Reactionary apologetics – the curious case of Bosnia’s “international partners”

In response to Charles Crawford’s article on ‘Bosnia’s irreconcilable principles’, Jasmin Mujanović refutes proposals for some sort of confederation and reasserts the need to strengthen civic democratic participation as a prerequisite for constitutional reform.

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By Jasmin Mujanović

In writing my two-part series on constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), I had hopes of spurring a critical but thoughtful dialogue on the future of the country, its people(s) and the role of the international community in facilitating such a process. One such member of the international community, former British ambassador Charles Crawford, was good enough to respond. Unfortunately, what he produced was a tired, barely coherent mess of personal attacks and already failed policies.

The thesis I had advanced was a relatively simple one. On the basis of a short survey of some of the most significant scholarship on the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Bosnian War, and peace process, I argued that the international community’s diplomatic efforts in the region over the past twenty years or so had been marked by a series of short-signed, reactionary and anti-democratic policy positions. Rather than resolving (or even addressing) the underlying causes of the Yugoslav tragedy, the international community had, in practice, endorsed and facilitated the practices of the worst chauvinist elements active in the country at the time, and since then.

I then went on to argue that recent efforts at constitutional reform in BiH had remained stunted by the irrational and discriminatory provisions of the foreign-imposed Dayton constitutional order. What was necessary instead, I suggested, was a democratizing of the actual constitution writing process, which would work towards creating a participatory political culture in BiH, thereby subverting the chauvinistic and oligarchic party machine(s) which have proliferated since the institutionalization of Dayton’s apartheid-like legal logic.

This “procedural” approach, I argued, was explicitly premised on empowering individual citizens to challenge the reactionary, collectivist practices which had turned BiH into an embarrassingly “backward” mafia state. Not because of some inherently vile qualities or supposed ancient hatreds of its peoples – but precisely because ordinary Bosnians and Herzegovinians had been robbed of the opportunity to participate in the steering and administration of their own affairs, by both local and foreign political forces, since at least since 1991-1992.

Hoping for a thoughtful and learned response, what I received instead was school boyish theatrics. Mr. Crawford began his response to me by alerting readers to my youth, to my (unfortunately, lapsed) membership in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and my professed interest in, and identification as, an anarchist.

Yes, Mr. Crawford, I am relatively young – but I find I am getting older every year. I also have a history of organizing in the labour movement and I continue to endorse and believe in the right of working women and men to exercise their democratic rights for economic and political self-determination. Especially, as it concerns the experiences of the most marginalized and exploited workers in our societies – which the “Wobblies” have historically sought to organize when others would not. Finally, I do identify as an anarchist, which means that I reject all forms of systemic coercion and violence, politically and economically, including the state and capitalism, and it is why I am very interested in promoting co-operative, participatory forms of democratic social organization—in particular in BiH, where such a progressive politics are, to my mind, unjustifiably obscured.

I am also, however, Mr. Ambassador an academic, and one who had made certain policy recommendations which I had hoped would be met with something more substantive than red baiting.

What you chose to do, Mr. Crawford, was to skim through my “Citizen Assembly”-like proposal(s) and declare that you had no idea who would facilitate such a process, and that a “less legitimate, coherent or useful process in the Bosnian context is hard to imagine.” Strangely, after reading your response, I was left with much the same impression of your own “suggestions.”

After all, presumably as a man with years of experience in the Balkans, you are familiar with the existence of a robust internationally-facilitated governing and supervisory structure in BiH, centered chiefly on the Office of the High Representative (OHR). Surely, you are then also familiar with the fact that it is this Office, which acts as the highest political authority in BiH, and has the power to veto and suspend laws, sack elected officials and generally impose its will on local actors – as it has repeatedly done so in the past.

You also gave us the impression that you had read my two original articles, where I made it rather clear that I felt that said constitutional reform process would be facilitated by “various activists, academics and experts from across the country, the region and the world.” Moreover, considering the entire thrust of my work was that the international community should finally begin to pursue a politics of democratic, citizen’s empowerment in BiH which it already has a mandate to do, I thought my point here would be obvious. In short, I believe that one model for positive change, would be for the existing international supervisory structures in BiH to work with local and foreign activists, scholars and experts to convene a series of constitutional conventions of the sort previously described. As to your question of whether or not the citizens themselves are “overtly partisan,” I address this question towards the end of this text – though I have commented on as much before.

From here, Mr. Crawford proceeded to explain how my critique of the reactionary qualities of the peace process in BiH, and in particular the imposition of the Dayton Peace Accords, was “obvious enough back in 1996.” It is an ironic remark: one, because I cited numerous scholars who make the point that the abandonment of a principled, democratic, and human rights-oriented foreign policy towards Yugoslavia went back at least to 1987, as I have likewise explained to other commentators. And two, because apparently even after citing himself to make a point very similar to my own regarding the discriminatory qualities of Dayton, Mr. Crawford argues:

It’s nonetheless worth thinking about why this was done. The BiH politicians at Dayton were no fools; nor were Dick Holbrooke and the international expert team working to pull together the draft Accords. What was going on? The key weakness in Mr. Mujanovic’s analysis is that he offers nothing at all on this key point.

It is worth thinking about: which is why I wrote an entire article about the subject, which Mr. Crawford claims to have read. It is also, why I cited over a half-dozen of the most esteemed academics on the subject, in particular the impeccable and exhaustive scholarship of Josip Glaurdić and his recent text, ‘The Hour of Europe: Western Powers and the Breakup of Yugoslavia’. As I did not have the means to reproduce an entire textbook, I settled on merely observing that, in pursuing a warped “realist” power calculus, “significant elements of the international community advocated a foreign policy based on preserving a vacuous conception of ‘stability’ and ‘unity’ rather than a principled insistence on democratization and human rights.” As I went on to note, said emphasis on “stability” would in the case of BiH translate, as posited by Glaurdić, into a “charter for ethnic cleansing.”

I have to confess, considering that within the past year or so, a former US ambassador to NATO has specifically highlighted the duplicitous role of the British government in this period, an op-ed to the same effect has appeared in one of the largest British dailies but a few days ago, and Brendan Simms’ book-length treatment of the subject has been available for years, the Ambassador’s confusion puzzles me. Surely, Mr. Crawford, you are aware of what your own government’s policy at the time and since then has been, no?

Towards the middle of his discussion, Mr. Crawford begins to pivot towards some sort of prescriptive commentary of his own, arguing that “for several centuries, European legal and political thinking has been grappling with a deep problem: how, if at all, to give constitutional effect to linguistic and cultural differences between communities?” Strangely, most of his subsequent arguments do not primarily concern the manner in which West European or more broadly “Anglo-American” states have dealt with this problem – namely, through the empowerment of individual citizens through liberal-democratic practices while constitutionally protecting the rights of minorities, practices similar to what I have been arguing for all along. Rather, Mr. Crawford is more concerned with the failures of Soviet and Yugoslav authoritarianism.

In any case, the discussion is brought to a point when the ambassador opines that “there is nothing a priori bizarre or insane or chauvinistic in devising constitutional arrangements that a) give formal recognition to distinct categories of people (e.g. ‘Serbs’) and b) link political rights to identified territory.” This is correct – and given that I never argued otherwise, one can only conclude that the ambassador’s point here is to suggest that this arrangement, as described, is what Dayton-constituted BiH actually resembles.

The issue, however, is that it is this latter point which is false. What Dayton has created, instead, is an exclusionary and particularistic linkage between particularethnic groups” (whose homogeneity is falsely assumed, as I have previously argued) and particular territories whose present demographic structures are the direct result of ethnic cleansing and genocide. In the process, such a constitutional order has effectively disenfranchised persons of other ethnicities, minorities, persons from mixed-marriages and, most of all, civically-inclined individuals who do not identify either as Bosniak, Serb or Croat. Dayton is not a means of protecting minority rights; it is a means of destroying the very concept of minorities and minority rights through the creation and institutionalization of “ethnically pure” enclaves and “entities.” It is reactionary majoritarianism masquerading as democracy.

Given Mr. Crawford’s repeated references to Canada in this context, let me be very clear here as well: no, Dayton does not in any significant way replicate the relationship or standing of the Province of Québec within the Canadian federation, the position of either the Québécois or First Nations people within the same federal framework, or even the basic contours of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Given its Western-written character, its discriminatory provisions are unique within the context of liberal-democratic practice.

And despite Mr. Crawford’s earnest citing of Wikipedia, his later contention, in the context of Yugoslav constitutional debates, that if “BiH was not for any one community, it would have to be shared or maybe even abolished. But how? Conflict!” is absolute historical revisionism, as clearly demonstrated in a paradigmatic text I have previously cited, V.P. Gagnon’s ‘The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s’.

As such, likewise preposterous the claim that it “was not surprising that Dayton built on these pre-conflict Yugo-constitutional concepts – all the Bosnian participants expected and wanted that.” One, it was most certainly not what the majority of Bosnian citizens wanted, as Gagnon convincingly argues – only perhaps the will of violent, chauvinistic elites who had been imbued with legitimacy by the international community, not the citizens of BiH.

Secondly, Dayton did not follow the legal precedents set out by previous constitutions in BiH, as demonstrated by simply glancing at the respective preambles. The Dayton constitution, which while noting in Article I that BiH “shall continue its legal existence under international law as a state, with its internal structure modified as provided herein and with its present internationally recognized borders,” defines in the Preamble that BiH is now a state “comprised of “Bosniacs [sic], Croats, and Serbs, as constituent peoples (along with Others), and citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” This is to be contrasted with the 1974 Constitution of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (SRBiH) which stated that BiH was “a socialist democratic state and socialist self-managing democratic community of the working people, citizens and nations of [BiH] – Muslims, Serbs and Croats – and of members of other nations and nationalities living in it.” We might even contrast this to the Constitution of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (RBiH), which in Article I stated that BiH was “a sovereign and independent state, of equal citizens [and] nations of [BiH] – Muslims, Serbs and Croats and other nations living in it.”

What is to be noted is that while the constitutions of the SRBiH and RBiH began by asserting the civic character of the state, as well as the equality of its citizens, the present day constitutions lists the actual citizens of BiH as fourth in the nominal hierarchy of representation and, moreover, privileges the exclusionary concept of “constitutive peoples” at the expense of the “Others” as well as, more generally, the actual citizens of BiH.

Unsurprisingly, given Mr. Crawford’s ignorance – or perhaps malevolent misrepresentation – of basic historic facts, he concludes that “some sort of confederation – within which each main community has its own defined territorial space” is the best solution for BiH, for the time being at least, noting that this “is at least crudely ‘fair’; as this term is understood in that part of the world.” In other words, he ends up endorsing precisely the sort of ethno-chauvinist territorial division(s) that had previously been “charters for ethnic cleansing,” once again abandoning all principles of civic democratic participation and basic human rights. I guess that is all those people in that part of the world can be expected to understand.

All of this from a man who had referred to my ideas as “fantasy,” when what he presents us with here is an endorsement of failed foreign policy positions from twenty years ago, which are today, rightly, panned and condemned.

A recent survey of the residents of Mostar found that “many blame the politicians for what they view as the forced and unnatural division of the city. According to the recent polls, some 75 percent of Mostarians would like to see their city unified.” In the wake of more asinine nationalist theatrics, in this case on the part of football hooligans, residents organized a “Chocolate Revolution,” bringing together hundreds in person, and thousands of online supporters. Similar, civic-oriented protests and gatherings have been happening in Banja Luka and Sarajevo, as I have previously discussed.

The people of BiH are slowly and tenuously attempting to reaffirm their basic democratic rights – to have their welfare and futures dictated by their own energies and efforts, and not the kleptocratic policies of chauvinistic political elites. In my own small way, I am attempting to aid these efforts. You, Mr. Crawford, on the other hand have nothing to offer us but more thinly-veiled apologetics for the oligarchs and robber barons. If you and your partners in the international community are not going to help build a BiH which is home to all its peoples, equally, freely then you have no business commenting, advising or analysing developments in the country whatsoever.

Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD student in Political Science at York University, in Toronto, Canada, working on the topic of participatory democratic alternatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Jasmin is a regular contributor to Politics, Re-Spun and Tweets @JasminMuj.

If you are interested in contributing to the debate on constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then please contact TransConflict by clicking here.