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Srebrenica's Demographic Aftermath

By Elizabeth Pond

Yet again government leaders in Bosnia seem determined to act against their own interests. Their latest opportunity to do so was provided by this month's census, the first approved by feuding politicians since the massacre of 8,000 unarmed Muslim boys and men by Serb soldiers at Srebrenica during the 1990s Yugoslav wars.

As the survey ended on October 15, it looked as if the headcount would harm rather than help post-war reconciliation in the land that suffered the most in the fighting, with 100,000 war dead, two million refugees out of a population of four million, and brutal ethnic cleansing. Elites of all three of the South Slav peoples on Bosnian territory—Serbs, Croats, and Muslims—used the census to dramatize disputes between the three rather than search for common ground and try to restore the easy coexistence and intermarriage that marked vibrant, cosmopolitan, pre-war Sarajevo.

This doesn't mean that Bosnia's South Slavs risk plunging the region into war again. But it does mean that the Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks (as those of Muslim heritage now call themselves) are prolonging their deadlock of the past seven years in a system that gives each of the sub-ethnicities a well-used veto over the other two in political decisionmaking. The system, set up in the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the fighting in Bosnia, accorded collective rights to the three "constituent peoples" in a way that the European Court of Human Rights has since ruled incompatible with the democratic concept of individual rights. Attempts to correct this constitutional birth defect over several years have failed because of constant squabbling among the three sub-ethnicities. 

The peace treaty further gave Bosnia a gridlocked state system of two "entities," one the Republika Srpska of  Serbs and the other consisting of Bosniak and Croat cantons—along with a top-heavy bureaucracy of 180,000 political and civil service posts that will be redistributed when the final census results are announced early next year. Hence the lobbying by leaders of each group to increase its own share of patronage by pressuring offspring of mixed marriagesto identify themselves with the favored sub-ethnicity rather than just checking off "other" on the questionnaire. Unlike in the last census of 1991, there is no box this year for an over-arching identity of "Yugoslav."

A generation ago that earlier survey counted a total Bosnian population of 4.4 million, with 43.7 percent Bosniaks, 31.4 percent Serbs, and 17.3 percent Croats. Today's Croats fear they may have shrunk as low as 10 percent because of the exodus of many of their number to the newest EU member of Croatia. Bosniaks too fear that they may have reduced their share, as half of the two million war refugees have remained abroad. For their part, voters in the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska follow President Milorad Dodik in circling their wagons even against the greater prosperity that would follow from compromising with Bosniaks and Croats to gain access to EU largesse and a larger pie for all.

The West, which basically ran Bosnia as an international protectorate in its first decade of post-war existence, originally hoped that self-interest would eventually compel the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats to join together and start on the long road to EU membership. This would have qualified the state for generous EU subsidies and benefited all citizens of Bosnia. Instead, with few exceptions, Bosniaks voted for Bosniak, Serbs for Serb, and Croats for Croat parties, and their bickering politicians made tactical partisan decisions rather than cooperative strategic decisions. Typically, after the 2010 election it took 14 months to form a government—and that government collapsed after half a year.

As a result, Bosnia now lags behind all the other Yugoslav successor states in striving for the prosperity and security—and substantial financial and technical aid—that EU association offers the Balkan states. It is the only country in the region that has not won visa-free entry for its citizens to travel in the EU. It is also the only nation not to have concluded even the first formal step on the way to full EU membership.

By contrast, Slovenia became a full member of the European Union in 2004. Croatia entered the club this year. Even Serbia—after refusing for 16 years to meet the precondition of sending the commanding general at the Srebrenica slaughter, Ratko Mladic, to The Hague to stand trial for genocide—has this year detoxified its ultranationalism and joined in pre-negotiations for EU accession.

By now the European Union is losing patience with Bosnia and threatening, if  the elites don't compromise soon and set up a united central government that can speak for Bosnia in negotiations, to halve the €90 million it already allocated for the state this year.

Last spring some European observers drew fresh hope for Bosnia as ultranationalists in Serbia proper suddenly turned moderate and the most adamant of the Bosnian politicians, President Dodik in Republika Srpska, lost the political patrons in Belgrade who had once humored his periodic threat to secede from Bosnia and unite with Serbia. Instead of mellowing, however. Dodik has just stepped up his separatist demands. Bosnia, he said this week, is "a would-be country that is not consolidated and is fraught with many problems." Only the entity of Republika Srpska, he proclaimed, has met all the requirements for starting talks with the EU, and he announced that his rump country would soon open an embassy manqué in Washington to match his representation offices in Serbia, Russia, Greece, Israel, Brussels, Vienna, and Stuttgart.

The 2013 census may help the European Union calculate where to subsidize roads and water purification plants in Bosnia, should Sarajevo ever get its act together. But on present evidence, it won't help Sarajevo get that act together.

*****

*****  

Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of Endgame in the Balkans.

[Photograph by Yanni Koutsomitis]

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