A Bosnian tragedy – expert advice, elite consensus

In response to recent articles by Charles Crawford and Dražen Pehar, Jasmin Mujanović calls for a true politics of exchange, of dialogue and the embrace of the ideal of difference as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s penultimate strength, not its fatal flaw.

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By Jasmin Mujanović

The following is a lengthy and, for the time being, the final of my rejoinders to the debate that has emerged since the publication of my original two articles on constitutional reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). The response to the articles in question has but confirmed the two critical realizations that necessitated, I felt, their writing in their first place. One, that there is a genuine interest and hunger on the part of ordinary Bosnians and Herzegovinians for a new, inclusive and progressive political course. And two, that the biggest obstacles to such a new course are supposed “experts,” the political and intellectual elites – the very ones who so egregiously contributed to the emergence of the current situation in the first place.

I feel the, now, five articles I have written on this topic over the past few weeks can stand on their own merit. Readers will either appreciate the problems I sought to address, and the potential forms of solutions I offered and understand them as part of a far larger, and ongoing collaborative project. Or, for one reason or another, they will not – and will presumably find themselves in the camp(s) of the likes of Ambassador Charles Crawford or Dr. Dražen Pehar. I feel I have made the point I wish to make and have neither the patience nor desire to trifle with my own time, the time of my interlocutors or the readers – especially as it seems that the more we talk, the less interested everyone becomes in tackling the challenges of tomorrow. I do not wish to contribute to a growing cottage industry of theatrical and pointless antagonisms when it comes to the topic of all things Balkan – especially when no new points of discussion are actually being raised.

For the purposes of the following discussion, the article is dived into two sections; one, dealing with Mr. Crawford’s objections and, later, a second dealing with Dr. Pehar’s – with some concluding remarks which, hopefully, tie the piece together.

On “Apologetics”

To say that former British ambassador Charles Crawford has “poisoned the well” in our ongoing exchange on constitutional reform in BiH is an almost laughable understatement. After all, as an academic, I find it exceptionally difficult to take seriously anyone whose only apparent expertise are self-referential citations, anecdotal “historical” half-truths, and personal aggrandizement. Indeed, the word “fallacy” barely begins to cover Mr. Crawford’s most recent “response,” as I haven’t the faintest idea what aspect of my discussion on building participatory democratic institutions in BiH today the good ambassador thinks he is addressing by waxing poetic on his particularly skewed “reading” (I use the term loosely) of Yugoslav political history.

Clearly somewhat miffed that I referred to his defense of the anti-democratic and discriminatory features of the Dayton constitution in BiH as “reactionary,” Mr. Crawford began his recent tall tale with the first of many episodes from his Cold Warrior days in the British diplomatic corps. It is circa 1984 and we find Mr. Crawford playing the role of the enlightened humanitarian, going eye-to-eye with a stern Yugoslav Communist official, over the (then) recent trials of Alija Izetbegović and Vojislav Šešelj.

The heroic episode, however, is undermined when war criminal Biljana Plavšić is sympathetically cited (“with tears in her eyes”) to explain the origins of Šešelj’s racism, ultra-nationalism and propensity for the murder and expulsion of civilians, stemming from supposed beatings by “Muslim” prison guards. Aside from the somewhat unreliable qualities of the story’s chief narrators, the claim is doubly dubious in that Šešelj had already established himself as a Serb nationalist years before ever being arrested in the first place. In fact, as early as 1981 and 1982, he had begun a campaign of attacks on prominent “Muslim” (and other) officials in BiH, fear mongering about the supposed “domination” of BiH by the “Muslim” community more generally (a theme we shall return to in short order), and urged the use of violence and repression against Kosovar Albanians who had been peacefully agitating for equal standing within the Yugoslav federation.

I draw attention to this episode because it is indicative of two central and very problematic tendencies with Mr. Crawford’s own work. As we shall see, the “national question” which so concerned Šešelj is one that likewise informs the ambassador’s narrative – leading him into an incredibly selective and disingenuous reading of post-WWII Yugoslav history and the causes of the state’s later dissolution.

Secondly, the ambassador’s narrative also exclusively focuses on the megalomaniacal machinations of particular political and intellectual elites while systematically ignoring the actual substantive experience of “Yugoslavism” for ordinary Bosnians and Herzegovinians. So while V.P. Gagnon has produced an entire book (among many others, whom – yet again – I have already cited) eviscerating similar narratives, producing exactly the sort of hard data demonstrating that the dissolution of Yugoslavia was in no significant way rooted in any supposed inter-communal suspicions or hatreds among the Yugoslav peoples, and that a transition towards a democratic, pluralist system was almost universally supported by the country’s citizens, Mr. Crawford continues to ignorantly claim:

Not only did BiH lack credible leaders pressing for European-style pluralism and the rule of law – there simply was no significant tradition of thinking that way among the wider population.

This is nothing more than deflection for the miserable failure of Western foreign policy towards Yugoslavia as a whole, which as Josip Glaurdić has explained, between 1987 and 1992 watched the Milošević regime orchestrate the dismantling of that state, precisely as popular support for reform had been at its highest. Yet, to Mr. Crawford the hundred thousand anti-war protesters in the streets of Sarajevo in the spring of 1992 are a marginal occurrence, to say nothing of similar protests in Belgrade during this period.

This is a paradigmatic attempt at conflating the lived social experience and history of an entire people with the reactionary political goals of a small set of antagonistic elites, attempting to preserve their economic, social and political privileges – whom the international community has sponsored in these efforts, all along. The result is virtually incoherent: while Crawford slams the Communists for supposedly having created “contradictory and dishonest nationalist-socialist structures that for 45 years played down ‘national’ ethnicity for some purposes, while cementing it in to political life in others” he advocates policies which are far, far more conciliatory to “nationalist” concerns than the Communists could ever even have fathomed.

Meanwhile, any attempts at building or advocating for substantive democratic, participatory structures to challenge these trends are glossed over, dismissed, and met with more anecdotes from dinnertime debates the ambassador once had in Moscow. To wit, Mr. Crawford, regarding your comment about my lack of presence either in BiH or at your various meetings – you may have a point. Between the years of 1992-1996 my family and I, like millions of other Yugoslavs and Bosnians and Herzegovinians in particular, were busy being refugees, fleeing BiH, and attempting to survive in Croatia, Slovenia, Germany and Canada. As such, our efforts at participating in lovely exchanges such as this and the likes of your drawing-lines-in-the-sand meetings in Moscow were somewhat compromised.

In any case, the ambassador’s warped perspective on Yugoslavia is one he clearly continues to espouse, noting that as it concerns contemporary BiH:

Yes, ‘Others’ as a distinct category were marginalised at Dayton and so thereafter. But their numbers, like the numbers of ‘Yugoslavs’ in SFRY, were small enough to be ignorable – and ignored. And that will remain the case far into the future.

If the ambassador means to convey any (even, tokenistic) frustration over this “fact,” it is difficult to discern. Dr. Elena Ćirković is therefore quite correct in noting that:

Mr. Crawford sends the following message to all those who had a Yugoslav identity, lived in ethnically and religiously mixed families, and cared little for or held views countering ethnic nationalism – “you do not exist”. This is a dangerous argument; one which gives support to the ‘ethnic hatred as the root of war’ thesis. It denies the existence of many displaced individuals and communities; many now living as second class citizens in ethnic enclaves within the former Yugoslavia, or abroad.

Much as he ignores the pragmatic, relatively conciliatory, and progressive tendencies emerging in a new-generation of citizens in BiH, which I had previously cited, the ambassador refuses to engage with the actual academic data on the subject (which again, I have now cited on several occasions). It is a petulant response offered here by the ambassador, one not even supported by his own former diplomatic colleagues, to say nothing of the academic establishment – neither of which the ambassador, of course, has any time for.

Unsurprisingly, the position Mr. Crawford arrives at is one eerily similar – at least in “intellectual” orientation – to the one advanced by the likes of Šešelj, as we have already seen.

It is therefore quite comical to see the ambassador rebuke Dr. Ćirković for referring to his account as essentially “Orientalist,” after he had “explained” how the trouble with BiH all stemmed from “a fierce ethno-religious identity struggle echoing down many centuries.” Just when one believes Robert Kaplan’s ridiculous “ancient ethnic hatreds” thesis to be dead, it rears its ahistorical head once more.

Mr. Crawford attempts to draw matters to a close when he opines:

Have the Bosnian elites used [international funds] well? No. The excuse that their wretched failings and corruption over 17 years are caused by the evils of the Dayton constitution does not convince me. Within that flawed framework, a transformative amount more could have been done – and still can be done – to improve living standards and bring in good democratic civic processes.

As on previous occasions, the ambassador’s own supposed “unconvinced” status can only be mimicked here. After what now amounts to dozens of pages of text produced by myself and Dr. Ćirković – all referenced, all cited – without a shred of evidence to the contrary, Crawford defends the Dayton constitution by claiming: “more could have been done – and still can be done.”

How and by whom? Why would the same political establishment which drove the country into war, and has for at least seventeen years obstructed and blockaded any significant reform efforts suddenly, magically, “do more?” As I said from the onset, these people are the problem, this is widely recognized among the citizens of BiH themselves, and it is why I advocated for efforts to circumvent and minimize their influence in the constitutional reform process in the first place.

Crawford’s own explanation for why said reforms have not occurred, however, is more simple: the Bosnians are a just not culturally cut-out for things like democracy. After all, the Bosniak community as a whole apparently “demand that their Islamist-Lite vision of the future constitution of the territory be accepted as the only honourable one.” What a totally believable, well-cited, and not-at-all offensive and borderline racist claim. It is also a claim absolutely supported by the fact that the Bosniak community have by far the most fractured electoral predisposition in the country. It must be because their Islamist-Lite preferences cannot possibly be represented by one party, but rather requires four, even five of them at a time. And there I thought the problem with Zlatko Lagumdžij was that he had abandoned his social democratic principles for self-interested political horse trading, when really the problem is that he is secretly the Ayatollah.

No, no – why provide an analysis, for instance, that might focus on urban-rural or young-old dynamics in voting patterns among the citizens of BiH? No need, the Islamist-Lite thesis will do, or as Crawford has it:

People in local Bosnian communities form their political allegiances not from DNA tests or the latest fashionable political theories, but via their family memories and instincts for survival.

The most ludicrous aspect of the above is that the ambassador apparently thinks it is somehow less offensive to argue that people in BiH are not genetically predisposed to violence but merely guided by their instincts for survival. Crawford essentially ends his analysis on this point, but not before attempting to legitimate his stance through some tokenistic excerpts from some local writers. “Hey, they wrote it,” he wants to say to us, “I’m just repeating it!” But said citations are better left for a later moment.

On unripe discourse

As it concerns Dr. Dražen Pehar’s insertion into this debate, while his contributions are on their face entirely more substantive than Mr. Crawford’s commentary, they are, in the end, equally puzzling. Despite a purported interest in “discursive” politics, which ought to imply at least some sympathy with the citizen-focused practices I had originally advocated for, Pehar provides an analysis that is exclusively focused on the practices and behaviours of political elites. The result is that, like Mr. Crawford, Pehar’s lengthy analysis really only ends up bemoaning the “uncivilized” non-discursive practices of BiH’s political establishment.

The strange aspect of such a conclusion, however, comes from Pehar’s otherwise pointed critique of the Dayton system and the international community’s continued (un)involvement in BiH. One is left to wonder where this continued faith in transformative potential of these self-interested politicians comes from (Pehar argues that we must “persuade the leaders somehow that they ought to take a different, ethical attitude to political discourse”) if everyone agrees that they are all corrupt. If the goal is a politics of compromise and discourse, why not focus on the one group which has actually exhibited a propensity for as much – and would in any case be in keeping with other “discursive” political theories – namely, the citizens?

The second issue I have here, concerns Pehar’s rather bombastic (and unsupported) claim that BiH is once again on the brink of war. Pehar’s belief in such a claim likewise informs the thesis of his book on Alija Izetbegović, which he cites, positing that the former war-time president of BiH is, at least, as guilty for the war in the nineties as Milošević, Karadžić, Tuđman et al. The claims are related in that they both fundamentally rest on a transparent misreading of the Yugoslav dissolution.

The simple fact of the matter is, Yugoslavia’s dissolution did not begin in 1991 or 1992, it began in 1987 at the very least, and its primary instigators were Slobodan Milošević and his Belgrade regime. It is certainly the case that the Yugoslav federation was undergoing a period of serious political and social transformation in the eighties. Yet these transformations were rather the norm in the context of federal states and, moreover, as I have previously demonstrated, the overwhelming number of Yugoslav citizens continued voice their preference for a united, democratic Yugoslav state throughout this period and into the 1990s. The political crisis which begin to grip BiH in 1991-92 then was one manufactured and imported into BiH from without – a fact testified to, if nothing else, by the now widely available confidential conversations between Milošević and Karadžić. Moreover, it was a crisis that evolved as the Belgrade regime continued to show its daily reliance and support for violence and coercive “solutions” – in Kosovo, Slovenia and Croatia.

Had it not been for Milošević there is absolutely no reason to believe that the Yugoslav federation would have fractured in anything akin to the maelstrom of violence that became its defining feature. In this context, Izetbegović was at best a marginal figure. Attempts to “spread out the blame” to Izetbegović, usually on the grounds of some supposed fundamentalist Muslim convictions, which Pehar dutifully reproduces in his book, are therefore rather beside the mark. Not because Izetbegović was a saint among demons – in fact, his administration was marked by indecisiveness, pettiness, corruption and its own narrow brand of chauvinism. Marko Attila Hoare’s text How Bosnia Armed likely speaks most clearly to the man’s absolute ineptitude as a leader of any sort.

The accusations are beside the mark, therefore, because Izetbegović was hardly a Muslim fundamentalist, and any even half-hearted analysis of his role during the BiH crisis of the nineties reveals an almost entirely reactive political program. By which I mean to say that his policies, and the policies of the Sarajevo government more broadly – which was hardly the exclusive of domain of “Muslims” – were in almost every case in response to the overtly aggressive or otherwise antagonistic actions of Milošević and his underlings, and later Tuđman and his cohorts.

The above should not by any means be taken as a defense of Izetbegović or worse still, the policies of his Party of Democratic Action in the run-up to, during or since the war. However, from a strictly historically accurate standpoint, situating Izetbegović or some supposed overwhelming support for “Muslim secessionism” more broadly as a leading motif in the dissolution of Yugoslavia or the war in BiH requires utterly ridiculous mental gymnastics.

In any case, none of this is to say there would not have been “troubles” in BiH or the rest of Yugoslavia without Milošević – but certainly nothing akin to the organized campaigns of ethnic cleansing and genocide which became the Serbian president’s modus operandi. The take-away for the present moment should be clear, then: there is simply no infrastructure for war in BiH today. Milorad Dodik does not have the material support to wage a campaign anywhere akin to the one Radovan Karadžić was able to execute precisely because Dodik has no sponsor, as Karadžić did.

This fact is precisely why, despite many promised referenda on secession, the president of the Republika Srpska remains a pliant lieutenant on the financial teat of international community. His nationalist bravado is nothing more than theatrics – meant to obscure his actual political program that, as with the rest of the BiH political establishment, can best be described as oligarchic kleptocracy.

Finally, a word about Dr. Pehar’s more focused critique of my original constitutional reform proposals. Pehar’s first point appears to be that “BiH’s population has widely recognized and legalized the Dayton constitutional structure,” through regular participation in elections, payment of taxes, and application to vacant jobs in the state services – all of which supposedly legitimizes the constitution’s political standing.

This claim, however, sets an incredibly shallow barometer for political “satisfaction” or “legitimation.” By this logic, those weeping North Korean citizens at the “impromptu public grievances” after the death of Kim Jong-il were “legitimating” experiences for the North Korean state. But then, what other realistic options were there? As it concerns BiH, what do we make of the fact that turnout for elections in BiH has steadily been decreasing, in past three elections barely surpassing the 50% mark? Or that frustration with the political establishment, as previously cited, is essentially universal and public trust in said political elites virtually nil? Or what about the fact that the public service is widely understood to be the exclusive domain of political parties and one of the few sources of “decent” wages in a country where the real unemployment rate consistently hovers around the 40-50% mark? This is hardly a convincing argument.

Dr. Pehar’s second point is broken up into two related concerns, asking first “provided that we ever reach the level of a state-wide referendum à la Mujanović, should we, for instance, adopt a two-third, or a simple, majority rule, or not, and why?” Secondly, the question is raised that “[h]aving in mind the outcome of 1992 referendum on the independence of BiH, what makes Mujanović believe that this time the outcome is likely to be different? A more democratic and politically competent average BiH citizen?”

To begin with, my personal preference would be for a two-thirds standard for implementing any future constitutional reforms (by which I mean, two-thirds of the population, rather than two-thirds of the three “constitutive” peoples for all the reasons I have previously outlined). I base this preference in what is to my mind a widespread standard for constitutional reforms, adopting similar percentages.

As it concerns the “outcome” of 1992, I believe I have largely addressed the point above and on still prior occasions. The whole point of my thesis, all along, has been that democratic-empowerment of individual citizens will circumvent the sorts of elite antagonisms which fractured the Yugoslav federation in the first place, and that the problem was never the “grassroots” animosities of the country’s actual citizens. I will not deny that a certain entrenched level of suspicion exists among the various communities in BiH, but again, as someone who claims to advocate for a pragmatic, discursive politics, I would think Dr. Pehar would appreciate my motivations and, at least, the general direction in which I am trying to move political discourse about and in BiH to.

Lastly, Pehar’s third point brings us full circle, not only in regards to this portion of the discussion, but the exchange with Ambassador Crawford as well. Pehar believes that my citizen-assembly approach drives at supplanting “ethnicity” as the dominant form of identification and that it is therefore “conflict-aggravating” because it is

likely to remind one of Alija Izetbegović’s claim that he fought the 1992-1995 war for an undivided country populated by an ethnically unmarked population, which was conveniently coupled with Izetbegović’s additional claim that ‘Moslems are a majority people of BiH,’ and that ‘the decision-making bodies in BiH should reflect the 1991 census.’

As it concerns the first point: yes, I would prefer that vacuous “ethnic” principles be scrapped as political ideals in BiH. Not because I am secretly agitating for “Muslim domination,” but because I consider the very concept offensive and racist. I should like nothing more than if every significant government post in the whole of BiH were occupied by a self-identifying Serb, provided they were actually qualified for the position and pursued responsible, responsive, and democratic policies, which reflected the interests of all the citizens of BiH. Nor do I have any issue whatsoever with people identifying any which way they would like, provided this identification does not result in or is premised on the discrimination of any other individuals. Radical principles, indeed.

I suppose Dr. Pehar is right, in a sense: this is a “conflict-aggravating” politics I am advocating, but the question is: conflict with whom? My sense of the reaction to my work so far has been that the only people really complaining are foreign administrators and local apparatchiks who either stand to personally profit from the continued polarization and division of political life in BiH, or of the foaming-at-the-mouth, rabid-chauvinist sort. None of whom are what I would consider “legitimate” interlocutors – and I am quite happy to be thought a villain in their eyes.

As I have previously stressed, the entire premise of my work has been to disempower and circumvent these elements because I believe, and have cited concrete evidence for my beliefs, in the powers, abilities and desires of ordinary Bosnians and Herzegovinians to organize a better and more sensible administration of their country.

As such, I take great umbrage to Pehar’s implication that I am some sort of secret SDA cadre, and Crawford’s still earlier (ab)use of Ivo Andrić and Ivan Lovrenović. Dr. Ćirković concluded with a fitting passage from Andrić, whose reputation these days has been unduly beleaguered by truly sinister types, so it seems appropriate for me to cite Lovrenović in my closing.

When we think about the spiritual and historical identity of Bosnia-Herzegovina only in terms of the national and the political, as has been done for the last hundred and fifty years, the problem seems insoluble. Within that framework Bosnia is and remains an insoluble enigma and permanent headache.

As we have seen, this paradigm is one largely embraced by both Mr. Crawford and Dr. Pehar, despite the latter’s insistence on supposedly “discursive” potentialities. Lovrenović, however, proposes a different project, one which emphasizes truly open potentialities of actual discourse:

By its very nature culture is open and inclusive, and ideology (every ideology, and especially nationalism) is closed and exclusive…Nation as culture is a dynamic structure, capable of receiving and giving. It does not hold back from what is foreign but easily makes it its own; it does not fear for its own, but is happy to put it into circulation. This capacity of inclusion, this game of exchange – not cleansing and purity – is a stake in the fullness of identity and communication with others.

This then is a true politics of exchange, of dialogue and the embrace of the ideal of difference as our penultimate strength not our fatal flaw. It is why I advocate for, finally, giving a voice to the people themselves, for their own representation, because I do not trust anyone else to do it for them. Certainly not so-called experts or elites.

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.

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