The Lessons of Bosnia, Ten Years On
The Lessons of Bosnia, Ten Years On
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

The Lessons of Bosnia, Ten Years On

The saddest thing about the tenth anniversary of the end of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is that it is taking place as late as 2005. During the three and a half years of the conflict, the international community's lack of political will meant that many earlier opportunities to intervene and bring the fighting to a swifter conclusion were missed. If serious pressure had been brought to bear on the warring parties in 1992 to accept the earliest peace plans, ethnic cleansing might well have been reversible, and thousands who perished in the conflict would be alive today.

So the first lesson for today's policy-makers from the tenth anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement is that early intervention may be more politically difficult in the short term, but is much less costly in the long run than an intervention that comes too late. It is a lesson that appeared to have been learned -- at least for European conflicts -- by the time Macedonia took centre stage in 2001.

The second lesson is that when you do intervene, there is no point in being half-hearted. The initial post-1995 dispensation in Bosnia had a massive military presence with insufficient political authority. The immediate result was that Sarajevo's Serbs abandoned their homes, making it the last city in Bosnia to be ethnically cleansed -- and after the peace agreement had been signed. The process drifted for several years, until the international community's High Representative acquired the "Bonn Powers" of intervention in Bosnia's legislative system. True, this creates a dynamic of international interference versus local ownership in Bosnian politics. But this has proved a largely positive experience, certainly compared with what came before.

The third lesson is that Europe should be realistic about its own ability to measure up to the challenges it faces. Jacques Poos's rash promise of 1992, "Voici venu l'heure de l'Europe," should be an awful warning to all European leaders hoping to put the EU on the map. Yes, the EU is developing the ability to act as a security provider in its own neighbourhood; but in the 1990s, it promised to bring peace to the former Yugoslavia and was utterly unable to deliver. It was an exaggeration of its own ability repeated, on a smaller and thankfully less apocalyptic scale, by the lacklustre EU Police Mission in Bosnia since 2003.

The fourth lesson is that drafting a constitution which will actually be operable is not always best done at the highest levels of international diplomacy. The Bosnian state is composed of two powerful sub-state entities, one of which in turn is composed of ten more or less (usually, less) multi-ethnic cantons, with one strategic town, Brcko, given a status of its own. Belgium's infamous system of six governments looks straightforward by comparison, but unlike the Belgian structure, the Bosnian arrangement was erected by a series of international agreements and rulings between 1994 and 1999, with very little input from the country's locally elected representatives, let alone the Bosnian people as a whole. It has now gained a certain level of legitimacy through longevity, but still burdens Bosnia with too heavy an administrative class for such a small country.

The fifth lesson is that justice matters. In previous conflicts elsewhere, it was easy for those who had perpetrated atrocities to be quietly pensioned off (at best) or indeed to remain in positions of power for years (at worst). But the institution of the international war crimes court for Yugoslavia, and its successor the International Criminal Court, will make it very unlikely that such individuals will get away with mass murder in future conflicts.

The sixth, and more positive, final lesson is that the pull factor of European integration does make a difference. For the first few years after the war, it was easy for Bosnians to believe that, sooner or later, the foreigners would go away, and the 1995 outcome, unsatisfactory for different reasons to the maximalists of all sides, could be revisited by force, with the assistance of traditional allies whether near (Serbia, Croatia) or far (Russia, Iran). Now, however, we see Bosnians of all backgrounds collaborating on the common project of their country's European future. The framework has moved from the nineteenth century game of territorial aggrandisement to the twenty-first century game of integration. Of course, this also means that, once the Bosnians are ready, Europe must be prepared to deliver its side of the bargain.

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.



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For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

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