Inertia in Bosnia

Inertia in Bosnia

The ideology of transparency and “rule of law” is an obstacle blocking any constructive path to constructive, open, and honest politics.

 Suggested Reading Collaborate Analysis

By David B. Kanin

It appears that not even the contribution of Bosnia’s various authorities to the death of an infant has proven capable of mobilizing the phantom civic politics touted by Western governments and local activists for the past two decades.  The failure to pass a new ID law in February led to June protests over the baby’s plight (accompanied by the usual hyperbole over civic activism), and then to – nothing.  Lawmakers passed an ID law eventually as the country settled back into dysfunction.  Meanwhile, EU Bosnia representative Peter Sorenson recently repeated his organization’s demand that Bosnian politicians adopt constitutional changes before October 1.  Fat chance.

None of this should not surprise anyone.  Notwithstanding academic and popular mythology, since the collapse of Yugoslavia polling results indicating popular support for transcending ethnic disputes have not translated into anything remotely resembling effective action either in institutions or in the streets.

Have such highly-touted public efforts, articulated by public intellectuals and supported by ever-demanding international overseers, ever failed so completely against authorities as weak and apparently vulnerable as those in Bosnia?

The cynical deal between Zlatko Lagumdzija and Milorad Dodik has run its course.  Nothing has taken its place as a political organizing principle.  The profoundly pointless Bosnjak-Croat Federation has ground to a halt.  The dance between Sulejman Tihic and Fahrudin Radoncic is irrelevant except to their patronage networks.

The Republika Srpska is working well only in comparison to its partner entity.  Dodik, its strongman, faces greater political problems than at any time since his coming to power and – like an ancient Roman Consul – has reason to fear legal problems should he lose his job one day.

There supposedly exists a UN viceroy capable of imposing administrative and legislative action, but international dithering – and, perhaps, the realization that coercive administration before 2005 failed (no matter denials of this failure by some who were involved in it) – has turned the expensive international presence into what largely amounts to an institutional bystander.  Meanwhile, as Bosnia languishes, civic activism remains marginal, if occasionally noisy.

More effective public politics would require some humility among activists and a willingness of potential new local recruits to the struggle to learn a couple of lessons.


Get past the multiculturalist myth

The serial failure to organize direct democracy in Bosnia stands in marked contrast with recent events in Turkey, Brazil, Egypt, and even Bulgaria.  Activists in those countries could not follow through on their overheated rhetoric, and publics are divided by social status, economic class, and political preferences.  Nevertheless, it is possible to conceive of Turkish, Brazilian, Egyptian, and Bulgarian “peoples.”  Despite the lore of multiculturalism and externally imposed civic ideology, there is no Bosnian “people.”

The international contribution to Bosnia’s problems is well-known, but the a-historic domestic narrative around Bosnia’s multi-ethnic heritage is the greater problem because it is so widely believed.  The story goes that Bosnia’s current ethnic pathology is an artifact of dictatorship and the de-mobilization of civic politics by ethnic entrepreneurs.  It is alleged that a history of shared inter-communal life in Sarajevo and Bosnia exists under the nationalist-dominated surface, waiting for renewed popular mobilization and new leadership to bring Bosnia back to its better self.  Cooperative roots then will be melded with the post-nationalist civic culture of the wider European Community.

The problem with this tale is that it has things backward.  It poses ethnic particularism as backward, and as an unwelcome, imposed layer of politics and corruption.  In fact, it is the non-ethnic layer of Bosnia’s heritage that is old and out of phase with the present.  Nationalism is a product of modernity, and problems with its removal stem from the sense of the modern crafted in Europe during the last two centuries.

Bosnia’s “non-ethnic” mixture of political and cultural identities was a common variant of pre-modern imperial organization.  The old imperial form was not based on a single staatsvolk, but rather on relatively decentralized relations between a dynastic center and peripheral areas the Sultans/Tsars/Emperors had relatively little control over.  For empires and larger continental European states before Napoleon, regimes had limited ability to control localities outside capitals, camps that housed monarchs and militaries while on campaign, and garrisons along border posts and vital transportation routes.  The system put less of a premium on identity than obedience, focused on providing agricultural produce, taxes, and military recruits.  This did not mean there was no conflict around various versions of “us” against “them,” but that was not the central organizing ethos of imperial administration.

Therefore, local families, tribes, and economic patronage networks often could live their lives according to whatever traditions and authority structures they preferred – once they performed their duties of imperial obedience.  Their communal competitions with each other only sometimes would overlap each group’s relationship with the dynastic center.

These patterns of ascriptive loyalty and behavior did not go away – Tito used them to rule his version of Yugoslavia.  In Sarajevo, for example, Serbs, Croats, Bosnjaks, and others could live side by side and get along because each family and community could subsist as members of opaque subsistence, patronage, cultural/religious, or Party networks.  Conditions of parallel affiliation and resource distribution served to cushion inter-communal competition.  John Fine (University of Michigan) once wrote a well-argued book called “When Ethnicity Did Not Matter in the Balkans.”  The title should not be interpreted anachronistically to mean that Bosnia or other regional entities once enjoyed multi-ethnic harmony.  Rather, the notion of “ethnicity” did not yet exist in the region during medieval and early modern times, and – after the conflicts of the 19th and first half of the twentieth centuries – was cushioned by the Communists’ version of political and economic opacity.

International imposition of the state on an artificial Bosnian construction has killed that arrangement.  The “law” created at Dayton in 1995 not only is dysfunctional, but obstructs the informality and the mutually-compatible opacity necessary for the many people depending on patronage networks to provide their share of resources and influence.  Slogans of “rule of law” and “transparency” have turned the state into a stake, first of lethal conflict and now of phony legalism and kabuki politics.  This is not to say that rapacious ethnic entrepreneurs bear no blame for the killings of the 1990s and subsequent problems, but the “ethnic” bosses and their armed supporters also provide essential services better than does the state by performing their traditional duties as patronage chiefs – even as they protect their personal “business” and political interests.

It should be no surprise that civic ideology and international notions lack the wherewithal to sweep away established patterns of economic, communal, and political existence.  In the Bosnian context, neither the material or – for lack of a better work – spiritual basis exists for effective, durable, Bosnia-wide organization of a popular revolution.


Effective implementation of “Transparency” and the “Rule of Law” depends on social wariness, not on trust.

It is a cardinal conceptual error to strive for systems of personal or inter-communal trust as the foundation for a civic society.  It is the more traditional forms of social organization – families, tribes, informal economic networks – not civic states that depend on trust.  Think about mafias and gangs—what are they if not trust-based networks signified by personal affection/rivalries and codes of honor?

Effective politics and functional legal society, on the other hand, originate in the understanding that we cannot rely on “trust” to manage our affairs.(1) In a well-oiled civic society, individuals and organizations can enter into transactions with people they do not know, do not trust, or both in the confidence that a level legal playing field ensures the transparency of a baseline set of rules everyone must and will comply with.  One or more party might well come away from an exchange worrying they have made a bad deal, but – if the system has any legitimacy – they can be confident its terms will be applied as agreed to and they will have a chance to do better the next time they enter into a transaction.  Where people trust the law, not necessarily each other, they do not need the protection of a patronage boss.

Unfortunately, this process is more often preached than practiced by in the Euro-Atlantic societies whose diplomats and NGO mavens so often tell people in the Balkans how to behave.  Patronage and its corruption iceberg are endemic in the West as well as elsewhere.  Nevertheless, in Bosnia and other shards of the former Yugoslavia trust-based opacity is central to economic and social life.  Pushing it toward the margins would be an essential first step more important and much more difficult than the easy street theater of direct democracy that more often than not disappoints hopes even when it topples governments.  Bosnia is close neither to effective activist performance (which, in my view, is not a bad thing) nor structural political change (which, in my view, is).  Nothing done so far through local efforts or international imposition is moving it toward legal, civic politics.

This is not to denigrate the role of trust and reconciliation processes in mitigating the emotional impact of wartime or other horrors on individuals and communities.  The work of healing, however, should not be mistaken for the very different work involved in building durable political institutions – structures and rules that can survive the passing of wounded generations in the context of changed contexts of social stress and economic competition.  When it comes to undermining Big Men, their trust-based patronage networks, and the endemic corruption that is the tip of the patronage iceberg, it is essential to move away from personal trust and toward confidence in civic laws and institutions.

To be effective, NGOs and international embassies should drop their default tendency to focus on constitutions, elections, and the other forms of democratic political activity.  These do nothing to motivate elected officials to disgorge the hegemonic patronage networks they, their patrons, and their constituencies rely on.  The patronage politicians thrown up by Bosnia’s “Democracy” have no interest in creating a working, transparent legal system.

Build a movement out of disciplined transactions, not pretensions to post-modern progress

Lenin was right.  Under circumstances where a relatively small number of activists are looking to harness what they believe to be the public interest there is no substitute for a highly organized, patient, gimlet-eyed organization.  It is clear that a critical mass for effective civic politics does not exist in Bosnia; and that no one in the schools or in the streets is yet prepared to lead such an effort.  It cannot even be known now under what conditions an effective movement will be possible.

Constructing a functional mass movement designed to sweep away ethnic-based politics and start Bosnia on a path toward “rule of law” requires leadership discipline involving patience and humility, not just street protests, ideological polemics, or presumptuous activism.  Those seeking a different Bosnia need to find ways of fulfilling the material needs people have, without which formal political reform is pointless.

Practical change in Bosnia would become more likely if activists there and in other shards of the shattered post-Yugoslav Balkans would focus more on enabling improvements in local and intra-regional transportation and communications systems than on Western notions of political development.  Activists would do well to remember that patronage bosses flourish precisely because they focus on material transactions effectively – and understand that politics matters only as an extension of those transactions.

This is mundane but essential; to enable lasting change it is not enough to read Gene Sharp.(2) Too often, revolution or regime change simply turns into the replacement of one patronage system by another (that includes the Communist years).  A successful civic movement would build on constituencies disadvantaged by the Big Man system as a whole – and work assiduously to disgorge any hangers-on who are using the movement to become Big Men or Big Women themselves.

“Globalization” in this context is just another slogan – a civic future depends on enabling a larger Balkan market, not on permanently relegating the region to relative poverty and what academics call a “subaltern” status in the Euro-Atlantic security community.  Membership in the European Union is no shortcut to what would be a laborious process of social and economic change.  If Bosnia magically satisfied the conditions of Brussels bureaucrats and joined the club tomorrow, the patronage bosses and only a few others would benefit from the new arrangement – just look at Romania and Bulgaria.

Constituencies for change might be found in unexpected places.  One key to progress is finding ways of enabling business classes – real business people not mafia parasites – who want a level legal playing field so they can calculate the risks and benefits of innovation, investment, production, and distribution of goods and services.   They need to be confident they can trust the law, so that they do not need to trust each other.  Another is building a cross-Balkan social movement capable of representing those working people and communities who exist at the bottom of patronage networks and would like more control over their lives.  One problem would be convincing people who would risk a lot to embrace change that the young faces they see are going to become more than just recipients of NGO attention and agents of activists’ rhetoric.

This would not be easy, and – at best – it would be unlikely to happen quickly.  Advice spilling from international embassies will not be of any help.  Nevertheless, despite the lack of a critical mass now to organize an effective political movement and popular protests, there just may be enough people in Bosnia and its neighbors to provide the popular base for the work needed to head toward the day when this will be possible.

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).


1) For comprehensive discussion of trust, democracy, and de-democracy, see the late work of Charles Tilly.

2) If you do not know who Gene Sharp is, you should.

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



16 Responses

  1. PEN

    Bismarck once said give me fifteen professors and the fatherland is doomed. Having read this typically strangled and convoluted take on the shambles that is modern day Bosnia, I think one is perfectly adequate.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons