Commentary

Taking Sides and Taking Chances in Bosnia

By Gary Dempsey
February 12, 1998

Earlier this week President Clinton was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in Bosnia. But his longest-remembered legacy there may be his decision to take sides in the power struggle between Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic and former president Radovan Karadzic. By interfering in internal Bosnian politics, the president could easily worsen an already volatile situation.

Plavsic says she supports a unified Bosnia. Karadzic, who has been indicted for war crimes, supports separatism. Last month, Clinton initiated an $88 million loan package aimed at strengthening Plavsic’s support. “It is crucial that the people who support Plavsic see there are benefits from doing so. This money is very carefully targeted; these are her towns,” explained one senior administration official.

Clinton has also gotten behind Plavsic via NATO. Last week, the faction loyal to her needed one more vote to elect her choice for prime minister. After Karadzic’s supporters adjourned for the night, NATO troops intercepted an absent pro-Plavsic delegate en route to Zagreb and returned him to the capital. Plavsic’s supporters reconvened the parliament and elected a new prime minister while Karadzic’s allies slept.

And that is not the first time Plavsic has benefited from NATO’s actions. Last summer, armed NATO forces helped her purge policemen loyal to Karadzic from stations in Banja Luka and nearby towns. NATO troops also seized television transmitters that were broadcasting anti-Plavsic propaganda.

But what does Clinton risk by taking sides in the power struggle and backing Plavsic? Quite a bit, as it turns out.

First, openly backing Plavsic could eventually delegitimize her political authority. Pointing to the U.S. role in her rise to power, many Serbs feel that their government is being manipulated by external forces, that their right to self-determination is being trampled. Indeed, Serb hard-liners say that the Serb half of Bosnia is on “the verge of chaos” because of the United State’s “transparent attempt” to manipulate their politics.


It is hard to imagine that this latest intervention will reduce political tensions or foster greater Serb goodwill toward the United States and its allies.


Backing Plavsic could also end up breaking Bosnia into even smaller rival enclaves. Plavsic’s political foes, including those led by Karadzic, still control 39 of 83 seats in the parliament and dominate the eastern part of the country. Upset with her stated desire to keep Serbs part of a multi-ethnic Bosnia, Karadzic has ordered his supporters to be prepared to risk their lives in battle. Numerous Serbs now believe that the U.S. aim in backing Plavsic is to divide and conquer them. As Gen. Charles Boyd, former deputy chief of the U.S. European Command, explains, “by taking sides the United States has convinced many Serbs that its intent is to split Srpska into two parts … thus fatally weakening it.”

Another danger in backing Plavsic is that she may be just as anti-Muslim as Karadzic himself but is skillfully using the United States to further her own political influence. Her past comments about Muslims are well-known. In 1992 she endorsed a plan to divide Sarajevo with a Berlin-style wall, cramming the city’s Muslim population into the old Ottoman district. “It’s the habit of Muslims to live this way,” she explained. “They need to live on top of one another. It’s their culture.” She also claimed that Bosnia’s Muslims are “genetically deformed” Serbs who converted to Islam. With each generation, she asserted, “this gene simply becomes concentrated” and “gets worse and worse.” “I’d like to see Bosnia completely cleansed of Muslims,” she told an interviewer in 1993.

There is also the prospect that backing Plavsic will result in U.S. casualties. Last August in the town of Brcko, policemen loyal to Karadzic attempted to oust a police chief who had declared himself a supporter of Plavsic. U.S. troops escorted the police chief to protect him against an outbreak of violence. They were greeted by angry crowds, including bussed-in agitators, who hurled rocks and two-by-fours. Two U.S. soldiers were wounded, and troops were forced to fire into the air and use tear gas to drive the mob back.

All this suggests that backing Plavsic is a gamble that can materially worsen an already volatile situation. It also suggests that the U.S. will become further entangled financially and militarily in the internal politics of Bosnia. In fact, Western diplomats are already talking about a major infusion of money to Plavsic so she can pay public pensions and government salaries. Furthermore, NATO forces have begun conducting operations to protect her government, such as surrounding pro-Karadzic strongholds during her prime minister’s inauguration last week.

It is hard to imagine that this latest intervention will reduce political tensions or foster greater Serb goodwill toward the United States and its allies. If the Nobel committee is seriously considering awarding their highest prize to President Clinton, they run the risk of honoring the author of renewed bloodshed.

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.