Wesley Clark, a senior fellow at the Burkle Center for International Relations, is a retired Army general and former supreme allied commander of NATO in Europe. Swanee Hunt is a former United States ambassador to Austria and the author of "Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security." This op-ed originally appeared on May 3 in the New York Times.
In the Bosnian city of Mostar, a beautiful Ottoman-era limestone bridge called the Stari Most arched over the Neretva River for 427 years, surviving earthquakes and two world wars. After a barrage of shelling in 1993, during the Bosnian civil war, the bridge collapsed. Citizens were stranded on opposite sides of the riverbank. Ethnic strain wasn’t the cause. It was the effect. Across the country, the war itself was dividing citizens into three ethno-nationalist clusters: Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). Twenty years after the war began, and 17 years after the Dayton accords brought the fighting to an end, the bridge stands again, and a shallow peace prevails.
But now, the compromises we made to end the killing increasingly look inadequate, and it’s time to begin fixing them.
Mostar is still split: The west bank is primarily Croat, the east Bosniak. It is one city, but it has separate universities, postal services, health care systems and phone networks — and it can’t agree on how to elect a city council. Political institutions that were supposed to reconcile a divided society are ineffective; ethnic quotas at all levels of government breed nepotism; children study in classes divided according to their parentage; economic development has stagnated. And the populace feels angry and hopeless about the future.
Meanwhile, the international community has mostly turned its back on its own handiwork.
The 1995 Dayton agreement ended the worst bloodletting in Europe since World War II. The warring factions were brought together only with enormous pressures and incentives from the outside, including military strikes and the promise that other countries would continue to enforce the peace and extend economic assistance. The agreement provided for early elections and set up an unusual political structure, but it was imperfect. We knew that then.
Still, it was the best we could achieve, and, as the late Richard C. Holbrooke said at the time, the most important thing was to stop the killing.
In retrospect, we can see how some of Bosnia’s difficulties are our own fault. Early on, we had too simply labeled the violence as a clash of ethnic groups, roughly equal in their responsibilities to reconcile, when in fact they had been manipulated toward war primarily by Serbian nationalist leaders. We had ignored Bosnia’s experience before 1992, when its citizens from different ethnic groups were very often friends, colleagues, neighbors and spouses — and even during the war, when there were immeasurable acts of generosity across the ethnic divides. Had we outsiders realized that the violence was not inevitable, and had we been willing to name Serbs as the primary aggressors early in the war, NATO forces could have intervened much earlier and saved tens of thousands of lives.
But we came in late, and by the time we did, hatred and fighting had shaped the political and military balances we had to work with. That produced an agreement that institutionalized ethnicity as the deciding factor in political and social identity. It divided power and representation according to whether citizens were Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats, leaving little room to organize along other lines — for example, gender and level of urbanization.
Today, as set out at Dayton, Bosnia’s presidency is a triumvirate; each of the three members must be identified with one of the so-called constituent peoples. This slows down decision making and excludes minorities, as well as the large number of Bosnians who don’t identify with one of the major groups. In fact, two would-be presidential contenders, a Roma and a Jew, won a ruling in the European Court of Human Rights in 2009 that required constitutional revisions that would give neglected minorities equal opportunities to serve in government. Three years later, that reform is still being debated by Bosnian political leaders, who owe their positions to the status quo.
Dayton also divided the country itself into two separate statelets — a Bosniak-Croat federation and a Serb republic — governed by the same legislature and presidency. At the time, many Bosnian women’s groups, religious leaders, civil society activists and students warned that the arrangement wouldn’t work because the country historically had been integrated. But they weren’t at the negotiating table; only those with the power to fight or to lay down their weapons were invited.
In retrospect, perhaps we could have done better to engage politically unrepresented groups who craved stability, so that they could sit alongside those who knew how to fight.
The compromises at Dayton stopped the killing, but also helped perpetuate the ethnic chauvinism, fear and greed that had set it off. And now, the international community bears some responsibility to keep Bosnia from ever relapsing into violence. We also must help Bosnians fashion a better political system, one that promotes national unity, effective decision making and democratic participation.
Three moves would make a huge difference.
First, the American and European governments must help Bosnia change the Constitution we helped create.
Second, after the Constitution has been revised, the European Union should reward Bosnia by granting it membership. Serbia, after all, was given candidate status — a critical step toward full membership — in March, and Croatia is scheduled to become a full member next year. Europe should also extend more financial and technical assistance to implement the reforms needed to re-establish a pluralistic society and secure candidate status for Bosnia (which the European Union treats as a "potential candidate" for membership).
Third, NATO needs to offer the country a clear path for joining the alliance; it will have an opportunity to do so later this month when NATO holds a summit meeting in Chicago. Many Bosnians of all ethnicities look at membership in NATO as a guarantee of security, prosperity and stability. In addition, the military is the one Bosnian institution in which ethnic differences have mattered least; recently, when Serbian veterans’ benefits were cut, Bosniak veterans raised money to give to the people who once fought against them.
We also need to encourage and support the kind of moderate high-level and grass-roots leaders we overlooked during the negotiations 20 years ago. They are the real heroes of the war — and of the peace.
One such person is Kada Hotic, a leader of Bosnian Muslim survivors of the war. Only last June, she was finally able to bury three small bones — the only remains that could be identified of her son, who died in the infamous massacre of Muslims by Serbian fighters in 1995.
Yet Hotic offers: "Maybe one day we can close the story of war and move toward genuine reconciliation. Everyone has suffered. When those men killed my son, they killed themselves. I forgive them, and so I live."