Dan Simpson / The end of empires has not been kind to Bosnia; it deserves better

One hundred years ago Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off a lot of history

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The 100th anniversary on June 28 of the assassination in 1914 of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, after which Europe rapidly descended into what became World War I, and later, arguably, World War II, gripped me.

I lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2000-2001 and have stood on the spot where the assassin, Gavrilo Princip, a young Serbian fanatic, stood to shoot Franz Ferdinand and his wife. There is no getting away from the human aspect of what happened. Franz Ferdinand, dying, said to his wife, on the floor of the car, also dying, “Sophie, don’t die, for the children.” The heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was bleeding to death in his car, with catastrophic results for his empire, Europe and the world. He was also a man, a husband and a father.

The Catholic Austro-Hungarian empire went to war, first against Orthodox Serbia, then against Russia, another Orthodox nation — yet another triumph for religion playing a totally unhelpful role in international politics — then with Germany, against France, the United Kingdom, other countries and eventually the United States. Presto! A murderous world war that claimed an estimated 16 million.

At the end, there was no Austro-Hungarian empire, no Ottoman empire and the guns of August 1914 remained cocked for the next round, which started just 21 years later and became a truly world war, killing some 60 million.

There are those who would argue that, if the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires had survived to keep the lid on the ugly nationalisms that sprang up in their wake, the world today would be a better place. They did control great swatches of territory and baskets of nasty peoples, some of competing religions, with some success. The Ottomans let religious groups rule themselves pretty much as they pleased as long as they paid financial tribute to the sultan in Constantinople. The Austrians weren’t much different in approach.

On the other hand, all one has to do to question how long they might have maintained that state of affairs is to look around and see what is happening now. There is just no reason to believe that the shuffling shambles of governments in Constantinople and Vienna could have survived in the face of, for example, the two major threats to organized government anywhere these days: widespread, unstemmable communications and a universal flood of cheap but deadly weapons. I think I first grasped this in 1987 when I arrived in Beirut and was told that AK-47s were for sale in the market for $50.

So, it might be nice to think that things in the world would proceed in a more orderly fashion if only there were still a sultan in charge of a big piece of the world in (now) Istanbul, an emperor in charge of another big piece in Vienna and a czar in charge in Moscow. (Actually, that may still be the case in Moscow.) The murder of Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist and the chaos that followed is ample evidence that that era was already finished.

A more modern version of the “empire” desire for order exists in the form of those who mourn for the end of the Cold War, with the West and the East each keeping order in its realm. Since we are considering empires, remember that they come and go: Alexander’s Greece, Rome, Napoleon’s France, Austro-Hungary, the Ottomans, Nazi German Europe, Japan’s Greater Southeast Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, the Soviet Union — and then there’s the United States. Is what we are doing now a doomed attempt to hold onto a position beyond our span, past its time?

The third picture evoked for me by the Sarajevo imagery June 28 was the current state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is still in significant disorder and absent economic development due to ancient hatreds, based on religion, and to well-intentioned American meddling. It suffered a savage, three-sided civil war from 1992 to 1995, pitting the Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs against each other, killing an estimated 100,000 civilians and combatants. American diplomats, led by the late Richard Holbrooke, negotiated an end to the war in the Dayton Accords of 1995. It ended the war but left Bosnia-Herzegovina with a form of government that has turned out to be non-functional.

In effect, it made virtually every Serb, Croat and Muslim politician in Bosnia-Herzegovina an official with the power to block action and, worse, to live off the system. British writer Daniel Hannan, in his book “Inventing Freedom,” described well what Mr. Holbrooke enabled the Bosnians-Herzegovinians to do: “Kings and nobles did what rulers in every age and nation do: They used coercive force to rig the rules in favor of themselves and their descendants.”

The trouble in Bosnia-Herzegovina is, not unlike the situation in the United States, that the rich and powerful get richer and more powerful and the ordinary people get or stay poor.

What Bosnia-Herzegovina needs now is a second Dayton conference. At the table should be the patrons of the three religious/​ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and, to a degree, Turkey to encourage their proteges to be reasonable, threatening to cut off their funding if they are not.

The most difficult group is the Serbs, who have their piece of Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Republika Srpska, the Serbian Republic. Serbia wants to join the European Union. That august body could tell Belgrade that it will never get its foot into Brussels unless it brings its little friends into line.

Croatia is a new member of the EU, still reaping the financial benefits of that status. The rest of the EU, starting with Germany, a longtime friend of Croatia, should tell it that it won’t get squat from the EU unless it brings the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Croats into line.

Turkey and the other Muslim Gulf states can godfather the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Muslims.

If someone doesn’t make peace among these people, modernizing the Dayton arrangement, the country will remain an irredeemable slum in Europe. It deserves far better than that.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).


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