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Why the West Must Remain Engaged in Bosnia

Until it intervened in Bosnia and Herzegovina 25 years ago, NATO seemed adrift, lacking a purpose. Without the Soviet Union as the signature threat to guard against, it had no overarching mission, no cause uniting all its member states. Even in 1992, when genocide broke out in its own backyard, the alliance dithered, too uncertain of its ability to solve the problem. It took a singularly shocking atrocity, of a kind not seen in Europe since World War II, to spur the allies to action.

Image courtesy of Michael Büker and Wikimedia ©2009

The West must remember the good it did in ending a terrible conflict and remain politically engaged. The passing of time since the war does not mean the threat of further violence has disappeared. As with any country whose politics are strongly influenced by a deadly conflict in living memory, the tensions and troubles stemming from that conflict will linger for generations. By remaining engaged in Bosnia, the West can help keep these tensions to a minimum.

In July 1995, as United Nations peacekeepers stood by, Bosnian Serb troops entered the city of Srebrenica, which had been declared a safe zone two years earlier. They rounded up Muslim Bosniak civilians, divided them by gender, and massacred more than eight thousand men and boys. Shaken out of its complacency, NATO began a three-week campaign of airstrikes on August 30, hitting Bosnian Serb forces and forcing them to halt their campaigns. On December 14, after six weeks of tense negotiations led by U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, the warring parties signed the Dayton Accords. The accords recognized an independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 60,000 NATO peacekeepers were deployed to protect it.

A quarter-century later, the guns are no longer firing, but the wounds of war have not yet fully healed. Bosnians remain deeply divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. It is also politically divided; the country consists of two autonomous republics: the mostly Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the mostly Serb Republika Srpska. The economy was struggling even before the full economic impact of COVID-19 became clear; unemployment in November 2019 was 32.6%. Corruption and patronage are rife, in part due to “the absence of a unifying narrative” for the country, according to Transparency International. The creation of two republics may have been necessary to end the war, but it has entrenched division and mistrust. And the reality of genocide is not yet fully recognized – there are leading Bosnian Serb politicians who deny or downplay the horrors.

What can the rest of Europe and the United States do? Questions of Bosnian cohesion are ultimately for Bosnians themselves to answer. However, Western powers and institutions can help embed Bosnia more deeply into the West. This will be beneficial at a time when Vladimir Putin is making an effort to increase Russian influence in the Balkans (including Kosovo, site of another NATO intervention to halt massacres of Muslims by Serb militants). Of a piece with Putin’s lament for the fall of the Soviet Union is his determination to reestablish Russia’s historic sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

There is potential for ethnoreligious rapprochement among young Bosnians, those who were born after the war and whose milieu is the interconnected world of the 21st century, not the divided world of their parents and grandparents. The documentary ReGeneration, released in 2018, follows a diverse group of young Bosnians as they cross the country bridging divides. They visit each other’s communities and ask those who lived through the war what it was all for. They attend Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox houses of worship and speak to clergymen of all three faiths. They are determined not to be held back by the past, to focus instead on what they have in common with their fellow Bosnians.

Similar to the young Lebanese who have protested their country’s sclerotic, sectarian political regime, young Bosnians cross social barriers. There is a risk, however, that without a voice and a stake in the political process, their aspirations will be for naught. Embedding Bosnia more deeply into the West through NATO and the European Union is a way to make change more likely, and to convince young Bosnians that the rest of the world has not forgotten about their country. As with other Eastern European countries that have joined NATO and the EU in recent decades, the mere fact of their membership would put them on record as believing in liberal democratic values. Even when some of those countries, notably Hungary and Poland, have experienced backsliding on those values, their links to the liberal West mean there are Westerners who care about freedom, democracy, and stability to the east. The amount of Western press coverage Poland’s recent presidential election garnered, and the concern expressed by Western liberals about the reelection of a right-wing populist, is an example of this.

It is understandable that Westerners would want to ignore Bosnia. Between a pandemic, a recession, and domestic political polarization, they have much to worry about. Their leaders, however, should not ignore it. Problems that begin in the Balkans do not stay there – case in point: World War I.

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Michael Purzycki

Michael has worked as an analyst in the Pentagon and at Bloomberg LP. His primary interests are U.S. defense policy, the Middle East, and energy policy. He has been published in the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.
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