Bosnian Lessons: the Myths of Nationalism

Nationalism is less a matter of deeply entrenched or 'natural' differences than exaggerated and politically encouraged differences

AS the Dayton Accords are implemented and efforts are made to reestablish a modicum of normalcy in the former Yugoslavia, cautious hopes are emerging for a lasting peace among Serbs, Bosnians, and Croats. While many obstacles remain, the United States can turn some of its attention first to asking what lessons we've learned from this tragedy, and second, to using those lessons to ensure that the peace is a lasting one.

One lesson stands out because it was perhaps the root of our costly dithering on policy in the Balkans: our misconceptions of nationalism and national identity.

Time and again, policymakers said outside involvement in the former Yugoslavia was futile because the groups had been fighting each other for centuries. Sen. Hank Brown (R) of Colorado, for example, condemned President Clinton's decision to send troops to Bosnia as "goofy" because Americans would have "to stand in between warring factions that have been at war for 500 years."

But what the US and the international community more generally failed to understand was the nature of nationalism as an essentially created political identity. Instead, they subscribed to the myth that it is an expression of an immutable and, more important, innate ethnic consciousness.

Political creations

In fact, nationalism and national identity, although perhaps cloaked and expressed in notions of shared history, are modern political constructs. They are examples of how shared "blood" ties can be exploited and mobilized by demagogues for their political advantage.

Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic, for instance, led his followers to find "truth" in myths about lingering historical animosities and to believe that there was no way for different groups to coexist peacefully. Mr. Karadzic insisted that relations between Serbs and non-Serbs were "like [those between] cats and dogs."

Far from being the result of a nationalist consciousness, Karadzic's irredentist demagoguery was in fact essential in creating such a consciousness. His project was one of conflating the Muslim and Croatian demons of Serbian history - the anti-Serb Ottoman Turks and the Ustasha death squads of World War II - with the Muslim and Croatian citizens of the pre-war, multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. Utilizing romantic imagery from the Serbian past and reviving long-forgotten historical enmities became an integral part of Karadzic's strategy.

Without his constant prodding, Serbs would more likely have thought of a Muslim or Croat as a friend, spouse, or associate rather than as an executioner from decades or even centuries past. The 1991 vote, in which 68 percent of the Bosnian electorate voted for a multi-ethnic state, or the 1992 demonstrations before the Bosnian parliament, in which tens of thousands of people declared "We Can Live Together," are testimony to that fact.

A more recent example, reported by The New York Times, illustrates the possibility for peaceful reconciliation, and the obstacles to it. Before war broke out, the largely Muslim village of Satorovici and the Serbian village of Dubravice in northeastern Bosnia, separated by a half-mile, were on good terms. Villagers cooperated with each other, and their children were friends. Once fighting erupted, all contact between the villages ended.

Now, though peace has largely returned to the region, little has changed. With the encouragement of US soldiers, members of both villages have expressed a desire to revive relations and reduce tensions by holding meetings, but these efforts have been rebuffed by Bosnian Serb leaders.

Conditions for peace

Critics continue to argue that establishing peace is impossible; ethnic, cultural, and religious differences are simply too prodigious. Peacemaking and peacekeeping in the Balkans are not easy tasks, but as Carl Bildt, the international mediator in Bosnia, said, "Political problems must be solved by political means." While the ultimate responsibility for promoting reconciliation lies with Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats, the US can also help create conditions for lasting peace:

The US must take a much stronger and more forceful role in bringing war criminals to trial, including offering protection for tribunal investigators. As the Nuremberg and Tokyo war-crimes trials demonstrated, lasting peace can only be achieved through justice. Our message must be clear and unequivocal: Hate-mongering will not be tolerated by the international community, and those whose rabid breed of nationalism cost thousands of lives in Bosnia will be punished.

The US should encourage the establishment of grass-roots civic organizations to help reduce tensions among the various ethnic groups. Bosnia's Centers for Ethnic Reconciliation, created in January by the Croatian Democracy Project, is one example. The reconciliation centers will encourage cooperative planning, prejudice reduction, conflict resolution, and similar measures to promote peaceful reconciliation between Croats and Muslims.

The US should continue the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown's efforts to stimulate postwar reconstruction projects in the former Yugoslavia. Economic decline was one of the factors that led to war in the Balkans, and the promotion of trade and economic development could help ensure regional stability.

Finally, and perhaps most important, the US should maintain its leadership role in peace and reconciliation by promoting democracy, including adopting a constitution based on principles of equality and mutual respect, establishing and promoting democratic institutions, and free and fair elections. While democracy promotion will not inoculate states from demagoguery, it will allow for alternative voices to be heard.

Disorder within states seems endemic in international affairs. But when we understand that nationalism is less a product of deeply entrenched or "natural" differences than of exaggerated and often politically encouraged differences, establishing and preserving peace becomes much more promising.

With this in mind, we will realize that nationalist conflicts are not situations in which nothing can be done. Rather, they are opportunities for international action to combat what is perhaps the single most virulent political scourge of our time.

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