U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has warned the feuding ethnic factions in Bosnia and Herzegovina that if they did not resolve their differences, their country was in danger of missing its opportunity to join the European Union and NATO and become a vibrant part of the modern, democratic West. Unfortunately, there are few indications that her message will be heeded. The elections that took place shortly before Clinton’s visit once again confirmed that Bosnia is a fragile, artificial political entity with little prospect for improved viability. Most media accounts in the United States and Europe highlighted the victory of the supposed moderate candidate, Bakir Izetbegovic, son of Bosnia’s controversial first leader, for the Muslim seat on the country’s collective presidency. But that focus was misplaced for two reasons.
First, some caution is warranted about the extent of Izetbegovic’s moderation. He does seem less extreme than many other Muslim political figures (including Haris Silajdzic, the incumbent he defeated) in the Muslim-Croat subnational entity that makes up one half of Bosnia’s convoluted political structure. It remains unclear, though, just how much different Izetbegovic’s views are from those of his father, and some experts on the region remain skeptical.
Second, election results in the Serbian subnational entity, the Republika Srpska, and for the Serb seat on the collective presidency indicated that ethnic nationalists remain in control. The re-election of Milorad Dodik as president of the Republika Srpska is especially significant, since Dodik has stated repeatedly that the RS ought to be able to secede from Bosnia and form an independent state. Consequently, even if Muslims and Croats might be in the mood for compromise, there is little evidence that the Serbs share that attitude.
The bottom line is that Bosnia seems no closer politically to being a viable country now than it was fifteen years ago when the U.S-brokered (and largely U.S.-imposed) Dayton accords ended the civil war that had cost more than 100,000 lives. Extinguishing that bloody conflict was no minor achievement, but it did not alter the reality that Bosnia and Herzegovina remained an unstable political amalgam of three mutually hostile ethnic groups. The country was politically dysfunctional from the moment it seceded from the disintegrating Yugoslav federation, and the Dayton Accords did not solve that problem.
The United States and its European allies used Dayton as the launching pad for the most ambitious nation-building mission since the rehabilitation of Germany and Japan following World War II. But continuous frustration has dogged the effort in Bosnia, and political paralysis has been the defining characteristic over the past fifteen years. To the extent that the country has functioned at all politically, it has been at the subnational level, that is, the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation. The national government has remained weak to the point of impotence.
Indeed, most real political power has resided with the UN high representative, an official who has often ruled like a colonial governor. Over the years, high representatives have repeatedly disqualified candidates for elections, removed elected officials from office, and imposed various policies by decree.
The country’s economic development has not been much better. Although there are showcase projects (especially in the capital, Sarajevo), the overall economy has remained moribund. Bosnia’s unemployment rate is an astonishing 43 percent, and much of the economy consists of inputs from the international community—both in the form of direct foreign aid and the money that international officials in the country spend in the course of performing their duties. Absent those expenditures, Bosnia would scarcely have a functioning economy at all.
The extent of economic freedom also leaves much to be desired. Two respected annual surveys of global economic liberty (one by Canada’s Frazer Institute and the other by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal) underscore the dismal situation. The former study ranks Bosnia 110th, between Nigeria and Sri Lanka, while the latter places the country 111th, between the Philippines and Mozambique. Being in such dubious company is not a minor point, since there is a strong correlation between economic liberty and economic growth. Bosnia’s anemic standing on the former does not bode well for the latter in the future.
Fifteen years after Dayton, Bosnia still lacks a meaningful sense of national cohesion or even a national identity. If allowed to do so, the overwhelming majority of Serbs would probably vote to secede. Most Croats also would likely prefer to end their status as Bosnia’s smallest and least influential ethnic bloc and choose to merge their territory with neighboring Croatia. In other words, Bosnia is a country in which a majority of the population does not want the country to exist. That is a good operational definition of an unviable state.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Milorad Dodik described the creation of Bosnia as “a mistake.” Although Dodik is not the most admirable character, given his extreme nationalist views, he is correct on that point. It was a dubious approach for the United States and its NATO allies to insist that three mutually antagonistic ethnic groups stay together in a state that only one faction, the Muslims, regarded as legitimate—and did so only because, as the largest group, they were confident that they would control the government.
The Western powers might well have been wiser to have facilitated a partition of Bosnia when the civil war first broke out. It is time to revisit that option, as radical as such a step might seem.
Of course, decisions to partition political entities or dissolve states lacking the requisite cohesion are not panaceas. Some of those efforts prove successful, while others do not. Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce” and, for the most part, the dissolution of the Soviet Union are examples of the former. Britain’s move to partition India on the eve of that country’s independence, and the UN edict to partition Palestine are examples of the latter.
But trying to force unity on the populations of bitterly divided countries usually produces even worse results. The numerous civil wars based on racial, ethnic or religious differences that have plagued the international community over the decades confirm that point.
If a new policy is not adopted, Bosnia will, at best, be a perpetual international political and economic ward. It is certainly not a fit candidate for membership in the European Union anytime in the foreseeable future—unless the EU were, unwisely, to dilute its standards for membership. The European Union has enough headaches already with weak members, such as Greece and Portugal, that have serious economic woes, or like Cyprus, unresolved territorial issues. The last thing the European Union needs to do is to embrace an even weaker, more troubled candidate.
Worse, Bosnia is a political time bomb that might detonate at some point and cause another crisis in the Balkans. Western policy makers simply ignore reality when they insist that Bosnia continue to exist in its current incarnation. Washington and the EU powers should withdraw their objections to a partition of the country. In particular, if voters in the Republika Srpska choose to establish an independent state, or to merge with Serbia, the United States and its allies ought to respect that decision. They should even consider guiding the process to ensure that the dissolution of the country proceeds peacefully. Keeping a vegetative Bosnia on international life support does not serve any legitimate purpose.
Indeed, facilitating Bosnia’s peaceful downsizing offers a potential bonus—a tradeoff that could help resolve another festering problem in the Balkans, the status of Kosovo. Serbia’s leaders are still smarting from the decision by the United States and the leading EU powers to encourage and recognize Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. Belgrade continues to insist that it will never recognize the independence of that breakaway entity, and more than half of the member states of the United Nations still decline to do so as well.
It would be politically difficult for any Serbian government to change that position, but there is the possible framework for a compromise solution. If the West offered Belgrade the prospect of gaining the Republika Srpska (as either an independent state of ethnic brethren or as part of an enlarged Serbia) in exchange for a willingness to accept Kosovo’s independence, it would be a tempting offer. That would be especially true if the Western powers sweetened the offer by agreeing to boundary adjustments regarding Kosovo, allowing the heavily Serbian enclave in the north to remain with Serbia.
There is, of course, no guarantee that Belgrade would endorse such a comprehensive package of territorial adjustments. But new policies on the part of the United States and the European Union are badly needed. That process must begin with respect to the issue of Bosnia. Leaving policy on autopilot, or vainly insisting that the discordant ethnic communities in that country (somehow) create a unified, effective, and cooperative national government—and a viable economy--is an increasingly discredited strategy. Some new thinking is long overdue, and all options, including partition, need to be on the table.
Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of eight books on international affairs, including "Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America" (2008).