Bosnia deconstructed

The Dayton deal has created a single Bosnian state-but only on paper. Noel Malcolm says that in reality it will merely endorse ethnic partition
January 20, 1996

Burckhardt was right after all. His famous phrase "The state as a work of art" has been rubbished by modern historians, who can see little or no resemblance between a city state and a fresco. But in Dayton, Ohio, last month, a state structure was put together for which only late 20th century art theory can provide a model or explanation. We have learned to live with conceptualist, post-modern or deconstructionist art; now at last we are being offered a conceptualist state, with a deconstructionist constitution.

The new Bosnia will be the geopolitical equivalent of an art-work by Damien Hirst. This, in all seriousness, is the best analogy that springs to mind. Hirst takes a cow, saws it from tip to tail into two symmetrical halves and pickles each half in formaldehyde. A question then arises: it may be an ingenious work of art, but is it still a cow? Similarly with the new Bosnia. It may have the cleverest of constitutions, but is it still a country?

Bosnia and Herzegovina (the new official title) will consist of two "entities": the "Serb Republic" and the Muslim-Croat "Federation." Each entity will have its own government, parliament, police force and army. Each will be responsible, within its territory, for laws on such matters as media and education. Each will be entitled to set up "special parallel relationships" with neighbouring states. Each will have the power to tax. Each, in fact, will possess all the powers attached to governments of proper states, apart from a short list of matters reserved for the central government.

So what will be done at central government level? There will be a Bosnian parliament, a council of ministers and a three-person overall presidency. That may sound like the essential machinery of a Bosnian state, but there will be very little essential work for it to do. Remove the humdrum practical jobs such as air traffic control, or "inter-entity transportation" from the short list of matters for the central government, and it becomes a very abbreviated list indeed: foreign policy, monetary policy, customs and immigration. Are those powers really enough, in the absence of all the other things that states normally do, to keep Bosnia alive?

But the problems go further. Although the central institutions of the Bosnian state may have the right, under the Dayton accord, to deal with those few matters, they may well not have the ability. So many blocks and safeguards have been built into the machinery that it will be easy for one group-let us say, for the sake of argument, the Serbs-to bring the whole thing to a standstill. When the Serbs choose to walk out of the "House of Peoples" (the upper house of the overall Bosnian parliament), it will be declared inquorate-and while the upper house fails to function, no new laws can be passed. Similarly, any decision made in the presidency can be denounced by the Serb representative there as "destructive of a vital interest of the Serb Republic"; if that representative is backed up by the Serb Republic's own parliament, the decision will have to be dropped. There is no provision for checking whether such objections are being made in good faith or just for wrecking purposes. This will be a state in which all real power lies in the two separate entities. Any flickerings of life in the common organs of government can be extinguished at will.

That, of course, is not the way this deal was presented to the world, either by the dapper White House spokesmen at Dayton or by the exhausted members of the Bosnian government delegation. Instead, they told us then and keep telling us now what a positive future the deal holds out for the eventual reintegration of Bosnia. Why should anyone say such a thing? In the case of the Bosnian government ministers, the optimistic phrases can easily be discounted. The pressures on the Bosnian team in Ohio were huge-especially in the last 24 hours, when the Serbian and Croatian teams had already accepted all the main points.

During the three weeks of negotiations, specific requests by the Bosnian government team for clearer wordings, stronger powers or firmer guarantees were turned down again and again. In the words of one Bosnian government negotiator: "Whenever we asked for a change in the text, the Americans would say, 'Don't worry, what you're asking for is already implied.' So we'd say, 'If it's implied anyway, why not make it explicit?' And they'd say, 'We'd rather not do that, because the Serbs might object.'" In the end the Bosnian government signed not because it had got what it wanted or needed, but because it had been threatened with the withdrawal of aid, the loss of diplomatic support, the removal of Croatian military assistance and a permanent prolongation of the arms embargo. It signed because, in those circumstances, it thought it had to; and, having signed, it makes optimistic noises because it has to do that too.

When the American officials commend this deal as a way of keeping Bosnia together, they are being cynically economical with the truth. But at the same time there is something in their own cultural background which makes it easier for them at least to half-believe in this deception. Americans take constitutions very seriously; their entire political and legal tradition makes them feel that if a constitution contains the right pledges and guarantees from the outset, the future of that state can be assured. This new Bosnian constitution does indeed contain many fine clauses about respect for human rights, adherence to international law and commitment to "the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of Bosnia." But the difference between Bosnia today and the US during most of its history is that in the US, all main political forces at almost all times have accepted the validity of the constitution and have wanted to make it work. Where that does not apply (as it patently does not with the present rulers of the Serb-held half of Bosnia), you cannot make people take the constitution seriously just by adding more clauses to say that they should.

Nowhere is this na?ve trust in the force of legal "commitments" more obvious than in the human rights provisions of the Dayton deal. For Bosnia to survive as a country, and be restored to a genuine common life, the most important thing of all is that the refugees who have fled from different parts of Bosnia-more than 2m of them-should be enabled to return to their homes. The Dayton accord, naturally, commits all parties to allowing refugees to return. That is a right. But how is it to be enforced? If any Muslims are brave or foolish enough to return to the towns in eastern Bosnia from which they were expelled at gunpoint, they will find that many of the Serbs who held those guns have now taken off their military clothing and put on policemen's uniforms instead. It is not impossible to imagine that some of those Muslim returnees will find themselves being beaten up in back alleys by the local police. It is, however, impossible to find out where they can look to for help if that happens. Not from the 60,000 foreign troops who, although their job description includes "assisting" the return of refugees, are clearly not being sent there for police work-and certainly not being sent to police the police. Not from the police force of the central Bosnian government-for the simple reason that no such overall police force will exist. And not from the central Bosnian government's army-for precisely the same reason.

When this problem was raised at Dayton, the Americans coined a phrase for it: it was, they said, a "force gap." There would be plenty of Nato heavy weaponry at the war-waging end of the force spectrum, but at the street-corner policing end there was nothing at all. A brief attempt to involve the OSCE at this level was aborted; similarly, the Bosnian government's demand for a guarantee of "free, fair and secure elections" was turned down when the OSCE insisted that it could only monitor elections, not police them.

All that the constitution-builders of Dayton could come up with was a complex series of provisions for commissions and courts to report and pronounce on human rights violations. The force gap, in other words, has been stuffed with paper. A "Human Rights Chamber" will issue judgements on any human rights abuses by the authorities of the Serb Republic; it will then call upon the authorities of the Serb Republic to enforce them. A "Human Rights Commission" will study abuses, prepare reports about them and then pass those reports on to a "High Representative"-a foreign grandee in the Carrington-Owen-Stoltenberg tradition, whose power to make anything happen or stop happening inside the "Serb Republic" will be precisely nil. To understand the nature of the High Representative's real powers, it is sufficient to look at the verbs in his job description. He will "monitor," "provide guidance," "report," "co-ordinate," "facilitate," "participate." So there it is: co-ordinate, facilitate, participate. The appointment of this high official will provide good material for rap artists, but will be of less use to Muslims returning to their homes in Foca or Zvornik.

If this Dayton package had really been designed to promote the reintegration of Bosnia, there are one or two obvious ingredients which one might have expected it to include. Given the power of the broadcast media in any modern society, a nation-wide Bosnian broadcasting system committed to reconciliation would, one might think, be a high priority. But any such project on the part of the central government is not merely omitted from these plans; it is specifically ruled out.

Again, no state can be heading for reintegration so long as it maintains two (or even three) separate and opposing armies. After nearly four years of bitter war, the very idea of trying to integrate these armies may seem, for the time being, absurd. And yet in many other places with histories of fierce conflict-Zimbabwe, Angola, Cambodia, South Africa-the long term aim of military reintegration has been taken seriously from the start. Here it is not even envisaged. One way to begin the process, perhaps, would be to assign particular units of the two armies to guard their respective stretches of Bosnia's external borders, placing those units under the direct authority of the central Bosnian government. But that approach has already been ruled out-because under the Dayton agreement the central government of Bosnia has no responsibility for maintaining the external borders of the Bosnian state.

What can we expect in the next few years? An only moderately pessimistic scenario goes as follows. During the 12 months of Nato military occupation there is no resumption of large-scale fighting. The American soldiers spend a lot of time sitting in their barracks; meanwhile, in back alleys and village lanes in northern and eastern Bosnia, those few Muslims and Croats who try to repossess their homes will be threatened, abused and beaten up. (The same may apply to those few Muslims or Serbs who try to return to the area of western Herzegovina controlled by extremist Croats.) In preparation for the elections in the "Serb Republic," the media there will be put to work in support of a defiant Serb nationalism; the electoral registers will be carefully prepared and the electoral districts gerrymandered. At the central government level, the Serb representatives will do their best to demonstrate that the common institutions of the Bosnian state cannot be made to work. Towards the end of the 12-month foreign deployment, new demands will be put forward by the Serbs; they will know that at that moment the western powers will make almost any extra concessions to ensure the safe removal of their troops.

Then we can expect to see a full-scale campaign of agitation for secession on the part of the "Serb Republic," with a veritable ferment of strikes, demonstrations and referendums. Now that it is to be known officially as a "republic," indeed, its legal case for secession will be much stronger: the whole basis on which the west accepted the break-up of Yugoslavia was that only things called republics were entitled to achieve independent statehood. (Curiously, one of the provisions of the Dayton accord is that the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina will now cease to be called a republic: its new name is just "Bosnia and Herzegovina," which sounds less like a state and more like a geographical expression.)

Will the Muslim and Croat members of the central government then take on the Abraham Lincoln role? Their legal position will be weaker than Lincoln's; no one told him, for example, that the US government had no responsibility for defending America's external borders. Their political position will be uncertain; tens of thousands of Muslim men, still unable to return to their homes in eastern Bosnia, will be ready to go to war again, but the pressure from western governments to stay their hands will be intense. Gorazde will again become untenable; the Croat territory of "Posavina" in the north will again become a flashpoint. If war is not resumed, partition will be inevitable. If it is, and if Slobodan Milosevic has regained his self-confidence (or Franjo Tudjman his self-delusions), it will be war followed by partition.

Looking at all our statesmen and diplomats sipping their champagne at the treaty-signing session in Paris, we have to ask: is that the end result they really have in mind? To which the correct answer is: yes. From the beginning of the Bosnian war, the constant assumption of most western politicians was that territorial changes-accepting the carve-up of Bosnia, in other words-offered the only long term solution. The trouble was that they were not allowed to say so. They had put their names to too many formal statements-CSCE treaties, Security Council resolutions and EU summit declarations-insisting that borders could not be changed by force, and that the integrity of sovereign states (such as Bosnia) must be respected. Why, Douglas Hurd had even gone to Sarajevo in July 1992 and announced, on the record: "Bosnia will not be partitioned."

From time to time, nevertheless, their real preferences slipped out. In mid-1993 a senior official at the British Foreign Office had written that Bosnia should not have been allowed to exist as a state "without first having settled the problem of minorities and frontiers, and probably not before having put in hand a humane programme of population exchanges"-in other words, destroying Bosnia's historical and cultural identity and effecting an ethnic partition. And most recently, Lord Owen has revealed that such a carve-up, based on ethnic geography, was his preferred remedy all along.

What all these arguments were based on was a false assumption about the underlying nature of the Bosnian war. The assumption was that this was a spontaneous ethnic conflict, caused by the mere fact that people of different ethnic identities were living side by side. "Ancient ethnic hatreds" were conveniently blamed for everything; and to no one was this more convenient than to the Serb politicians who had planned and launched the war, for their own political purposes, in the first place. Of the many serious studies of the origins of this war which have been published in the west during the last three years, not a single one has attributed it to "ancient ethnic hatreds." And yet that idea has become so firmly fixed in the heads of our politicians-Americans just as much as Europeans-that the whole weight of western policy has been directed at trying to find an acceptable form of ethnic partition. It is an inside-out sort of policy which fails to see that uprooting hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in Bosnia is the disease, not the cure.

Yet ethnic separation remained, all along, the real policy goal. The problem was how to achieve this, while being publicly committed to preserving the integrity of the Bosnian state. The solution is the Dayton accord: you set up a structure which guarantees, in theory, the preservation of Bosnia, but which leads step by step, in practice, to its disintegration. It is a state designed to undo itself, partition in slow motion-the ultimate deconstructionist work of political art.