One decade has been lost. What about the next one?
Op-ed by Gerald Knaus (for Koha Ditore)
In Athens, spring 2003
One decade ago, in spring 2003, the New York Times published an appeal by four Balkan leaders, the presidents of Croatia and Macedonia and the prime ministers of Albania and Serbia. Its title: “The EU and South-East Europe need each other.” The occasion was a special Balkan meeting of the World Economic Forum in Athens where all these leaders also came together.
I was there too at the time, and I remember both the appeal and the atmosphere in Athens well. In fact, together with my friend Misha Glenny, I drafted it. There was a sense of urgency in the air, and of anticipation. Zoran Djindic, the prime minister of Serbia who had delivered Slobodan Milosevic to the Hague tribunal, had been assassinated by ultra-nationalist members of the Serbian security forces. Croatia had handed in its application to join the EU, the first Western Balkan state to do so. The host of the meeting, Greece, then the EU’s rotating president, pushed hard to get a European commitment to continued Balkan enlargement.
Shortly before the Athens gathering Boris Trajkovski, the president of Macedonia, invited me to draft an appeal that he planned to ask other leaders to co-sign. He knew that the region would receive a better hearing if it spoke with one voice. He was concerned. His own country had recently been on the verge of civil war. Serbia was on the edge, its ultranationalists growing in confidence. The future of Montenegro and Kosovo was not yet settled. Would the EU, following its 2004 enlargement to Central Europe – then just about to happen – get tired of further expansion? The Balkan leaders’ appeal warned: “Until the whole Southeastern Europe is safely integrated into the European Union, the job will not be complete. And until it is, Europe cannot feel secure about itself.”
One decade later, where do we stand? Today, when EU leaders talk about crises in South-East Europe they think of Athens not Skopje, of Nikosia, not Belgrade. Europe does not feel “secure about itself” but it is not the Western Balkans or the threat of renewed conflict that keeps EU leaders awake, literally, at one crisis summit after another.
Montenegro and Kosovo are independent states; the fear of armed conflict in the region has never appeared more distant. And yet, despite these important breakthroughs, it is hard not to regard the years since 2003 as a lost decade for the Balkans. Boris Trajkovski tragically died in an airplane crash in the Bosnian mountains, on his way to submit Macedonia’s own application for EU membership. His country has been stalled for years now by a Greek veto (a threat which did not appear real in 2003 in Athens). Serbia, ten years after the death of Djindic, has still not even opened EU accession talks. Albania is not an EU candidate yet. The Greek foreign minister in spring 2003, George Papandreou, became prime minister, only to be swept away by the Greek economic melt-down. 2003 was perhaps the last success of Greek diplomacy. At the European Union summit on the Balkans in Thessaloniki in summer EU leaders stated their “unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” Croatia used the past decade, opened accession talks, closed them, and is today on the verge of accession. And yet, it is likely that ten years from now in 2023 Croatia will still be the only Balkan country inside the EU.
Rereading the Trajkovski appeal today highlights a further disappointment. It contained a specific proposal: to make EU regional and cohesion funding available to the region, so as to help it catch up economically, rather than fall further behind. The appeal warned that “the long-term stability of Southeastern Europe depends on the region’s economic health, but this does not mean the usual plea for more money … We are committed to opening our markets to our neighbors and to the EU. We have made huge progress in curbing inflation. And we are now greatly encouraged by the proposal by Greece … that the Thessaloniki summit meeting focus on the possibility of applying cohesion and development policies in our region.”
This was a hope that has not come true. The Western Balkans remains one of the poorest regions of Europe. In Serbia today less than half of the working-age population is actually employed. Unemployment levels in Macedonia and Bosnia are disastrously high. Foreign direct investment in the region, which had transformed the economic structures of Central European countries, has fallen to very low levels. And yet, if a focus on underdevelopment in the Balkans has never been more urgent, the EU’s confidence in its ability to bring about convergence and growth in its own periphery has rarely been lower. The 2003 Trajkovski appeal stated that “The EU has a remarkable record of triggering economic success by helping poorer regions — Ireland, Greece, Spain and Portugal have experienced veritable revolutions in social and economic development in the last 20 years.” It is hard to imagine anybody writing like this today, in the wake of bail-outs, bank failures and rapidly rising unemployment in Spain or Greece.
EU leaders no longer worry about war in the Balkans. They are no longer confident in their ability to bring about economic convergence. They fear the weakness of democratic institutions in Romania or Greece. They worry about inadequate regulation in Cyprus or Spain. Given this state of affairs: what arguments can sway them to open their institutions to accept even poorer states, with even weaker institutions, and even worse images among the public and political elites in Berlin, Paris or The Hague?
Perhaps Greece will prepare for its EU presidency in 2014 by changing its policies on Skopje and Pristina. Perhaps Serbia and Kosovo will soon reach an agreement that allows both countries to move beyond their confrontation. Perhaps Albania will manage to hold free and fair elections this summer. Perhaps Bosnia’s leaders will soon be able to put together a credible application for EU accession. Perhaps Macedonia’s leaders will be capable of renewing the national consensus to focus on EU integration that existed in 2003. Perhaps politicians throughout the region will wake up late at night worrying about youth unemployment and the inadequacy of vocational training, about export opportunities and the best way to use scarce public resources for growth, rather than about building statutes or wasting public money on prestige infrastructure of little proven economic benefit. And then, perhaps, a successor of Boris Trajkovski will invite all his regional counterparts to an informal meeting to seriously discuss what they might do together to correct the image of their region, driven by the recognition that the whole region has dropped out of the focus of the rest of Europe.
If Boris Trajkovski would be around today, and would propose drafting a new appeal for Balkan leaders to sign and publish, what could it say? Appeals are expected to end with proposals, a sense of hope, recommendations. But sometimes it is better to resist this temptation. To acknowledge just how steep the wall is that one has to climb. To recognise that before any new appeals to the EU a whole series of steps have to be taken by the region itself. To recognise that time matters; and that April 2013 is another crucial moment which Balkan leaders miss at their peril. I believe Trajkovski would have realised this. Will his successors?
Perhaps this is not a time for appeals at all, but for a blunt and honest recognition: a decade has been lost. The next might be as well. And it is not by formulating words on paper that this can be prevented.
How to get Bosnia to move forward instead of stagnating further remains a puzzling question.
A few days ago Ed Joseph and Bruce Hitchner published an article with suggestions. It appeared here.
Last week I also had the pleasure of discussing the state of the Western Balkans in general and of Bosnia in particular at an international conference in Ditchley new Oxford. I was struck there how strong the international consensus had become that 1. Bosnia no longer poses any serious security threat, and that 2. the time of thinking about the next big internationally-led reform push is over, the ball really is in the Bosnians’ court. The third consensus was about the importance of the EU accession perspective: not as a panacea, but as an offer Bosnian leaders and society are free to reject, one which remains on the table, and which offers – should there ever be a genuine will in Bosnia – the best way out of its current stagnation.
Ed and Bruce, both of whom know Bosnia well, and for whom I have the highest respect, have a very different perspective from the other side of the Atlantic. I discussed the article with Ed, and we agreed I would put a few comments online to explain my concern.
I see a few problems with the argument in the article:
My concerns start with the title and subtitle: “How to Finally End the War in Bosnia Without a renewed push for Constitutional Reform, Bosnia will remain dangerously adrift – its politics a continuation of war by corrupt means.”
All the buzzwords are included: “war” (twice), danger, adrift, corrupt. But this is deeply misleading.
The real war in Bosnia ended in 1995. It killed almost 100,000 people. Local violence continued for another few years. Since 2001, however, Bosnia has been as peaceful as Croatia or Slovenia. If nobody shoots, nobody gets shot, and nobody prepares to shoot, then the better concept to describe the situation is “peace”. Peace with problems, political tensions, economic difficulties: all true, but this is no war. If such distinctions are lost, it is hard to make policy or debate it.
- the nature of the crisis:
What exactly are the symptoms of the Bosnian crisis described in this article? Here precision is needed. The article describes the crisis through metaphors: the country is “a stagnant pool of special interests that continue to cleave along ethnic lines.” “cleave”? There are different ethnic groups in Bosnia. There was a war between 1992-1995. Is the fact that these identities “along ethnic lines” continue to exist the problem? Otherwise what exactly is wrong with what exact interests, special or otherwise? “stagnant” indeed: a weak economy, low living standards (though higher than in Moldova or Georgia), little structural change (like in many of its Balkan neighbours): but this is not a unique problem of Bosnia.
Nor is the fact that Bosnia’s “overall democratic benchmarks are slipping”. This is the evidence the article offers of what is happening in Bosnia: “Parents can move freely about the country, but educate their children in segregated schools. The economy remains in parlous condition, and faces new challenges and barriers when Croatia joins the EU later this year. Islamist influence among Bosniaks, traditionally exaggerated by Croats and Serbs, is, in fact, a concern.”
“Segregation” is another strong concept: Alabama in the 1950s, South Africa in the 1980s. It involved state coercion. In Bosnia today in some parts of the country some parents chose to put their children in schools according to the main language of instruction – especially Croatian, as the schools most often discussed in the media (one Croatian and one Bosnian language school in the same building or nearby) are in Croat-Bosniac mixed areas. One can deplore this, but it is no different from different language schools in South Tyrol or different confessional schools in North Ireland. It is not a human rights violation.
Let me add here that this does not mean that separate schooling as one finds it in parts of Bosnia is a good thing: having studied in many different countries myself, and having seen my own children educated in a Turkish public school in Istanbul, a state school in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and now a public French (though very international school) in Paris I strongly believe in the value of diversity in education; I also do not think that schools are the primary shaper of identities of pupils, and that the influence of the official curriculum is usually exaggerated. Of course the key for a good education is education for tolerance and mutual respect, as well as quality. Of course Bosnia would be a much better place if the primary focus of policy makers (and parents) would be on quality, not ethnicity. But this is a matter of persuading parents, and voters, not imposing solutions, as long as there are choices.
(As for the situation in South Tyrol read this article: “With regard to linguistic rights there is hardly any area of public and to a considerable extent also private life that is not covered by a complex network of norms, guarantees and remedies. The educational system in South Tyrol is based on separation and the principle of mother tongue instruction.”)
As for “Islamism” (not defined in the article: one assumes violent?) in Bosnia … this has indeed often been exaggerated, as the authors noted, and it is certainy “a concern”: but what exactly is the policy issue, the trend, the problem?
The problem with sloppy language in the Bosnian context – “war”, “segregation”, “special interests cleaving”, “Islamism as a concern” – is that it makes it hard to understand the nature of various challenges. Then the solution is one silver bullet – change the constitution; impose better laws; replace leader X with Y. But all of this has been tried out, and with predictably disappointing results.
The article points out that in the Bosnian context the attraction of possible EU accession is no silver bullet solving the country’s problems either. This is of course true, but not surprising: it has been thus in very many countries.
The “seriousness” of the EU commitment among most of today’s Bosnian leaders resembles that of leaders in Bulgaria in the early 1990s, or in Serbia under Kostunica, or in Slovakia before 1998: it is rhetorical, generally not serious at all, with little sense of what it would take for Bosnia to actually implement the common law of the EU. There are individual exceptions, but compared to the political elite elsewhere the basic illiteracy among Bosnian politicians about the EU is remarkable.
The first reward of making EU accession a national strategic objective is that it provides a direction for national reforms: not to one big reform, but to thousands of specific sectoral reforms, that take years to negotiate with national interests and then implement. This requires leaders who want to see their countries thus transformed: their laws, their institutions, their policies, not just as means for a possible accession in 10 or more years but as ends in themselves. Yes, Croatia’s accession will cause problems for Bosnian’s trying to export milk or other agricultural products, but no, this is not the “fault of Dayton”, as even highly decentralised systems like Belgium are capable of implementing EU food safety and phytosanitary standards. This is the fault of a political process where leaders, civil society and even many internationals much rather discuss identit and constitutional issues rather than specific concrete reforms that might have a major economic impact. So perhaps it really needs a crisis with new hard borders to reform the Bosnian food safety system now? The sense of physical exclusion also pushed much needed (and delayed) reforms needed for visa liberalistion in 2010.
In fact, too few leaders in Bosnia actually appear to want this wholesale transformation of their country and society; too few leaders across all political parties, interests and ethnic groups. This is a problem no constitutional reform can solve. It can only be solved by changes in the thinking of those leaders – or by changes of those leaders at elections. The alternative is not war, but stagnation.
All of the above is more or less consensus today in Brussels and among EU leaders. It was also the consensus at a recent conference in Ditchley on the Balkans. The ball really is in the court of Bosnian leaders, and unfortunately, if they refuse to play, this is where it will remain.
Does this mean things are hopeless? No.
Bosnians have surprised outsiders and themselves before (for just one encouraging recent story look at this ESI portrait of a Bosnian prime minister). So have Bulgarians after 1997 (more on that turning point here) So have Slovaks, Montenegrin, Croats. But it does mean that the key change must be a change in the debate in Bosnia itself … (while having a more focused and specific debate, ethat does not produce excuses for inaction, among outside observers, might also help).
One of the panelists, Minna Jarvenpaa, is an ESI founding member who was already present at our creation in 1999 in Sarajevo. She is also both a previous and future ESI senior analyst – but managed to squeeze in between time advising Martti Ahtisaari, Carl Bildt (in Bosnia), Michael Steiner (in Bosnia and Kosovo), the British ream preparing their Afghanistan operations and most recently UNAMA in Kabul. Few people know more about state building efforts in the past two decades than Minna does, having worked on the issue in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.
This summer I was happy that Minna joined me - busy drafting the outlines of a book on the subject of intervention that I am writing together with my friend Rory Stewart - for a few days of brainstorming on the shores of the Bosporus. In the end we hardly left the cafes along the sahilyolu, the coastal road, in Rumeli Hisari as we tried to make sense of our various experiences. There and then we also refined ideas for a future ESI project on the subject with Minna back on board – how to learn some of the right lessons from the big interventions of the past 20 years relevant for the future EU foreign policy.
To participate in this exchange – in particular if you are unable to join us in Vienna later this week – please find below some thoughts which Minna prepared in anticipation of our panel.
MINNA JARVENPAA: INTERVENTIONS FROM BOSNIA TO AFGHANISTAN
Special contribution for Vienna Seminar, November 2010
The story from Bosnia to Afghanistan, over the last fifteen years, is of increasingly complex international interventions. The initial aims were simply to halt ethnic cleansing, remove abusive regimes and stop wars. But since the mid-90s the international community has struggled to build up state institutions and spread democracy and development in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, East Timor, Iraq, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan. Now, with the Afghanistan strategy in a quagmire, questions are being raised about the limits of international power. Calls to avoid foreign entanglements are growing louder, and the pendulum has started swinging back to a more isolationist position.
Despite good intentions – seeking to safeguard human rights and promote state structures that will serve the populations in war-torn countries – the international community has often made things worse. But not intervening can in some cases also be disastrous, as the dismal failure to stop genocide in Rwanda and Srebrenica in the mid-1990s demonstrated. Future foreign policies will need to strike a delicate balance, weighing the morality of preserving human rights against the unintended consequences of intervention. How are we to navigate a course between disastrous inaction and misconceived and sometimes equally disastrous action? What are the moral and ethical guideposts to follow? What can the experiences of intervention and state-building over the past fifteen years, from Bosnia to Afghanistan, tell us about how to act in the future?
The era of intervention
When the bipolar world of the Cold War collapsed, the majority of nations found themselves in agreement on a set of universal human rights. Yet the end of the Cold War also meant the end of simple answers, a lack of order and predictability in international relations. Who was responsible for protecting the human rights we all now claimed to value? How were these rights to be enforced? There was a need for a new narrative. This is when the narrative of humanitarian intervention was born, as well as the idea that the international community could keep countries from descending back into violence and launch them onto a path of stability through some form of trusteeship – or through what has come to be called state-building.
Some interventions in the 1990s succeeded beyond original expectations. After much hesitation in Washington and European capitals, the internationally brokered peace deal in Bosnia ended a brutal war, and the presence of international military forces restored a multi-ethnic democracy, without a single soldier being killed. In Kosovo, ethnic cleansing was reversed through a war that was fought solely from the air. In Afghanistan the original aim of toppling the Taliban regime was achieved within two months with small numbers of US special forces working together with the Northern Alliance, a loose union of Afghan commanders. In Sierra Leone, a limited British intervention led to the resumption of the peace process. These successes, coming after the paralysis in decision making in the face of genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica, led to the articulation of a doctrine of humanitarian intervention: the ‘responsibility to protect’. It was morally imperative and practically possible to intervene.
Fixing failed states
However, because of the ease with which these interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone fulfilled the original aim of ending war, it appeared to Western policy makers and thinkers that it was possible to do much more. There was a growing conviction that intervention should be followed by an all-inclusive state-building effort to transform the social, political and economic circumstances that had led to violent conflict. After 9/11 this view was reinforced. The fact that the Taliban government in Afghanistan had hosted Osama bin Laden was taken to suggest that failed and fragile states posed a direct threat to national and global security. To protect its own vital national security interests, the West needed to contend with state weakness far away from home
While ‘nation-building’ was initially mocked by the neo-conservatives in the US administration, an all-encompassing counter-insurgency doctrine that incorporated these ambitions was developed already under President Bush for Iraq and Afghanistan. The current strategy for Afghanistan, led by President Obama, requires tackling everything from building efficient institutions to upholding women’s rights to fighting the narcotics economy and supporting agriculture.
The rush to fix failed states has led to problematic ways of thinking about social change. It is assumed that countries are a tabula rasa where institutions can be built as a technical exercise on the basis of organisational charts and laws copied from other countries. Superficial lessons have been transferred across from one country to another. When Bosnians voted in nationalist parties in their first post-war elections, a general lesson was taken that the holding of elections should be delayed for some years after conflict. When the Kosovo Police School has hailed as a success the same curriculum was applied to Afghanistan. With General Petraeus at the helm, the military surge in Iraq is being replicated in Afghanistan, as is the search for tribal deals to turn the tide against the insurgency.
Even more worrying are the unintended consequences of deploying militaries and spending aid dollars that are also becoming increasingly apparent. In Iraq a brutal dictator has been removed at the cost of thousands upon thousands of civilian lives. Damaging war economies have developed around military deployments and aid flows, whereby Afghan, Congolese, Sudanese and other elites operate in a political marketplace where conflict is a lucrative business. To supply the NATO military bases in Afghanistan, trucking companies and private security contractors compete for patronage to gain access to multi-billion dollar contracts. Competition for access to foreign assistance projects and mineral resources fuels further conflict, as in the case of blood diamonds in Congo or inter-tribal skirmishes spurred by unequal shares in aid.
Lessons for future interventions?
As the international community stumbles along responding to crises, we have made some situations better and some much worse. Careful, prudent and limited missions to stop or contain conflict have worked, especially when carried out on the basis of political settlements or peace agreements. In other cases, with the best intentions, we have ended up supplying the resources that fuel the conflict, and have been manipulated by local power-holders who have pursued their own goals. Rather than focusing on the technical aspects of state-building, we would do well to increase our understanding of local politics. Democratisation is about power relations and about how the abuse of power can be prevented. Institutional reform can only take place if there is political will.
Instead of reaching for generic lessons, like those in “The Beginner’s Guide to Nation-Building”, published by the Rand Corporation in 2007, more time needs to be spent learning about the local context and thinking through the consequences of specific actions in that context. There is an argument that needs to be made for upholding democracy and human rights and containing conflicts, but with a realistic assessment of the opportunities and limits of international power.
What do the authors suggest should be done about this state of affairs? They make the following concrete proposals:
keep the Office of the High Representative (OHR) intact and preserve its powers until there is a “new and functional constitutional order” (this is not defined); separate it from the EUSR
the EU should help “reshuffle the deck through the October 2010 elections” (they do not specify in whose favor)
the EU should “facilitate substantial constitutional reform”
there should be a shift in US policy, which “would have to occur at the cabinet level, even undertaken by President Obama himself”
and the US should send a special envoy for the Balkans
This raises many questions. How exactly is the EU to “reshuffle the deck”? Is OHR needed to keep Bosnia from falling apart, to push for a new constitution or both? What does substantial constitutional reform look like? And what would a US envoy do that a US ambassador cannot?
There is also a question of realpolitik: why – given current challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Iraq and Iran, in Yemen, Columbia, Israel or Haiti – should President Obama himself become interested in a country that has largely demilitarised, has seen no serious incidents of interethnic violence for a decade, has a population one fourth the size of Karachi, and is today surrounded by two neighbours, Serbia and Croatia, which – instead of planning its partition, as they did in 1991 – are committed to their own Western integration?
“Although Mexico has been a producer and transit route for illegal drugs for generations, the country now finds itself in a pitched battle with powerful and well-financed drug cartels. In 2008, there were more than 6,200 drug-related murders, more than double the figure from the year before. Top police commanders have been assassinated and grenades thrown, in one case into the crowd at an Independence Day celebration … While Mr. Calderon dismisses suggestions that Mexico is a failed state, he and his aides have spoken frankly of the cartels’ attempts to set up a state within a state, levying taxes, throwing up roadblocks and enforcing their own perverse codes of behavior. The Mexican government has identified 233 “zones of impunity” across the country, where crime is largely uncontrolled, a figure that is down from 2,204 zones a year ago.” (NYT October 2009)
Mexico’s current problems concern the US directly. By comparison, the problems of Bosnia are both manageable and distant. Observers sometimes losely talk about Bosnia today as a failed state, but there are few facts to back this up. Crime rates, as I have shown on this site before, are low even by European standards. Life expectancy is relatively high. Child mortality rates are too high by comparison to Austria or even Croatia, but lower than in Romania or Turkey (see below).
Bosnia has regular elections. There have been alternations in power at every level of government. The police does not torture, people feel save going out at night, the military does not intervene in politics, and there is full freedom of movement throughout the country. By comparison with Turkey (where thousands of minors are in prison based on draconian anti-terror legislation and where journalists all too often find themselves in court) Bosnia is doing well when it comes to meeting the Copenhagen human rights criteria. This is not to say that Bosnia does not have problems, but it is an argument to put these problems in perspective.
MALE LIFE EXPECTANCY at birth
INFANT MORTALITY RATES
Deaths / 1,000 life births
Bosnia is failing today most conspicuously by comparison to its (West) European EU neighbours. It has unacceptably high unemployment rates. There are a lot of political tensions (more on those in a later entry). There is widespread pessimism and deep frustration among the population. Bosnia’s leaders are not doing enough to close the prosperity gap even with Croatia and the current pace of reform means that Bosnia will not catch up (or join the EU) for another generation.
All this should concern Europeans, as – and here I fully agree with Kurt and Bodo – the EU’s credibility is at stake in the Balkans. The EU can ill afford a ghetto of backwardness. I would even argue that it owes Bosnians, given its disastrous failures in the 1990s. The Balkans should become as stable as Central Europe, and the road to get there is still long. But does this make Bosnia a priority issue for the US?
This is where the rhetoric of a looming threat, abstract warnings about possible large-scale violence in Bosnia, becomes important and the temptation arises to play up such threats, whatever the potential costs to Bosnia’s image, investor confidence, or its EU aspirations. Perhaps, some might argue, fear of a new war – and memories of the slaughterhouse Bosnia had become from 1992 to 1995 – will make a busy US president focus on Bosnia again after all?
(Skeptics might also point out that even the personal involvement of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2006 did not prevent the April Constitutional Reform Package, a US inspired draft, from being rejected … and that it was brought down as a result of the votes in parliament of the party led by a man, Haris Silajdzic, who had long put his trust in a stronger US role. Why would this be different the next time around?)
The notion that Bosnia needs constitutional reform to catch up with its more advanced neighbours is, on the other hand, compelling and largely beyond doubt. The hard question is how to get there. Essentially there are two ways forward. One is to impose it. The other is for Bosnia’s leaders to agree to it.
Do Kurt and Bodo propose to impose constitutional change? For if they do not (and I am not sure) we might not be so far apart in our proposals. ESI has, some years ago, written two papers on what is wrong about the current constitutional debate in Bosnia:
We never believed that what we proposed here is a master plan for solving Bosnia’s constitutional problems, only that the question – how do you get Bosnian leaders to agree to serious changes that actually make a difference – must be the starting point for any serious reflection.
This does not mean that any progress is guaranteed, even if there is a credible offer of EU candidate status or of opening accession negotiations. The door can be wide open: it is still Bosnian politicians who must agree among each other to walk through it. But there are powerful incentives and one could see them at work even recently.
Most Bosniaks (or Bosnian citizens identifying with their multinational state) would (rightly) hate to see Bosnia fall behind its Serbian neighbour on the road to the EU. But so would most Bosnian Serbs. There is thus a lot of benefit in a healthy regional competition when it comes to EU accession. What this requires is that this competition is organised in a manner that is fair and transparent. Above all it requires that all countries take part in the race for the race to begin. But more on this later.
Further reading: my contribution to the ECFR Bosnia debate today
I do not know where to start: Bosnia’s problems do not lend themselves to solutions that can be formulated in four paragraphs. But let me try and use this opportunity to get Kurt, and others who share his vision of Bosnia’s problems, to explain in more detail what it is that the rest of us are missing.
Central to Kurt’s argument is the claim that “Bosnia is backsliding into political chaos and possibly even renewed ethnic conflict” (as he writes in an essay I read today) and that the risk of a return to armed conflict can “no longer be excluded”.
Who does he expect to pick up arms? Which Bosnian leader would contemplate this today? What is the scenario for such an escalation? Does Kurt know things that EU military observers, who have reduced EUFOR to an almost negligable size and do not feel guilty of irresponsibility, miss?
Please be concrete: which leader in Bosnia do you suspect is contemplating the use of armed force and a “renewed ethnic conflict”? Which group do you believe is ready to return to war? Without answering the question of what the real threat is, it is hard to confront it.
After all, to say that Bosnia is a country on the verge of disintegration is not a minor thing. If foreign or domestic investors would believe Kurt, they should rethink any future investment. Failing states also do not make credible candidates for EU accession. Most importantly, if the EU would believe Kurt, the debate about OHR would be a sideshow, a dangerous diversion even, from the real burning issues. No OHR-type mandate would have stopped Bosnia sliding into war in 1992 by “dismissing” Radovan Karadzic from his position as Serb leader. For this force was needed. So if there is a real threat of armed conflict then the urgent priority would be to send substantially more foreign soldiers to prevent another tragedy from happening.
I do not believe that there is any such threat, and as a result I believe it is deeply irresponsible to keep on talking in vague terms about it. This damages Bosnia on so many levels. But I hope Kurt will go beyond referring to “popular fears” to tell us why he thinks this risk, which he argues did not exist in 2006, when Kostuncia was leader in Belgrade, exists today.
Perhaps the EU could do a better job spelling out that Bosnia will never be allowed to fall apart, even if this is obvious to any European policy maker. There are then two obvious points to make: first, any Bosnian politician calling on people to pick up weapons again would be treated as a criminal, not as a political interlocutor. The first one who orders somebody to shot would end up in a European jail, with no place to hide. Second, an independent RS would be as miserable a place as Transdnistria, or Abchazia without Russian help. The EU has not recognized Northern Cyprus in decades, and it never will. It will never recognize any alternative to the current Bosnian state. As I said, this may be obvious but sometimes the obvious benefits from being restated.
My second question to Kurt concerns his vision of a “new and functional constitutional order”: what is this exactly? This is not, after all, a debate that started today. Is it the implementation of the April 2006 package of constitutional changes? Is it going further than the April package, towards abolishing the entities and the cantons? Or is it about turning the entities into mere administrative units, with no real autonomy?
Is a functioning Bosnia similar to today’s Belgium (a highly decentralized federal state)? Or to the Cyprus of the Annan plan (an even more decentralized state), which would have entered the EU in 2004, if the Annan plan would have been accepted? Is there a future for a complicated Federation inside the Bosnian federation in Kurt’s “functional constitutional order”? Is there room in it for a semi-autonomous Brcko district? Would this Bosnia still be a federal state?
These are not rhetorical questions. I accept Kurt’s argument that there is a lot that is dysfunctional about Bosnia’s current constitutional set up. Things have to change profoundly, in the interests of Bosnian citizens and in light of Bosnia’s EU aspirations. But how does he see this being helped by a continued OHR presence? To do what: Impose constitutional change by decree? Threaten politicians who do not accept certain reforms (with sanctions or dismissal)?
I could now sum up the conclusions I draw from my answers to these questions. But let me first get Kurt to try to change my mind (and, more importantly, that of most EU policy makers who do not share his threat assessment) about the concrete threats which he sees; realistic scenarios for a return to armed conflict; about the core features of a “functional constitutional order” and about the role of a strong OHR to promote constitutional changes.
Let me first say that ESI welcomes the recent Commission proposal on visa free travel to the Balkans. Considering what expectations of progress were only 12 months ago – looking forward to a year with EU Parliamentary and German parliamentary elections, against a background of enlargement fatigue and a deepening economic crisis – this proposal is a very positive signal for the whole Balkan region.
We have a serious concern about the implications of this proposal for Kosovo. But this is not due to shortcomings in the Commission-led effort: it is rather that Kosovo is excluded from the meritocratic roadmap process. We also have one suggestion to improve the proposal for Bosnia and Albania. But much of the criticism made of the Commission proposal in the past week does not appear fair to us.
A good friend and expert on the Balkans sent me the following email and question:
“I have been approached by Muslim friends from Britain, Germany and Turkey asking me whether the Commission has understood that the exclusion of BiH and Albania is sending out a negative signal to Muslim communities around Europe and beyond. Furthermore in the case of BiH where Orthodox and Catholic inhabitants have an option of joint citizenship with Serbia and Croatia, Serbs and Croats from BiH will be able to travel freely using their Serb and Croat passports while Bosniak Muslims will not. Has this rather urgent political issue been considered either by you or by the Commission?”
It is a serious question, and we have discussed it a lot inside ESI. So let me share with you the email I sent him in response:
” Yes, this issue has been considered. Anticipating these debates, we looked in great detail at every one of the five countries, producing a one page score card and a very much longer analysis of each of the conditions that still have to be met based on studying all Commission documents and expert reports.
In short, considering that meeting the benchmark conditions is the only criteria for visa free travel, the Commission has made the right decisions so far. Bosnia was the last (!) country to introduce biometric passports, for instance, something that was due to sheer incompetence and lack of focus. You could argue that this should not be a criteria (and Bulgaria was given visa free travel in 2001 without having biometric passports), but this is changing the rules of the game while the game is being played. This never works in the EU.
Thus, what critics of the Commission proposal for Bosnia are doing is not in fact arguing with these facts. They want to change the terms of the debate.
Critics argue that that there is a strong moral case for Bosnia to be granted visa free travel. The gist of this argument is a rhetorical question: “How can Mladic travel to the EU with his Serbian passport, but the relatives of his Srebrenica victims cannot?”
Critics also argue that this decision is inherently anti-Bosniak, as Croats and Serbs in Bosnia can circumvent the problems with the Bosnian passport by applying for Croat and Serb passports. This is of course not a new problem at all (in the case of Croatia it was always true).
I personally have a lot of sympathy for this argument (although I hope that Mladic tries out his new Serbian passport soon and ends up in The Hague as a result).
But this is an argument to give Bosnians visa free travel already in 1995! The fact that we are now talking about 2010 shows that it has not worked too well until now.
In fact, purely moral arguments for visa free travel have never impressed sceptical Europeans, only already convinced friends of the Balkans. This is, after all, not a new debate. Moral arguments have been made many times in recent years. They have been made for Serbia (after courageous young people toppled Milosevic, did they not deserve visa free travel?), for Kosovo (there was a decade of apartheid, followed by mass murder and massive expulsions in 1999: how does Kosovo deserve to be the most isolated country in the world today?), for Macedonia (having implemented the Ohrid Peace Agreement and been granted EU candidate status in 2005, did the Macedonians not deserve visa free travel at least as much as Romanians did in 2001), etc …
Moral arguments are important, but they are not sufficient. This we have learned in the past 15 years.
What brought about this week’s breakthrough, however, was the fact that the terms of debate changed recently: that the logic of the process became the slogan of our campaign “strict but fair”. Conditionality turned out to be the best friend of the region!
The argument for the roadmap process is not one of political morality. It was from the outset based on a very rational argument: that it actually IS in the EU’s security interest not to have to rely on visa, but to be able to cooperate with Balkan countries that have implemented the very demanding set of reforms described in the roadmaps. This makes everyone safer. Granting visa free travel is not a gift to a long-suffering region, but a win-win situation for all Europeans.
“How visa-free travel makes Europe safer” … meeting with former interior ministers Giuliano Amato (Italy) and Otto Schily (Germany) this week in Istanbul to discuss the ESI White List Project
We strongly supported this logic, because we felt that it would work. We were also convinced that leaders in these countries were capable of surprising the EU and actually implementing these demands faster than anticipated. And this is indeed what has happened.
Even Bosnia is today much closer to visa free travel than it has ever been in the years since 1995.
Of course, there is always a danger that despite a process of objective assessment (with numerous expert missions visiting the region in recent months) political considerations would enter at the end; that prejudices could cloud the process.
Contrary to what most friends of Bosnia in Europe believe, however, allowing a bigger role for purely political considerations would likely be harmful not beneficial for Bosnia, given its terrible image in some EU countries and the regular recurrence of articles on dangerous islamists in Sarajevo (again earlier this year in Der Spiegel, an article on “the fifth column of the prophet”). We have long warned that this image, which is not deserved, as well as regular alarmist articles that Bosnia might be about to go to war again are doing terrible damage to the European future of the country. But one effect of this bad press is that the less European decisions are based on perceptions, and the more on facts, the better for Bosnia.
Thus, I believe that the principle of “strict but fair” is also in Bosnia’s (and Albania’s) interest. Both countries have an image problem in Europe that can best be overcome by focusing on concrete deliverables.
At the same time, Bosnian leaders need to be told by their friends that if Macedonian Albanians and Macedonians could implement these changes following their fighting in 2001, so must they. Until now at least there is no evidence that this is not actually in their hands.
There are two potential challenges to “strict but fair”:
Some claim that EU leaders do indeed have prejudices about Balkan Muslims, and that even once Bosnia fulfills all conditions it will be judged more harshly than Serbia or Montenegro are now.Until now, at least, we have found no evidence that this is the case.It is a strong argument, however, for making the assessment process as transparent as possible, which is the main motivation behind our dedicated website. We believe that full transparency is in the interest of everyone, which is why you can find all relevant documents there.
Some people in Sarajevo claim that Bosnian Serb politicians might sabotage the reforms needed for Bosnian passport holder, to undermine the Bosnian state, since Bosnian Serbs might in any case gain access to the EU through their Serbian citizenship.This is definitely something that needs to be monitored. Until now we have found little evidence for this. In fact, once we published the visa score card showing Bosnia in last position a few weeks ago a series of laws were passed that suggested that Bosnian politicians were sensitive to the charge of letting their people down.It is also the case that the EU would not look kindly at a sudden increase in Serbian biometric passports being handed out to Bosnian Serbs.
In short, for now the best message to give to Bosnian leaders is not to lean back and hope that Europe’s bad conscience about Srebrenica will do their work, but to sit down and focus on the roadmap. The EU should help, monitor the process closely, and respond fairly.
This has also been our answer to questions by Bosnian media in recent days:
“Yes, you have a moral case, but this is unlikely to convince sceptical interior ministers in sceptical EU member states. Dont’ rely on it. In fact, the example of Macedonia and Montenegro shows you that implementing these reforms will lead to the desired goal much faster than any campaign based on the history of a war that ended in 1995. As for anti-Bosniak prejudice, so far we have not found evidence of it in the Commission evaluations. Lets be vigilant, but lets admit also that so far the Commission has been fair according to the standards of the roadmap process.”
In fact, we feel, looking in detail at all the still outstanding conditions, that if a real effort is made, Bosnia and Albania might be able to meet these conditions within the next 12 months. That would obviously be best for everyone. All our efforts should now go towards making this possible.
This is why our protest focuses on the specific commission recommendations concerning Kosovo: Kosovo is not even being offered the chance that Bosnia and Albania have to prove that it can or cannot implement the roadmap requirements. This is the opposite of “strict but fair” … a lose-lose situation for the whole region and the EU.”
It was not the beauty of the place. Beirut is a city with little to discover for the classical tourist. One can walk along the Corniche – the boulevard along the Mediterranean coast. One can spend time getting lost in the shopping streets of Muslim West Beirut. One can eat in good French restaurants in the Christian quarter. On Saturday evening all the outdoor tables of the many restaurants in the rebuilt downtown are full with people, many smoking water pipes. All of this is nice, the weather in October is glorious, but the sights hardly compare with Istanbul or Thessaloniki: not the walks along the water, not the shops, not even the restaurants and cafes.
What transforms this city into something remarkable is not what one can see but the stories that cling to every building: it is discovering the downtown’s pre-war history, its war-time fate and the remarkable story of its reconstruction after 1990 (which is still ongoing), that turns sitting here into an exercise of rubbing Aladin’s lamp. Ghosts quickly appear, and take one on trips to the past and future.
First one finds oneself in the middle of a pleasing yet “sterile urban ideal of cobble-stoned streets, art galleries and boutiques” (Nicholas Blanford): the present. Then one sees oneself sitting on top of an archeological goldmine, with Roman roads, Greek mosaics, Phoenician burial chambers: the distant past. The next image is of this very same place looking like “a wasteland of shell-scarred ruins and overgrown streets, inhabited by families of destitute squatters and packs of prowling wild dogs”: the downtown two decades ago. Then “countless bullet holes pitted the sandstone facades of Ottoman-era houses lining streets named after First World War generals such as Foch, Weygand and Allenby” (Nicholas Blanford in his gripping “Killing Mr. Lebanon”). I look up and see that the elegant shopping street where I sit is still named after Allenby today.
On Saturday I drive to Byblos. This is one of the oldest towns in the world, on the coast north of Beirut. It was one of the obvious tourist attractions when a 2-day visit to Lebanon was still part of most package tours to the Middle East. Tourists would be shown the remains of a crusader castle and a 12th century church, some Ottoman buildings, and a little harbor going back to Phoenician times. A picturesque and interesting site, definitely worth an excursion but hardly warranting a special trip. Today there are very few tourists, however. I learn in Byblos that most EU embassies have put out a travel warning for Lebanon, so tour operators coming to Syria do not dare to come here at the moment.
What fascinates me more than the old remains is the drive from Beirut to Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic): the chaotic and dense construction along the coast, the obvious lack of urban planning, coinciding with the construction of shopping centres, casinos and nightclubs: a “glittering and shallow facade of ersatz Westernization for rich Arab tourists”, as one author unkindly calls it. The Beirut metropolitan area does not end north or south of the city itself. Kosovo is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe, with some 2 million people living on 10,000 km2. However, in Lebanon there are 4 million people living in a territory of the same size as Kosovo. This is a very crowded place indeed.
The area north of Beirut is largely populated by Christians. Lebanon’s current president (who is always a Maronite Christian) comes from here (the Maronites are the largest Christian group). Here, as in East Beirut, one can see evidence of Christian life everywhere: pictures of the Virgin, statutes of saints, signs pointing to educational establishments run by religious orders.
Lebanon is not only crowded; its population is also – proverbially – extremely diverse. It was the strong presence of the Maronites in the region of Mount Lebanon which led the French to create Lebanon as a separate country, severing it from Syria when both were a French protectorate. This explains one cause of Lebanon’s recent turmoil: a Syrian reluctance to accept Lebanon as a fully sovereign neighbour. Damascus is only some 30 kilometers away from the Lebanese border, and friends tell me that it takes less than 2 hours to drive there from Beirut.
Lebanon’s diversity has been a source of tensions throughout its modern history. Who should be in charge? How is power to be divided between different sects, Christians and Muslims, Sunnis and Shiites, Druze, Armenians, smaller Arab Christians groups and the very large number of Palestinian refugees? The formula found to share power was “confessionalism”, based on a very rough idea how many people of different faiths lived in the country. And since demographic balances change over time, it was decided early on to stop counting the ethnic make-up: ignorance was to be a solution where too much knowledge was dangerous.
In her book Bring down the Walls Carole H. Dagher describes the demographic evolution. The last official census was undertaken in 1932: then there were 32,4 percent Christian Maronites, 9.8 percent Greek Orthodox, 5.9 percent Greek Catholics as well as 22.4 percent Sunnis, 19.6 percent Shiites and 6.5 percent Druze (plus other smaller groups).
By 1990 the total number of Christians had fallen to 43 percent, plus another 29 percent Shiites, 24 percent Sunnis and 4 percent Druze. These figures do not include some three to four hundred thousand (mostly Muslim) Palestinian refugees, nor a large number of guest workers from Syria. It is due to this “fragile balance” that even the descendants of Palestinian refugees who arrived in 1948 have not been given citizenship or other basic rights (such as owning property) in Lebanon. This was an obvious second major cause of instability in recent decades: the uncertain relation between Lebanese society and these refugees, and the direct link this created between Lebanese politics and the wider Arab-Israeli conflict (triggering a number of Israeli interventions).
And yet, comparing population figures from the beginning and the end of the 20th century, one remarkable fact stands out: how little has changed.
By the standards of the early 20th century Beirut was a normal Ottoman town: a city with an ethnic variety similar to Istanbul, Izmir, Jerusalem or Thessaloniki. By today’s standards Beirut boasts an almost uniquely mixed Christian-Muslim population. In most other places, including Mediterranean Europe, such diversity was destroyed in the 20th century. In Beirut it survived.
Visiting this city today is thus to travel back in time to the communal organisation of Ottoman times. As Charles Winslow wrote: “People in the Middle East must not only learn to live with differences but also must institutionalise the means of doing so … the individual needs security at the communal level, something parallel to what the old Ottoman millet system used to provide.” Sectarianism remains very much alive today, even though the Taif accord, which ended the war in 1990, had called for the “phased abolition of political sectarianism.”
Walking through Beirut I begun to wonder: was this what Istanbul “felt” like one century ago, when it was still a city with a large Christian population? When villages along the Bosporus were populated by Greeks and Armenians and when today’s Bosphorus university was run by American protestants? When the legacies of the millet system were still visible?
It is difficult to feel romantic about Beirut’s diversity, even if it is impossible not to be fascinated by it. Everywhere there are reminders of a recent history of inter-religious conflict as much as of millenia of coexistence. Opening the English or French daily papers, one reads about continuing tensions which confound all easy categorisation: there is a history of Muslims fighting Muslims, of Christian militias fighting other Christians. The crisis of this moment is one pitting Salafist Sunnis near the Northern city of Tripoli against other, more moderate, Sunnis and the government (as one recent Carnegie Paper on “Lebanon’s Sunni Islamists” describes well). At the same time, throughout most recent conflicts, the large Armenian community in East Beirut also managed to stay neutral in the confessional battles of recent decades.
[As elsewhere, I wonder if Samuel Huntington has ever actually set foot in Lebanon: he could not have possibly have come up with his theory of the clash of civilisations in light of this particular complex story]
Carole Dagher concludes her book Bring Down the Walls with a reference to the “mission” of Lebanon:
“Its challenge illustrates somehow the challenge of the entire region. The failure of the Lebanese would mean the failure of a meaningful experiment in the Arab world to manage religious pluralism and cultural diversity, and to institutionalize freedom, equality, respect and participation for all. It would deprive the Arab world of a model it could relate to, reminiscent of its lost Andalus.”
The history of medieval Spain was a history as much of interaction as of conflict. There were local struggles, manipulated and even instigated by outsiders; crusading Christians in the North and fanatical North African rulers in the South played their part in the eventual destruction of a unique culture. But today Andalus is a myth, no less than its hero, the mercenary El Cid.
Multiethnic Beirut is a reality; the fate and future of this modern millet system a matter of war and peace. Beirut is Mark Mazower’s Thessaloniki without being a city of ghosts: a place where different confessions continue to live together as they did a century ago. It is a mirror of a universal promise, and having looked into it, it becomes hard to tear oneself away.
It is on my way to the airport that I finish another little book, recommended by a friend: Mai Ghoussoub’s Leaving Beirut. If there is one book on Lebanon that I have come across these days and that I would recommend to you to read it is this one: an ingenious personal reflection by a Lebanese writer, artist and activist on the urge for revenge after horrendous crimes, on slippery notions such as honour and treason in times of conflict. It is a very rich book and I will return to it later, but let me conclude my description of what I saw in the mirror of Beirut with Ghassoub’s case study of Lebanese reconciliation:
“In Lebanon, in 1994, the victims of a massacre in the Chouf area were invited to participate in a three-day conference on Acknowledgement, Forgiveness and Reconciliation – Alternative approaches to conflict resolution in Lebanon. The village concerned, Maasir al-Chouf, a Christian enclave in a Druze-dominated area, had lived in peace for the major part of the civil war. So much so that a few days before the massacre, a number of French journalists, invited to visit this haven of civil coexistence between two rival communities, had rushed home to write articles under headlines such as “Peace is still possible in Lebanon”, illustrated with big pictures of hte local priest and the Druze sheikh shaking hands and smiling.”
The journalists wrote their articles on 7 March 1977. On 16 March, following the death of Kemal Jumblatt, Druze armed men opened fire on Christian houses in Maasir al Chouf. …
In this conference for reconciliation, designed to encourage the relocation of the Christian refugees in their village of Maasir, the victims of the violence made a statement: ‘We buried our dead with dignity, we transcended our wounds and we forgave … The state wants time to work towards a solution: time would weakend resentment, and the effect of forgetting would be that the demands for justice would recede. We, the victims , are not asking for the impossible. but we refuse to be ignored, neglected and subjected to a fait accompli. We insist on our right to return to our village and our land. … at the same time, we believe in the logic of coexistence.’”
And here it was: the echo of Bosnia’s displaced, one decade ago, asking to return to their homes in Central Bosnia, in Herzegovina, in Republika Srpska. The universal dilemma of forgiveness after conflict, of the struggle for justice, while trying to build a viable future at the same time.
Leaving Beirut this Sunday morning, I felt that I would soon be back.
What does it take to sustain a “culture of tolerance” in a society marked by genuine differences? It is a question central to the issues discussed on this blog: from Kosovo to Kakheti, from Timisoara to Thessaloniki. Let me share impressions of one particularly interesting effort to answer it: Maria Rosa Menocal’s book The Ornament of the World – How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.
Menocal is an expert on the multireligious and multilinguistic world of medieval Spain. She decided to write her book after delivering presentations on “Medieval Europe and Authentic Multiculturalism” and noticing that her research had produced a “treasure trove of mostly unknown and unheared stories and characters.” This explains why her book is a very good read. But it is its relevance to current debates that makes it particularly gripping. As the author asks herself:
“Can Muslims be successfully integrated into contemporary and secular European nations? Should fundamentalist Christians have to expose their children to the teachings of reason as well as those of faith, to evolutionary theories as well as scriptural truth? Can Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosnians coexist in the Balkans? How can tolerance and intolerance coexist?”
Menocal describes a medieval society where “Muslims, Christians and Jews did not have separate cultures based on religious differences but rather were part of a broad and expansive culture that had incorporated elements of all their traditions, a culture that all could and did participate in regardless of their religion.”
In fact, despite its title – The Ornament of the World – the story Menocal tells is, in the end, one of defeat as much as triumph. The enemies of tolerance and cultural coexistence are always present and ultimately they triumph. There is the regent of the dying Kalifate of Cordoba, al-Mansur, leading a deadly and destructive raid into Santiago de Compostela in 997; there is the complete destruction, perpetrated by fundamentalist Berber fighters from North Africa, of the palace of Madinat-Al-Zahra outside of Cordoba in 1009, ending the golden age of Cordoba; there are the attacks on Jews by Muslims (the massacre of Jews in Muslim Granada in 1066) and Christians (their expulsion from Christian Toledo in 1391). Later, in 1492, all Jews were made to leave Spain following an order by Spains’ Catholic Kings, many resettling in the Ottoman Empire, in particular in Thessaloniki. Spanish Muslims met the same fate before long.
And yet, it was not religiously defined crusaders but intense exchange and interaction between Christian, Jews and Muslims that defined – and made great – medieval Spain. It was a tradition of exchange, of translation, of trying to reconcile reason and religion, of poetry. To grasp this it is probably easiest to do what Menocal does so well: to introduce some of the leading protagonists.
There is Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the Jewish foreign secretary of the Muslim caliphate called al-Andalus in Arabic and Sefarad in Hebrew. He was born in Cordoba in 915 and became a leader of the Jewish community in Cordoba as well as vizier of caliph Abd al-Rahman. He was proficient in the many languages of his native city – Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Mozarabic. He remained a devout Jew and was also thoroughly educated in Arab culture. In 949 he headed a delegation in delicate talks with a delegation from Greek speaking Byzantium, to discuss a possible alliance against the Abbasids in Bagdad.
One of the gifts the Byzantines brought was a book by Discorides, On Medecine. Hasdai immediately set out to put together a team of experts to have it translated into Arabic. Books mattered in the Cordoba of his time. The caliphal library had some four hundred thousand volumes “at a time when the largest libraries in Christian Europe probably held no more than four hundred manuscripts. Cordoba’s caliphal library was itself one of seventy libraries in the city.
Books also played a central role in the life of Arab poet Ibm Hazm, raised in a Cordoba harem in the last years of the first millenium, According to Menocal he produced some 400 of them, from law to philosophy, from religious studies to the sciences. His most famous work, though, was a handbook on love – The Neck-Ring of the Dove – whose 30 small chapters cover topics such as “on the Signs Given by the Eyes” and “On Those Who Fall in Love at First Sight.” It is a tribute to a courtly society, laying out the ways in which love can be an all-consuming illness that wastes the lover away, robs him of sleep, appetite, and tranquility – the sum of which creates and incomparable ecstasy and is also the very source of great poetry.” Poetry which appears as modern as this:
“I’ve a sickness doctors can’t cure,
Inexorably pulling me to the well of my destruction.
Consented to be a sacrifice, killed for her love,
Eager, like the drunk gulping wine mixed with poison
Shameless were those nights,
Yet my soul loved them beyond all passion.”
But these sensibilities would travel beyond Southern Spain. Menocal notes how Anadalusian Arabic “ring songs” of love poems made their way into France in the 11th century, together with new instruments that would rehape European music: guitars, drums, tambourines. In the siege of the Northern Spanish town of Barbastro in 1064 “the greatest treasure” taken back by Christian conquerors were Andalusian singers. Medieval French culture owed an obvious and visible debt to the poets of Andalus.
Or take Michael Scot, born in Scotoland, then living in Sicily. He travels to Toledo when that city is at the heart of European culture in the 13th century. One of the main activities in Toledo was the translation of texts into Latin from Arabic. When the Castilian king Alfonso VI took over Toledo from its Arab rulers, Menocal writes, he
“simultaneously aquired an immense wealth of books and, the greatest gift of all, whole communities of multilingual Toledans – Mozarabs and Jews prominent among them, who could serve as translators.”
And as more and more Arab-speaking Christians and Jews fled from increasingly intolerant cities in the South of Spain and settled in Toledo, the city became the European centre of translation:
“It was at this time that the translation of thousands of Arabic volumes into Latin began in earnest, and within fifty years, Latin readers throughout Christendom had at their displosal such once-unimagined wonders as the full body of Aristotle’s works, accompanied by extensive Muslim and Jewish commentaries … Michael Scot and many others went to Toledo to learn Arabic and to train in the special process of collaborative translation developed there. The common model was for a Jew to translate the Arabic text aloud into the shared Romance vernacular, Castilian, whereupon a Christian would take that oral version and write it out in Latin.”
In this way the translators of the Toledo school were not translating individual texts: they were “translating a culture”. They, like the scholars in Cordoba or poets like Ibn Hazm, were the avantguard of the intellectual revival of medieval Europe: its first true renaissance, belying the image of the “dark ages”.
So read this fascinating book! I have thought of its characters many times in recent months, in particular while working on two documentary films – one on Thessaloniki and one on Istanbul (more on these later). In both of these two great European cities one encounters a similar story of traditions of multiethnic, multireligious coexistence lasting for centuries, only to be destroyed in the end by forces of ferocious intolerance, by insistence on purity, by the will to “simplify” society.
As Menocal puts it, the challenge is for a culture to sustain “contradictions.” She never idealises the world she celebrates: there simply are too many accounts of exil, massacres, intolerance and warfare in her story. Her conclusion is that all three monotheistic faiths “have powerful strains of ferocity within them”. Her story concludes with the Spanish inquisition being set up to “cure the perceived ills created by five hundred years of a society that did tolerate contradictions of all sorts.” Thus the medieval world gives way to a new world, embracing the ideal of single-religion and single-language nations: an ideal which in some parts of the world is still with us today.
Menocal herself ends her scholarly meditation in the Balkans, with the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Jewish book of prayers and stories that survived the shelling of the Sarajevo library in August 1992. The book had made it out of Spain in the exodus of 1492, taken to the Ottoman Empire by Sephardic Jews. It was rescued a second time during the second world war, when a Muslim curator in Sarajevo managed to hide it from the Nazis. And many decades later, a woman fleeing Kosovo, attacked by Serb forces in 1999, held among her possessions a paper her father had received from the Israeli government for saving not only the Sarajevo Haggadah but also Yugoslav Jews from the Nazis. Cordoba – Toledo – Thessaloniki – Sarajevo – Istanbul … How many more such chapters will European history write?
One last thought: the multicultural society Menocal describes lasted “for several hundreds of years – that’s a very long time for a good thing to last”. Indeed. But certainly not long enough.
I am currently reading a thought-provoking and entertaining book with a serious conclusion: Wild Europe – the Balkans in the Gaze of Western Travellers by Bozidar Jezernik, published by Saqi and the Bosnian Institute.
It is a book about continuities in approaches to the Balkans. As anthropologist Joel Martin Halpern writes in the foreword:
“In the early twenty-first century, a large portion of the Balkan lands where Muslims live, our principal area of concern, are occupied by NATO troops with UN participation … in exploring Jezernik’s collection of the views of observers of times past, we can easily see how they provide a necessary prologue to the present.”
Halpern notes that in recent centuries outsiders coming to the Balkans would often hesitate to consider anything admirable in the work of the people of the region. He gives the example of the bridge in Mostar:
“… by the mid nineteenth century, when Turkish power had notably declined, travellers no longer attributed the bridge to the Turks, but gave it classical origins. … A nineteenth century account of the bridge at Mostar by an Austrian noblewoman is illustrative. She had the insight to observe of the bridge that ‘history mislabels it as Roman’. But her husband, who oversaw the publication of her book, added in his notes that the bridge was obviously classical, built by Trajan or Hadrian.”
Another Balkan explorer, Sir Arthur Evans, travelling through Bosnia in 1875, noted about the Mostar bridge that “the grandeur of the work … attests to its Roman origin.” The mindset of these travelers, so Halpern, was to ask “how could something unique and of value come directly from the infidel Turks and be located in the Balkan back of beyond.”
The rest of the book gives many more examples of an outlook which views the Balkans as a region of “primitive quarrels and ancient ways of resolving them.” There is the Englishman who describes the eastern coast of the Adriatic as “one of those ill-fated portions of the earth which, though placed in immediate contact with civilisation, have remained perpetually barbarian.” There are the travel reports written for a “broad and enthusiastic public who found nothing more boring than plain facts.” In these writings hyperbole was encouraged. As Jezernik writes:
“In a book on the inhabitants of Bosnia, written by the French consul in Travnik at the beginning of the nineteenth century, readers would frequently come across terms such as wild, ruthless and cannibalistic. In this light, the civilising role of France might have seemed indispensable and could have been used as a pretext for the occupation of Bosnia. The author repeats several times in different words that this country and its inhabitants might change ‘under some other rule’.”
Some time ago my friend Felix Martin and I have written a provocative little article about the colonial gaze of modern day foreigners in the Balkans and the practical consequences of this for Bosnia (Travails of the European Raj – we then put a short picture story on liberal imperialism on the internet, stretching from Mill and Machiavelli to Michael Ignatieff and Sebastian Mallaby).
We noted that in the modern Balkans – as in the past – liberal imperialists emphasied both wild behaviour and helplessness. It is because the Balkans are wild that they need to be contained and it is because they are helpless that they need to be helped. Achievements by the peoples of the Balkans upset this perspective, which is why it is better not to underline them too much.
This is very visible today in Bosnia. While it is admitted that the Mostar bridge is an Ottoman and not a Roman marvel, the approach that every post-war achievement (peace, reconstruction, return, basic reconciliation) is assumed to be the result of international coercion or assistance but rarely or never the product of local effort, remains very much alive. This is obvious also from two provocative articles published in the Guardian and by USIP. The authors – the former High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Lord Ashdown, and two American Balkan experts with long experience in Bosnia, Bruce Hitchner and Ed Joseph – argue that Bosnia and Herzegovina is today facing a tremendous crisis, and that the only way to save it from itself is through more assertive outside intervention, including maintaining (and using) international intervention powers.
There can be no doubt that all three authors feel genuine concern about and commitment to Bosnia. At the same time their views appear to be shared by many (among the dwindling group of) policy makers who focus on Bosnia today in Washington DC in particular. Theirs is thus a serious perspective that deserves a thorough discussion. And yet, at another level the two articles are also good illustrations of the persistance of the colonial gaze: a gaze which can see no salvation for the wild peoples of Bosnia except by outsiders ruling them directly.
Take a look first at the article by Ed Joseph and Bruce Hitchner. Here is the central argument: 1. “ownership” has been tried and does not work. 2. Without plenipotentiary powers in the hands of an international agency there can be no progress in Bosnia. and 3. the best model for Bosnia’s future is the supervisory regime established in the Brcko district in North Bosnia. In this regime a foreign supervisor retains the power to remove elected and appointed officials from power:
“The vast majority of progress in Bosnia has been the result of international prodding. Experiments with “local ownership”. most notably during the regime of High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, resulted in severe gridlock and left the international community’s credibility in tatters …
“There are no plans for the successor EUSR to retain the plenipotentiary Bonn Powers of the High Representative that have been the international community’s primary tool to overcome obstruction. However, recent history suggests that it is expecting far too much of the Bosnian parties to operate together as a typical aspirant country … an empowered EUSR will still be needed at the helm to steer the parties toward agreement and overcoming the inevitable recalcitrant party or parties.”
“A viable model for Bosnia’s EUSR is not only the predecessor OHR, but also the successful Brcko Supervisory regime. Brcko has been the exceptional success story in the country due in part to the knowledge that an empowered outside actor could step in to avoid and break deadlocks. … The EUSR should be expressely required to state which party or parties have been responsible for failure to achieve progress and to make recommendations about corrective action, including removal from power or blacklisting them from traveling within the EU.”
These are very strong claims, about the recent past as well as about the possible futures of Bosnia: Bosnians among themselves are held to be unable to govern themselves without a strong supervisory regime (as exists in Brcko district). This is also unlikely ever to change. After all, there are no constitutional problems for governance inside Brcko District (which was designed completely by foreigners), and the only complication there appears to be the fact that there are indeed Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs living together: and yet, until today this “exceptional success story” continues to require the corrective powers of a foreign supervisor! The implication is that as long as Bosnia/Brcko are multiethnic societies the only way to make elected representatives reach compromises is to threaten them with the sanction of imposition or removal. Brcko is, after all, not a model for multiethnic democracy!
The article by Ashdown also refers to Brcko as a model, calling it a “multi-ethnic markedly successful sub-entity.” Ashdown evokes the threat of war in Bosnia to draw attention to his call for more assertive international action, noting that what would change people’s “calculation in favour of blood” in Bosnia would be continued efforts to divide the country. And such efforts, he underlines in the same article, are continuing and will most likely continue without stronger international engagement. As he writes: “You do not need imagination to know what happens when things go wrong in Bosnia – a memory ought to be enough.”
But is the evidence from recent years truly that a multi-ethnic Bosnian democracy remains an impossible dream? That the only way to improve things in the country is by international imposition? And that Bosnians might soon make a “calculcation in favour of blood”? Let me return to this question in my next blog. In the meantime, I am looking forward to any comments or suggestions.