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Is Former Yugoslavia Stuck On The Sand Dune Of History?

The regional conference on the European future of the Western Balkans in Slovenia on March 20
The regional conference on the European future of the Western Balkans in Slovenia on March 20
Earlier this month, Slovenia hosted a summit of leaders from across the former Yugoslavia. The event was intended to demonstrate that Slovenia, as a full European Union member, with Croatia, as the country closest to membership, could show other countries of the region the European way forward -- and lead them there.

President Boris Tadic of Serbia turned down his invitation in protest at the presence of Kosovo as a full member of the conference. Senior EU representation was modest. The prime minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nikola Spiric (a Serb), did attend, but he walked out when Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaci spoke. This has prompted a new row in Bosnia: On what authority did Spiric make that gesture?

This conference was a lugubrious occasion that emphasized differences rather than renewed shared purpose. It compels us to look at a worrying question: Is the former Yugoslavia region facing a new round of division and animosity?

Perhaps. This is because two central questions have never been decisively answered.

Did political reconciliation in post-World War II Yugoslavia depend on an implicit understanding that the horrible interethnic violence of World War II could be put to one side as long as minority communities in the different republics had the wider security of living under a single Yugoslav roof?

If not, how could democracy and minority rights across the former Yugoslav space be guaranteed without creating mainly monoethnic polities?

Partition Or Natural Expression?

The Kosovo case exemplifies the problem. Is Kosovo's independence an ethnic partition of a democratic European state, or is it a natural expression of self-determination by Kosovo Albanians? If Kosovars can vote to break with Serbia, why can't northern Kosovo Serbs vote to break with Kosovo, or Bosnia's Serbs vote to break with Bosnia?

The philosophical complexities of all this come to a head in a new specific constitutional conundrum in Sarajevo: how to elect the Bosnian Presidency?

The new BH constitution as incorporated in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords used the clumsy precedent from communist Yugoslavia of a "collective" presidency: a Bosniak and a Croat elected from the Federation entity, and a Serb elected from Republika Srpska.

The European Court of Human Rights has now ruled -- rightly -- that this discriminates against Bosnian citizens who describe themselves as Jews or even Bosnians. But how to devise something better?

Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik proposes a simple, ostensibly nonethnic formula: the collective presidency should have one "person" from Republika Srpska and two from the federation. That sounds reasonable enough. Yet as Mr. Dodik well knows, that formula works against the Bosnian Croats who could end up with no presidency member. If some sort of ethnic identity is factored in to ensure that Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats each get one presidency member, what about Bosnians or other people of mixed ethnicity? Should a fourth presidency member slot be created just for them?

Ganic Test

Meanwhile, a new front has been opened in the ongoing dispute over the origins of the Bosnian conflict and, by implication, the logic of the Dayton settlement. Former BH Presidency member Ejup Ganic has been arrested in London under a request from Belgrade for his extradition to Serbia on war crimes charges. This relates to an infamous episode in 1992, when forces loyal to then-Bosnia and Herzegovina Presidency member Alija Izetbegovic attacked at point-blank range a convoy of Yugoslav Army troops attempting to leave Sarajevo under the UN flag.

If Bosnia cannot get the extradition request struck down on procedural/technical grounds (such as jurisdiction or lapse of time), the case could see a prolonged legal battle reminiscent of the campaign in 1998-2000 over Spain's attempt to secure the extradition of former President Augusto Pinochet.

The Bosniak/Muslim community is angry that the British government is (as they see it) hiding behind legal formalisms, allowing Belgrade to "relativize" the origins of the Bosnia conflict and encourage Serbs who question the logic of Bosnia existing within its current borders.

Ganic's arrest is all the more infuriating for Sarajevo as the trial of Radovan Karadzic moves into the substantive phase, with Karadzic weirdly intoning that the Bosniaks started the war and that the Serb response was "just and holy." Let Serbia make its feeble case on justice for war crimes against Serbs, say the Bosniaks -- but only after Serbia comes to the issue with clean hands, above all honestly confronting the war crime at Srebrenica and handing over fugitive General Ratko Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia.

Unhappily for Sarajevo, both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina as independent states have signed up to mutual European extradition arrangements. Serbia is entitled to launch proceedings to have Mr. Ganic extradited from London to Belgrade on such serious charges, which Sarajevo has shown no willingness to investigate. The United Kingdom has no real choice but to let the legal procedures take their course.

'Ethnic Disarmament'

Is today's Bosnia therefore even more vulnerable than yesterday's doomed Yugoslavia? After nearly five decades of "brotherhood and unity," the Yugoslav ideal did have resonance and popular support separate from the feuding between the republics and their greedy leaders. Bosnia, by contrast, has no political force championing a Bosnian ideal, open to all.

Izetbegovic once told me that it would take 50 years before Bosniaks dared risk "ethnic disarmament." Bosniak politicians don't lose votes by loudly damning "Serb" provocations and hypocrisy. But by making that the main message, and insisting that only their definition of Bosnia is legitimate, they make it too easy for Bosnian Serbs to argue that there is not enough common ground to build Bosnia successfully.

Bosniak leaders have also made a serious mistake in not adopting dynamic free-market policies and pushing for a prosperous, inclusive Bosnia from which Serbs too would benefit. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik is emboldened, challenging the authority of the high representative and suggesting that the two entities in Bosnia "accept the inevitable" and consider an "amicable divorce."

EU Policies 'Balkanized'

Faced with all these disagreements and more across the region -- and within its own ranks over recognition of Kosovo and the name of Macedonia -- the European Union makes the best of a bad job and presses for integration across the region, and between the region and the rest of Europe.

Not without success. At the political level, there is no serious alternative to the borders which now exist, give or take special arrangements of some sort for Northern Kosovo in due course. Kosovo is steadily gaining international recognition. Belgrade's delaying tactics are annoying but incoherent.

Even Bosnia's tiresome divisions may look less damaging if the European Union finally insists on wholesale deregulation and dynamic business-friendly economic policies as a precondition to Bosnia's EU membership. Economic and other integration is quietly gaining momentum across the "Yugosphere" with each passing year. It should be actively supported and made a major theme.

That said, the European Union's own policies are "Balkanized." It is time to reorganize the confusing set of authorities and policies dealing with Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. These arrangements need to be brought together under a single powerful team which oversees progress towards EU membership. This would not solve everything, but it should give intelligent but flexible consistency and thereby restore authority to the European effort, which in Bosnia in particular is declining.

If that does not happen, the former Yugoslavia could end up stranded on the steep sand dune of history, unable to climb upward to the green grass of full EU membership or move sideways to a better place without slipping far back down the slope.

Above all, the weary populations concerned do not need a massive legal battle in London over Ejup Ganic, a battle which revisits the origins of the collapse of Yugoslavia and what happened thereafter amid mutual recriminations: "My just and holy war crime was self-defense!" "My war crime was also self-defense -- and it was much smaller than yours, so it doesn't count."

Charles Crawford served as a British diplomat in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and subsequently as HM ambassador in Sarajevo and Belgrade. He now writes about Balkan and other diplomatic issues at The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL