The Magazine

How Not to Nation-Build

The Europeans do their best to mess up the Balkans.

Oct 21, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 06 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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WITH ALL EYES currently focused on Iraq, the Balkans have mostly faded from view in Washington. This is unfortunate, for events are afoot in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo that starkly illustrate the rigors of nation-building. They demonstrate why, in effecting the liberation of Iraq, the United States should probably ignore the wishes of Europe--and in rebuilding the country afterward, should go it alone.

On October 5, Bosnian citizens went to the polls to elect their national parliament. In an outcome long predicted by many local folk but by few foreigners, Bosnian Muslim, Serb, and Croat ethnic parties swept the field. This result was viewed with dismay by the "international" bureaucracy that rules the country--dismay because these mainly European functionaries blame the 1992-95 Bosnian war not on Slobodan Milosevic and his Serbian Communist cadres in Belgrade, acting through the Yugoslav army and Bosnian Serb surrogates, but on an ethnic hatred they perceive as manifested equally in all three groups.

Western media commentary on the nationalist resurgence in the recent election was superficial and biased. Accusations that the Bosnian parties had caused the war were heard on many sides. In truth, the role of the Bosnian Muslim political leaders was almost exclusively defensive and even hesitant. The Croats too were originally victims of Serbia, although they eventually turned on the Muslims.

The true facts are not hard to find: They are being presented daily in the war crimes trial of Milosevic underway in The Hague. They unequivocally show the Bosnian Muslims to have been victims of Serbian terror. These facts the foreign administrative elite in Sarajevo ignores. To this elite, it is axiomatic that all nationalists are bad and all must share the guilt for the crimes in Bosnia.

Still, a legitimate question remains: Why have the Bosnians, seven years after the peace imposed by the Dayton Accord, voted for ethnic identity rather than a melting-pot? Some observers blamed a low voter turnout, with participation highest in smaller towns and rural villages where national feeling is strongest. But the nationalist revival and low urban interest in the election both point to the Bosnians' disgust with European shepherding--that is, with politically correct experimentation on them and their country by foreign cadres of limited competence, leftist prejudice, and little imagination.

In the aftermath of the Balkan wars, Bosnia has become a museum of failed social engineering in such key areas as electoral rules, media, and the economy. At European insistence, for example, elections have been held under a Lani Guinier-style weighted voting system and a sex quota for candidates (30 percent women). Media censorship bars discussion in the press of Serbian atrocities in a war that killed 200,000 people, the overwhelming predominance of them Bosnian Muslims.

In Bosnia's last election, in 2000, the "international community" threw its weight behind the Social Democrats. These former Communists were promoted as the "moderate and multicultural" force that could bring back the peace and prosperity (relative to other Communist countries) of the Tito years. In Tito's Yugoslavia, of course, the Communists, as the ruling party, had to be multicultural. But the Bosnian Communists were considered the most Stalinist in the Tito apparatus, and today's Bosnian Social Democrats manifest the same taste for corruption, abuse of individual rights, public incivility toward opponents, and authoritarian decision-making. The Social Democrat elected mayor of Sarajevo in 2000, Zlatko Lagumdzija, is the son of the former Communist mayor of the Bosnian capital. As the Social Democratic standard-bearer in the recent election, Lagumdzija pledged that if his party were reelected, their first executive action would be to close down a group of nonconforming print media. (Full disclosure: The targeted publications included the magazine Valter, for which I serve as Washington correspondent.)

And to whom could angry Bosnian journalists, outraged at the threatened revival of Communist censorship, turn for succor? Only to American diplomats, whose role in Bosnia-Herzegovina has often been that of ombudsman. Americans in the Balkans are frequently called on to mitigate the policy errors of the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and their assorted, associated entities. Now, by voting to extricate themselves from neo-Communist domination, the Bosnians have openly registered a protest against the tutelage of Brussels.

Similar frictions are seen in Kosovo, where at the beginning of October the members of the Union of Elementary and Secondary School Teachers went on strike against their de facto employer, the United Nations. Numbering 20,000, the strikers are the lowest-paid education workers in Europe: Full-time elementary and middle school teachers make about $150 a month, while other public employees earn a generous $250--and the sons and daughters of Kosovar public servants make up to $750 a month as drivers and translators for the "internationals."

Foreign bureaucrats have created a Kosovo where 30 percent of all income derives from services to humanitarian functionaries. There is more incentive in Kosovo today to speculate by renting apartments to foreigners than to build schools; to sell pizza to foreigners than to provide hot meals for kids in school. For most Kosovar Albanians, it is better to work as a guard in front of an international agency than as a teacher in front of a class.

There are important lessons here. As the United States shoulders more nation-building tasks in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, we should steer clear of the European style. In Bosnia, the European legacy includes the engineering of electoral outcomes and media censorship (a whole separate continent of grotesque mistakes); in Kosovo, stinginess in the establishment of essential services. In both places, Eurocrats have blocked privatization.

Beyond the obvious point that these policies violate American principles and also bring poor practical results, there is this other matter: The Bosnian Muslim political and intellectual leaders, after all that their people suffered in Milosevic's wars, rejected Saudi-funded extremism and terrorism. To make good on George W. Bush's pledge that the war against terror is not a war against Islam, the United States should dramatically upgrade our support for Bosnian civil society. Bosnian citizens need American-style practical help in rebuilding their economy, rather than European social malpractice. Greater success in balancing ethnic claims and civil needs in Bosnia, and the Balkans generally, is difficult, but not impossible, and could provide a textbook for sorting out the competing aims of Kurds, Shiite Muslims, and others in Iraq, as well as of the factions in Afghanistan.

Here's one concrete suggestion: To demonstrate our commitment to democratic transitions in Muslim societies, the U.S. government and the American teachers' unions could show solidarity with the striking teachers of Kosovo by helping them reach a just settlement of their dispute. In the realm of public diplomacy, what would speak more eloquently than American support for thousands of elementary and secondary teachers, many of them Muslim, in Kosovo's new, secular, Western-style schools?

Stephen Schwartz is the author of "The Two Faces of Islam: The House of Sa'ud From Tradition to Terror," just published by Doubleday.