Sunday, March 27, 2005

Bosnia's Highway to Hell - Part Two

Below is Part Two of "Bosnia's Highway to Hell". It looks at the attempts that were made to avert civil war in Bosnia and solve the crisis peacefully, attempts which were torpedoed everytime by Izetbegovic, leader of the Bosnian Muslims. Part Three, which will look at the disingenous position of the Bosnian Croats, will follow shortly.

Bosnia's Highway to Hell: Part Two

The cause of the civil war in Bosnia was the fact that all three nations - Muslim, Serb and Croat - had different, contrary views on the organisation and status of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Muslims above all wanted a unitary Bosnian state in its then borders, the Serbs wished to remain in Yugoslavia, and the Croats wanted to leave Yugoslavia and perhaps unite with Croatia (see Part Three, shortly to come, for an explanation of the Croat position). Clearly the only way to resolve these fundamental differences was through a process of negotiation, but, instead of this, Izetbegovic torpedoed attempts to resolve the crisis peacefully and instead unilaterally and illegally launched into secession.

One attempt to solve the status of Bosnia was the Serb-Muslim ‘historic agreement’, made public in August 1991. This agreement, between the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) and the Muslim Bosniak Organisation, exchanged the maintenance of Bosnia in Yugoslavia (the Serbs’ wish) for the preservation of its territorial integrity (the Muslims’ wish). This agreement has often been attacked on the basis that the Muslim Bosniak Organisation, led by Zukfikarpasic, was very small, receiving hardly any votes in the November 1990 elections, but this criticism is not entirely valid. Zulfikarpasic was no minor figure, and was an important Bosnian Muslim exile leader and bankroller of the Party of Democratic Action (the main Muslim party), until he split with it shortly before the election, claiming it was too Islamist.

The Serb-Muslim ‘historic agreement’ was a part of the Belgrade initiative for preserving Yugoslavia, which had been launched on August 12 1991, and it seemed at first that Izetbegovic might support it, until he rejected it a few days after its announcement. Rumours also abound that Izetbegovic or Fikret Abdic, the most popular Muslim leader, may initially have supported it, but Izetbegovic and the SDA resoundingly rejected it.

The SDA justified their rejection by claiming that the agreement would mean Bosnia being in a Yugoslavia in which “the Serbs would be number one, and the Muslims number two”. This is often reported and accepted at face value when the Belgrade Initiative is ever mentioned in Western publications, but there is no real truth to it. In terms of population percentages, the Muslims would of course have been a minority compared with the Serbs, but this is largely irrelevant, as all the federalist proposals on organising Yugoslavia (from Milosevic and Serbia primarily) included a second federal chamber in which the republics would have had equal representation, regardless of population percentages, and in which consensus would have been required. Bosnia would thus have had veto power, and so could not have been dominated.

In fact, the Belgrade initiative committed its organisers to preserving Yugoslavia on the basis of, amongst other things, “the Izetbegovic-Gligorov Platform”. This was an initiative on preserving Yugoslavia launched by Izetbegovic in May-June 1991 jointly with Macedonian president Kiro Gligorov, according to which Serbia and Montenegro would be a federal core, Bosnia and Macedonia would have some more autonomy but remain in federal Yugoslavia, and Slovenia and Croatia would have effective independence. Far from being some kind of “Serboslavia”, then, the Belgrade initiative was actually a repetition of a proposal Izetbegovic himself had earlier made.

Furthermore, at this point Macedonia was yet to hold a referendum on independence, and was still led by former communist Kiro Gligorov, who had favoured the maintenance of some form of Yugoslavia, and it was entirely possible that Macedonia might have joined the Belgrade initiative, as it was invited to do so. Had it done so, this would have meant that in the new Yugoslavia the Serb states (Serbia and Montenegro) would not even have had a majority. And, to top it all off, the Belgrade Initiative said that the position of President of Yugoslavia would rotate between the republics in alphabetical order, meaning that had he accepted it, Izetbegovic would in fact have been President of Yugoslavia. Would any “Serboslavia”, or state in which “the Serbs [were] number one, and the Muslims number two”, have had Izetbegovic as its President? I don’t think so.

There was thus no real legitimate reason for Izetbegovic to reject the Belgrade Initiative, and it is likely that the majority of Muslims would have accepted it, given their strong attachment to Yugoslavia - opinion polls of Bosnians in May and June 1990, and again in November 1991, all showed overwhelming majorities (in a range of 70 to 90 percent) in favour of the preservation of Yugoslavia. The only problem with the Belgrade Initiative was, of course, that the Bosnian Croats wanted above all to leave Yugoslavia, especially now that Croatia had left. The Belgrade Initiative stated that “whatever the situation of the Republic of Croatia, inside or outside Yugoslavia, the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina constitute a nation with equal rights”, and were called to join the agreement. Whether an arrangement satisfactory to the Bosnian Croats could have been worked out is an open question, but a question that would probably have been much easier to solve than the organisation of an independent Bosnia.

The next attempt to prevent conflict was on January 25 1992, when the Bosnian assembly, in which the Serb deputies were still participating, debated the holding of a referendum on independence (this had already been discussed in Part One, but is being repeated so you don’t have to refer back to it).

The debate centred on whether an agreement on regional structures among the three national groups in Bosnia should precede or follow the referendum. In this and all other future negotiations, the Bosnian Serbs were prepared to give up their wish to remain in Yugoslavia for a cantonal organisation of independent Bosnia. If Bosnia were split into numerous different cantons, each essentially assigned to one of the three national groups, then the equal political power of the three nations would be assured, regardless of the overall percentages of the population. The Serbs were thus prepared to accept living in an independent Bosnia in such an arrangement, as it would ensure they would not be an out-voted minority.

Hasan Cengic, SDA vice president, agreed with Karadzic that a proposal for regionalisation should be worked out before the referendum - “Never were we closer to an agreement as at this time”, Karadzic said to the applause of delegates. Karadzic then suggested that the commitment to regionalisation be incorporated into a constitutional amendment before the referendum was held, but before the agreement could be clinched, Izetbegovic shot it down. The Serb delegates then withdrew from the assembly in response, followed by the Muslim and Croat deputies adopting the decision to hold a referendum.

Izetbegovic thus shot down an agreement that would have prevented the Bosnian civil war - according to which the Bosnian Serbs would have accepted living in an independent, regionalised Bosnian state - and instead pushed Bosnia further on the highway to hell by adopting yet another illegal and unilateral decision.

The last major attempt to prevent civil war from breaking out in Bosnia-Herzegovina was the Cutilero plan of February-March 1992. Negotiated by EC representative Jose Cutilero of Portugal, this plan, agreed to by all three national groups on March 18, created a set of ‘constitutional principles’ as a basis for future discussion. The plan envisioned the cantonisation of Bosnia, and a Bosnia of three recognised and equal constituent nations. The Serbs, accepting it, once more showed their willingness to compromise by giving up their fundamental desire to remain in Yugoslavia. The Serb cantons of the Cutilero plan were also not all connected in one unit, meaning that the Serbs could not simply disingenuously accept it and then secede to form their own, independent state, or re-unite with Yugoslavia. Given that both the Serbs and Croats - who together formed half the population of Bosnia - favoured a cantonal arrangement for Bosnia, the only way for Izetbegovic to fulfil his goal of an independent Bosnia was to accept this.


Within a week, however, Izetbegovic reneged, and withdrew from the agreement. He was followed shortly after by Croat leader Mate Boban, who saw an opportunity to get more territory for the Croat cantons in a new round of negotiations, being unhappy at the number of Croats in central Bosnia who would be outside Croat-dominated cantons. In the end, the Cutilero plan closely resembled future peace proposals and the eventual Dayton Peace accords, even more fairly, in fact, as it accurately represented the ethnic makeup of Bosnia. And, in the opinion of anti-Serb ex-State Department official Louis Sell, author of "Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia", the Cutilero plan would have established “a more effective centralised government and probably resulted in less of an ethnically divided state than the accord agreed to at Dayton”. Had Izetbegovic not reneged, then, there would have no civil war and mutual ethnic cleansing, and a more united Bosnia than he eventually achieved anyway.

As we have seen, on three separate occasions Izetbegovic torpedoed attempts to reach a peaceful agreement on Bosnia’s status and organisation, and thus prevent civil war. The Bosnian Serbs were prepared to make serious compromises in order to preserve the peace and prevent civil war, but Izetbegovic stubbornly held to his ultimate goal, a unitary and independent Bosnia, despite the fact that the opposition of both Serbs and Croats would mean that he would never be able to achieve this peacefully. Ultimately, had Izetbegovic not torpedoed these plans, the result would have been a Bosnia more united and less ethnically divided than that established at Dayton in 1995, and, even more importantly, no civil war would have occurred.

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