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

This essay originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 31, 2000.
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With the signing of the Dayton peace accords in 1995, the United States andits NATO allies committed themselves not only to helping bring peace toBosnia-Herzegovina but also to helping build a democratic political systemafter the breakup of Yugoslavia. That effort has failed. Despite systematicattempts by Western powers to undermine them, nationalist parties fared wellin the November elections, as they have in every election since 1995. Bosniais a Potemkin democracy: a colony of the West run by increasingly arrogantand autocratic international bureaucrats. Equally troubling, the NorthAtlantic Treaty Organization has adopted similar tactics in Kosovo, and thatpattern threatens to become the norm wherever nation-building missions areundertaken.

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 tocriticize the Dayton accords, the conduct of the NATO peacekeeping force, orthe decisions of the special war crimes tribunal. How far such powers can gobecame apparent in April 1999, when the OSCE's puppet media commissionordered a Bosnian Serb television station to carry an address by U.S.Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright on the Kosovo crisis. Apparentlyfreedom of the press in Bosnia means that media outlets can be required totransmit statements by a foreign official dealing with events in aneighboring country.

The international authorities also have used questionable tactics withregard to a core component of any democratic political system: the holdingof elections. Candidates for public office have been barred from the ballotby the Office of the High Representative (the top international civilianbody in Bosnia)--often for transparently cynical reasons. In the 1998national elections, for example, commissioners disqualified four BosnianCroat candidates because of alleged biased coverage in their favor bytelevision stations in Croatia.

The authorities also toyed with the idea of disqualifying the Bosnian SerbRadical Party's Nikola Poplasen, who ultimately won the presidentialelection, for making a television appearance in neighboring Serbia on theeve 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 thecommission in charge banned the entire slate of the Radical Party (which hadwon the presidency in the previous national elections). That action would beakin to the Federal Election Commission in the United States disqualifyingthe Republican or the Democratic parties.

Banning candidates they dislike is not the only method internationalauthorities have used to manipulate election results. Manipulatingvoter-registration lists has been a more pervasive tactic. Instead ofrequiring a voter to cast a ballot in the district in which he or shecurrently resides, election rules allow the voter to cast a ballot forcandidates in the place where he or she resided in 1991, before the Bosniancivil war erupted.

But most of the refugees have little prospect of returning to their prewarhomes. In the 1997 elections, six municipalities elected exile governments.About one-fifth of the parliament in the Bosnian Serb Republic (one of thetwo political entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina) consists ofdelegates of Muslim parties "elected" by voters who are unlikely ever to setfoot in the Serb republic. Indeed, the 1998 victory of the West's favoredcandidate for the Serb seat on Bosnia's three-member presidency was duealmost entirely to the votes cast by about 200,000 displaced (primarilyMuslim) voters. Allowing massive numbers of nonresidents to cast ballotsdelegitimizes the democratic process.

When all else fails, international authorities simply remove electedofficials they dislike. The most prominent official purged to date wasPoplasen, but he is hardly the only one. Literally dozens of Serb, Croat andMuslim officials have been ousted--and often prohibited from running foroffice again.

The international authorities are running Bosnia as a protectorate with anincreasingly tattered democratic facade. The high representative'sdictatorial tendencies include matters large and small. He has imposed hisown choices for the country's currency and the design of new coins. Hisoffice even directed the selection of a new national anthem.

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

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

The nation-building effort in the Balkans may have begun as a well-meaningattempt by Western leaders to help construct pluralistic, democraticsocieties from the ruins of civil war. The results, however, confirm LordActon's observation that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Regardless ofthe initial motives, the international missions in Bosnia and in Kosovo haveturned into a mockery of democratic principles.