Almost 20 years on from the Western missile strikes that ended the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital is back in the news. Large crowds – enraged by high unemployment, corruption and the endless debilitating quarrels between the three main communities of Serbs, Croats and Muslims attacked government buildings at the weekend. They even burnt down part of the presidential palace.
The Bosnian authorities appear surprised. Apart from devoting themselves to their routine ethnic feuds, they had been busy planning various grand events to mark the 100th anniversary this June of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand – the event that touched off the First World War.
In one sense, the riots are almost welcome. For years, Bosnia’s dreadful political élites have acted as if the economy were irrelevant; all that mattered was dogged pursuit of the interests of one of the three main communities. Moreover, in Bosnia, anything that might conceivably benefit the Serbs is invariably seen as a deadly blow to “the Muslim interest” – and vice versa. Throw in the Bosnian Croats, pursuing a third agenda, and one can see why almost every proposed economic or political reform runs into quicksand.
The country has paid a high price for almost two decades of stasis. Unemployment is close to 45 per cent, and almost the only jobs worth having are in the civil service, which is hard to enter without ethnic-political connections. The population has fallen drastically, from 4.5 million to 3.8 million in the last census. As most of those leaving are young, the exodus is exacerbating Bosnia’s economic woes.
Yet the West has been generous both in time and money. Bosnia has received huge amounts of aid and, politically, the country has been almost micro-managed from Brussels and Washington. None of it has helped. Indeed, Bosnia is a test case of how Western-sponsored “state-building” seems condemned to go wrong. If the demonstrators help to wean Bosnia off its culture of fatalism and dependency, they will have done some good. Bosnia’s politicians need a wake-up call. If not, we could be looking at a failed state in the Balkans.