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Interview: Morton Abramowitz On The 'End Of Bosnia'

Morton Abramowitz
Morton Abramowitz
Morton Abramowitz is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has served as ambassador to Turkey and Thailand and as assistant secretary of state for intelligence and research. The author of many books, he recently co-wrote an article in "The National Interest" titled "The Death of the Bosnian State." RFE/RL's Balkan Service director Gordana Knezevic asked him what he meant by this.

RFE/RL: The recent article you co-authored in "The National Interest" is kind of alarming. Do you think Bosnia-Herzegovina can really fall apart?

Morton Abramowitz:
To be frank, the title was put out by the editor; it was not our title. It's a rather alarming title. We had a much more subdued one.

On the other hand, I think there is a serious situation. The ethnic rivalry is hardening and it's like a frozen conflict in a sense. Leaving it that way is very dangerous, or potentially very dangerous. So we wanted to point out that one, this is a very uncertain and unsatisfactory situation and it had to be dealt with, and not a can to be kicked down the road. For example, the European Union approach to this seems to be that we will, over time, by providing aid assistance, make some progress in reducing tensions. This will culminate in some sort of better and more satisfactory relationship between the parties.

Clearly, I don't think it can work. There has to be a much more vigorous effort to deal with the situation. The center of the problem in my view -- a lot of people disagree with this -- both in Kosovo and in Bosnia is Serb domestic politics. And until that problem is resolved, I'm not optimistic we will see much progress made. That was the gist of the piece.

There was a relationship also between Kosovo and Bosnia in that as long as the Kosovo problem remained unresolved, the problem of north Kosovo, the problem of Bosnia, was likely to remain unresolved. And if for some reason north Kosovo was somehow partitioned, that would open a new channel for the exit of Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb entity) from Bosnia. It's a problem mainly of Serb domestic politics.

Now, the EU basically seeks to find some way to continue both in Bosnia and Kosovo ways that will indicate some progress in the Kosovo negotiations or through a new EU mission in Bosnia. This will lead to a situation that will enable Serbia to get the ability to win accession [to the EU] and permit [Serbian President Boris] Tadic to win [reelection] in Belgrade because they see him as the major source of progress on these Balkan issues. I think that's a very, very difficult row to hoe with very uncertain results.

RFE/RL: This is an amazing analysis.

It's easier to proceed in hopes that over time, attitudes will change and there will be a little more forthcoming relationship between the Serbs and the Kosovars, but I don't believe that is a productive way for resolving this problem.
Abramowitz: The problem is one of how you produce constructive change in two very difficult situations in which there is a potential for sliding backward and even for some violence. We've seen a little violence occur in Kosovo and that should be a wake-up call to the West and Kosovo, to realize progress is simply not going to be made by the parties getting together in Brussels and producing advances in useful but small issues.

The issue is more fundamental than that and it's the issue of north Kosovo. It's easier to proceed in hopes that over time, attitudes will change and there will be a little more forthcoming relationships between the Serbs and the Kosovars, but I don't believe that is a productive way for resolving this problem. I feel you have to attack the main problem, which is the future of north Kosovo. I may be too pessimistic, but I don't believe this problem in Kosovo can be resolved without some resolution of the north Kosovo situation and that problem lies in Belgrade.

A European Future

RFE/RL: Do you have any explanation for why the European Union isn't applying pressure on Belgrade?

The European Union largely doesn't believe in pressure. The European Union basically believes in trying to find ways that are so-called constructive and enlist the parties in cooperation and over time produce a significant change in the situation. They also believe the promise of European accession will encourage the parties to compromise and find ways to get along better and produce an effective Bosnian government, etc. I would hope that to be the case, but I'm very skeptical.

RFE/RL: I'd like to ask you about the international community's Office of the High Representative (OHR) in Bosnia. It's seen by many as an obstacle to Bosnia's European future, but at the same time, it's an obstacle to the disintegration of Bosnia. At the very least, the office can declare null and void any unilateral proclamation of independence as it would be against the terms of the Dayton peace agreement.

That's been a view of many in the United States. The U.S. has always been the principal champion of the continuation of the OHR position.

The fact is the OHR is a skeleton of what it once was. Its ability to fashion its will is very difficult. Look at the way the OHR was undermined by the EU in its dealings on the proposed referendum in Serbia. They undermined OHR, gave them a kick in the ass. So I have always felt OHR was a useful institution, but right now, in the way it's operating, I don't think those powers are very effective.

RFE/RL: Do you think that Bosnia should join NATO and do you think it would provide some sense of security to all ethnic groups?

I think it would be useful if Bosnia could join NATO, as I believe it useful if the Greeks would stop preventing Macedonia from joining NATO. I think it would be a step forward, but I'm not quite sure that all parties in Bosnia would agree to it and I don't think it resolves the fundamental issue of how to reduce the ethnic abrasions and move forward. There are some people who are more optimistic about the impact of that; I'm not. But I'm obviously not opposed to it.

Healing Ethnic Divisions

RFE/RL: The fact that Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnian Muslims are cooperating and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in NATO missions in Afghanistan and Iraq is sending us a clear message within the right framework and in a truly professional environment...

It doesn't deal with Bosnia's domestic politics. Maybe it will encourage change, I would hope that might be the case, but I'm not optimistic. Bosnian politicians are wedded to different things that are often inconsistent with what many people would want. I think there are a lot of people in Bosnia and in all quarters who want to see much more focus on the economy, much more growth, much more robust activity, but that doesn't seem to happen.

Milorad Dodik (left), president of Republika Srpska, with Bosnian Croat politicians Dragan Covic and Bozo Ljubic
Rather we have [President Milorad] Dodik in [Republika] Srpska and other politicians there who always go back to ethnic issues. And the ethnic parties tend to vote in an ethnic way. The Bosniaks vote for Bosniaks, Serbs vote for Serbs, and it doesn't break this down.

Now, how this is to be done I frankly don't know. I think the biggest problem is Republika Srpska and to change the climate that has been produced by Mr. Dodik and all his statements.

RFE/RL: The division of the country along ethnic lines was actually legitimized by the Dayton agreement...

Yes, of course, that's what they did; it consolidated the status quo and did nothing more. It did not provide adequately for the growth of a different country.

RFE/RL: And Dayton is now seen as a holy script for some....

Well, it's a holy script because no one knows how to replace it. No one's going to get together and produce another Dayton agreement that integrates the country. If they wanted to do that, the parties themselves could, but they're not.

Unless the West were to impose a totally new agreement, which they're certainly not prepared to do, I don't know how a new Dayton conference will achieve anything. If it were possible to achieve something by a new Dayton conference, which would change the way the country operates, obviously I would support it, but I don't see that happening.

Look, over the past year there have been all sorts of meetings, high-level officials came back and forth. Nothing's changed.

Papering Over The Cracks

RFE/RL: I think what we're seeing now in Kosovo is the bad politics and hypocrisy of the international community exploding. When Kosovo simply decided to guard its own border, we had a new crisis.

For whatever reason, [Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim] Thaci got mad and he decided to move ahead. Whether he talked to the Americans or not, I don't know; there's a lot of back-and-forth on this issue. Kosovars rarely do anything without American approval; Americans are their best friends.

But nevertheless he went and did it and I believe the status quo has been somewhat changed. I don't know where the negotiations are now. They may well go back to Brussels and try to restore the status quo. Further talks may solve the customs problem, but I don't think it's going to contribute to any long-term solution in the north.

Now, they may hope that over time good things will occur because they're cooperating more, but I don't think they're going to cooperate more.

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