Can Europe Make It?

The Balkans is not on the brink

A critical response to Edward P. Joseph's article "The Balkans, Interrupted" published in Foreign Affairs, which has caused much anxiety and bewilderment in the region.

Ešref Kenan Rašidagić Hamza Karčić
4 June 2015

Sacred Heart Cathedral in Sarajevo. Demotix/Emir Dzanan. All rights reserved.The streets are swarming with tourists speaking in English, German, French, Turkish, and Arabic. New hotels and apartment buildings are springing up. Two major global media outlets opened their offices in the country. A major economic forum held this month brought together leading politicians and businessmen from the region. Another day in UK or Belgium? No, this is happening in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that endured a three-and-a-half year siege two decades ago.

Edward P. Joseph's article “The Balkans, Interrupted” in Foreign Affairs stirred anxiety in Bosnia and the region with its bleak analysis and alarmist tone. This dovetails with the notion of the Balkans as chronically unstable part of Europe which is how the region was conceived of in academic and popular imagination for a long time. While Joseph is right to point to the importance of the region and Washington's and Brussels' relative neglect due to other pressing crises, the author's argument is found wanting for both factual and interpretational reasons. To begin with, the article is built around a string of rather superfluous assumptions based on spurious conclusions and tenuous linking of rather unrelated events and actors. We will limit our response to the case of Bosnia.

The attack on the police station in the eastern Bosnian town of Zvornik is still being investigated. The reports that the attacker shouted “Allahu Akbar” were countered by later reports that he cursed. The investigation should determine what exactly transpired. Whatever the case, statement whereby “Allahu Akbar” is, as Joseph puts it, a “jihadist war cry” could be considered both inaccurate and disturbing, if not outright offensive. For the vast majority of Muslims in the world, affirming the greatness of God is an article of faith as in other Abrahamic religions. The muezzins in different parts of the world are not uttering a “jihadist war cry” but rather calling the faithful for prayers five times a day. However, this is not to deny that the pronouncement is being used by radical extremists. But conflating the misuse of a religious pronouncement with the nature of the pronouncement itself would be a case of linguistic imprecision at best. Furthermore, the Islamic Community of Bosnia unequivocally condemned the attack leaving no doubt as to its firm stance against extremism.

Joseph is right to point to the perils of separatism in Bosnia. However, careful observers of the local politics would surely remember that calls for referendum on separation of Republika Srpska have been a staple of ruling nationalist elites in this Bosnian Entity for a long time, to no particular effect. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik has issued similar bold proclamations no fewer than thirty times, as one recent article in a leading regional news portal has pointed out. Actually, many critical observers are of opinion that such calls are issued in rather opportunistic fashion, whenever perilous state of economy threatens Dodik's party domination of the Entity politics.

In addition, it is important to note that concrete date of 2018 for the referendum was not set by the “Republika Srpska parliament”, as the author states, but was called for in a declaration of Dodik's Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (better know by its acronym SNSD). Party's hitherto complete domination of the Entity politics was seriously weakened in the 2014 elections, and the party is no longer in power at the state-level. Other parties from Republika Srpska have not come forward in support of this particular declaration. Even if that was the case, the rhetoric of separatism is nothing new where even more hardline proclamations during the past two decades failed to seriously undermine the stability of the Bosnia’s constitutional and political framework.

A careful scrutiny of the argument that ‘this summer will test Bosnia's cohesion’ will reveal serious faults in the author’s line of reasoning. The article argues that the results of the 2013 census could somehow “fuel anger” among the three ethnic groups in the country. This view is not supported by any other scholar of the region, nor is it corroborated by the evidence from the field. On contrary, analysis of media discourse and political rhetoric inside and outside of public institutions reveals that the issue of census has been relegated into virtual insignificance. It has yet to be seen whether the results of the census will provoke any serious debate in the country, let alone lead to civil disturbances, as the author alleges.

On a side note, it is important to note that Bosnian politicians were for a long time criticized by international officials precisely for their failure to conduct a census (the country missed the 2001 and 2011 scheduled dates, finally holding the census in 2013). Now that it was held, its results are deemed potentially cohesion-threatening. This damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't approach leads one to sympathize with Bosnian politicians.

The second dimension of this cohesion argument is the upcoming 20th anniversary of, in Joseph's words, „massacre at Srebrenica“. Verdicts of the ICTY and resolutions adopted by the U.S. Congress, the European Parliament and other international and domestic bodies unequivocally affirmed that Srebrenica “massacre” constitutes genocide. Commemorations on anniversaries of Srebrenica genocide have been held regularly to coincide with the 11 July date of fall of Srebrenica enclave to Serb forces. Such commemorations were regularly attended by a host of world leaders, including President Bill Clinton. Several times in the past, even Republika Srpska representatives and President Boris Tadić of Serbia participated in commemorations. It is not therefore clear why such commemoration of a past atrocity would this time be perilous for cohesion. We could also point out that a similar argument about the pitfalls of commemorating past atrocities and tragedies has yet to be made for other societies.

Finally, Joseph correctly notes that efforts to reform the Bosnian constitution have stalled. A number of factors account for this. But the reality is that U.S. foreign policy focus shifted to Asia and the Middle East. The Balkans of the 1990s has been replaced by crises in other parts of the world. The author, to his credit, attempts to end on a positive note by stating that "the Balkans are by no means hopeless." Yet, the question of how the current predicament translates into hope is left ambiguous. Pinning the blame on the "outdated constitution" hammered out at Dayton for Bosnia's predicament is no epiphany.

If there was one strong case that the author builds in this article, it is his critique of the United States and the European Union for allowing “the fledgling countries in the region to backslide”. Joseph properly identifies the problem where, after intervening forcefully to end local conflicts and establishing foundations for rebuilding societies “Washington prematurely handed over lead responsibility for the Balkans to the EU, which prematurely handed over lead responsibility to the region’s leaders.” We could only concur with this argument and would actually emphasize this as our chief concern for the mid- and short-term stability of the region.

Our concerns with most of other arguments notwithstanding, it is not difficult to agree that much progress has to be made in the Balkans. Rampant unemployment has to be tackled, public sector reforms await and a climate for more foreign investment has to be improved. Yet many challenges facing the Balkans are also challenges to be tackled in other regions. The rise of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in Europe are worrisome and need to be confronted. Radicalism of all sorts, including religious and right-wing, is not simply a regional phenomenon. In fact, British intellectual Ziauddin Sardar argues that we live in post-normal times and other authors pointed out that “crisis is the new normal”. If these are indeed post-normal times, suboptimal outcomes are expected. Yet this realization is no justification to neglect progress however minimal. The Balkans is no exception.

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