Lessons From Bosnia

The arrest of Radovan Karadzic, who bears a significant portion of responsibility for the horrors of the civil war in Bosnia, is an appropriate ending to his political career. There are no grounds to portray the former president of Bosnian Serb republic as a victim of circumstances; he is getting what he deserves. But the event itself leads to painful reflections about what has happened up to now in the global arena.

Carl Bildt wrote in "Peace Journey: The Struggle for Peace in Bosnia," published in 1997, about his own participation in the Bosnian settlement and his opposition to dividing up Bosnia along ethnic lines. Bildt claimed that the politics of ethnic division in Bosnia would have immediately had consequences for the region and Europe as a whole, namely attempts at new partitions and ethnic cleansings. The author explained that blood began to pour forth in the Balkans when the poison of nationalism with its demands for divisions and ethnic cleansing penetrated into a locality that was inherently a cultural mosaic.

Several years later, these lessons were either forgotten or consciously ignored. In the case of Kosovo, leading Western powers decided to be governed by a reverse logic: that joint cohabitation of Serbs and Albanians makes no sense. It's simpler to fulfill Kosovars' aspirations for self-determination, even if it contravenes existing law.

The great global powers officially acknowledged their inability to create a "civil" nation based on the rule of law and tolerance. Instead, the primitive principles of blood ties, raw power and the suppression of one group and support of another predominated.

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During the nightmare of the Bosnian war at the end of the 20th century, Europe helplessly watched as medieval barbarity raged in its own backyard. It also demonstrated the inability of the European Union and NATO to undertake coordinated actions and rise to new challenges. Bildt wrote about this very issue, and he called on the Europeans to develop a single foreign policy and security policy. He also appealed to NATO to transform itself into a politically flexible organization.

But things turned out differently. The EU did not move toward political consolidation. On the contrary, now almost any serious international decision leads to a split among member countries. NATO learned a moral lesson from the Bosnian tragedy, but this did not help the organization become more effective. Instead, NATO simply relied on its military power, which was demonstrated in the Yugoslav bombing campaign of 1999.

The fear of a new wave of slaughter in Europe pushed the West toward the illegal use of force. And one illegal action led to others. If humanitarian motives were present in the case of Yugoslavia, the Iraq campaign from the outset was built on lies and manipulations. As a result, liberal interventionism became morally bankrupt. The borderline between the use of force for good and for selfish interests turned out to be very fine. It has been a long time since the lofty concepts of freedom and democracy were abused and twisted in such a cynical way.

During the Bosnian war, European and U.S. politicians were justifiably criticized for their inability to halt the bloodletting. But to be fair, the intense diplomatic efforts did not stop for a single day, and the leading powers made every attempt to put a stop to the military actions and find a political solution.

In comparison with that period, today's politicians seem lazy, disinterested and arrogant. For example, not one of the outside powers that were active in the prolonged talks on the status of Kosovo demonstrated any creative approach, nor an honest attempt to find a solution.

In addition, the United Nations war crimes tribunal was established during the Bosnian war to punish officials for their role in carrying out the most serious war crimes. Fifteen years later, the high-minded idea of "supranational" retribution for atrocities has been tarnished. The tribunal did not succeed in punishing the main guilty parties (if we don't consider the death of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in his cell as a judicial verdict), but the trial of low- and mid-level Serbian participants in the conflict smacks of political bias against the Serbs. This bias undermined the faith in the very principle of supranational justice.

The 1990s brought a surge of hopes, new ideas and notions about a more just world order. These attempts were not successful -- or you could even argue they led to the opposite result. Today's egoism in international affairs is in many ways the consequence of false expectations of the recent past.

Karadzic must undoubtedly answer for his actions. But what about the other guilty parties, including those who today are convinced of their right to judge others?

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.