Ponedjeljak, 15 srpnja, 2024

The Most Important Unlearned Lesson of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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The other day, I read a scholarly debate about Bosnia and Herzegovina by two associates from the British Center for Peace and Conflict Studies. I was drawn to their main thesis that representatives of the international community, instead of “listening to local voices” and helping to “build an inclusive society,” have become “central mechanisms of power without any accountability to the population.” Admittedly, they did not explicitly speak of some imposed monarch, perhaps because their text dates back to 2009. Nonetheless, they had more than enough reason to claim that “the OHR, far from being an advisory body, has actually become a de facto executive and legislative body,” as they might have been influenced by Paddy Ashdown’s rule at the time.

Written by: Prof. Dr. Ugo Vlaisavljević

Foreigners, especially competent researchers and analysts, generally have the invaluable advantage of seeing things that are too close and too personal for us locals from a great distance and without biased interest. However, even among those who see quite clearly from afar, there are disputes and disagreements. One argument particularly caught my eye, which these authors, albeit very cautiously, presented against the view of Professor Sumantra Bose, who is a frequent guest at the University of Mostar and teaches at the London School of Economics. According to these authors, Bose claims that the Dayton Agreement is “the most viable and democratic form of governance for the fragile existence of Bosnia as a multi-national state,” partly because it gives “primacy to collectives over individual citizens” and respects “ethno-cultural autonomy,” making Bosnia “a demographic microcosm of what Yugoslavia was before the war.” The authors of the debate do not directly challenge Bose’s assessment of the Dayton Agreement but criticize its premise with the following words: “before the conflict, Bosnia was a much more integrated, multi-ethnic, and plural society with far fewer ethno-territorial divisions.” They add that the goal of building lasting peace, especially among “more optimistic internationals,” is nothing less than “to return Bosnia to this pre-war multi-ethnic configuration.”

Returning Bosnia to its pre-war state, to a society without divisions! Isn’t that the goal many strive for, both local and foreign entrepreneurs of reconciliation and progress? Creating one nation from several “ethnic groups” is not a realistic goal, at least not in the short term, almost everyone agrees, but restoring the pre-war society without deep divisions seems achievable. Everyone talks about a “deeply divided Bosnian society.” For most, this defines the cancer of that society, generally understood as the most terrible consequence of the war and post-war rule of so-called ethno-nationalists. But is there an important, completely unexamined assumption within this so self-evident phrase: “deeply divided society,” which can lead to great illusions and delusions? One might respond: Is there a greater truth than the fact that Bosnia and Herzegovina today is a deeply divided society? This is not an assumption but an obviousness!

However, when speaking of a deeply divided society, the reference is to a once-existing undivided society, as a norm and unquestionable value. Doesn’t the narrative of reintegrating Bosnian society rest on such an assumption? Does the very formulation “deeply divided society” not imply a return to some original state as the measure of division? International actors, as well as domestic progressive forces, aim to reintegrate the divided society, to return it to its original state. But did a “Bosnian society” exist before the war, and if so, how integrated was it?

Pre-war Bosnian society did not exist in a vacuum but within a state framework, a political order, the Yugoslav one, Titoist, which precisely questions its existence as a society and its autonomy, distinctiveness as Bosnian-Herzegovinian. In the communist political order, only one unified political community could exist, one political people, the Yugoslav political people. No plurality of political peoples, and thus no party pluralism, could have the right to exist. But communist states could and did have multinational compositions, precisely because recognizing these nations did not lead to the multiplication of political peoples and their legitimate representation, which means, above all, multi-party systems. (The Titoists left behind three recognized Bosnian-Herzegovinian nations: Croats, Muslims, and Serbs.) Therefore, with the collapse of the communist order in Eastern Europe, the era of multinational states also ended. However, it is clear that Bosnia did not survive because it was a mono-national state or because the Bosnian society was a distinct and unified society, thus capable of responding to the post-communist, Western concept of a normal state: a nation-state. Indeed, for three decades, we have been hearing representatives and overseers of the international community referring to three self-aware political nations as “ethnic groups,” which is truly laughable (with the tacit assumption or even goal of their intervention being that these groups might one day reintegrate into one Bosnian nation!).

We will not understand anything about the political community of the brotherly South Slavic peoples, about yesterday’s Yugoslav society, if we do not see that it existed not as a modern civil society but as a militant community under strict military (or quasi-military, politburo) command. Its militant nature, constant mobilization against imagined or real enemies, fascists, and nationalists, made it a (socially compact) community, not a (scattered, “alienated”) society. Today, we should not delude ourselves about the nature of that community, its homogeneity and quasi-military structure, the militancy of its leaders and guardians, its constant mobilization (of adults, women, youth, and children), the armed populace and its military training, the political persecutions of dissidents as community purification, civic associations as areas of different fronts and “united forces,” etc. All the institutions of that order were institutions of a militant community supposedly threatened by mortal enemies and collective extermination, so returning to yesterday’s undivided society would not mean pacification but precisely the militarization of Bosnian society. The Bosnian state undoubtedly exists, but it is an open question whether its society exists except as an aggregation of citizens. Did yesterday’s militant community simply turn into a fragmented civil society? But why then does it need to be reintegrated or integrated for the first time? Such an endeavor would require some integration of its constituent communities, nations, or “ethnic groups,” whatever we call them, into a more comprehensive social form. Contemporary political theory speaks of shared solidarity and shared xenophobia as conditions for the emergence of such a higher form, i.e., the establishment of Bosnian sentimental and mental boundaries towards the nearest Others. But it also speaks of a much more practical and liberal solution: a fair division of power and mutual recognition of several different political peoples. We have had the opportunity to see everything after the last war: the path to such a solution is blocked by both Serbian separatists and Bosniak unitarians and today’s leftists (ex-communists): for all of them, only one unified political community can exist. Certainly, a militant community, because the pronounced xenophobia of these two nationalisms is the same as the bitter anti-fascism of Sarajevo leftists./HMS/

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