Prague, 11 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - This week marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Bosnian Serb forces launched the war in close coordination with Belgrade, if not on direct orders from the federal Yugoslav military and political leaderships. Their goal was to destroy the multi-ethnic community that had existed for centuries and take the lion's share of the land and riches for a Greater Serbia. Their means were not just those of conventional warfare, but also a systematic policy of "ethnic cleansing" to force people who had lived together in relative harmony into three mutually antagonistic, ethnically based statelets. To this end, the Serbs appear to have had at least a tacit understanding with the Croatian nationalist leaderships in Zagreb and in Herzegovina.
The aggressors had the de facto assistance of the international community, which refused to intervene before the partition of the country was effectively complete.
The foreigners talked themselves into inaction by repeating mantras to the effect that the war was the inevitable result of "ancient ethnic hatreds" and that all parties were equally to blame. This was particularly the accepted truth in West European capitals, but neither in Europe nor in the United States was public opinion willing to support armed intervention to stop aggression. This was in spite of the fact that no major power lacked competent experts in Yugoslav affairs, who could have cleared up the myths, and in spite of what the 1930s had taught about the dangers of ignoring or appeasing aggression.
A qualitative change did not come until 1995. That year, NATO's use of air strikes and the no-nonsense Rapid Reaction Force in response to Serb atrocities combined with a joint Croat-Muslim ground offensive to destroy the myth of Serb invincibility. Bosnian Serb troops were sent reeling and Serbian lines crumbled.
Meanwhile, economic sanctions had taken their toll on the Serbian economy. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the architect of the destruction of Tito's Yugoslavia, decided to go to the conference table under the effective prodding of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke.
The result was the Dayton agreement, which the three parties signed in December. Its military provisions were clear, and NATO was determined to enforce them. Accordingly, the fighting effectively stopped, the forces disengaged, and NATO launched a program to register and monitor the respective armies' weapons. The U.S. also dismissed European worries about helping any of "the warring parties" and began to build up the armed forces of the shaky Croat-Muslim federation in order to deter future Serbian aggression.
But if Dayton was clear on military issues, it was very woolly on civilian ones. There was, in fact, a possibly fatal contradiction from the very outset. On the one hand, Dayton recognizes the principle that Bosnia-Herzegovina is a united, multi-ethnic country. On the other, the treaty provides no teeth for enforcing this point, so that the nationalists have been able to consolidate their hold in the areas under Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim control, respectively.
Thus, virtually no refugees have gone back to their homes in areas controlled by another ethnic group. In another clear violation of the Dayton agreement, freedom of movement across the inter-ethnic boundaries remains a joke at best.
Thugs of all three nationalities continue ethnic cleansing unpunished, and major and minor war criminals are still on the loose, often holding good jobs and remaining in public view.
Elections in September returned the three nationalist parties to power in their respective fiefdoms and hence only served to reinforce the divisions along ethnic lines. The central institutions that Dayton set up have, moreover, proven as weak and vulnerable to nationalist sabotage as were their Tito-era predecessors.
But beyond that, the nationalists face big difficulties, starting with economic ones. True, some powerful people on all three sides made fortunes in war profiteering, and the political, military, and criminal worlds often overlap. But unemployment is a problem everywhere, and the Republika Srpska is so impoverished that its per capita income is just $35 per month.
And each side has political problems as well. The Serbs are split by a series of internal feuds centering on power and money rather than on ideology. The Muslims are divided between leaders who would prefer a small but "pure" Islamic state, and those who argue that the Muslims' only future lies in a large multi-ethnic community. And among the Croats, some groups are happy to withdraw into their ethically homogenous Herzegovinian heartland, while others favor cooperation with the Muslims lest the Serbs some day divide and rule both.