A Nascent Democracy? U.S. Must Help It Along

Charles A. Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, was on the staff of the National Security Council for the first year of the Clinton administration.

Serbs are finally rising up against President Slobodan Milosevic, the man who turned Serbia into a pariah state as he orchestrated Bosnia's vivisection. The scale and duration of demonstrations in Belgrade and other towns make clear that discontent runs deep. Regardless of whether these protests are able to weaken Milosevic's tight grip on power, they reveal that political change is afoot in the Balkans.

Political stirrings in Serbia, as well as in neighboring Bosnia and Croatia, suggest it is time for a subtle but meaningful shift in U.S. policy. The Clinton administration has thus far been right to cultivate working relationships with Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. They remain regional power brokers and could scuttle the Dayton peace plan if they so choose. And President Bill Clinton has been justified in restricting the mission of U.S. troops in Bosnia to keeping the Serbs and Muslims apart, avoiding the more onerous task of rebuilding a multiethnic state. However unsavory, coddling the architects of ethnic cleansing and effectively enforcing ethnic partition were needed to halt the bloodshed.

Now that political change in the Balkans is occurring of its own accord, however, U.S. policy must change as well. Milosevic and Tudjman are likely to be around for a while, and the United States needs their cooperation. But the Clinton administration can do more to support democratic forces throughout the region, to apprehend indicted war criminals who still swagger about as free citizens and to help rebuild ties among Bosnia's estranged communities. Otherwise, hopes for an intact Bosnian state will fade and the Balkans will again descend into war as soon as North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops head home.

At the heart of the Dayton accord that brought peace to Bosnia is a troubling contradiction. To implement the accord, NATO troops have been separating Bosnia's Muslims and Serbs to guard against hostilities. While NATO troops enforce partition, however, Bosnia is to cohere as an intact, multiethnic state.

U.S. negotiators had no choice but to settle for this arrangement. The Muslims would not accept formal partition of Bosnia. But the Serbs, with help from the Croats, had already effectively partitioned the state along ethnic lines and were not about to cede control over their land to a unitary Bosnian government.

Democratic elections, the return of refugees, the rebuilding of infrastructure and economic development were, at least in theory, to bring a unified Bosnia back to life. But civilian reconstruction has been slow and difficult. And it is hampered by peacekeeping troops who are still assigned to keep the parties apart.

Restricting the mission of NATO forces to separating Bosnia's polarized communities was, at least at the outset, wise. As America's experience in Vietnam and Russia's in Afghanistan made clear, the intervention of outside military forces is a poor instrument for shaping a country's political landscape. Outside intervention can set the stage for new internal politics. But if political change is to be lasting, it must come from within.

This is why the political unrest in Serbia is so important. It indicates that indigenous political forces are gradually undermining the power of even the most shrewd and opportunistic of the region's strongmen. Because change is coming from inside Serbia, the United States and its allies have an opportunity to help strengthen democratic currents and reinforce the moderating trends that are the Balkan's only hope for a lasting peace.

Serbians are not alone in their desire to move ahead. Tudjman is facing increasing opposition in Croatia. Strikes have brought the country's railway system to a virtual halt. The president of the Bosnian Serbs, Biljana Plavsic, although a hard-liner, has distanced her government from Milosevic and dismissed Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, an outspoken extremist indicted for war crimes. And Bosnian Muslims have taken steps to neutralize their own extremists.

These positive developments are tentative and fragile. The U.S. cannot afford to jettison its awkward alliances with Milosevic and Tudjman. But Washington can take several steps to encourage political change and hamper those seeking to snuff out fledgling democratic forces.

The Clinton administration should step up condemnation of both Milosevic's decision to annul the recent municipal elections, which shifted power toward the opposition, and his effort to silence the protesters and journalists speaking out against his regime. Washington should also increase foreign broadcasts into Serbia, both to bolster the opposition and to ensure that Serbs have access to media not controlled by the government. The last time Milosevic succeeded in monopolizing the flow of information in his country, Serbia turned into an aggressor state fueled by virulent nationalism.

The United States should also join with its European partners to quicken the pace and broaden the scope of civilian reconstruction. Basic infrastructure is still in short supply. Efforts to promote economic development are just starting. Particularly important is the establishment of joint ventures that cut across ethnic boundaries. If Bosnia is to survive as a multiethnic state, both literal and figurative bridges must be built between its communities. And a middle class with vested interests in political and economic normalization must take root.

Finally, NATO forces in Bosnia must be assigned a new mission that focuses less on keeping the parties to the conflict apart and more on bringing them together. They must play a greater role in protecting refugees who are returning home and reclaiming their houses. They must also assure freedom of movement, providing protection for those brave enough to cross ethnic boundaries to seek the repair of intercommunal ties.

And NATO troops must go after the indicted war criminals still prospering in the midst of the destruction they wrought. If the forces of democracy and moderation are to overcome the darker impulses that still hold sway in the Balkans, those responsible for propagating hatred and carrying out the worst atrocities must be held accountable.

These tasks will confront U.S. forces with heavier burdens and greater dangers. But simply maintaining the status quo and clinging to an uneasy peace is not enough. No amount of outside cajoling or coercion can force Muslims, Serbs and Croats to live together in peace. Now that the parties themselves are beginning to discover a new way forward, however, the U.S. and its partners in Bosnia need to help strengthen these winds of change.

The Clinton administration will have to pursue a cautious and balanced policy, looking to back democratic elements without alienating the current leaders whose cooperation is still needed to keep the Dayton accord alive. But unless the United States gets behind the still weak forces of change in the Balkans, hope of a lasting peace will wither and the noble efforts of U.S. troops serving in Bosnia will have been expended in vain.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°