x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A legacy in the Balkans that matters beyond its borders

The impact of Dayton still haunts Bosnia-Herzegovina. The accord, by recognising the gains made through conquest, and freezing them, failed to reinforce a sense among inhabitants of the rewards of long-term collaboration and coexistence.

You can still see, here and there, the ravages of war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, it is the unseen that brings home best why a decade and a half after the end of the fighting in the country, the conflict remains very much present in the minds of most people.

The violence is over, but for many in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the killing that took place between 1992 and 1995 has left behind a more enduring legacy: communal suspicion, high unemployment, limited economic opportunities, an uncertain future in an entity contested by a sizable portion of its population, and in some cases the re-emergence of communal nationalism, as evidenced in recent elections. And yet everywhere are signs of the potential advantages of coexistence - a rich history, clement weather, bountiful, beautiful lands, proximity to Europe and Asia, and a multifaceted, bold people.

The pull of the precipice, when everything imposes less destructive choices, is also familiar in other mixed societies that have been through modern wars - places Muslim, Christian, and profane, that borrow from East and West - for example Lebanon or Cyprus.

Such mixed societies are often depicted as places of timeless animosities. That line is fashionable in an era allegedly explained by civilisational fault lines, particularly between a "Christian" West and a Muslim "East". However, the reality is that the carnage in Bosnia-Herzegovina was not predestined any more than it was in Cyprus and Lebanon. The facile notion that these societies have almost genetically incubated murderous identities, to borrow from the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, is not really borne out by history. Indeed, in all of these societies, political tension has often been sustained by communal myths and fabricated paranoia, relayed by foreign observers who don't know any better.

Yet one shouldn't be naive either. The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina happened, and it has left psychological consequences that, in many cases, have hardened primary identities. For example, you will hear a disabused, underpaid Muslim Sarajevan, who served in the Bosnian army, tell you he never used to pray before the war, but that now he does so five times a day. But he will also complain that neither his wife nor daughter is religious, and nothing you see in Sarajevo will surprise you in such a paradox, for the city - Ottoman, Austrian, Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, and brashly irreligious - continues to embrace an ideal of diversity, whatever the contradictions.

This impulse is what makes so enthralling those mixed Mediterranean states that emerged along the old Ottoman-Western European fault line. Not so long ago, many such states were bywords for death and destruction. In their fate the pessimistic read, rather narrowly, the inexorable dangers inherent in a certain form of cultural diversity. And yet as the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek once asked an interviewer, talking about the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, why was it that outsiders invariably searched out and affirmed their differences, when their similarities were far more striking?

That's a point many in Bosnia-Herzegovina, particularly Muslims, with no neighbouring Croatia or Serbia to rally to, will insist upon. Their optimism frequently speaks more to desire than reality. One Muslim in Mostar told me that relations in his city were "the same as before the war". But today in Mostar, which saw fierce fighting between Muslims and Croats, the communities still live substantially apart, and their children attend separate schools. The eastern portion of the city is predominantly Muslim, the western predominantly Croat, and if my Muslim interlocutor pointed out that he lived in the west, he seemed to be the exception confirming the rule.

It's undeniable that the war created largely "pure" ethnic enclaves now recognised internationally - Serb on the one side, and Muslim-Croat on the other. According to the Dayton Accords of 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina is made up of two entities: the largely Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the mainly Serbian Republika Srpska. Demographic percentages in each are principally the consequences of conflict, formalised by diplomats who seized onto a flawed solution to end the bloodbath in the former Yugoslavia.

However, if the right policies are adopted, and in some areas they have been, communal hostility need not be unalterable, whatever the challenges. For example, the Brcko District of northern Bosnia is an area that belongs to both entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but that has been governing itself for the last decade with international assistance. Integration has worked better there than elsewhere, and economic standards in Brcko are higher than in other parts of the country.

In contrast, observers are keeping a wary eye on Republika Srpska, where the lure of secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina and attachment to Serbia remains powerful. Serbs, ironically, point to international recognition of Kosovo's independence from Serbia as justification for their own eventual departure from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Muslims are worried, and some feel that Serbian secession may be inevitable.

The impact of Dayton still haunts Bosnia-Herzegovina. The accord, by recognising the gains made through conquest, and freezing them, failed to reinforce a sense among inhabitants of the rewards of long-term collaboration and coexistence. Yet Bosnia-Herzegovina's past, in the 20th century and before, offers many openings to appreciate these rewards. Nationalism will remain an obstacle, and those who believe that communal resentment must be the norm in Bosnia-Herzegovina will retain the larger audience. But the most vibrant places in the country are still those where different communities interact, where the ideal of the many overcomes that of the one. Unfortunately, that may not be enough to stop those who feel threatened by diversity.


Michael Young is the opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and the author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle