness to abandon democratic principles at the first sign of trouble. Besides, the disappointing election results are hardly surprising: it was the Clinton administration’s flawed Balkans policy that helped create them.

For example, even though the moderate president of the Serb half of Bosnia, Biljana Plavsic, complained that nationalists were exploiting Serb fears of foreign manipulation — “blam[ing] us for too much cooperation” with Washington — Secretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Bosnia two weeks before the elections to bribe Bosnian voters with Western aid. Highlighting the economic benefits they would receive if they voted the way Washington wanted, Albright explained that the election offered a “clear, consequential choice,” by which Bosnians “can decide whether this country will be a country that prospers from trade and investment or a country that stagnates in isolation.” Now, Washington’s votes-for-dollars scheme appears to have backfired.


The recent elections in Bosnia illustrate the problem with Washington’s hubristic attempts to impose democracy from the top down. By brazenly meddling, the Clinton administration alienated voters and probably encouraged the outcome it most fears. Washington must now live with that outcome or betray the very principles it has spent three years trying to cultivate.


Washington’s mishandling of the ongoing conflict in the Serbian province of Kosovo also contributed to the likely victory of nationalist candidates in Bosnia. Although supposedly neutral, economic sanctions and the increasing threat of military intervention have lead many Serbs to conclude — not unreasonably — that the deck is stacked against them.

Most significant, Washington has failed to project an image of sensitivity to Serb concerns. Many Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of Serbian history and their Christian Orthodox faith. In fact, Kosovo is where Serbia’s medieval Nemanjic Dynasty fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1389 and is the home of the Pec Patriarchete, one of Serbia’s oldest and most cherished religious sites. Washington’s demand that Yugoslavia preemptively withdraw its forces from Kosovo — or face NATO intervention — has alienated many Bosnian Serb voters who reject the prospect of a Kosovo controlled by Albanian nationalists.

The current sanctions against Yugoslavia have also contributed to the anti-Western backlash among Bosnian Serb voters. They note that Turkey has repeatedly cracked down on Kurd secessionists in its southeastern region, bombing their forces and razing their villages, but has not been subjected to sanctions. In fact, just four days after Belgrade’s first crackdown in Kosovo, Turkish security forces — backed by combat helicopters — killed 26 Kurdish Workers’ Party separatists in the southeast province of Bingol. Washington’s silence in the face of that crackdown was in marked contrast to the outcry over the Kosovo crackdown.

What’s more, earlier sanctions impoverished Yugoslavia’s general population, not Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who became enormously rich by dealing in the black market for smuggled imports. Seeing average Serbs indiscriminately punished by international sanctions, Bosnian Serb voters have come to reject candidates aligned with Washington.

The recent elections in Bosnia illustrate the problem with Washington’s hubristic attempts to impose democracy from the top down. By brazenly meddling, the Clinton administration alienated voters and probably encouraged the outcome it most fears. Washington must now live with that outcome or betray the very principles it has spent three years trying to cultivate.

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst and Aaron Lukas is a trade policy analyst at the Cato Institute. Both authors spent two weeks in the former Yugoslavia observing the Bosnian elections.