My interview with Bosnia’s Dnevni Avaz

Just after my return from Ireland two weeks ago, the largest daily newspaper in Bosnia-Herezegovina, Sarajevo-based Dnevni Avaz, got in contact for a feature interview in their weekend supplement. The resultant feature, entitled “Bosnia is Not a Failed State” was published on Saturday the 19th, with the online web version available here.


Below is an approximate English language version of the interview that begins four paragraphs in:

– I come from the border region of Ireland and grew up as the conflict in Northern Ireland was raging. When I went to university I ended up specializing in the study of geopolitics and conflict regions. In 1981 a friend and I took a bus (‘Magic Bus’) from London to Athens.

On that long ride you passed through Yugoslavia?

That was the first time I ever saw Yugoslavia, Bosnia and the famous city of Sarajevo, which everyone in History classes learns about. When the war broke out, I was teaching at Virginia Tech in the United States and like many people was horrified by the war and its consequences. The international community failed Bosnia for three long years: Mitterrand, Major, Bush and then Clinton. I followed US policy closely and disagreed with Clinton’s deferral to the French and British profoundly. I found UNPROFOR’s mandate, being neutral in a country where war crimes and genocide was unfolding, patently absurd. An entire chapter in my first book, Critical Geopolitics considers the United States debate over intervention in Bosnia. Eventually, as you know, Anthony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Adviser, tried to force the war into an ‘endgame’ but the policy of creating a ‘more coherent map’ had horrific consequences at Srebrenica. Personally I think the US should publicly apologize for its policy in the run up to this. (NOTE: I publicly raised this issue at the 15th anniversary Srebrenica event at the US Holocaust Museum, 10 July 2010 in a question to Antony Blinken). After all, the Dutch and UN have investigated their failures.

I visited Bosnia after the war in September 1999 and again in 2000. I spent the last month of the old millennium writing a research grant to study the return process in BiH. With an American colleague, Dr Carl Dahlman, I started researching. Initial funding was provided by the US National Science Foundation, a scholarly research support institution. This research led to a series of articles and eventually a book Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and its Reversal that was published by Oxford University Press in 2011.

What do you write about in the book?

The book has 463 pages. Its pretty thick! Basically, it looks at two major efforts to ‘re-make’ Bosnia. The first was by those who wanted to destroy and partition it through ethnic cleansing and violence. This was the aggressive ethnic and spatial engineering policies of the RS/VRS and later the HB/HVO in western Herzegovina and Central Bosnia. The second was the promise expressed in Annex VII of the General Framework Agreement at Dayton that: “All refugees and displaced persons have the right freely to return to their homes of origin. They shall have the right to have restored to them property of which they were deprived in the course of hostilities since 1991 and to be compensated for any property that cannot be restored to them.” The research sought to investigate whether it would be possible for people to return to their home regions after ethnic cleansing.

Was is it you found? Can ethnic cleansing really be reversed?

The book is a comprehensive account of both attempts to remake Bosnia, to destroy and to reconstruct, to cleanse and repair. It tells the story of what happened between 1990 and 2003 in three Bosnian towns: Doboj, Jajce and Zvornik.

And what was your conclusion?

It is easier to destroy than to rebuild, to poison than to heal. The international community put in place a return process to implement Annex VII that had many admirable features. It also had considerable successes, with a nominal one million returns in September 2004 (the book is skeptical of this figure; actual returns, especially minority returns have been a lot less). It made the lives of thousands of people better, and got them out of horrible living conditions. A modicum of justice was done in allowing people to reclaim the property that was stolen from them because of the war. Few would have predicted this. Yet, it cannot be denied that ethnic cleansing has largely succeeded in creating mostly ethnically homogeneous communities in many parts of Bosnia. Post-war returns never changed the demographic consequences of war except in a few rural opstina.

You spent a long time researching. Were there any things that surprised you?

 The viciousness of the war, and the horrors it produced, took my breadth away on many occasions. Once we drove up a back mountain road off the main road from Tuzla to Zvornik at Crni Vrh and came across the remains of a mass grave. I have no words to describe the horror I felt.

The extent of the policy of land allocations in Zvornik, north of the town at Economija and beyond, and western Herzegovina, the so-called ‘Bobanvilles’ also surprised me. The attempt to remake Bosnia through ethnic cleansing was incredibly radical, an attack on the whole country as it really existed in order to make it conform to fantasies of clean homogeneous territories.

How do you see situation in Bosnia today? Is it a failed state, a state caught in the past without a future? 

Well, lets put the whole ‘Bosnia-as-a-failed-state’ discussion in some perspective!

Here in Washington DC we’ve had three weeks of a government shutdown. A small faction of one party in one branch of the parliament (Congress) is holding the whole country to ransom, trying to force upon it policies that the have been rejected by the majority of Americans at the ballot box. This country has run a budget deficit for all but five years of the period since World War II.

All states have unsettled historical legacies, structural governance challenges, and serious questions about their economic sustainability. In some instances, such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, these problems are profound and exacerbated by the perpetuation of divisions within the political class. Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a failed state. But its Dayton governance structure, incorporating imperfect Washington Agreement structures, has hobbled it with a system that only benefits politicians!

Some positive reforms have occurred but obviously much more needs to be done to create a state that serves citizens not major political parties and factional interests. Dayton burdened Bosnia with a cumbersome constitutional structure and an antagonistic ethnoterritorialism that makes ‘normal politics’ very difficult. Bosnia needs comprehensive constitutional reform to make it “EU ready.” This is not a matter of fixing Sejdic-Finci. Indeed, it can be argued, as ESI have recently, that this issue is a distraction. Rather, it is a matter of creating democratic accountability and consociational procedures that enable efficient modern governance and ‘normal politics.’ This is the only way forward for Bosnia. There is no other alternative.

You have written a long study of Milorad Dodik and his use of the rhetoric of a ‘referendum’. What was the conclusion of this study?

 Yes, this study is a long one, and was published in an academic journal and also in Bosnian (Toal_DodikRSRef_DemocracySecurity). From an academic point of view, Dodik is a fascinating politician, perhaps one of the most skillful Bosnia has ever produced. Being a skillful politician, of course, one who learns what it takes to remain in power, does not mean being a virtuous one! Underline that! Dodik comes of age as Bosnia holds its first democratic elections in 1990. He is a member of the Alliance of Reform Forces, then sides with Karadzic and holds a somewhat outside position in the RS during the war. He nevertheless makes a lot of money during this time, presents himself as a moderate alternative to the SDS in the post-war period, and acquires power only to lose it and be on the outside again. This is when I first met him, early in Ashdown’s tenure, in Laktasi. His deputy Donald Hayes, who led the initial push for the April Package, described Dodik as a constructive partner in this process.

When this fails, well, he changes tack and your readers know the rest of the story. He uses the ‘referendum scenario,’ and associated bravado, quite astutely to portray himself as the RS’s number one protector and defeat the SDS. Making oneself the number one defender of the RS has considerable rhetorical benefits: any attack on Dodik’s personal financial dealings can be portrayed as an attack on the very entity itself.

But I conclude the article by arguing that Dodik is ‘more than a demagogue’ or self-dealing rogue. The central rhetorical conceit of the RS referendum is that this is merely “a democratic reply to non-democratic pressures.” This is actually a phrase that Karadzic uses back in 1991 to justify the SDS organized referendum in November of that year. There is, in other words, continuity in the rhetorical formulas underpinning RS separatism. Dodik is singing a tune first written by Karadzic.

In some of your presentations you have compared the conflicts in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. Why? What are the lessons to be learned there? 

Well I am from Ulster, the northern part of Ireland, and I get asked this all the time. Bosnia arguably displaced Northern Ireland as the European signifier for intractable sectarian conflict and hate. But the first point I make is that the Troubles and the Bosnian War are incomparable events. The Northern Irish conflict claimed over three and a half thousand lives in a low intensity struggle that went on for decades. A few thousand were displaced at the very most. Certainly there were horrible events that occurred during this conflict, especially on Bloody Sunday.

But Bosnia is in a completely different league: more than 2 million displaced persons and almost 100,000 dead in a vicious sponsored attack and subsequent civil war over three years. I was at a conference recently in Derry (or as Ulster Unionists call it Londonderry) that was organized around a comparison of that town and Mostar. Both are about the same size and have pronounced sectarian divides. They also have famous pedestrian ‘peace bridges,’ though I suspect most of your readers will not have heard of Derry’s peace bridge which was opened for the first time in 2011. Its actually quite attractive but, again, the Stari Most is in a completely different league. You can argue that both bridges are more for outsiders than insiders, mere global signs, and that deep divisions underpinned by high unemployment rates remain. Haris Pasovic’s The Conquest of Happiness was performed in both places recently. We saw a few clips of Obrana i Zastita by Bobo Jelcic at the conference. I’m keen to see this film because I think the everyday psychological costs of division within formerly connected Bosnian places needs to be rendered visible and debated.

Does the Northern Ireland peace process have lessons for Bosnia?

Well Hillary Clinton, Paddy Ashdown and lots of other internationals believe so. Ashdown grew up in Northern Ireland and served as a British soldier on the streets of Belfast in 1969 when the army was first deployed there to protect Catholic families from being attacked by ‘loyalist’ mobs. When he was in Bosnia he suggested that Bosnia’s peace process was actually superior to Northern Ireland because people could get their property back and go back to their homes, something that wasn’t possible in Northern Ireland. Well, that was a bit of creative spin on his part!

The peace process in Northern Ireland was long and involved. It required heavy involvement by outside powers – the White House, the British and Irish governments working together – and some courageous steps beyond old attitudes on the part of key political leaders. It took a long time, and there were many delicate and fragile moments. Northern Ireland to this day is still not fully at peace, and the conflict is in a long pause rather than truly over. But the place has been transformed by the optimism this has brought, and the serious financial resources provided by the British government and international funds. It is nothing like it used be. After a while a ‘long pause’ begins to become positive peace for ‘we are all dead in the long run.’

Bosnia’s day for a ‘historic settlement’ will come. The international community should be laying the groundwork for this day through, for example, a Bosnian version of the Washington Ireland Program. This is a six-month program of personal and professional development that brings outstanding university students from both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to Washington, DC for summer work plNacements and leadership training. The program begins and ends with practical service in Northern Ireland and Ireland. Taking young people out of their immediate context and placing them together in a new country is one way in which they can learn the smallness of their divides in the grand scheme of things. All have more in common with each other than they do with their hosts in Washington DC. Getting them to see that is part of the value of progams like this.

You have also written on Karadzic?

Yes, I have an essay on him coming out next year, {in Ethnopolitics} one co-authored with a talented Bosnian researcher who was in Sarajevo through the war Adis Maksic. It’s actually a study of Karadzic’s rhetorical strategy in the 1990 elections as first SDS emerged and sought to “teach Serbs to be Serbs” as he put it to Aleksandar Tijanić in an interview with Oslobodjenje, 2 October 1990. It was a very interesting paper to research. Karadzic was quite disciplined in avoiding any ‘Islamic Bosnia threat’ storyline during the elections, even though some people around him, and organs like Politika was spreading this garbage. The threat discourse was all about the ‘Ustaša knife’ and ‘pits.’ Tudjman’s chauvinism helped the SDS message in BiH a great deal and, as you know, the SDS, SDA, and HDZ cooperated to further their common aim of defeating the ex-Communist and anyone not wearing ethnic glasses.


Is the EU falling apart? Does the EU have a future as it is now? Or has it to be smaller or bigger? 

No, the EU is not falling apart. One wit once said that the EU is like a bicycle; it has to keep moving forward or it will fall apart. Well, it has a flat at the moment but it will be fixed eventually and start moving again. And its coming Bosnia’s way!

How do you see process of inclusion of Muslims in the EU? 

Look, the EU is not the Holy Roman Empire. It’s a multiconfessional space, and also a post-confessional space. Far right politicians are always invested in grand civilizational and culture war scenarios. They want to gin up more conflict, to divide people and play on their fears. Some right wing Muslims, of course, take this seriously and want to play the same game. Fundamentalists on opposing sides become allies in trying to polarize people around their obsessions and preoccupations. Bosnia has lots of experience with this, and the new Bosnia-Herzegovina that will emerge in twenty to thirty years time will have significant contributions to make to the European Union project from within by drawing upon its own rich history. That project is about one thing: how we accommodate our differences to live a common life together.

One hundred years from the start of World War I – have we learned anything?

Wars are complex and we should not assume we can find a magical formula to end them. I and not an expert on World War I but I have visited many of the regions scarred by war in the wake of the collapse of Communism: Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorny Karabakh, Transnistria. Each has unique features.

Contemporary neuroscience is provoking us to think anew about how the human brain’s capacity for generating self-serving ‘convenient truths’ (‘wishful thinking’) predisposes us to in-group/out-group thinking, failures of empathy, and hubris. We also know that unresolved traumas have a way of coming back to haunt the lives of peoples. The Second World War was utterly brutal in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Tito’s Yugoslavia failed to deal with this adequately. Contemporary Bosnia faces the challenge of dealing honestly with its recent horrors. It will take a long, long time to do this. Foreigners like myself cannot do this well: it is up to Bosnians. Every town in Bosnia should strive to have as objective an account of its wartime experience as possible, not only for themselves but for those to come. Future generations need not only facts but positive conversational capacities, healthy intellectual and emotional habits, to deal with the horrors of the past honestly.

However it may sound, these are the foundations necessary to leave ghosts of the past behind so future generations can positively remake Bosnia using an empathetic not fearful imagination.


Thanks to Dnevni Avaz for allowing me to share my views with its readers.

About Dr Gerard Toal

Irish born academic living in Washington DC researching geopolitical competition and territorial conflicts in post-Communist Europe. Author of CRITICAL GEOPOLITICS (1996), BOSNIA REMADE (w C Dahlman) and NEAR ABROAD: PUTIN, THE WEST AND THE CONTEST OVER UKRAINE AND THE CAUCASUS (Oxford University Press, 2017).
This entry was posted in Current affairs, films, genocide, nationalism, Northern Ireland, Political Borders, Political Geography, Radovan Karadzic, restitution, war crimes, Washington D.C., World political map and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s