Commentary

Fanning the Flames in the Balkans

R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, recently put Balkan issues back on the front burner when he pressured Bosnia’s Serb, Muslim and Croat leaders to replace the country’s three-person, multiethnic presidency with a single president.

That step is needed, he said, to create a stronger, more cohesive state. He added that there should be a firm commitment to such reforms by the time Balkan leaders visit Washington this month to mark the 10th anniversary of the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian civil war. Dayton, Mr. Burns intoned, has served its purpose and now needs to “evolve.”

Mr. Burns apparently never heard the adage, “Let sleeping dogs lie.” At best, his proposal is unwise. At worst, it could re-ignite the Bosnian civil war.

It’s true that the Dayton accords are far from perfect. Dayton created a political structure reminiscent of the waggish definition of a camel - a horse designed by a committee.

Bosnia consists of the Bosnian Serb republic and the Muslim-Croat federation, each with a high degree of autonomy, which are tenuously linked by a weak central government. Most real power resides with the two sub-state units - and even more so with an international high representative backed by a NATO army of occupation.

A decade after the Dayton accords, Bosnia is still largely a pretend country. There is almost no sense of nationhood. The economy is heavily dependent on international aid and the spending of the military personnel and international bureaucrats who infest the country. Indeed, nearly half of Bosnia’s gross domestic product consists of such international inputs.

The reality is that Bosnia is not significantly closer to being a viable country today than it was when the Dayton accords were signed. But Dayton did provide one very important benefit: It ended a three-sided civil war that had consumed tens of thousands of lives. The new U.S. proposal threatens to undo that achievement.

The principal reason why the Dayton agreement has maintained the peace is that the Bosnian Serbs received an extensive degree of autonomy. Their fear of being dominated by the country’s Muslim community (the largest single faction) was the primary reason they had waged a war for independence during the early 1990s. While many of them grumble about some aspects of the Dayton system (especially the often arbitrary conduct of High Representative Paddy Ashdown), they are not sufficiently discontented to resume the armed conflict.

Washington’s desire to create a single-member presidency and establish a more “cohesive” and powerful Bosnian central government poses a clear threat to the Serbs. They see such centralization as a direct attack on the autonomy they have enjoyed for the past decade.

What U.S. officials have never understood is that all factions in Bosnia see politics as a zero-sum game. Since Muslims are the most numerous faction, centralization would play into their hands, creating an opportunity for them to dominate the state. That prospect, however, is anathema to the Serbs (and to the even more decisively outnumbered Croats).

Instead of trying to create a unified state where there is no sense of nationhood, Washington should be moving in the opposite direction. Dayton is indeed just an interim solution. Since Bosnia has never been and never will be a viable country, Dayton should be the prelude to a three-way partition. The Bosnian Serb republic and the Muslim portion of the federation should each become independent countries recognized by the international community. The Croat portion of the federation should be allowed to merge with Croatia.

Partition is the only hope of a truly lasting solution to the Bosnia problem.

If U.S. policymakers cannot bring themselves to make such a bold move, they can at least let the Dayton accords lumber on a while longer. The one thing they should not do is revive the old interethnic struggle for power. Yet, tragically, that is what Washington seems poised to do.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.