Major world powers and institutions, by either commission or omission, facilitated genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. In this, Britain, together with France for the most part, led the international consensus, which is why I am focusing on British policy in the prelude to war, in the war itself and more recently.
When war broke out in Croatia, the inadequate response of the European Community could be largely attributed to a lack of understanding of developments within Yugoslavia which, by mid-1991, had virtually collapsed in constitutional, political and economic terms, due mainly to measures adopted by the Belgrade regime.
The European Community initially welcomed the chance to assume the lead, adopting a so-called even-handed policy. But when this proved ineffective, divergences emerged on how to address the crisis.
For Britain, the Yugoslav crisis presented an opportunity to recuperate some of its lost initiative within Europe, especially after the reunification of Germany, and to assert its will where it was strongest – through diplomacy and with the authority of its military standing. The necessity for cohesion in the leadup to Maastricht, allowed Britain to guide the European consensus. Britain soon emerged as a leading opponent of the use, or threat, of external military force. But it needed the support of France, the only other European power with a significant military capacity.
With this in mind, in late August, Fitzroy Maclean, respected Second World War veteran, was despatched to Belgrade to meet JNA generals, Kadijevic and Brovet. He advised them that France was key to resolving the Yugoslav crisis, and should be encouraged to support Britain in curbing German support for Croatia, and creating conditions for a political solution. Shortly afterwards, Milosevic met French president Mitterand at the Elysee, where he was advised to accept the European arbitration process. Within weeks, France and Britain worked in an alliance which lasted till May 1995.
In early September, a peace conference was established, chaired by former NATO Secretary-General, Lord Carrington, who promptly disabused Croatian leaders of any prospect of European military intervention. At this time, calls for military intervention came from a number of countries. But Britain swung the consensus and, on 18 September at a crucial and stormy meeting of EC foreign ministers, the initiative was quashed. A single line communique ‘No military intervention contemplated’ ended the debate, removing even the threat of force.
The following week, an arms embargo was introduced by the Security Council, requested by the foreign minister, Budimir Loncar, at the suggestion of Britain and France. The combination of the arms embargo and the declared intention not to intervene militarily gave Belgrade carte blanche to pursue in its mission of territorial acquisition.
On 1 November 1991 in parliament, foreign secretary Douglas Hurd clarified Britain’s objectives. He stressed that foreign policy should be strenuous and energetic, describing Britain as being at the centre of events, in the forefront of Europe, and of international policy in Yugoslavia.
At this time, due to desertion, lack of discipline and low morale, the JNA could not hold out much longer without the full mobilisation of Serbia. This was when the Vance Plan was developed in Belgrade, with the assistance of Marrack Goulding, the British Under-Secretary for UN Peacekeeping Operations, and effectively the second most powerful man in the UN. The Plan involved the deployment of lightly armed UN peacekeeping troops, in Serb-held enclaves of Croatia. The UN presence reduced hostilities, but the ethnic divide was cemented.
The Vance Plan freed up the JNA, and lay the grounds for a Bosnian offensive, which was more advantageous to Milosevic than the continuation of war in Croatia.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, tensions were already mounting, through the Serbian Autonomous Regions, and large quantities of arms distributed throughout Bosnia through the so-called RAM project.
In January 1992, Bosnian president Izetbegovic requested the despatch of UN troops to Bosnia as a preventive measure, but this was rejected by the new Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, on Marrack Goulding’s recommendation.
In early March 1992, the myths began, with the conflation of the Serbian with the partisan role in defeating the Axis powers. Senior Conservative MPs Julian Amery and Bernard Braine, before a packedl House of Commons, described the Serbs –– as ‘a remarkable nation’ and warned of the danger of entering war with Serbia: ‘a formidable country with formidable people…our gallant allies in two world wars’.
At this time, in an attempt to rescue Carrington’s foundering Peace Conference, a plan was developed in close coordination with Belgrade, which became known as the Lisbon Agreement, or Carrington-Cutileiro plan. It set the framework for three constituent units based on ethnic grounds, and influenced all subsequent peace plans, including the Dayton Agreement.
Following a leaked internal UN memo, the magnitude of what was happening in Bosnia was beginning to seep through to the public, and it was no longer possible to let things run their course. In late May 1992, the international community imposed sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro. But they were merely a stopgap, with little commitment to enforce them.
President Mitterand’s brief visit to Sarajevo on June 28 placed France momentarily in the forefront of Western policy in the Balkans.
But as the UK assumed the European presidency, Douglas Hurd in a brief visit to Sarajevo, again ruled out the use of British troops, though more decisive action was supported in different degrees by the US State Department, France, Italy and Germany, and senior European figures, including European Commission president, Jacques Delors.
In London, meanwhile, Radovan Karadzic launched a publicity campaign in Parliament, with the assistance of Serb lobbyists, arguing that there was a civil war in Bosnia, sparked off by alleged ‘premature recognition’. He presented a document of alleged concentration camps for the extermination of Bosnian Serbs, a document later distributed widely. An extended article by Karadzic in the Times the following month recalled ‘centuries of spilled blood’ and the invincible Serb war machine.
In early August, British journalists visited Omarska. The images of the living conditions of prisoners there, shown around the world, caused public outrage, and divergences emerged amongst international leaders on the appropriate response.
At this time, only 61 percent of the British public polled supported despatching troops as part of an international force, with similar figures in France. In America, there were high-level resignations in opposition to the US policy. And in France, there was a strong response amongst intellectuals.
But the response of British academics was perhaps best illustrated through a monograph by John Zametica, a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies, which reflected the Foreign Office position. It received considerable acclaim, affording Zametica wide access to the British media.
The following year, as Karadzic's political adviser in Pale, Zametica – now Jovan – threatened to shoot down NATO planes over Bosnia. His publication was later quietly removed from the Institute's website.
In late August 1992, John Major hosted an international peace conference in London which resolved several problems. It stopped the cry for intervention; it eclipsed the French initiative; it brought the UN officially into the decision-making process, and by removing the peace conference base to Geneva, blurring the contours of international responsibility. And it removed the spotlight from Carrington's failure to bring about peace. The arrangement also suited America. It allowed involvement without accountability, important to President Bush in the run-up to the US elections.
David Owen replaced Carrington, with Peter Hall, Britain's ambassador to Belgrade, as his deputy. Britain had achieved its main goal, which was to establish a new negotiating structure where it would continue to have a leading role.
The following month, the UNPROFOR mission was established through Security Council Resolution 776, which recommended armed escort for humanitarian aid convoys, paid for by contributing states. But references to Chapter VII of the Charter and ‘all necessary means’, adopted in an earlier resolution, had been dropped.
It was a British initiative, but as Defence Minister Malcolm Rifkind explained, the decision had less to do with humanitarian or defence considerations, and more with British foreign policy objectives. There was little groundwork preparation for deploying lightly armed, non-combat forces in the middle of a war zone, and Rules of Engagement were still in nascent form. But demands for full-scale military intervention had been deflected.
By late 1992, there were numerous reports from international agencies of widespread and serious abuse of human rights, including some 20,000 cases of rape. This reactivated support for a war crimes commission. Thirteen countries set up a trust fund, though the UK government obstructed its development at all stages. But as the British foreign minister observed: ‘if the authority for the crimes goes as high as we expect, we must ask ourselves what is the priority. Is it to bring people to trial, or is it to make peace?’
The Vance Owen Plan, introduced in January 1993, sowed the seeds for full-scale conflict in Central Bosnia between the Bosnian army and Croat forces (HVO, including the massacre of 116 Bosniaks by the Croat forces at Ahmici. It lacked the enforcement measures required for implementation and lasted eleven months till ended through US intervention.
But it reinforced the civil war theory and the argument against international military intervention, at a time when world attention was focused on the VRS onslaught on the Drina Valley, and as the US was preparing to endorse a lift-and-strike policy.
The civil war theory was also used in defence of the Owen/Stoltenberg Plan, which extended the so-called ‘safe areas’ without any guarantee for their security. Owen portrayed it as a US initiative, yet the later UN Srebrenica Report recorded that the US was only a reluctant signatory, but that Britain and France supported the initiative, and that the British ambassador argued strenuously to limit the number of UN troops necessary to implement it.
When Bill Clinton arrived at the White House, following his pledge in opposition to take a more interventionalist role, he instigated a full review of the situation with a list of options. A 26-member team of experts was despatched to Bosnia, and reported back that even the best humanitarian programme would be limited, unless accompanied by more direct and forceful means to end the conflict.
Clinton had inherited a situation with little room for manoevre. It could acquiesce with the Vance Owen plan in the knowledge that it was inequitable, and any troops deployed in a noncombat role would constitute potential hostages. Or it could implement a lift-and-strike policy, without the consent of at least one major NATO ally whose troops under a UN mandate would be in the firing line.
A multinational team headed by the Supreme Allied Commmander in Europe General John Shalikashvili, concluded on investigation that an outright invasion and occupation of Bosnia could be achieved in a matter of days. This was ironically endorsed by Serbian general, Zivota Panic, who assessed that Serbia could withstand US airstrikes for two days at the most, after which anti-aircraft defences would collapse. But it was opposed by the Pentagon, locked into the Vietnam syndrome.
As reports on the dire conditions faced by civilians in Srebrenica emerged, Douglas Hurd in the House of Commons elaborated on the part played by the British forces in the ‘safe area’. But Diego Arria, the Venezuelan head of a UN ambassadors’ mission visiting Srebrenica, contradicted this, commenting that the area was far from safe, and that the attitude of the British officers leading the mission (in comparison to the Canadians) was like subordinates to the Serb soldiers, with Mladic ‘parading around town with Brigadier General Hayes’.
As General Sir Michael Rose took over as UN Commander in Bosnia in early 1994, following General Briquemont’s resignation, after just six months in his job, international policy was almost totally in shreds, and relations between the UN and NATO, and between America and Britain, were soured.
During General Rose’s term in office, three UN so-called ‘safe areas’ came under an intensified offensive. In each of these, Rose played a major role, placing him at odds with the Bosnian government and the US establishment. On several occasions, he managed to convey the impression that it was the Bosniaks who were mainly responsible for the war, and for blocking peace initiatives.
In both Sarajevo, following the Markale market massacre, and Gorazde in April 1994, Rose used a similar tactic for foiling a NATO ultimatum to the Serbs by brokering a simultaneous UN agreement which undermined that of NATO.
On the political front, a new initiative was established, due to the US refusal to continue working with Lord Owen. Named the Contact Group, it conveyed the impression that the peace process was still active. And it brought Russia into the international decision-making process.
But by now, the United States was working on several levels to reverse the military balance of power on the ground, which eventually ended the war.
There were a number of factors in early 1995 that coalesced to present a challenge to British policy, including the US partial lifting of the arms embargo, the arrival of a new UN commander, Rupert Smith, the increasing strength of the Croatian and Bosnian armies, and a change in the French presidency.
The UNPROFOR mission had been the lynchpin of Britain's policy in Bosnia and Croatia, but it froze the situation on the ground. And as General Smith observed, Mladic’s forces needed to keep the UN mission, as it protected them from NATO bombing. But Smith did not have the full authority to exercise his preferred options.
The bankruptcy of the UN mission was exposed following the NATO airstrikes on bunkers in Pale. In retaliation VRS forces shelled Tuzla killing over 70 young people, and took several hundred UN troops hostage, including 33 British soldiers in Gorazde.
This prompted a strong British response. In late May, during a 10-hour parliamentary debate, John Major announced that British troops would be armed with artillery as a deterrent, but that the protection force would remain neutral and impartial, in contrast to the French troops who were armed as combatants. Rifkind also confirmed British lead in proposing to withdraw UN troops from the Eastern enclaves. With 8,000 troops on the ground, Britain had become the largest UNPROFOR contributor guaranteeing a leading role in the rules of engagement.
As tensions mounted in Bosnia and internationally, Hurd and Owen both resigned. On the recommendation of the British government, Carl Bildt took over from Owen. In his role as EU envoy, Bildt enjoyed 10-hour dinners with Milosevic, and sometimes Mladic, in Belgrade, days before the fall of Srebrenica.
In Britain, immediately after Srebrenica fell to the VRS, an equivalence of guilt was drawn between the Bosniak victims and the Serb aggressors.
The new French president Jacques Chirac and German president Kohl supported acting to restore UN control. But at the Security Council, and a Contact Group meeting on July 12, Britain and Russia sought to have the episode placed in the context of violation of the demilitarisation agreement and dismissed the French initiative as unrealistic.
Douglas Hurd’s successor, Malcolm Rifkind, insisted on shared responsibility of Bosnian and Serb forces for Srebrenica's fall, implicitly shifting blame on the US for not providing ground troops. And the new Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, at a full parliamentary debate on 19 July, declared all parties to be ‘guilty of slaughter, rape and other atrocities, that they had degraded themselves and degraded humanity’.
On 16 July, Karadzic was interviewed on British TV to discuss his proposals for a solution. And a map was produced to assist him.
As calls in the United States to lift the arms embargo grew, on 21 July, John Major called a Conference in London, where foreign secretary Rifkind stipulated that any attack on Goradze, where British troops were stationed, would be met with a strong response, including air power. But Zepa was not mentioned. It fell to Mladic’s forces days later, while Bihac came under renewed VRS shelling.
This ironically accelerated the Croatian army offensive in Krajina, backed by the US, and the subsequent mass exodus of Croatian Serbs from the occupied areas. US policy since 1993 had been to strengthen Croatia as a strategic counterweight to Serbia.
On 28 August, The VRS bombing of Markale, resulting in 37 deaths, led finally to NATO action, and the targeting of the Serb air defence system, ammunition bunkers and heavy weapons positions.
The long-predicted massive retaliation by Serb forces did not materialize. Within three days, General Smith was able to open the land route to Sarajevo, a ceasefire was agreed with the Bosnian Serb leadership, making way for the peace settlement Dayton.
While the US-led NATO intervention was the decisive factor in ending the war, America's domination over the subsequent peace agreement at Dayton was arguably less absolute than is often assumed.
The US negotiator, Richard Holbrooke carried the mantle of his predecessors, Carrington, Cutileiro, Vance, Owen, Stoltenberg, Bildt and other international players who had courted Milosevic throughout the war. Holbrooke was aware that he wasn't required to concede much to the Bosnian leaders, given the international political climate within which he was operating. He later noted that he had coerced the Bosnian leaders into acquiescing, threatening to abandon them to ‘Carl and Pauline’ [Carl Bildt and Pauline Neville-Jones, Political Director, Foreign Office, and leader of the British delegation at the Dayton negotiations].
Also, at this time British French relations improved, as France's room for manoeuvre was compromised due to the capture of two French pilots by Bosnian Serb forces.
Although Europe assumed a mainly subsidiary role at Dayton, its influence was evident in the foundations on which the talks were based, both in decisions on the future of Bosnia, and in involving Milosevic as a key player.
International differences included the political configuration of postwar Bosnia, civilian and military relations, arms control measures, and cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, references to which, despite two genocide indictments against Karadzic and Mladic, disappeared from the Dayton texts, following Serb protests.
Sanctions were another sticking point. While most European countries accorded full and unconditional recognition to rump Yugoslavia, the US insisted that an outer wall of sanctions remain in place, with aid conditional on Serbia's cooperation with the Tribunal.
The Americans also wanted a robust international police force, 5-6,000 strong, with arrest and enforcement powers, but were vigorously opposed by the Europeans and Bildt. Yet this, arguably, may have helped to prevent the mass exodus of Serb citizens from Sarajevo in early 1996.
Bildt also pressed for sanctions to be lifted from Serbia, and eschewed applying conditionality to aid which, with Karadzic still in control, would go into the pockets of the ethnic cleansers. Karadzic was barred from public office, but his closest associate, Momcilo Krajisnik (later indicted for genocide) became Bosnian president, and in a position to obstruct all effective reform. Milosevic became reaffirmed as a key partner in the peace process, implicitly distancing him from responsibility in the war.
At this time, there was an opportunity to isolate Karadzic. He had been indicted by the Hague Tribunal on 16 counts, including genocide, and his support was dwindling. Opposition leaders and even some of his own party members began to denounce the war and the political leadership that directed it. But, despite many opportunities to arrest him, he remained free for 13 years.
In 1996, the exhumed remains of thousands of Bosnians killed in camps in 1992 in Northern Bosnia were brought to an open pit mine in Ljubija where they were interred. Amnesty International called for IFOR to protect the sites, to prevent them from being destroyed. Ljubija was within the British IFOR control zone but, despite the Dayton requirement for protection for investigators and monitors, British troops did nothing to protect war crimes investigators. One British official argued that it was against the IFOR mandate to investigate.
Many reconstruction projects in the Prijedor area were funded by the British Overseas Development Agency (ODA) and implemented by British IFOR to improve its image in the local community. Programmes often rewarded financially those who had participated in war crimes and obstructed the Dayton Agreement. It was impossible to award contracts or distribute aid independent of the Crisis Committee run by chief of police, Simo Drljaca, Prijedor major, Momir Stakic and others. This practice continued until it was exposed by an excoriating report by Human Rights Watch in 1997.
Although Douglas Hurd was no longer foreign secretary, he remained active in the area. On 24 July 1996 in Belgrade, in a controversial $10 million deal with NatWest Markets, he and Pauline Neville Jones worked with Milosevic on the privatization of Serbian telecom, which was thereafter sold to foreign companies. It helped to boost the Belgrade regime, in preparation for the military campaign in Kosovo.
The Labour party, which came to government in 1997, had inherited an unenviable legacy in the Balkans from its predecessors, and the bipartisan stance adopted by Britain during the Croatian and Bosnian wars was now allegedly to be replaced by an ethical approach to foreign affairs, with human rights at the heart of foreign policy.
But the strategic aim of foreign policy hadn’t changed.
In a major speech in November 1997, uncannily reminiscent of Hurd’s speech in November 1991, Blair set out Britain’s approach to foreign policy, declaring: We can make the British position in the world felt. With our historic alliances we can be pivotal…be powerful in our influence…a nation to whom others listen.. using the strengths of our history to build our future. ‘Britain is a global power. Foreign policy should be part of our mission of national renewal.’
Britain became more active role in supporting the Hague tribunal. But this was overshadowed by overtures to RS president Biljana Plavsic, who was mistakenly viewed as a lever for ousting Karadzic.
When foreign secretary Robin Cook visited Sarajevo in July 1997, he virtually dismissed the conclusions of the Donors Conference which days earlier had singled out RS as being the overwhelming violator of the Dayton Agreement, and applauded Plavsic for ‘breaking with the extremism of war’. He reassured her that Britain would not attempt to arrest any more Serbs under secret indictment in the British SFOR sector. This was when 23 indicted war criminals remained in the British zone. The following year, under the British presidency, the EU channelled substantial aid to the RS government.
British/French primacy in EU defence was confirmed at St. Malo in December 1998, with British personnel appointed to key positions. Defence secretary George Robertson became the new NATO chief. Chris Patten, former Tory minister, took on the foreign relations brief at the European Commission. Charles Crawford, former ambassador to Bosnia, became Britain’s first ambassador to post-Milosevic FRY. Javier Solana, an anglophile, became Secretary General of the European Council and worked together with Patten to devise a strategy for the Balkans.
Britain’s leading role, along with America, in NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999 placed Britain where it had intended, in the forefront of EU foreign policy as an indispensable bridge between Europe and America. The NATO action in Serbia was a watershed in many respects, and together with his indictment, ended the appeasement of Slobodan Milosevic.
But Britain continued to prioritize Serbia, which was considered more attractive to foreign investment than many of its neighbours, and therefore to have a central role in any Balkan project. In its Country File, the Foreign Office dismissed four years of genocidal war in a single sentence, while Kostunica’s victory at the October 2000 Serbian elections merited a good-sized paragraph, with Serbia enjoying substantially closer trading ties with the UK than any of its neighbours.
A powerful Serbia, but beholden to British patronage, would provide a useful counterbalance to the European heavyweights. As British ambassador Charles Crawford informed the Select Committee, ‘Belgrade is fundamentally becoming part of the solution, not part of the problem…it is now a partner and that is what we wanted our policy to achieve’.
But in the rush to embrace his successor, Vojislav Kostunica, the remaining problems were oversimplified and there was a lack of understanding internationally as to the extent of change in Belgrade. Milosevic personnel still predominated in the army and police. Centralisation was on the increase, which prejudiced Vojvodina and Presevo. The crimes committed at Batajnica were not acknowledged, and the trial of Djindjic’s alleged assassins was becoming a mockery.
Bosnia, despite its economic potential, remained at the whim of international players, with nationalist leaders subject to OHR dictates and pawns in the wider game.
It is often claimed that Bosnia and Herzegovina went downhill in 2006 following the departure of High Representative Paddy Ashdown. To some extent, this is true. During his tenure, Ashdown arrested over 60 RS officials, and introduced many reforms. Ashdown later commented that his reforms started to unravel after Catherine Ashton became EU High Representative. But the issue lay mainly with the continuing existence of the entities, where nationalists remained in control. Moreover, Ashdown failed to break up the unwieldy bureaucracy which had provided a breeding ground for corruption.
In January 2005, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in London announced: ‘The UK has important historical ties with Serbia and Montenegro. We were allies in the Second and First World War. Our aim is that relations between the UK and Serbia and Montenegro should resume their traditional closeness, and that they should become a leader in the region.’
The director of the influential Royal United Services Institute confirmed this: ‘The British government understands perhaps better than other governments that instability in the Balkans would be quite catastrophic, if Serbian people believe they would always pay for the mistakes and evils of the Milosevic regime…it is disappointing that some countries, including the US, adhered to the old political isolation instead of offering Belgrade the necessary carrot’.
In June 2005, British embassies in the Balkans quietly floated the proposal that the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide should be marked with a joint declaration of ‘reconciliation and apology’ from the Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian leaderships. And on July 11, in Potocari, Jack Straw compounded the affront by omitting to acknowledge that the event he was commemorating was a genocide.
On 1 March 2010, Ejup Ganic was arrested in London, and held in custody without access to family or his ambassador for several days. This was the day Karadzic’s trial was due to start at the Hague. Karadzic and Ganic appeared together on leading British media outlets, suggesting an equivalence of guilt, and an attempt to rewrite history. At an expensive extradition trial, senior British barristers argued the case for Ganic’s extradition to Serbia, on the basis of a flimsy, totally inadequate request from Belgrade.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, as is generally acknowledged, has changed not only international policy in the Balkans but brought into question the future balance of world power. America, along with Britain, led the consensus in the defence of Ukraine against Russian aggression.
Conversely, both countries also firmly endorsed the High Representative’s election reforms which have effectively placed Bosnia and Herzegovina in the hands of ethno-nationalist politicians, genocide deniers, purveyors of hate speech, and supporters of indicted war criminals, who will be harder to control than in the past. They have also reinforced Russia’s influence in the region.
British and European policy essentially remains the same as 30 years ago, in seeing Serbia as the key to stability and security in the region. Placing trust in the Serbian leader was wrong then, and it is wrong today. It is also dangerous in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Increasing Russian influence in Serbia, in RS, Northern Kosovo and Montenegro, is something Western democracies should be concerned about.
To attempt to steer Bosnia on a democratic path without acknowledgement and accountability for crimes committed in the past is simply building on shifting sands. Britain has recently been pressed to acknowledge the damage done through the British Empire. But there has been no accountability for, nor official investigation of, the damage inflicted on Bosnia’s citizens through Britain’s role in the Bosnian war, its insistence on the arms embargo and its leading role in preventing international military intervention to end the war.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, amongst others, claims Britain has been a friend of Bosnia for the last 30 years. Yet this suggests a skewed understanding of recent Bosnian history. Surely no friend of Bosnia would wish to have placed Bosnia in the hands of leaders who want the country to disintegrate, and who themselves deny being Bosnian.
Bosnia does have friends in Britain. Remembering Srebrenica commemorates the genocide every year in events across the country, and there are parliamentarians across the political spectrum who have argued in favour of Bosnian sovereignty and territorial integrity, most notably Arminka Helic in the House of Lords, and Alicia Kearns in the Commons. Twice in January, Kearns asked the chief secretary to the Treasury and foreign minister Leo Docherty whether Britain would block RS from raising money on the London Stock Exchange because it was solely to fund its secessionist plans and ambitions. Both ministers sidestepped the issue, claiming that it was entirely a matter for the Financial Conduct Authority. It was an important question as, although Britain has sanctioned Dodik and Cvilanovic, without blocking RS access to the Stock Exchange, the sanctions have only limited value.
Christian Schmidt has faced public questioning only a few times during his tenure, but at the Foreign Affairs Committee in London last month he did not always appear in full command of his brief, and at times was economical with the truth. Yet Leo Docherty in his visit to Bosnia this month confirmed British government support for the High Representative’s work.
As Mr Schmidt repeatedly declares, his main job is preservation of the Dayton Agreement, without amendment, a position held by the United States and European leaders. Yet, despite achieving candidate status, Bosnia will not almost certainly not be permitted to enter the EU within its current, ethnically segregated structure, because this is against the principles and precepts on which the EU was founded. So, preservation of the Dayton Agreement, without constitutional change, is actually preventing Bosnia from entering these promised institutions.
As I see it, the motivation behind the support for the HR changes differ in America and Britain. In the case of the Biden administration, the emphasis is on containment in the region. The continued and heightened moves by Dodik for secession, together with the Croat ethno-nationalist HDZ insistence on a third entity, risked Bosnia’s implosion, and a wider regional conflagration. America is credited with bringing peace to Bosnia through NATO action, which let to the Dayton Accords. This, in particular, is Biden’s legacy. America’s policy during the Bosnian war was to assist in strengthening the Croat(ian) position in order to alter the balance of power, through the 1994 Washington Agreement and, the following year, Operation Storm (Oluja). In the event, Schmidt’s changes have strengthened both Serb and Croat nationalist positions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as Dodik has worked closely with Covic for many years, while former heavyweights including Palmer, Hill, Chollet and Escobar, who have been despatched to the region, already had strong links with Belgrade.
The Russian threat wasn’t taken seriously enough, certainly by the UK, until recent events, including the Salisbury poisonings, moved Britain to abandon its pro-Russian policy, nurtured following the collapse of the Soviet Union. There now seems to be the perception that Serbia can be separated from Russia, if offered enough carrots, and to support Western policy in Ukraine. So far, President Vucic has accepted the carrots and given nothing in return.
Serbia has benefited militarily and economically, to become the largest military power in the Balkans, with a growing economy, mainly thanks to the EU, along with Chinese infrastructural support. President Vucic seeks to continue the policy of sitting on several stools – the West, Russia and China. It wants to stay on the so-called European path, enjoying the financial benefits, but to actually join the EU would tie his hands.
Vucic has most institutions under his control, including much of the media, the judiciary and, it now appears, even academia. This is a leader who, at the time of the Kosovo war, was Milosevic’s information minister and, just days after the Srebrenica genocide, threatened that ‘for every Serb killed we will kill a hundred Muslims’. Vucic hasn’t abandoned his objectives, merely the method of achieving them.
Current negotiations are conducted as if between two equal sides, both in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo. But they are not equal. On the one side, there was genocide and widespread crimes against humanity. And on the other, there was a massive military force which was brought to bear on a population deprived, in the case of Bosnia, of the means of self-defence.
This has never been acknowledged, not by the aggressors, and not internationally. There has never been any question of restitution, or compensation, apart from a few hard-earned cases at The Hague. This was so during the Dayton negotiations. And it is true today.
American and European envoys deploy a deeply cynical approach, full of platitudes and empty gestures, such as EU candidate status. But neither Bosnia and Herzegovina nor Kosovo have any chance whatever of entering the EU in their present political configuration. Kosovo, a country not yet recognised by the UN, will not gain EU entry without UN recognition, which Vucic has made it clear he will block through Russia. Equally, Bosnia will not be allowed into the EU as an ethnically divided country. Apart from the lack of stability this has evoked, it is against all stated European precepts and principles.
There is generally a misunderstanding of Vucic, especially within the EU. Britain’s case is a little different. Its aims remain the same – to maintain its position within Europe and globally which, since Brexit, has proved increasingly challenging. It is therefore seen as in its interest to have a divided, and therefore less powerful, EU. A strong Serbia is considered to be a major partner in this, as in the 1990s.
This is where the Open Balkans comes in.
In 2002, an essay penned by Robert Cooper, called for a new internationalism and a new doctrine of humanitarian intervention which would place limits on state sovereignty. Cooper at the time was director of the political military directorate at the European Council, and foreign policy adviser to Tony Blair. His vision was to play a major role in influencing not only British, but European policy and beyond. He envisaged empire returning to Europe in a new cooperative form – a new liberal imperialism. Neighbours would get together, the stronger with the weaker, to start fashioning an order that was less prey to international crime and weapons of mass destruction, where some states would be reducing their so-called sovereignty. But, Cooper explained, this meant adopting double standards: ‘when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle’. An interesting precursor to the Open Balkans project.
The proposed border changes in non-papers which surfaced two years back, allegedly originating in Slovenia, had already been advanced by a former British diplomat, Timothy Less, in an article in Foreign Affairs in December 2016, a month after Donald Trump won the US election. Less’s proposal was that Serbia, Croatia and Albania should be leading powers in the region with a reduced and weaker Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Kosovo, while Montenegro would be absorbed into Serbia. With Trump in the White House, and an increasingly divided EU, this seemed eminently doable. When Biden came to power, he pledged to protect the integrity of the Bosnian borders. So, another solution was needed, at least temporarily. The Open Balkans project, originating in Belgrade, would entail Serbia taking the regional lead, with a Bosnian territory concession to Croatia, the second largest regional power.
This would accord with British policy. It would have a deleterious effect, however, not just in the region but elsewhere in Europe, where nationalist and populist governments and groups are on the rise, in the process damaging the integrity of EU institutions, at a time when Russia and China are poised to initiate a new world order.
Carole Hodge, PhD., Presentation for Krug 99, 26 March 2023, Author: Britain and the Balkans, Routledge, 2005, 2010.