Over the last 10 days, Bosnia has experienced its most violent social unrest in nearly 20 years. Demonstrators in a half-dozen cities burned government buildings, battled police and assailed the country’s political elite.

“This is the most dramatic – and in some ways the most important – protests that have happened since the end of the war,” said Larisa Kurtovic, an expert on postwar Bosnia and professor at DePaul University. “It’s full of risk, lots of risk, but also possibility.”

She hopes the violence shows that Bosnian citizens have finally turned against the corrupt political parties that have ruled the country since a brutal 1993-1995 war killed 100,000 people. More broadly, it has re-ignited a debate about whether activism by the international community is the solution in Bosnia – or the problem.

As the international community wrestles with how – and whether – to act in Syria, the Central African Republic, the Ukraine and other conflicts, Bosnia offers long-term lessons.

Paddy Ashdown, a British politician who has long championed aggressive international action in Bosnia, called this week for immediate European and American action. Ashdown fired scores of local politicians when he served as the top international official in Bosnia from 2002 to 2006.

“The international community has to act now,” Ashdown said in a CNN interview Wednesday. “If they don’t act now, I greatly fear that a situation where secessionism will take hold could easily become unstoppable.”


But Alida Vracic, a 35-year-old Bosnian who is the founder and president of the Populari think tank in Sarajevo, said Ashdown-style international activism is the problem in Bosnia. She and a younger generation of Bosnians argue that a large international role allowed local people and politicians to escape accountability.

“Paddy Ashdown acted as the ultimate boss, sacking politicians from the office, 80 in a day, and not using domestic institutions that international community has set up in the first place,” she said in an email. “If they decreased their decision making at the time, maybe, just maybe Bosnian politicians would finally start making hard choices and compromises themselves.”

Older Bosnians who lived through the war agreed. But they cautioned that there are moments when extremists must be confronted with the threat of outside military force. They argued that only international pressure will stop long-running efforts by Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and Bosnian Croat nationalists to block the emergence of a unified Bosnian state.

“I think they should send some troops back to Bosnia,” said an older Bosnian who asked not to be named. “Just to send a message. ‘We are still here. We are watching.’ This is a message to people like Dodik.”

The debate reflects the sea change that has occurred in the international presence in Bosnia over the last decade. After President George W. Bush pulled American peacekeepers out of Bosnia in 2003 and Ashdown’s tenure ended in 2006, the European Union – led by Germany and France – radically scaled back the international effort in Bosnia.

A hands-off EU approach reduced the number if international peacekeepers to fewer than 1,000. Ashdown and other said the new approach allowed nationalist parties and corruption to flourish. EU officials say the smaller international presence has finally forced Bosnians to hold their own leaders responsible for the country’s anemic economy, endemic corruption and deadlocked reform efforts.


After the war ended, nationalist political parties – Muslim, Serb and Croat alike – gained sweeping control of state-run companies, government jobs and the issuing of lucrative state contracts. The result was the formation of political parties that functioned as Mafia-like economic syndicates controlling companies, cash and jobs. Whatever a voter’s feelings about nationalism, it went against their interests to vote against the party that gave them a livelihood.

Kurtovic, the DePaul professor, said she hoped the country’s government officials would realize that citizens are now demanding reform.

“What needs to change is the fundamental understanding among the political elites,” she said. “That the government is supposed to serve the citizens, that the citizens are not there to be milked for their taxes.”

Ashdown argued that waiting in Bosnia was not an option. The danger of nationalists manipulating the protests – whatever demonstrators’ original intention – and re-igniting interethnic conflict was too great.

“At the moment its citizens are complaining about poverty and lack of movement and dysfunctionality of the state and corruptions amongst politicians,” he said in the CNN interview. But he said events “could move to something far worse very quickly.”

Vracic, the younger Bosnian, argued for less international action. “The international community should have left Bosnia ages ago,” she said, “and remained present in small doses, with smart, sophisticated policies.”

Striking the right balance between prudent international action and local accountability in the world’s fraught corners, of course, is maddeningly difficult, according to experts. In an increasingly interconnected world where conflict quickly reverberates across borders and economies, policymakers will wrestle with how to be present in “small doses” in “smart, sophisticated” ways for decades to come.

Maine native David Rohde is a columnist for Reuters and a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for reporting in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

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