Trouble for Europe simmers again in the Balkans

By Gergie Anne Geyer

NEA Columnist

There are many Bosnians still alive today who remember all too well the horrific four years of war in the 1990s. It was then that the Serbs, with Mongol precision, picked off the strolling residents of beauteous Sarajevo one by one with their guns and artillery from the mountaintops around the city.

Memories of the loss of of the city's world-famous and beloved National Library reveal even further the savagery of the Serbs. After the building was hit with incendiary shells at midnight on Aug. 25, 1992, it burned for three days, and the ashes of more than a million books floated in the city's air currents and river for weeks.

But that was more than two decades ago, and they say that Sarajevo is now at peace. Indeed, on Nov. 6, a remarkable conference was held in Sarajevo, given by the American University in Bosnia and Herzegovina and blessed with such a mouthful of a title -- "20 Years After Dayton Implementation: Challengers and Perspectives" -- that one can only hope that words do heal.

The conference was extremely well attended for a meeting in a small Balkans redoubt, with more than 100 students, 100 journalists from every possible country, dozens of leading diplomats and internationalists, and two dazzling speakers who elicited immense response from the audience.



A particular favorite was the keynote speaker, Lord Paddy Ashdown, a tall, handsome, white-haired Brit who has been a British Marine, intelligence officer, diplomat, High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006, and just about everything else. Not surprisingly perhaps, the distinguished man everyone calls simply "Paddy" did not mince words about the Bosnian experiment's health.

First, looking back at the Dayton Accords of 1995, which did bring a fraught peace to Bosnia, Paddy was optimistic about the first 10 years of the accords. After all, it had been such a unique, even "impossible," agreement, preserving Bosnia and Herzegovina as a nation, yet subdividing it into two parts -- a confederation of Bosnia and Croatia and the Republica Srpska, made up of the hated Bosnian Serbs who never really accepted Dayton.

"We should not forget that in those first 10 post-Dayton years, Bosnia was the global poster boy of post-conflict peace-building and integration," Paddy began. Then he laid down the blueprint on how the Bosnian Serbs and theie Serb masters themselves in Belgrade were thinking up every possible subterfuge to sabotage the Dayton agreement -- everything from corrupting the justice system to promoting corruption in business to waging war-by-referendum to exploiting a dysfunctional government with its multiple parts.

"Who now will stand up for the great cause for which the war was fought, for which Dayton was created and to which those 10 years of successful integration were dedicated -- the preservation of a multi-ethnic, unified and integrated state in Bosnia? The international community seems to have lost the will and Bosnian politicians on all sides seem to have abandoned the vision.

"It is a deadly combination. A perfect storm is gathering. The truth is -- let us say it bluntly -- that this country, whose peace depends on the process of reintegration, has now moved decisively back into the dynamic of disintegration!"

The other major speaker, American Congressman Eliot Engel, ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who has devotedly tried to see Bosnia through the wars, gave an equally strong and troubling assessment of the situation today:

"(E)ntrenched and corrupt elites in the country, in my opinion, exploited Dayton's framework. They stoked all old ethnic divisions, consolidating their power among their own groups, and pushing back against efforts to integrate the country and move it forward. ... So, 20 years on, Dayton's divisive, undemocratic provisions unfortunately remain the status quo in Bosnia."

At this turning point, the present High Representative for Bosnia has warned the U.N. Security Council that Republica Srpska is "in clear breach" of Dayton and thus will slide toward disintegration. The Bosnian Serb government is threatening a referendum on the status quo, which is illegal, and the High Representative could veto it.

Perhaps most interesting and least covered in the press is the fact that Moscow is actively supporting Srpska through Belgrade, by gifting weapons and ammunition and by doing everything it can, in the U.N. and elsewhere, to drive Srpska away from the Dayton resolution.

Indeed, it is nearly the self-same policy it has employed with Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Transdniester, Abkhazia and Syria. It is another clear example of Moscow's prying away bordering areas from their own countries and upsetting the region.

There is much the European Union and the United States can do both in Bosnia and in Belgrade, but the problems they are already facing elsewhere bode ill for little Bosnia. Nevertheless, the time is now. At this moment, another war in the Balkans could destroy the balance in Europe.

Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent and commentator on international affairs for more than 40 years. She can be reached at gigi_geyer@juno.com.

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