The Great Balkan Botch-Up
by Stephen Schwartz
The interventions of the Western powers in the Balkans were sold to public opinion in Western Europe and the United States as responses to humanitarian emergencies. As such, they may have succeeded: The Dayton agreement of 1995 ended open fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the 1999 NATO campaign in Kosovo prevented the complete expulsion of the province's large Albanian population, which the regime of Slobodan Milosevic had begun to effect a year before.
Nevertheless, it has become obvious to many on the ground that the necessary corollary to military action -- intelligent reconstruction of the damaged social fabric in the Balkans -- is failing badly. And in this area, much of the responsibility belongs with the European Union and European-based nongovernmental organizations.
Bosnia, where the foreign authorities have been the longest and most extensively active, provides the worst-case scenario for what at best can be called "humanitarian colonialism." Since Dayton, some $5 billion has been expended in Bosnia on so-called "nation building." Yet Bosnians have almost nothing to show for this shower of gold. Housing reconstruction has lagged, employment is stagnant, privatization has become a subject of bitter humor.
Traveling around the region in the past two years, I repeatedly observed certain economic patterns. In the de facto Croatian areas of Herzegovina and central Bosnia, there is more and spiffier economic development than elsewhere. Shopping malls have appeared, glamorous restaurants offer tasteful menus, and people have a prosperous look. But virtually all of this growth is based on direct investment from Croatia, with no help from the "international community."
The so-called Republika Srpska or Bosnian Serb Republic, remains the most devastated in infrastructural terms, with whole regions showing no housing reconstruction or even the evidence of human habitation. Much economic activity in the "R.S." involves smuggling of such nonessential but immediately profitable items as cigarettes and CDs.
In Sarajevo and the rest of "Muslim" Bosnia, economic development is parasitical. That is, at least 30% of the economy is based on the "international community" -- restaurants catering almost exclusively to foreigners and rental of apartments to foreigners at speculative rates being the two most obvious examples. But there are other, less visible aspects to this situation: The best-paid jobs for Bosnians are as drivers, interpreters, clerks, and guards for the hundreds, if not thousands of foreign agencies, official as well as nongovernmental, that pullulate the landscape.
For Bosnians themselves, this environment has become deeply demoralizing. Schoolteachers make a third of what their sons and daughters, working as security guards, earn. University professors lack computers, while foreign offices junk the computers they don't need. Payments in the domestic Bosnian economy are often delayed for months at a time. Foreign NGOs have been known to flout the Bosnian tax laws. All the same phenomena exist in Kosovo.
In addition, of course, the European authorities and the NGOs have promised a rainbow of lifestyle improvements for victims of the Bosnian and Kosovo conflicts, almost none of which have materialized. Three major areas of Bosnian and Kosovar life have been completely ignored by the foreigners: culture, interreligious affairs, and professional and labor organizations.
The arrogance of foreign NGO personnel toward Bosnians and Kosovar Albanians seems limitless. They assume that no political or cultural wisdom existed in these societies before they arrived. Everything has to start from zero: Journalists must be completely retrained, political parties must be started from scratch, the education system must be totally revamped. Western political correctness has also resulted in such exercises as the demand that at least one-third of all political candidacies in Bosnia and Kosovo be reserved for women.
Yet for all their rhetoric, these foreign-aid workers rarely so much as bother to learn the local languages. In Bosnia, high foreign officials with academic training in South Slavic studies may speak Serbo-Croatian, but the lower ranks can usually talk only to other English speakers. In Kosovo, the number of foreign officials and operatives who speak Albanian may be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Foreign authorities are equally ignorant of interreligious efforts, despite the fact that they are of immense importance to the future of the region. Having provided a semblance of civil society during the depredations of the communist years, religious leaders enjoy much greater popular respect than politicians of any stripe. In particular, the activities of the Bosnian Interreligious Council, which meets frequently and brings together Catholics, Christian Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews shows that the deep fissures between the three rival communities can be bridged by people of sincere good will. That stands in marked contrast to the tripartite Bosnian government, which is characterized by the icy hostility between its members.
Professional and labor organization represents one of the worst gaps. There are literally no functioning professional associations in many sectors of the Bosnian and Kosovar economies. This means not only that there is no accountability, there are not even standards for accountancy. As a result, many Bosnians remain ignorant of the workings of modern banking, customs and tax collection, and related basic elements of a modern economy.
What is to blame? Political correctness, above all. The foreigners in Bosnia-Herzegovina had a simple-minded goal: eradicate nationalism, a concept that was never realistic and would never have been entertained in the Middle East or other crisis areas. And because a narrow-minded opposition to nationalism was accompanied by with a fantasy of returning to pre-1990 Titoite socialism, no serious attempt has been made by the foreign authorities to foster economic education in free-market principles or to carry out authentic privatization.
If the "international community" is to succeed in Bosnia, it must come to grips with one simple truth: Nationalism cannot be wished or hugged away. Foreign authorities must not turn up their noses at moderate nationalist political groups that defend their communities' cultural identities but that renounce violence and agree to the punishment of war criminals. After all, such programs are what undermined Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and brought Stipe Mesic to power in Croatia. Why try to fight it in Bosnia?