Bosnia – not your father’s Sporazum

The current politics of “2 against 1” reflect the failure that is Bosnia and the danger that a Dayton arrangement acceptable to none of the country’s players – except maybe for Dodik – could provoke challenges even more unexpected and indelible than those so far evident.

By David B. Kanin

In politics, 3 is a bad number; 2 is much better. A simple pair of adversaries face each other down. They talk to, fight, and kill each other. The main problem is knowing whether each is playing the same game – is the point conflict management or zero sum resolution? In either case, the work of Monica Duffy Toft at Harvard suggests that decisions reached on the battlefield tend to be more durable than those negotiated in the absence of a clear military decision.

With three sides things are much less clear. Two gang up on one, destroying it (thus establishing the number 2) or else fail to do so and usher in a period of strategic opacity. Alliances shuffle among the three communal sides and various informal patronage networks that cross the lines, further muddying economic and social waters.

There was a time when the Bosnian component of Yugoslavia seemed to have only two sides that mattered. The interwar struggle between the royalist Serb regime and Croatian leaders occasionally produced discussions and even agreement on bi-national division of territory and influence. If World War II had not intervened, the 1939 Sporazum might have transformed the Karadjordjevic’s Yugoslavia into something like the post-Ausgleich Austria-Hungary. In that case, Bosnia’s Muslim (not yet “Bosnjak”) population would have been subject to a bifurcated effort to simplify – that is to say expunge – its identity.

That is what Milosevic and Tudjman had in mind in the 1990s, of course, but a defiantly coalescing Bosnjak community aborted that neo-Sporazum. Nevertheless, international rhetoric and intervention failed to broaden the term “Bosnjak” from an ethnic to a civic marker, and so a consociational Bosnia-Herzegovina emerged at Dayton. No matter the civic ornaments pasted to the country’s notional constitution, Bosnia suffers the burdenof “3.”

Now there is a new Sporazum. Milorad Dodik, Bosnian Serb strongman and tormenter of international viceroys, is exploiting the frustration many Bosnian Croats feel toward an electoral system that condemns them to suffer the deficiencies of civic politics, while their two communal competitors enjoy the benefits of consociational representation. The sharply different political rhythms of the centralized Serb Republic and the fragmented and dysfunctional Bosnjak-Croat Federation permit Dodik to encourage the two Croatian Democratic Parties (HDZs) that they are better-off dealing with him than with their supposed Bosnjak and civic federal partners. In a nutshell, Bosnia’s Serb and Croatian elites agree that whatever differences they have with each other are much less salient than the problems each has with Bosnia’s Bosnjak plurality. At this point, whether Zlatko Lagumdzija formed his Federation government legally hardly matters. When a new Bosnian state government will come into being matters even less.

Still, Dodik should not gloat too loudly. Three remains a bad number and things can change. The HDZs have yet to figure out a way to overcome an internationally imposed political legality that permanently disadvantages Bosnia’s diminishing Croatian population. They are in danger of something like what happened to Croatia’s Serbs, although in a variant much more like Chinese water torture than Flash and Storm.

The fighting and subsequent diplomacy of 1995 destroyed a Krajina Serb community that had been becoming coherent since at least the time when Austria-Hungary brought railroads to the old Military Frontier. Those responsible for the Erdut Agreement may believe they engineered the reintroduction of Serbs into a multi-ethnic Croatian democracy. What actually happened is that Croatia’s residual puddles of Serbian settlement became a supplicant minority in a resolutely Croatian national state.

Bosnia’s Croatian politicians likely know their community faces a similarly diminished status in the face of a burgeoning Bosnjak identity (a subject obscured by wishful multi-culturalist rhetoric) and a hard-bitten Bosnian Serb autonomism. Dodik is useful to them only as long as he has something to offer, and as long as the Bosnjaks and the country’s international overseers continue to impose a civic ideology that can only divide, not unite. The number 3 also will work in Dodik’s favor only as long as Croatia continues to treat Bosnia’s Croats like distant and embarrassing relatives.

The danger is that Dodik may figure this out and offer a new Sporazum designed to institutionalize the current “2 against 1” politics. The key indicator of trouble would be if he offered to cede land to what would make real the much-feared “Third Entity,” by having it straddle the Federation and Serb Republic. A Serbo-Croatian agreement to expand Croatian cantonal administration into the “anvil” and Serbian-controlled territory abutting the Sava (possibly including arrangements for movements by some Serbs from the affected areas and, perhaps, Croats wanting to leave Federation cantons in Central Bosnia) could be implemented despite international howls and the certainty that the transformed “Bosnia-Herzegovina” would be forever barred from the EU. Croats would have their de facto Entity (no matter how many politicians were disqualified by UN or EU viceroys) because informal patronage networks, trade with Croatia, and cooperation between Bosnia’s Serb and Croat bosses would trump dysfunctional Federation and central Bosnian structures. The fact of the matter would be that two of Bosnia’s three consociational communities (with apologies to Messrs. Finci and Sejdic) would then agree on a permanently “non-civic” future.

At this point, there would be no “Bosnia,” but there would be an angry and defiant Bosnjak community. Religious and secular nationalist factions would strive for leadership, not just in Bosnia but among Bosnjaks in the Sandzak as well. Some Serbs initially might feel satisfaction at Bosnia’s further entropy, but Bosnjaks are not going to quietly succumb to the logic of “2 against 1.” Further defeats in Bosnia would undermine the Bosnjaks’ Western/European orientation and provide opportunities for those Bosnjaks influenced by the global resurrection of Muslim self-confidence to increase the currently small support for a more religious communal future.

  • In any case, it is not clear how long Bosnjaks are going to continue to suffer quietly the serial disappointments they have endured since they had the Dayton agreement imposed on them in 1995.

Of course, this notion of a Sporazum with teeth looks unlikely now – for all the noise he makes, Dodik so far has proven unwilling to carry out secession threats and may well not take the risk of enabling a Third Entity. Still, the current politics of “2 against 1” reflect the failure that is Bosnia and the danger that a Dayton arrangement acceptable to none of the country’s players (except maybe for Dodik) could provoke challenges even more unexpected and indelible than those so far evident.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)

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