October 5, 2006

October 5, 2006 | Commentary on Europe

Balkan lessons

One of the most persuasive arguments why the United States cannot cut and run in Iraq is that a premature U.S. withdrawal would likely provoke civil war and ethnic cleansing on a scale that would make the Balkans pale by comparison. Anyone who recalls the human tragedy of the Balkan wars during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s will find that argument persuasive enough. 

Once you do get involved in some kind of nation-building capacity, you cannot simply quit when the going gets tough -- tempting as this may be to many here in Washington. Americans may be able to bring our boys home, but the people on the ground will live with the real and dire consequences. 

If we needed a reminder, the Balkans is back in the news, and still searching for a solution to the ethnic problems that have bedeviled the region. The status of Kosovo is still in need of a resolution with Serbia, with a U.S.-imposed deadline coming up at the end of this year. And elections this weekend in Bosnia centered on the future of Republika Srpska, which is part of Bosnia, but would rather prefer not to be. 

Furthermore, the European Union, which seemed at least to hold the promise of progress for the region, is experiencing serious enlargement fatigue. It may not be able to produce the carrots and incentives of inclusion in Europe's "club of the rich" to encourage political settlements among the remaining pieces of the Balkan ethnic mosaic. Romania and Bulgaria are the next countries in line to join, and European officials are cautioning that Croatia and Turkey, which are also in line, may have a long while to wait. (Of course a lot of Europeans would rather see Turkey never join at all.) 

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso cautioned last week that the union risks becoming unworkable and is stretched beyond capacity. "We are not in a position to further integrate Europe without further institutional reform. There are limits to our absorption capacity," he said. At the same time, Carla del Ponte, U.N. war crimes prosecutor, has declared that she is not satisfied with the progress of Serbia in tracking down war criminals. 

Bosnia's election was a stark reminder of the range of visions for the region's future as leaders with totally opposing views on the country's future were elected to its three-party presidency. Former wartime Foreign Minister Harris Silajdzic, who spent untold hours here in Washington in the 1990s pleading for help for his country, handily won the Muslim seat on the presidency. Mr. Silajdzic has urged integrating Bosnia ethnically to make it one state. According to the Dayton Accords of 1995, it is currently divided into two parts, a Muslim-Croatian part on the one hand and a Serbian part on the other. 

Now, European countries are full of minority populations and former foes who have managed through constitutional protections to find ways of living together. This is a reasonable and desirable outcome that would make Bosnia a far more workable country. Whether it is a realistic one in the context of the Balkans, however, where the memory of war is still so recent and so bitter is much in doubt. 

This is particularly so as his Serbian counterpart Milorad Dodik has declared that independence for the already autonomous Serbian part of Bosnia is far from off the table. Just to make things more complicated than they already are, he threatened to tie Bosnia's future to that of Serbia itself, where the ethnically majority Albanian region of Kosovo is seeking independence. 

If this seems like a hopelessly tangled ethnic web, it is no coincidence. (One is reminded of British Lord Palmerston's comment regarding the Schleswig-Holstein region contested by Prussia and Denmark during the 19th century. "There were only three people who understood Schleswig-Holstein. One is dead, another one went mad, and I have forgotten.") 

Even so, it is obviously important to find livable solutions for the Balkans and its people, including minority rights and protections -- and not the least because until that happens, the United States and the EU will not be able to withdraw their troops. The EU still has 6,000 peacekeepers stationed in Bosnia, and the United States retains some 1,700 troops in Kosovo. If there are any lessons from the Balkans that can be applied to Iraq it is patience and the importance of getting a constitutional settlement right.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Related Issues: Europe

First appeared in the Washington Times