12 Jan 17

New Partitions are the Last Thing the Balkans Need

Calls for the EU and US to support the further “fragmentation” of Balkan states “where minorities demand it” are highly irresponsible and can only lead to more bloodshed.

Jasmin Mujanovic BIRN
Serb member of the Bosnian presidency with the president of the Republika Srpska entity, Milorad Dodik, at an event on Monday to celebrate the "Day of Republika Srpska". Dodik took the occasion as an opportunity to hint at RS secession from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Anadolu

There is a mantra in the least informed corners of the foreign policy community: when it doubt, partition.

From Syria to Ukraine to Iraq, when international will is lacking for earnest peace making and peace keeping, and the still more tedious and time consuming work of democracy promotion and institution building, a rehearsed chorus will chime in claiming that the structural drivers of such (nominally internecine) conflicts can only be addressed through partition.

That is, the division of “complicated” or “unnatural” states along “natural,” sectarian lines.  

What makes Timothy Less’ call in Foreign Affairs last month for a new round of partitions in the Western Balkans startling - aside from the hysterical regional media circus which has yet to die down - is that we are now more than two decades removed from the worst of the Yugoslav Wars.

More to the point, there is no actual war in the Balkans that warrants such dramatic Western intervention.

Instead, Mr Less’ suggestion that Washington and Brussels “support the internal fragmentation of multi-ethnic states where minorities demand it” is itself a virtual guarantee of renewed bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia.

We might distil Less’ rejoinder to the partition mantra then as: peace is boring, war is exciting. Such inane reasoning is hardly the stuff of sober analysis but, sadly for the ordinary citizens of the Balkans, it will find an audience on the most radical fringes of the local political establishment.    

Less is certainly correct that there is a crisis of democratic governance in the region and likewise that ethno-nationalist leaders and parties continue to dominate the former Yugoslavia’s electoral politics.

It is also likely that, in the wake of the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election, the era of American and European primacy in the Western Balkans is drawing to an end. 

Nothing in his account, however, substantively addresses any of these issues or offers a credible way forward. Instead, the wholesale population and territorial swaps Less imagines as reducing and ameliorating tensions in the region could only be accomplished through mass campaigns of violence, much as in the 1990s.

The only thing more absurd than suggesting that Bosnia and Herzegovina or Macedonia, for instance, could be peacefully dissolved is Less’ suggestion that Washington and Brussels commit enormous blood and treasure at a time of pan-Atlantic crisis to facilitate such a preposterous adventure. 

Moreover, Less, and those who continue to provide his screeds with platforms, appear convinced that the only people worth listening to in the Balkans are the aforementioned extremists and reactionaries.

After all, those are the only “minorities” demanding anything akin to his redrawing of the region: war criminals and their fringe fellow travellers.

No other serious observer, scholar, or citizen of the former Yugoslavia would dream of what Less refers to as a “Wilsonian vision of a Europe comprising self-governing nations”. The rest of the world might remember it more accurately as Radovan Karadžić’s project of extermination and ethnic cleansing.  

Silenced in this cynical account are not only the “Bosniaks and Macedonians [who] would need to accept the loss of territory to which they are sentimentally attached and without any significant territorial compensation”.

Less glibly rejects what has been the defining quality of the Western Balkans for centuries, even after the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars; namely, a vibrant and organic multiculturalism.

Today, the region’s inherent diversity, much like its democratic and economic development, is compromised precisely by the previous round of partitions. What prescient scholars and policymakers predicted in the 1990s is now a self-evident reality: Bantustans make for poor republics.   

In this respect, at least, we might all agree with Less that “the United States should finish the job it started so long ago”.

But whereas Less would have the West return to the Balkans to seemingly resuscitate the political program of Karadžić, Ratko Mladić, Franjo Tuđman, and Slobodan Milošević, the core principles of what Richard Holbrooke, Martti Ahtisaari, and other American and European negotiators won in the former Yugoslavia are, indeed, dissolving.

Namely, a basic framework for peace, on the basis of which latter day political leaders, civil society representatives, and the international community could take additional step towards beginning the generational task of genuine, grassroots-led reform and democratization.

Such ideas may today appear to be the stuff of fantasy given the widespread apathy and cynicism that prevails in the former Yugoslavia.

But the most precious element of the formula remains: peace. And any peace is preferable to the nightmare of war - a fact that people in the Western Balkans would be happy to share with Less, were he able to truly hear them out in their native tongues. 

Insomuch as international policymakers are frustrated with the lack of progress in the former Yugoslavia, they have a receptive audience across the region.

No one is more disgusted with the pervasive patrimonialism and creeping authoritarian of the Western Balkan elite than their own citizens; the protests in Bosnia in 2014 and the Colorful Revolution in Macedonia, each of which broke through the dominant ethnic paradigm of the post-war era, are proof enough of that.

Less is entitled to be sceptical of the idea that the careful, slow, and painful work of movement building and community organizing will definitively transform the region in a way that two decades of top-down international involvement have failed to do.

It is for him to be sceptical and for us to continue our bottom-up work with our partners, friends, and allies.

But it is the height of irresponsibility for Less or anyone else, whether in Washington or Moscow or Sarajevo, to reanimate the most reactionary and vulgar sentiments of our still too recent past in the fashion of his essay.

After all, when the sectarians dig new mass graves to realize their apocalyptic visions, Less is unlikely to be at hand to plead for Wilsonian civility. 

Dr Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe and the politics of post-authoritarian and post-conflict democratization. His first book, “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans” will be available from Hurst Publishers in 2017.

The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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