My Europe: Bosnia's ice-cold peace

It's not Groundhog Day every day in Bosnia, but it does happen at least once a year: People saying regularly that the country is falling apart and that war may be coming again. The reason is always, as again this year, that Bosnian Serb strongman Milorad Dodik is threatening something. Sometimes it is a referendum on the independence of the Serbian part of the country, sometimes it is the withdrawal of all Serbian elected representatives and officials from the central government. And now he is threatening to disregard majority decisions of the three-member state presidency into which he has just been elected.

Dodik has been threatening this, or something similar, for the last twenty years. Nothing has ever changed, not for the worse, but also —and this is the secret of the recurring provocations — not for the better. Each of the three "nations" of the state of four million inhabitants: Muslim Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, fears the dominance of the other two. The result is a far-reaching blockade of their institutions, which only occasionally comes to the surface under considerable pressure. And it is a sure guarantee of power for groundhogs like Dodik.

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Boundless mistrust

People in Bosnia are very afraid of each other, and not without good reason. During the war between 1992 and 1995, Serbs fought against the allied Bosniaks and Croats, then Serbs and Croats allied against the Bosniaks. In the meantime, a whole generation has grown up, more thoroughly separated by nationality than any before it. But even today, the Serbs' fear — but also that the Croats — of the others' dominance is not irrational.

The Serbs are in the position of being the moral losers not only in Bosnia, but in front of the whole world, including the major European supervisory powers. Even those too young to be guilty of war are afraid of discrimination and harassment.

The only thing you can confidently rule out is that a war might start: The country is far too depressed for that. Rather than letting themselves be mobilized, young Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats prefer to pack their things and sit peacefully side by side on a bus to Stuttgart, Cologne or Vienna.

Out of frustration at the blockades and the toughness of progress, not only in Bosnia, old formulas are once again rampant among Western European politicians and diplomats, providing ample food for groundhogs. Wouldn't it be better to separate the ethnic groups, since they obviously can't work together? The initiative by the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo to exchange territories, for example, has been met with sympathetic interest in many Western countries. Isn't everything easier when Serbs and Albanians stick to themselves instead of constantly eyeing each other? Clean slate, good friends: The slogan is gaining increasing support, especially in Bosnia.

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Neither a clean slate nor good friendship

The country's ethnic groups have, in reality, been largely separated for a long time. What they still have to decide and administer together is far less than what EU states, for example, share with each other. And the country is a prime example of the fact that a "clean slate" guarantees anything but "good friendship."

The Serbian part of the country hasn't become the slightest bit more democratic, with its "ethnic purity" enforced during the war. On the contrary, institutions and democratic procedures were needed as long as different ethnic groups had to get along. Now that the Serbs are largely "left to themselves" in their part of the country, someone like Milorad Dodik can rule the country like a patriarchal father rules his family: Without contradiction, without serious opposition.

It is no coincidence that the strongman appears in various constitutional offices — sometimes as head of his republic's government, sometimes as president, now as the Serbian member of the state presidency. And if the country's children rebel, an inter-ethnic provocation is enough, then everyone gathers again under the protection and shield of the great father of the people.

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Ethnic divisions, as the Bosnian example shows, do not solve anything — on the contrary. In neighboring Serbia and Croatia, too, the transformation to a nation-state has caused neither democracy to flourish nor brought peace to communities. With Aleksandar Vucic, Belgrade is once again ruled by a strongman who, with finely dosed pinpricks against Albanian-dominated Kosovo, is repeatedly gaining the power he needs. In Croatia, which is now largely homogeneous in ethnic terms, nationalism and hatred of the now vanishingly small Serbian minority are even stronger than they were during the war.

European perspective

The European Union has made it a condition of any further rapprochement that all three nationalities in Bosnia first come to terms with each other, form strong institutions and function as a state. There has been no lack of attempts on the part of the European supervisory powers to identify boycotters and, above all, to discipline the authoritarian Dodik. They have all failed due to fear mechanisms. Hopes that the next generation would be able to end the nightmare have been deceptive.

That is indeed a call for new solutions. But instead of supporting further ethnic divisions, Europe should also rely on its own solutions in Bosnia: Place local conflicts in larger contexts and thus relativize them, make diversity possible, strengthen individual rights. In a larger context, such as the former Yugoslavia, Bosnians of all nationalities lived together largely without friction. A united Europe could form a new framework. Provided it believes in itself.

Norbert Mappes-Niediek lives in Graz, Austria and is the southeast Europe correspondent for numerous German-language newspapers.