The Bosniak side of the equation

Options in case the Americans once again disappoint Bosnia-Herzegovina’s largest community.

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By David B. Kanin

Once again, Bosnia’s Bosnjak leadership is attempting to create the multicultural, civic, unified state Washington has promised and failed to enable.  It is worth remembering that “Bosnjak,” an Ottoman-era term dusted off in the 1990s, originally was meant to be the civic signifier of every citizen in the country, not just the Bosnian Muslims.  The majority of Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats  — not just a few nationalist leaders – rejected that idea.  In most elections they and the Bosnjaks as well largely voted for nationalist parties.;  Serbs also evacuated Sarajevo  en masse in an event embarrassed UN and Western officials mischaracterized as a march forced by bully boys associate with convicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic.  Bosnia’s Croats, pushed into a shotgun federation with the Bosnjaks in 1994, resisted cooperating in its institutions; many would like a Bosnian entity of their own if not absorption in neighboring Croatia. What Washington promised would be a unitary state quickly turned into an unmanageable bog and so Bosnia remains.  Many people from all communities either have left the country or would like to.   Whether the unitarists like it or not, national, communal, and other trust-based identities remain central and enable survival strategies international organizations, NGOs, and civic activists are unable to replace.

Bosnjak leaders are engaged in a reasonable effort to force a strengthening of central institutions they can dominate and force the Americans finally to live up to their promises. The point is not that the Bosniaks are trying to undermine the communal identity of non-Bosnjaks, but that they are attempting to become Bosnia’s Staatsvolk,  the community that is the active social agent of the state.   The end result would not be a civic community along the lines the United States once claimed to be building but now clearly does not and may never have had.  Instead, it would be a place where ethnic identities would continue to be relevant to personal preferences and trust-based decisions.  The Bosnjaks would have weight of numbers, leading Croats and Serbs to continue to continue to look to their neighboring kin states for support.

The Bosnjaks, again reasonably, are impatient with periodic international initiatives since around 2005 that have failed to reform Bosnia’s Dayton Constitution.  Instead, they are relying on a friendly Constitutional Court to rubber stamp their legislative efforts to “improve” Dayton by making over the country’s political system in the face of determined Serb and Croat opposition. 

In a sense, Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik’s pattern of threatening secession but not following through is working against him.  His credibility depends not just on manipulating  overmatched Western diplomats but on facing down more determined adversaries in Sarajevo.  Visceral, widespread Bosnian Serb anger at former High Representative Vladimir Inzko’s ukase on genocide denial regarding mass murder at Srebrenica increases pressure on Dodik to stand tough.  Meanwhile, Bosnia’s Croats face an existential threat from proposed election legislation that would effectively scupper the residual leverage available to Bosnia’s smallest constituent community.

Perhaps this time Bosnjak efforts will bear fruit.  Maybe this time their demands for American help will convince Washington it has a chance to claim a success in the Balkans notable enough to counter the growing global perception that the United States is a fading, internally dysfunctional power.  Perhaps  American pressure can force Dodik to climb down and accept a reduced status for Bosnia’s Serbian entity.  Or, if Dodik rejects participation in strengthened central institutions and brushes aside use of the Bonn powers by disputed High Representative Christian Schmidt, maybe US-led pressure will bring the hammer down on the Republika Srpska (RS).

But how would Bosnjak leaders react if, instead, the West seeks to damp down the possibility of a new conflict by forcing all sides to accept some over-worded arrangement that once again fails to create a stronger and supposedly civic state?  Alternatively, what if current tensions simply fade away without any change to the shaky status quo?  What could Bosnjaks do if they are tired of coming up short but still want to avoid the kind of horrific conflicts that roiled Bosnia and the Balkans in the 1870s, 1940s, and 1990s?  Would they be willing to risk such conflict rather than back down?  If not, what comes next?

Bosnjaks could take a deep breath, have faith in their demographic advantage, and just wait Dodik out.   They could reject his rejection of Court rulings and strengthened central institutions but not do anything about it.  If they really have faith in Bosnia’s civic future they could work to develop, build, and support pro-Democracy elements in the RS and nurture eventual election victories and eventual RS buy-in to a “European” Bosnia.  Dodik did suffer setbacks in an election some years back and could become vulnerable again.  However, it could be that communal identity will continue to frustrate civic activists even after Dodik is long gone, in which case the Bosnjaks would remain hamstrung by Dayton.

A second option is to reprise the move Haris Silajdzic and Dodik made with the Odzak/Prud deal in 2009 in the face of international demands for immediate constitutional change.  At that time disappointment with failed efforts at reform enabled two leaders who shared nothing more than distrust of the Westerners to thumb their noses at a broken process.  This provoked the foreigners to issue their Butmir ultimatum, which fizzled badly.  At that time Bosnjak leaders brushed aside the Silajdzic-Dodik initiative.  A new approach to Dodik encompassing a critical mass of Bosniak notables could lead to a different result this time around.

Then there are the nuclear options, the first of which would be a coup de main.  If they believe in the strength and readiness of that part of the Bosnian army that would obey their commands, they could attempt to force the RS to heel.  Perhaps they could achieve surprise and overwhelm Dodik’s armed police before the internationals can organize themselves to enforce a cease fire.  As Azerbaijan proved earlier this year, military victory remains the most decisive way to dictate a new status quo. 

Of course, first you have to win.  Maybe the Bosnjaks could convince Turkey to provide the sort of military help it gave the Azerbaijanis or can get heavy weapons elsewhere.   On the other hand, Dodik could strengthen his own forces along the stealthy lines used by the Slovenian Territorial Defense Force in 1991 and prevent a quick Bosnjak victory.  At the same time, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has been flaunting his country’s military strength recently and might not sit by while the RS is under attack

Rather than fight, Bosnjaks could go with the grain and acknowledge the durability of communal identity.  They could discard the current force-fit of a centralized Serb polity and a hopelessly decentralized and confusing arrangement between mutually distrustful Bosnjaks and Croats.  Bosnjaks would pivot toward a consociational Bosnia composed of three autonomous entities.  In return for giving up the fantasy of a unitary state they would insist the RS relinquish territory in the West to enable the physical linkage of Bihac and the northwest with Sarajevo and the rest of Bosnjak-dominated territory.  Bosnia’s Croats would get their entity but it would be limited to Herzegovina (including Mostar).   The three entities would guarantee the rights of minorities, perhaps also borrowing from the Ottoman-era Millet system to guarantee religious diversity, minority involvement in their children’s education, and local financing of community-specific infrastructure needs. 

There was talk of something like this in 1992 but the internationals stepped in and quashed any thought of a Bosnia built without a civic core. One problem then that does not exist now is that Bosnian Serb and Croatian leaders, bolstered by Belgrade and Zagreb, underestimated the strength and resilience of an emerging Bosnjak leadership and favored dividing Bosnia between them in a version of the infamous 1939 Sporazum.  The Bosnjaks’ creation of robust political and military institutions was a crucial development, one that might have become decisive if it had not been hamstrung by American diplomacy in Washington in 1994 and in Dayton the next year.  Now there is no question of any Bosnia without Bosnjak communal agency – Staatsvolk or no.

 A new partition would necessarily involve people making the difficult decision of whether to stay in a place where a different community has sway or make a costly and painful move to where others from your community are in the majority.  This would be a replay of 1995, when the old Bosnia of cheek-by-jowl intercommunal coexistence largely evaporated.  People would need to be given time  be given a period of time to make their residency decisions .  If they want to play a constructive role, the internationals could subsidize these movements and help to monitor them to ensure no one is forced to move or forced to stay.  The transition period would be wrenching, but if properly managed the process would increase security and clarify politics. 

Yes, I know.  Changing borders in one part of the Balkans likely would lead to demands for territorial swaps in Kosovo and south Serbia.  And, (with the early career of recently deceased Muamer Zukorlic in mind), those who consider themselves Bosnjaks in the largely Muslim area of the Sandzak might someday demand referenda in Serbia and Montenegro to determine whether the population of either or both would prefer to join the new Bosnjak polity.   A consociational arrangement in Bosnia would not bring Balkan tectonics to a halt.

Whatever they do, perhaps it is time for Bosnjaks to take responsibility for their own future.  If, this time, the effort to strengthen Bosnian institutions bears fruit, all well and good,  If not , then perhaps the Bosnjak leadership might consider focusing less on the state and more on the interests of the community that depends on them.  If nothing changes much they might keep in mind how the Washington and Dayton diktats nullified the results of Bosnjak military successes and how poorly the Bosnia constructed under those agreements and supervised by Western viceroys has performed.   

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).

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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1 Response

  1. Svetozar Dobic

    Why should Bosnia’s Serbs cede anything to the Bosnian Muslims? Serbs have always lived in Bosnia and were always the majority population until a Muslim/Croatian sanctioned genocide during World War 2 reduced their numbers. So then why should Muslims profit from their murderous past misdeeds? Even today Bosnian Muslims still do not even make up half of Bosnia’s population, so making them the leaders of a state that no one else wants to live in, makes no sense and is also a huge injustice for the Serbs.

    Serbs are one of Bosnia’s constituent nations and have the most right to its lands and resources, more than any other ethnic group. They were the majority for more than a thousand years and were treated like second class citizens for five hundred years during the Ottoman occupation. Serbs built and maintained all of Bosnia’s institutions, in addition to tilling the land and feeding Muslim fat cat for hundreds of years. Muslims owe Serbs centuries of reparations!

    Since Muslims have now lost their cheap Serbian workforce, they propose a so called ”multi-ethnic” Bosnia in the hopes of enslaving Serbian citizens again and treating them like their personal servants. Nothing makes this clearer than the Muslim’s refusal to acknowledge their war crimes against Serbian civilians from twenty years ago. For this reason, Serbs will never again live again in this so called ”multi-ethnic” state of colonial horrors. Dodik nor his people will never give up or cede their lands to the aggressor Muslims, nor live with them ever again. If you cannot even understand this one point, then you shouldn’t be writing any articles about this part of the world.

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