Bosnia’s Come a Long Way, Don’t Be Fooled by War Memories

April 9 (Bloomberg) -- There’s been a rash of news coverage lately to mark the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo, and pretty much all of the reports have followed a similar pattern.

First, they remind us of just how awful the war was and, more often than not, that the journalist was there to live it. Then they describe today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sad and divided place, in which children from the different communities mostly don’t go to school together.

And that’s about it.

The siege of Sarajevo and the war in Bosnia were indeed terrible. But what’s missing in these essentially nostalgic accounts by journalists, who long since went on to do other things, is that Bosnia is no longer the same place it was two decades ago. Hence the outpouring of reports assembled from tear-stained memories and, all too often, mistaken cliches.

A favorite is that before the war, Sarajevo was a throbbing multicultural hub of a city. It wasn’t. It was a quiet and dull provincial Yugoslav city, where Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks -- as Bosnia’s Muslims are now called -- got on well. Today, Sarajevo and Bosnia have reverted to being something of a backwater, but to an extent that’s for the better. No news is good news, in Bosnia’s case.

Almost Miraculous

Seen as a whole, the story of Bosnia since the end of the war has been more good than bad. Clearly it remains rather poor and divided, but given the orgy of killing that took place there between 1992 and 1995, the transformation since has been almost miraculous.

The Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war split the country into two so-called entities. These are the Bosniak-Croat Federation, which is subdivided into 10 cantons, and the ethnic-Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. There is also a self-governing town called Brcko. So it’s complicated. Bosnia’s leaders are a stubborn, macho and relatively uncompromising lot. Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s president, periodically says what most Bosnian Serbs think, which is that they should secede from Bosnia.

Bosniak leaders by contrast argue that more power should be given to the country’s weak central government. Serbs and Croats see this as a subterfuge that would give Bosniaks the upper hand, because there are more of them. Many ethnic-Croats would like to see a third entity formed, which would give them control of a specifically Bosnian Croat part of the country.

With a population of 3.8 million, Bosnia in an ideal world would be run (brilliantly) by one mayor and a town hall. But as we don’t live in an ideal world, Bosnians have to live with the structures that the war left them -- unfair, stupid and cumbersome as these may be. And, here’s the thing: For all the lingering resentments and differences between the communities, disputes have remained within the political realm since 1995. They have never spilled back into violence.

Bosnian postwar history has had a number of phases. In the immediate postwar years the old leaders and old order prevailed. In the second period, huge advances were made in putting the country back together and making it somewhat functional. The last six years have seen setbacks and stagnation. But, Cassandras who warned that Bosnia would collapse unless the West took action have proved consistently wrong.

Paddy Ashdown, who was the international community’s high representative in Bosnia between 2002 and 2006, has been warning since he left office that things were going downhill fast. On April 5, for example, he told us again: “We know now the dangers of 1992. It is vital that we in the international community do not allow ourselves to sleep walk back to them.” I don’t mean to mock Ashdown. He’s right to make such warnings, because doing so helps to keep Bosnia on the radars of Western chancelleries, and that has an effect.

End of Violence

But Gerald Knaus, the co-author of a book called “Can Intervention Work?” and a perennial Bosnia optimist, is right, too. He says that while still ”poor, politically isolated and internally divided,” the country has seen ”no interethnic violence for a decade, despite the almost total withdrawal of international peacekeepers.”

Bosnians went to the polls in October 2010, and it took them more than year to form a government. This was serious, but most everyday administration is done at the so-called entity level anyway. In that sense Bosnia and Belgium, a similarly divided, hyperfederalized and dysfunctional place, have a lot in common. Nor are Bosnia’s debates over secession unique. With Scots voting in a referendum on independence, probably in autumn 2014, the breakup of the U.K. is a far more likely scenario than the breakup of Bosnia, because it does not entail the risk of violence.

Another counterweight to the teary 20-years-on stories of last week is the altered regional context, which many foreign journalists returning to Sarajevo for the anniversary overlooked. The European Union has its troubles for sure, but the accession process makes for a clear goal to work toward, limits the extremes of political discourse and gives officials thousands of generally good and useful things to do to make their countries better places. If EU entry criteria had been as demanding in the late 1970s and early 1980s as they are today, Greece might not be in the mess it’s in.

Croatia will join the EU in 2013. Serbia and Montenegro are candidates. Bosnia may well apply for candidacy later this year. Unlike 20 years ago, when Serbia and Croatia were driven by leaders who wanted to rip off and annex chunks of Bosnia, now their strategic interest is to keep Bosnia moving forward toward Brussels and to keep doing business with it. Serbia and Croatia are the second and third largest foreign investors in Bosnia.

Bosnia is afflicted by high unemployment, low levels of foreign investment and weak demand for exports to the troubled euro area. But the problems most people face in their everyday lives are the same as those of their ex-compatriots in the rest of the former Yugoslavia. It isn’t surprising then that, in the real world as opposed to that of nostalgic foreign journalists, a ”Yugosphere” has re-emerged. This encompasses commerce, media, entertainment and political cooperation, and Sarajevo is at the heart of it.

So remember the war’s 100,000 victims, for sure. But let’s not pretend that 2012 is 1992, because it isn’t. In the general scheme of things, Bosnia’s glass is half full.

(Tim Judah is an author and journalist. He writes about foreign affairs and covers the Balkans for The Economist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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