What's in Bosnia's Future? The Curse of Dayton

Germany wants to withdraw troops from Bosnia-Herzegovina. But is the young republic ready? Violence simmers just below the surface and a spark from Kosovo could be enough to light off an inferno.

By Renate Flottau

Bundeswehr boots may soon be walking out of Bosnia.

Bundeswehr boots may soon be walking out of Bosnia.

Nikola Radovanovic, the commander of close to 12,000 troops, is a busy man these days. Damage control is the Bosnian defense minister's biggest concern when he receives guests in the wide leather armchairs in his office.

When asked what he thinks about Germany's plans to begin pulling its 852-man military contingent out of Bosnia, Radovanovic says that he hasn't heard anything about it from Berlin. He is, however, suspicious that something might be in the works, he says. After all, his German counterpart, Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, indicated the possibility of a pull-out at a meeting in Salzburg this past summer.

What Radovanovic knows for sure is that the international community intends to withdraw its military presence from Bosnia by the end of 2008 at the latest. And next year, the 6,000-man European Union Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina (EUFOR), which replaced NATO two years ago, will be reduced to 3,500 troops, says Radovanovic.

Demobilization in the Powder Keg of Europe in other words? In a country that lost at least 100,000 people to a bloody civil war between 1992 and 1995? Indeed, nothing could be more desirable for the old continent than exactly that.

The situation in the Balkans, according to Defense Minister Radovanovic, has become quite stable now. Current EUFOR commander, Italian Major General Marco Chiarini, agrees. But despite their optimism, there are still some worrisome issues in the region.

Weapons caches and uncertainty

One is the matter of secret weapons caches that apparently still exist in Bosnia, a sign that some extremists could be preparing for a new war. In February, says Chiarini, "we recovered three tons of weapons from an underground storage site."

The fact that Bosnia will become politically self-reliant at the end of June 2007 is also fraught with uncertainty. The office of the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has administered post-war Bosnia for more than 11 years, will end its political mission in mid-2007. But what happens then?

The International peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The International peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Politicians in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo have never attempted to hide their skepticism toward the international community's treatment of the region as a "protectorate." Bosnians often felt they were looked down on and treated paternalistically. Nor have they concealed their disappointment that NATO, which still has about 150 troops stationed in Bosnia, has yet to arrest former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. These days about the only person actively in pursuit of Karadzic, a wanted war criminal, is American actor Richard Gere -- in the movies. He is currently in Sarajevo filming "Spring Break in Bosnia," which has Gere playing a reporter who is on the fugitive's tail.

The current High Representative, German Christian Schwarz-Schilling, doubts that faraway Brussels will be able to transform Bosnia into a democratic constitutional state in the near future. Although the ultra-nationalist groups supporting the former warrior -- including Karadzic's Serbian Democratic Party -- lost their majorities in October's election, other hardly less radical parties have quickly filled the vacuum.

The Bosnian people are pinning their hopes for the country on attaining European Union membership soon. The gap between appalling poverty -- fuelled by an unemployment rate of about 50 percent -- and the wealth of those who profited from the war is alarming. Billions in reconstruction money -- which per head exceeds even the assistance given to Germany after World War II under the Marshall Plan -- has steadily drained away or has found its way into dubious investments. The inflated Bosnian administration, with more than 180 ministers, 10 cantons and 760 members of various parliaments, consumes an astonishing 60 percent of the national budget.

The "Curse of Dayton"

Other problems include a high crime rate, growing corruption and an ineffectual judicial system. Still, that's not necessarily a barrier to EU membership; nearby Romania and Bulgaria, which have now been accepted into the EU, face many of the same problems.

But the one thing that could spark a new conflict in the Balkan state is the irreconcilable tensions between the former warring parties. When the Bosnian war ended, it took 60,000 international troops -- as part of IFOR -- to prevent Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims from committing even more violence. Nationalism, though largely unsuccessful, has been a part of the civil administration's reperatoire since then.

Bosnian Muslims visiting the graves of relatives at a cemetary in Sarajevo in October.

Bosnian Muslims visiting the graves of relatives at a cemetary in Sarajevo in October.

While the British High Representative Lord Paddy Ashdown -- one of five so far -- rigorously used his powers as a "colonial administrator" to freely issue pink slips and make arrests of radical politicians, his successor Schwarz-Schilling has chosen a more hands-off approach in the hope that Bosnian politicians will gradually become accustomed to taking responsibility. So far, though, neither approach has worked terribly.

The Bosnians attribute this failure mainly to what they call the "Curse of Dayton." Under the terms of the 1995 Peace Accords, the country was divided into two entities, the Bosnian-Croat Federation and the Serb Republika Srpska. The latter turned into an Achilles' heel when it came to forming a shared state. While the Bosnian Muslims prefer a central government, the Serbs insist on their right to limited autonomy. The Croats, for their part, feel dominated in their forced alliance with the Muslims.

There has also been little effort to revisit the scars the war left behind. The Serbs in particular have avoided any confrontation with the violence, though they have paid lip service to it under international pressure. Plus, violence and ethnic tensions continue. Only four weeks ago, grenades were fired at a mosque near Mostar and a Catholic cemetery was desecrated. A planned attack on the nearby pilgrimage site of Medugorje was only averted at the last minute. Despite years of international administration, Mostar, a city of 110,000 on the banks of the Neretva River, remains divided into a Croat-dominated western section and a predominantly Muslim eastern section.

Serb secession?

Teachers still use an Apartheid-like system in more than 50 Bosnia schools, where Serb, Croat and Bosnian Muslim students are kept carefully separated.

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), a million of the roughly 2.2 million Bosnian refugees have returned home. But what these statistics do not reveal is the fact that of those who returned and were given back their former homes, 80 percent promptly sold them and resettled in those areas in which their own respective ethnic group are in the majority.

In other words, peace in the Balkans is tenuous. Indeed, that has been the lesson of decades past. And with Kosovo far from settled, its unclear what effect ongoing negotiations there might have on the region. Hardliners in the Republika Srpska could even use possible Kosovo independence as an excuse to call for their own "independence referendum." Indeed, the current strong man in the Serb republic, Prime Minister Milorad Dodik of the Independent Social Democratic Party, has already threatened secession several times in the past.

Should Kosovo to become independent, Belgrade's reaction would be vital. Serbia's newly ratified constitution leaves little room for compromise, referring to Kosovo as a "sacrosanct part of the republic." Observers warn that large arms shipments are already being smuggled into Serb-dominated northern Kosovo. But now that hardly anyone believes that Kosovo will remain part of Serbia, a number of scenarios are possible, the worst of which would be another civil war, followed by an exodus of tens of thousands of Serbs.

If it did come to bloodshed, Germany's defense minister would be in a tight spot. KFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, is currently under the command of a German, Roland Kather, and fellow German Joachim Rücker heads the UN civil administration, UNMIK.

Radovan Karadzic is still at large.

Radovan Karadzic is still at large.

The German military contingent of 2,858 troops is the largest in KFOR. An additional 650 German soldiers were recently deployed to northern Mitrovica, where the heaviest fighting would be expected if a conflict erupts.

And what about Bosnia? The Balkan state, German Defense Minister Jung apparently believes, faces a rosy future, but insiders are convinced that a conflict in Kosovo would quickly spread to the surrounding region. If that happens, Germans will also be carrying a substantial share of the burden. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, will be joined in December by a fellow German, Fleet Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer -- when he assumes command of the EUFOR troops.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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