There Are Reason to Be Cautious About Breaking Up Bosnia

History suggests separation could easily lead to more tension and violence on the Balkans, not less.

Map of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Map of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Pixabay/Stefano Ferrario)

Daniel Berman, who occasionally contributes to the Atlantic Sentinel, poses an interesting question at his blog, The Restless Realist: Why not break up Bosnia?

The current situation seems untenable. Bosnia is divided in two: an autonomous Republika Srpska for the (mostly Orthodox Christian) ethnic Serbs and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the (Muslim) Bosniaks and (Catholic) Bosnian Croats.

The federation is itself divided into ten autonomous cantons, five of which are Bosniak-ruled, three Croat and two mixed.

This division, which emerged from the 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the Bosnian War, has kept the peace but entrenched ethnic divisions. Parties are organized along ethnic lines. Every political appointment must be considered within the context of ethnic politics. Serb nationalists perennially demand more autonomy from a central government that is already one of the weakest in the world. Some dream of one day joining neighboring Serbia, where their nationalist counterparts would be glad to annex the Bosnian enclaves as compensation for giving up ethnic-Albanian Kosovo.

These political obsessions have left Bosnia’s economy in a sorry state. Nearly half the population is officially unemployed. 40 percent lives below the poverty line.

So why not give everybody what they want: states of their own?

Reward and punishment

The reason Western powers wouldn’t allow Bosnia to split up in the 1990s was that they feared it might reward ethnic cleansing.

That is a less persuasive argument now that the cleaners are no longer in power, argues Berman.

Today, he writes, “the result is to punish everyone by denying the federation effective government.”

Fair lines

The next argument against separation was that it’s impossible to draw fair lines. Bosniaks lived among Serbs; Christians among Muslims.

Ethnic cleansing during the war and subsequent population transfers have made the different entities of Bosnia more homogenous. As Berman points out, 81 percent of the Serb Republic’s population is now Serb. It was 55 percent in 1991. 71 percent of the federation’s population is Muslim and 22 percent Croat.

That still means one in five residents of the Serb Republic isn’t Serb, though, and they might not be thrilled about independence, much less annexation by Serbia.

Hostility

Berman argues that any Serbian secession ought to be conditioned on “a real embrace of individual civic equality”. But how do you guarantee that?

Perhaps Berman is right and the overwhelming majority ethnic Serbs now enjoy in their republic would make them less hostile to the Muslim minority. But that’s not the case today and it hasn’t been the case in decades.

He may also be right that nationalism — on all sides — would become less toxic if everybody felt safe. But that’s a long-term proposition. The only people (that I know of) who were able to shake off ethnic nationalism in a single generation were the Germans and they had to drag the whole of Europe into the Second World War first.

The trouble with ethnic nationalism

Berman admits that the Bosnian Croats would lose out if the federation became a Muslim-majority state. But, he writes, “they are the smallest group, 15 percent of the population, and have the most options, being entitled to Croatian and hence EU citizenship.”

Sure, but let’s be clear about what that means. He is suggesting half a million people abandon their home for the sake of allowing the Muslim Bosniaks their own, homogenous state.

That’s the trouble with ethnic nationalism: no matter how small the minority, it’s always too big for some.

Once you accept the premise that people can only feel safe if they are governed by one of their own, real civic equality becomes impossible.

So what’s the alternative? I don’t know. Maybe separation is the lesser of evils, but we have learned from history that it can easily lead to more tension and violence, not less.