Commentary

Imposing Perverted Democracy in Bosnia

The U.S.-led nation-building effort in Bosnia has moved from the impractical to the repulsive. It was always a dubious assumption that NATO troops and an army of international bureaucrats could transform Bosnia into a viable, democratic country. The three feuding ethnic groups — Serbs, Muslims and Croats — had made it clear on numerous occasions that they did not want to live together in a multiethnic state. The much-touted Dayton peace accord merely facilitated a cease-fire; it has not, and almost certainly will not, effect a reconciliation.

Rather than admit failure, the would-be nation builders, led by “High Representative” Carlos Westendorp, are now resorting to tactics that make a mockery of any reasonable concept of democracy. The latest outrage was Westendorp’s removal of Nikola Poplasen as president of the Bosnian Serb republic — one of the two subnational political entities that make up the convoluted Bosnian state. Last September voters dared to elect the radical nationalist Poplasen over the candidate preferred by the Western powers, even though it meant spurning offers of lucrative financial aid for the hard-pressed Serb republic. The offense that led to Poplasen’s dismissal was his refusal to reappoint the incumbent prime minister, Milorad Dodik, favored by Westendorp and the Western governments.

The form of democracy Westendorp and his cohorts are bringing to Bosnia is a version Leonid Brezhnev would have loved. Indeed, the ouster of a duly elected president was hardly the first authoritarian step taken by the High Representative or his NATO backers. Westendorp had previously removed lower level officials in both the Serb republic and the Muslim-Croat federation when they tried to criticize or otherwise resist the enlightened nation-building crusade. More than a year ago, NATO forces shut down radio stations that opposed the peacekeeping mission, and international authorities have routinely struck hard-line nationalist candidates from ballots, often on utterly flimsy grounds. Merely displaying the image of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic can earn a candidate a ban. So can giving a media interview or making a campaign appearance during the “news blackout” period that the international authorities impose prior to elections.

Even the voter registration lists have been manipulated to increase the likelihood of the results desired by the intervening powers. Many of the voters who cast ballots for candidates in the Bosnian Serb republic, for example, are Muslim refugees who fled during the civil war, do not now live in the Serb republic and have little prospect of ever doing so again. More than 20 percent of the representatives in the parliament owe their seats to the existence of such “rotten borough” electoral precincts. That system would be akin to having Palestinian exiles, who left during the 1948 war, vote in Israel’s elections.

One ought to ponder what unintended lessons such arbitrary actions are teaching the people of Bosnia about democratic principles. After their experiences at the hands of Westendorp and his associates, they might be excused for regarding Western rhetoric about the virtues of democracy as nothing more than hypocritical blather.

Westendorp’s trampling of democratic electoral norms is merely one manifestation of how far the international nation builders are willing to go in their frantic effort to preserve the fantasy of a viable Bosnian state. The High Representative has imposed his choice for Bosnia’s currency, flag, national anthem and auto license plates. Even the most ardent nation builders ought to ask: What kind of a country is it when the people living there cannot even decide on such things as a national anthem or the design of the national currency or flag? Nations are built from within; they cannot be imposed by foreign officials, however well-meaning.

The pseudo-democratic nation-building enterprise in Bosnia is international social engineering run amok. It reflects the congenital arrogance of the Clinton administration and the (mostly left-leaning) governments of Western Europe: all that is required for constructive political, social and economic change in any society is to develop a plan; hire smart, energetic officials to carry it out; and fund the scheme generously. Bosnia has been their real-world laboratory for testing those theories, and test them they have.

The evidence is mounting that the experiment is a flop. Bosnia is more ethnically segregated today than it was when the Dayton accord was signed. (Most of the refugees who have “returned home” — and it is a depressingly modest number — have gone from postwar areas in which they were in the minority to areas in which they would be in the majority.) Economically, the country is a basket case. A recent assessment of global economic freedom by a prominent Washington think tank put Bosnia 155th — right between Iran and Somalia. Nearly three-quarters of Bosnian respondents in public opinion surveys state that they will not consider voting for a candidate from another ethnic group.

Bosnia is not a viable country, and in all likelihood it never will be. Resorting to ever more desperate, undemocratic and sleazy tactics in the name of democratic nation building will not change that reality. It is a disgrace for U.S. troops to be put at risk to carry out such a futile and shameful mission. This misguided experiment should be terminated.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and the author or editor of 10 books on international affairs.