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Chest-beating on Bosnia?

August 15, 2011

Radio Free Europe had a rather incredible interview published today with former US Ambassador and author of a new article, “The Death of the Bosnian State,” Morton Abramowitz. The original piece can be found here. Abramowitz is a career diplomat, and an accomplished man. But I am not too certain I agree with his extremely negative views on the outlook in Bosnia.

In essence, he fears that the European Union’s efforts at integrating Bosnia and Serbia into the European mainstream and their aid projects are in vain. Serbian domestic politics will prevent any real progress from being made on the issue of north Kosovo. I don’t disagree; Serbian politics are still rife with nationalist emotion and isolationist views that create real dilemmas. But, he makes the direct connection that as long as north Kosovo and its ethnic Serbs are in limbo, so too will be Bosnia. This is a bold connection. The crux of his case if simply that the EU is not doing enough to persuade Belgrade to handle the Kosovo situation in a more mature manner, or at least one that adheres to the wishes of the international community.

In his original piece, he notes “Instead of pressing Tadic on both the RS and Kosovo, the EU apparently believes that its strong support for the more Westward-looking Serb politician, the beginning of Serbia’s accession talks this year, and continuing Kosovo-Serbia negotiations will not only preserve Tadic’s political standing in next year’s Serbian elections, but also alter his policies on Bosnia and Kosovo.”

It’s too weak, according to Abramowitz. His views immediately struck me the way hawkish opinions of Iran do. In a sense, they were fear-mongering kinds of sentiments. It’s always easier to err on the side of anticipating violence and unrest and terrible outcomes. If you’re right, you’re right. If you’re wrong, then even better: no one has died or been harmed or fallen. But I also think there’s a distinct disadvantage in harboring excessively pessimistic views on a situation.

We know Dayton is flawed, as he points out, and as this piece by a former professor of mine, Jon Western, points out. We know in Bosnia parties vote according to ethnic lines: they were designed that way. Yes, politics in Kosovo are disastrous too. He relents somewhat midway through the interview, saying “I may be too pessimistic, but I don’t believe this problem in Kosovo can be resolved without some resolution of the north Kosovo situation and that problem lies in Belgrade.” But his closing message is a bleak one: “Now, they may hope that over time good things will occur because they’re cooperating more, but I don’t think they’re going to cooperate more” while speaking about Kosovo’s discussions within the international community.

So, what are you trying to say, Mr Abramowitz? What does the greater pressure by the EU on Serbia you think will be effective look like? It’s clear the EU has limits in terms of playing good cop/bad cop. They’ve required Serbia and Croatia catch their war criminals in order for accession discussions to advance. That’s sound. They have strict economic requirements, though their stringency could perhaps be questioned in light of the botched entrances of Romania and Bulgaria. But what will they do, what can they do, to get Serbia on the right path with Kosovo?

It seems nearly as if we’d be trying to rectify the past wrongs that included not clamping down on Serbia early enough in 1990-1991. Then, the international community failed to recognized and act upon clear signs that Serbia was acting as an aggressor and instigator in the disintegration. Today, it is different. I think we should all be skeptical about how far the EU can intervene in Serbian politics, or Bosnian politics, for that matter.

But if Bosnia is to depart from the shackles of its history with Serbia and advance as a divided, albeit peaceful and independent state, how is pressing Serbia going to help? Serbia’s quarrels with Kosovo need to be resolved. Period. And they can be. Just as Serb-Croat conflict was wrongfully described as “centuries old” and “intractable” so too have has the Kosovo-Serbia divide. It may indeed be more severe than that of Croatia and Serbia. But surely it’s not insurmountable.

I am all for the “shape up or don’t make the EU” bargaining line. I think it’s effective, generally, though Serbia may be a more indifferent nut to crack that most of the newer EU states. I just don’t quite agree with Abramowitz’s harsh state and fear-mongering, and his sense that the EU has led the process astray. The EU has every rationale interest to resolve any potential conflict in the Balkans. Luckily, or unluckily to Abramowitz, they don’t use more than pressure.

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