23 Jan 17

Redrawing Balkan Borders Would Shock Europe

Timothy Less’ diagnosis of Bosnia’s crisis may be accurate but his solution is completely impractical.

Marcus Tanner BIRN London
Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik's secession talk keeps Bosnia on edge. Photo: Anadolu

One of Donald Trump’s more memorable quotes - about the US decision to invade Iraq, likened it to “throwing rocks into a beehive”.

Judging by the storm reaction to Timothy Less’ article in Balkan Insight on changing the borders of the Balkans, he, too, is guilty of throwing rocks at a beehive. True, no one has died as a result of his penmanship - but he has certainly created a furious buzz.

Most respondents to his article have been unambiguously hostile, accusing Less of stoking the same nationalist passions that right-minded people have trying to repress for the last quarter-century.

In a nutshell, he maintains that the multi-ethnic states of the Balkans are failed or failing states and proposes redrawing state borders to create more ethnically homogeneous entities, which he says will be more stable.

Less does not dispute that multi-ethnic states can work but says they cannot work in the Balkans because the necessary checks and balances designed to keep minorities content are either missing or just inoperable in that environment.

No wonder his words have elicited such horror; they run clean contrary to modern Western thought, which upholds “diversity” as an ideal to strive for.

Most Western politicians, except those on the far right, at least pay lip service to multi-ethnicity as an asset - and decry its most vocal opponents as racists.

The shadow of Nazi Germany and of Hitler’s drive to create an ethnically pure super-state hangs over the whole debate about ethnicity, which is why many see it as toxic.

One reason why so many Western intellectuals regarded Bosnia’s independence struggle with such sympathy – and looked on Croatia’s independence war with coldness – is precisely because the goal of a multi-ethnic Bosnia seemed so in tune with the times.

By contrast, the goal of most Croats, the creation an old-fashioned ethnic state, was not.

When Less calls Bosnia a failure, therefore, he does not just undermine a Balkan country, he attacks a deeply cherished idea that many people are desperate to hold on to.

However, just because his diagnosis makes people uncomfortable is no reason for dismissing it.

It is hard to ignore the fact that Bosnians have - time and time again - voted for the same old nationalist parties, not for the supposedly civic, non-ethnic alternatives.

How long can this be described in neo-Marxist terms as the result of false consciousness and mass delusion? How long do we carry on calling this the result of “manipulation”?

Perhaps it is time to accept that these are the politics, policies and politicians that most people in Bosnia want, not ones they have been manipulated into endorsing.

Where I – personally – would differ with Less is not with his diagnosis of Bosnia’s situation but his solution.

Less may have outraged Western liberals with his talk of ethnic states, but he is very much part of the liberal mainstream in holding that every problem awaits a solution.

The only real difference between Less and his critics is that they think Bosnia’s ills can be cured by the means of a metaphorical aspirin, whereas he wants to go for radical surgery and even amputation.

But there is another alternative, which is to accept that some chronic illnesses are to tolerated rather than cured by ever more drastic methods. In other words, failed or not, Bosnia should be left as it is, not reconfigured – yet again – by well-meaning outsiders.

Bosnia’s “failure” in any case is very relative. It is not a totally failed state, exporting misery, vast numbers of migrants, or terrorism.

Its economy is in far better health than its politics. Its predicted growth rate this year is above the EU average. Tourism is booming. Crime is low. Sarajevo Canton, the country’s most populous unit of local government, saw four murders in 2015. Chicago saw 468.

Bosnia not only does no harm to its neighbours but, simply by being there, does the whole region a service by keeping two historic protagonists, Serbia and Croatia, apart.

As for pulling Bosnia apart, and reconfiguring its borders on ethnic lines, that would not be a local matter.

Such a dramatic development would cause shockwaves all over Europe. The last time Western Europe saw new borders created was in 1922, when the Irish Free State came into being.

The last time the borders changed in Eastern Europe was after the cataclysm of World War II in 1945.

It is true that new states came into being in Eastern Europe in the 1990s as a result of the collapse of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia.

But the borders of these new states all follow the old internal borders of existing entities. They are new international borders - but not new borders per se. Modern Latvia’s frontier matches the border of old Soviet Latvia - and so on.

Europe remains deeply resistant to the idea of borders being redrawn to reflect ethnic principles, which is one reason why Russia’s seizure of Crimea is seen as so offensive.

It seems almost inconceivable that the major powers in Europe would nod through that principle being kicked aside now, just to please the discontented Serbs and Croats of Bosnia.

Their discontent is glaring, well known and it may well keep Bosnia on the boil for years to come – but they will probably have to lump it, all the same.

Marcus Tanner is an editor of Balkan Insight and the author of "Albania's Mountain Queen, Edith Durham and the Balkans" [Tauris].

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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