Bosnia Back on the Brink

Bosnia Back on the Brink

US NEWS & WORLD REPORT 03/17/14
By Michael Shank and Clint Holmes

Ukraine would be wise to take a lesson from Bosnia’s economic and political turmoil.

Post Arab-Spring, and now in Eastern Europe, we are witnessing the repercussions of societies that failed to deliver economic stability and growth for their citizens. What started out in many countries in Europe and the Middle East was a desire for the mainstream to have a say in their economic and political futures, but these desires have often been overtaken by more radical forces and movements.

Ukraine is merely the most recent example. The dire economic conditions in Ukraine that mobilized a widespread desire for something better have been co-opted by various interests, from the activities of Ukraine’s far right, to Russia trying to solidify and recapture its long time traditional areas of influence and control, to the West positioning itself in semi-Cold-War rhetoric and reaction.

It is helpful to take a lesson from Bosnia lest Ukraine suffer a similar fate. Bosnia’s brutal war, involving the Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, was “resolved” through the U.S.-sponsored Dayton Accords that subsequently formulated a constitution and governing structure of Bosnia. But this framework has produced little besides rampant corruption, with income inequality at the highest levels Bosnia has ever seen and an unofficial unemployment rate at nearly 60 percent.

Much like Ukraine’s proximity to Western Europe contains potential for spillover conflict, so too is Bosnia’s proximity precarious. Bosnia’s economic situation is on the brink of exploding and rival forces – the Russians (through the Serbs) and radical movements (through likely outside sponsorships from Saudi Arabia and beyond) – are looking to extend their sphere of influence into Bosnia. The economic vacuum is being filled by those who react faster and with clear policy and clear targets. Communities who are suffering from economic hardship are increasingly inclined to take anyone’s help, including Russia’s, if there is a promise of a better future.

If either manages to extend their sphere of influence and gain a significant foothold by the Adriatic Sea, the potential for spillover into the rest of the European Union becomes more likely. We could see the emergence of a pro-Russian orthodox block, for instance. Right now, there are Serb Chetniks in the Crimea supporting the Russian moves to incorporate it into its control.

Public opposition may save the day. Demonstrations are on the rise in most of the major cities in Bosnia, with people from every walk of life asking for greater economic opportunity and an end to the rampant corruption. Some cantons have witnessed change but others little. Despite grim economic circumstances, the majority of people have not yet gravitated to more radical forces.

This, of course, could change if the rampant corruption is not addressed. The Serbs could once again, empowered by a resurgent Russia, declare union with Serbia and once again push the Balkans into its second war within a generation.

Not unlike in Ukraine, the potential for continued proxy wars in Bosnia (whether reminiscent of the now-retired Cold War and the so-called Global War on Terror) is apparent.

The way to preempt this potential, however, is not through more aggressive jockeying or military grandstanding, but through basic improvements to the socioeconomic situation of these respective countries.

The benefit of this approach is that it costs virtually nothing. Encouraging a change to a more inclusive and democratic society is vastly cheaper than entering into a new arena of conflict and possibly handing the entire Balkans over to subversive forces keen to gain influence and control.

Bosniaks are ready partners for the West and ultimately want to belong to Europe. But building trust is essential. The first step in that process is for Europe and America to show respect to their country and to homeland Bosnia. Furthermore, some on the ground are suggesting the reestablishment of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the return of the prewar constitution.

Within this political frame, the thinking goes, and with financial help, Bosnia could flourish politically and economically. Nationalist parties would lose momentum and Serbo-Croatian aspirations would lose their grip among minorities inside of Bosnia. After Serbs realized that a greater Serbia was not feasible, they might be more inclined to turn to Europe, especially after witnessing the benefits of increased investment in a Bosnian economy and a privileged status in the American and European markets, all of which the West should use to incentivize more peaceable policies.

All of this is speculation, of course, but the overall message is clear. A military ramp up – whether in Bosnia or Ukraine – won’t help stabilize these countries nor provide safety amid insecurity. The only way forward is to bolster the socioeconomic standing of the majority, all the while ensuring political inclusion of any minority.

Equality, economically and politically, is the surest way towards transitional stability. The painful evidence of the lack of such equality, 20 years on in Bosnia, should send a strong message to Ukraine that this lesson learned must be learnt again.