The Balkan Mess Redux
President Obama recently said of Iraq, “What we will not do is permit the pursuit of the perfect stand in the way of achievable goals.” It would be a major step forward if this same approach was applied to Bosnia and Kosovo.
In both those countries, we have become trapped in policy “boxes” that make it impossible to achieve stability or long-term solutions, despite enormous investments of personnel and resources for almost two decades.
This is because we continue to insist that it is possible, with enough pressure and encouragement, to establish fully functioning multiethnic societies in Bosnia and Kosovo with no change in borders. And we have consistently ignored all evidence to the contrary and branded as obstructionist anyone who speaks openly about alternative approaches.
The reality is that no amount of threats or inducements, including fast membership in the European Union or NATO, will persuade the Bosnian Serbs to cede a significant portion of the rights and privileges given them under the Dayton Agreement to the central government, as the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and the international community are determined to bring about. The Bosnian Serbs are determined to have full control over their own destiny, and fear that if they continue to transfer authority to a central government, the more numerous Bosniaks will end up in control.
The end result is continued tension between the two Bosnian entities, a dysfunctional country, and the prospect of many more years of efforts by Western politicians — like Vice President Joe Biden on his recent visit — to pound a square peg into a round hole.
I know of what I speak: For more than 15 years, I was one of these pounders. I finally came to understand that the historical experiences in this region have implanted a mind-set very different from our own. We keep expecting the people in the Balkans to think and react as we do: It is not going to happen.
In Kosovo, the reality is that most of the Serbs have already left and will not be coming back. Many of those still remaining do so only because they hope or believe that they can ignore the central government of independent Kosovo and continue to look to Serbia for political and financial support.
Those Serbs living north of the Ibar River in particular act as if they are in fact living in Serbia. President Boris Tadic and his moderate government are trapped into supporting the Kosovo Serbs to prevent a nationalist backlash while trying to move toward the E.U.
These contradictions are becoming ever more obvious. But that is not the major danger.
Up to now, Kosovo Albanians have been patient with the refusal of Kosovo Serbs to recognize the independence of the former Serbian province, deferring to the international community to sort this problem out. But already opposition Kosovo Albanian politicians are starting to criticize the Kosovo government for its passivity on the matter.
This frustration will grow, leading to further deterioration of relations among Kosovo, Serbia and the international community, and an increase in violence against Kosovo Serbs.
In both Kosovo and Bosnia, we need to consider different solutions — ones which we may not like and which will have complications of their own, but which will be really...achievable. This is the only way the international community can bring its involvement in the Balkans to an end.
In Kosovo, this probably means some form of partition between the Albanians and the Serbs combined with joint recognition, pledges of full rights for minorities and a variety of sweeteners from the EU.
Bosnia is more complicated. There, a solution probably involves shaping a different relationship within Bosnia and permitting the Republika Srpska, the Serbian portion of the divided country, to hold a referendum on independence. This would have to include a lot of guarantees about future relationships, and be done as a complete package led and implemented by the international community.
In both cases, there would need to be a demonstrated will and readiness to use military force to prevent violence along the way.
There is another reason to broaden our thinking. We in the West act as if we control what happens in the region. This is not the case, as the outbreak of violence in 1990-91 in the former Yugoslavia and the growth of the Kosovo Liberation Army in 1997-99 demonstrated.
The fact is that both in Bosnia and in Kosovo, independent local forces can take matters into their own hands and in a very short time bring about renewed violence that we will be hard-pressed to contain. And we simply cannot afford to become even more entangled in the Balkans.
Like an alcoholic whose first step is to recognize he has a problem, we need to accept that the current policies are not tenable. Only then can we start thinking constructively about solutions which can bring lasting stability to the region.