Bosnia: three years into the peace process

Bosnia today is a place that feels peaceful. As you walk the streets of major towns in the Muslim-Croat Federation, the plastic that covered many windows until a year ago has been replaced with glass, streets riddled with shrapnel holes have been repaved, and there is an atmosphere of security. However, this atmosphere has a harsh underside. Beneath the rebuilding in major towns and the money that flows from the thousands of international workers in Bosnia lies a devastated economy and a limp political system.

The 1995 Dayton peace accords were signed three years ago this month, and NATO troops deployed. Two months ago I returned to Bosnia on my fourth trip to discuss the future of the peace process with international officials, Bosnian leaders, and individual Bosnians.

During this trip, it was obvious that Dayton's inherent flaws born out of the circumstances of negotiation continue to hinder the peace process. The agreement proclaims a multiethnic Bosnian state, but this is more a myth than a reality.

One thing is certain though: The Dayton peace accord ended the most violent and destructive war in Europe since World War II.

It is clear that without the credible presence of NATO troops under US leadership the situation on the ground in Bosnia would deteriorate rapidly. Nationalist leaders for each ethnic group continue to hold political power. The unemployment rate in Bosnia is astronomically high - especially when one considers that the major employer in the country is the international community. In Bosnia and in other parts of the world, history has shown that economic instability and nationalist politics are a dangerous recipe.

Despite these facts, I came away from my trip with a sense of hope for the future. In talking to Bosnians on all sides, most suggested tangible progress could be achieved in three areas: (1) reaching out to the younger generation (ages 20 to 35) in Bosnia, (2) political development, and (3) economic redevelopment and privatization.

The younger generation in Bosnia is a special group. Most are educated, all grew up in a multiethnic society, and many still have connections across ethnic lines. They are voices for change who understand that the current economic and political situation in Bosnia cannot continue. They are also largely ignored by international programs and policies. As a result, their potential leadership for the present and for the future is being squandered.

Regarding political development, the international community has focused on achieving peace in Bosnia through maintaining security using NATO troops and conducting technically acceptable elections to "teach" Bosnians about democracy. This approach is dangerous because NATO's military presence cannot last forever, and the electoral process is not invested in by Bosnians themselves.

The high cost of internationally supervised elections in Bosnia has not resulted in a proportional level of successful democratization. Nationalist victories in the September elections this year illustrate this failure. Continuing this process next year is not the way to attain sustainable peace and a positive resolution for NATO. It would be less costly to concentrate on building multiethnic coalition parties and opposition leaders from all ethnic groups.

In addition, serious reform of the electoral law in consultation with Bosnian officials and the Bosnian people should begin. Civic education on electoral options and political choices will invest the Bosnian people in the process and will have a great deal of impact. Let the Bosnians host the elections when they are ready, with international observers.

Economic development is essential to sustaining the peace. Without some hope for a more prosperous future, Bosnians on all sides feel vulnerable. Nationalist leaders presently exploit this economic insecurity to enhance their own power. Serious attention to privatization laws and to encouraging private investment is needed if the international community hopes to succeed in helping to build a viable Bosnian state.

As we enter the fourth year of the Dayton peace process, the international community should reexamine its role in Bosnia, and the United States must lead that effort. The Clinton administration has been dancing around the issue of NATO troops in Bosnia in the US Congress for three years. It is time to focus on getting the job done right and in a sustainable way, for the sake of US policy objectives and for the future of NATO as a credible regional security organization.

Assistance with economic development and working to build a viable political system is the only way the US and its partners can hope to put an end to their commitments in Bosnia. Investment in the next generation of Bosnian leaders in both of these areas is the key to success. Without serious examination of these issues, sustainable peace is not achievable in Bosnia, and Dayton will fail.

* Dana Stinson is president of Network Bosnia, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing the quality of information available about Bosnia and the Balkans.

The international community should reexamine its role in Bosnia, and the US must lead that effort.

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