Lessons From Bosnia
Editor's Column
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
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The arrest of Radovan Karadzic, who bears a significant portion of
responsibility for the horrors of the civil war in Bosnia, is an
appropriate ending to his political career. There are no grounds to
portray the former president of Bosnian Serb republic as a victim
of circumstances; he is getting what he deserves. But the event
itself leads to painful reflections about what has happened up to
now in the global arena.

Carl Bildt wrote in «Peace Journey: The Struggle for Peace in
Bosnia,» published in 1997, about his own participation in the
Bosnian settlement and his opposition to dividing up Bosnia along
ethnic lines. Bildt claimed that the politics of ethnic division in
Bosnia would have immediately had consequences for the region and
Europe as a whole, namely attempts at new partitions and ethnic
cleansings. The author explained that blood began to pour forth in
the Balkans when the poison of nationalism with its demands for
divisions and ethnic cleansing penetrated into a locality that was
inherently a cultural mosaic.

Several years later, these lessons were either forgotten or
consciously ignored. In the case of Kosovo, leading Western powers
decided to be governed by a reverse logic: that joint cohabitation
of Serbs and Albanians makes no sense. It’s simpler to fulfill
Kosovars’ aspirations for self-determination, even if it
contravenes existing law.

The great global powers officially acknowledged their inability
to create a «civil» nation based on the rule of law and tolerance.
Instead, the primitive principles of blood ties, raw power and the
suppression of one group and support of another predominated.

During the nightmare of the Bosnian war at the end of the 20th
century, Europe helplessly watched as medieval barbarity raged in
its own backyard. It also demonstrated the inability of the
European Union and NATO to undertake coordinated actions and rise
to new challenges. Bildt wrote about this very issue, and he called
on the Europeans to develop a single foreign policy and security
policy. He also appealed to NATO to transform itself into a
politically flexible organization.

But things turned out differently. The EU did not move toward
political consolidation. On the contrary, now almost any serious
international decision leads to a split among member countries.
NATO learned a moral lesson from the Bosnian tragedy, but this did
not help the organization become more effective. Instead, NATO
simply relied on its military power, which was demonstrated in the
Yugoslav bombing campaign of 1999.

The fear of a new wave of slaughter in Europe pushed the West
toward the illegal use of force. And one illegal action led to
others. If humanitarian motives were present in the case of
Yugoslavia, the Iraq campaign from the outset was built on lies and
manipulations. As a result, liberal interventionism became morally
bankrupt. The borderline between the use of force for good and for
selfish interests turned out to be very fine. It has been a long
time since the lofty concepts of freedom and democracy were abused
and twisted in such a cynical way.

During the Bosnian war, European and U.S. politicians were
justifiably criticized for their inability to halt the
bloodletting. But to be fair, the intense diplomatic efforts did
not stop for a single day, and the leading powers made every
attempt to put a stop to the military actions and find a political

In comparison with that period, today’s politicians seem lazy,
disinterested and arrogant. For example, not one of the outside
powers that were active in the prolonged talks on the status of
Kosovo demonstrated any creative approach, nor an honest attempt to
find a solution.

In addition, the United Nations war crimes tribunal was
established during the Bosnian war to punish officials for their
role in carrying out the most serious war crimes. Fifteen years
later, the high-minded idea of «supranational» retribution for
atrocities has been tarnished. The tribunal did not succeed in
punishing the main guilty parties (if we don’t consider the death
of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in his cell as a
judicial verdict), but the trial of low- and mid-level Serbian
participants in the conflict smacks of political bias against the
Serbs. This bias undermined the faith in the very principle of
supranational justice.

The 1990s brought a surge of hopes, new ideas and notions about
a more just world order. These attempts were not successful — or
you could even argue they led to the opposite result. Today’s
egoism in international affairs is in many ways the consequence of
false expectations of the recent past.

Karadzic must undoubtedly answer for his actions. But what about
the other guilty parties, including those who today are convinced
of their right to judge others?

| The Moscow