The second in our series of practitioner interviews was with the very in-demand Florian Bieber, a specialist in inter-ethnic relations, ethnic conflict and nationalism, focusing on Southeastern Europe. His work includes expert advice on minorities and minority rights for the European Commission, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe as well as providing advice to governments and international organizations on the Balkans. He is a Professor in South East European Studies and director of the Center for South East European Studies at the University of Graz, a Visiting Professor at the Nationalism Studies Program at Central European University. He was the editor in chief of Nationalities Papers between 2009 and 2013 and is the associate editor of Southeastern Europe. Between 2001 and 2006, he worked in Belgrade (Serbia) and Sarajevo (Bosnia-Herzegovina) for the European Centre for Minority Issues, and taught at the Regional Masters Program for Democracy and Human Rights, University of Sarajevo and the Interdisciplinary Master in East European Studies, University of Bologna. He has been an International Policy Fellow of the Open Society Institute and taught at the Balkan Studies Program of the IDM.
TiP: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for us! In the 1990s, so many of the conflicts globally were categorized as ‘ethnic’ conflicts. The disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and the conflicts that accompanied it are case in point. Something of an ‘ethnic conflict resolution’ model emerged and was applied in varying forms, often with specific rights for ethnic minorities, specific protections for language and culture, reserved seats in elected assemblies, etc. Do you think that this ‘model’ of conflict resolution and provisions there-in somehow over-simplified the nature of these conflicts? FB: The model indeed focused not just on minority rights, but also on giving different communities or rather their political representatives a stake in the government and the public administration. This has meant that Bosnia, and to a lesser degree Macedonia and Kosovo are governed by power-sharing arrangements. These settlements have been able to ensure peace, in combination with varying degrees of international presence and continued engagement of outside actors, in recent years mostly the EU. However, there has been little effort at the grassroots level to bring communities together again and inter-ethnic cooperation emerged, when it did, often in spite of the formal institutional settlements.
The power-sharing arrangements have empowered elites that promote ethnic identity and have given little space for those political forces that offer different programs, focusing cooperation based on socio-economic issues. In this sense, I believe that the settlements were adequate for resolving the conflicts, but provided few incentives to move beyond these disputes. In particular, ethnic segregation has become normal and new generations grow up with little knowledge and contact with members of other ethnic groups. Thus, protection of group identity often trumps contact and cross-community cooperation. The main challenge arises from the fact that tensions do not arise from difference between ethnic groups as such, but from competing political claims and demands. These are sometimes artificial maintained by political parties to secure electoral support.
TiP: The recent protests in Bosnia, and to a limited extent in Kosovo, demonstrate that there are a number of ‘left-over’ issues from the (post)-conflict era that have not been addressed. In your experience, and opinion, do you think that this is due to the fact that conflict resolution processes tended to primarily address ethnicity issues to the detriment of other, less obvious conflict drivers, or because, as a result of the conflict being categorized as ‘ethnic’ it is those issues which have ‘coloured’ domestic politics and have allowed politicians to side-line less ‘sexy’ topics such as economic development and social security?
FB: The protests in Bosnia and broader problems, such as inefficient public administrations and the dominance of the state by political parties highlight the fact that interethnic accommodation through peace agreements does not address some key issues. In fact, they peace agreements provide a pretext for parties to ignore these issues or to abuse their role of representing a particular group to take control of part of a state administration. None of the peace agreement dealt with economic development or education, key issues in any society. Political parties often play the ethnic card to trump economic and social issues and thus societies often feel “stuck”. This is not to say that addressing poverty or socio-economic development would resolve competing political claims based on ethnicity, but the latter often tend to trump the former. One might argue that the societies are unable to move beyond the ethnic matrix to confront other social problems that are today the most pressing ones. It might be wrong to blame the peace settlements for this failure, as they did not address socio-economic issues at their core and could not, but rather that there was no process to transition the post-war agreements into a long term settlement that would address these issues.
TiP: As a follow-up to this question, does ethnic conflict resolution result in a policy making process that is ethnicity-centered? If so, what do you feel are the positive and negative repercussions of such a practice?
FB: The peace agreements of course have the central weakness that they accept the logic of those waging the wars that the main problem is ethnicity and offer a solution to this ‘problem’. At the same time, the settlements were negotiated, not imposed and thus had to work with the power-structures in place. In this way, they legitimized them and gave them a formal structure. There is no easy answer to this dilemma, but in addition to thinking long-term, as I suggested earlier, a settlement needs to figure in economic development and ways to reintegrate a community beyond ethnicity. In this way, the peace agreements sought to a limited degree to undo some of the aspects of ethnic cleansing, but failed to provide for a ways in which communities could reconnect in the future in new ways.
TiP: So, with hind sight, did we, as conflict resolution professionals, get it wrong in Bosnia? Was it the conflict resolution model and the policy making trends through an ‘ethnic’ lens that followed that caused Bosnia to end up in a political stale-mate with an emerging socio-economic crisis?
FB: With the benefit of hindsight, there a number of lessons to be learnt from Bosnia. First, it was a mistake to include the future permanent arrangement of the state in the peace-plan. Dayton included the constitution for Bosnia and certainly it should have been an interim constitution pending a new constitution with a clear time line and mechanism of getting there. Furthermore, elections were held too soon after the war, empowering the parties to the conflict. Finally, the period of a quasi-protectorate began only two years after the war’s end and failed to draw on many citizens who had been alienated and excluded by the ethnonationalist parties. While international intervention could not have undone the consequences of the war entirely, more could have been done by claiming some authority in the field of education, for example. Here ethnically segregated systems perpetuate the divisions created in the war and new generations are brought up with ethnically exclusive narratives.
TiP: If we could go back 20 years, what do you think could have been done differently to allow Bosnia to resolve its conflict and help politicians to move beyond the need to ‘live in 1992’?
FB: The main problem of the international community was to watch three and half years of war in Bosnia before negotiating its end. After this time, it was much harder to put together the country than it was before the mass killings and ethnic cleansing. The war was a self-fulfilling prophesy, while Bosnian citizens could live together in 1992, it became hard in 1995 due to the death of 100,000 people, the massive ethnic cleansing and destruction of property throughout the country. Earlier, more decisive intervention could have made the task considerably easier. For me, the main lesson from Bosnia is that external intervention needs to be decisive and early in such conflicts. Without it the cost of reconstruction, and not just in the sense of physical reconstruction, becomes much greater. At the beginning of the war, ethnic divisions were by far less significant than at the end of the conflict. When citizens voted in 1990, they voted mostly for ethnic parties, but they did not vote for war and ethnic conflict. This conflict was imposed on them, but as time wore on, it also imposed its logic on the citizens. Today, the consequences are still to be felt. As a result, the biggest failure of the Dayton peace accords is its timing, rather than the content.