UCLA Students Interview Bosnian Prime Minister on His Plans for Nation-Building

UCLA Students Interview Bosnian Prime Minister on His Plans for Nation-Building

Two UCLA students in Sarajevo to explore similarities in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq discuss the country's future with Prime Minister Adnan Terzic.

[The following article comes from two UCLA students doing research in Bosnia-Herzegovina. While there they are working for the Office of the High Representative, the international civilian authority implementing the peace agreements signed in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 ending the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Their trip has been partially funded by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.]

By Jonathan Dotan and Alicia Stevenson

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- May 28. About 13 days before the war on Iraq started, I remember walking briskly down the halls of the UCLA Law School to catch up with renowned Stanford Professor Stephen Krasner to ask for his take on the future reconstruction of Iraq.

Krasner, who had been leveled by anti-war students at a Burkle Center lecture about an hour before, was rather short with me. And like everyone else at the time he had little idea of what the war in Iraq would bring, never mind the reconstruction of the country. But I pressed him to provide some kind of model: What about Bosnia, what lessons can we take from there? "Listen," he said, "Bosnia was supposed to work. It was a first world country before the war. Its reconstruction should have been easy. It has been eight years since the end of their war and very little has changed."

From Krasner to the New York Times, experts were giving only passing rhetoric to the lessons America has learned in the Balkans as they could very well apply to Iraq.

It was precisely these oversights that motivated fellow Bruin Alicia Stevenson and I to learn more about the reconstruction of Bosnia. With the help of the UCLA International Institute, its vice provost Geoffrey Garrett, and the Honors Programs, the two of us found ourselves in Sarajevo only a few weeks later.

For the next three months we have taken up a post at the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the body established under the Dayton Peace Agreement to supervise the civilian implementation of Bosnia and Herzegovina's postwar settlement. The High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, is the former leader of a British political party. His principal deputy is a U.S. ambassador.

The High Representative has a far-reaching mandate. Beyond guidance, he has the power to impose legislation, freeze bank accounts, and remove any Bosnian politician from power who obstructs the Dayton Peace Agreement. Every day, Alicia and I are on the forefront of Bosnia's reconstruction, working to rebuild a country devastated by a tragic three-and-a-half-year war.

--Jonathan Dotan

*  *  *

Right outside our office window stands the blown-out concrete vestige of the Bosnian Parliament. The building was destroyed during the siege of Sarajevo. Today, the ghostly edifice rises above the Sarajevo skyline. Thousands of bullet holes still mark the granite mall at its base.

The seat of the current Bosnian Parliament lies in an adjacent building to the south. Last Wednesday, Alicia and I tucked our OHR badges inside our pockets and entered the Parliament as journalists. With Krasner's words still fresh in our minds, we wanted the Bosnian Prime Minister to explain to us first hand what the experts are content to gloss over.
Prime Minister Adnan Terzic is a commanding figure in person. He holds himself with a solid swagger that barely modulates intensity. He has a way of locking eyes with you that keeps the mood remarkably focused. Somewhere between our translator's rapid denotation and Terzic's palpable will it became clear he meant business.

Interestingly enough, Terzic was hesitant to make outright comparisons between Iraq and Bosnia. The very premise that Alicia and I had operated on for months seemed to devolve in the first moments of the interview. Terzic was plain: "The two peoples are entirely different. Iraq was under a dictatorship and Bosnia endured a clear aggression."

I gathered my wits to read into this obstacle. On the surface, it was easy to understand his position. Saddam's regime lost all its support among Bosnia's Muslims when it aligned with the Serbs and Milosevic. But the more I thought about it, the subtext of Terzic's comment stemmed more readily from the difficult relationship Muslims in Bosnia have with the Arab world.

Recently declassified UN documents explain it best. During the war, several Arab countries worked covertly with the United States to supply Bosnia's Muslims with weapons. In turn, Iran and Saudi Arabia tried to leverage their influence in reconstruction to make Bosnia a fundamentalist Islamic state. Ultimately, the Arab world did not have much success in creating ties to the Balkans. The Bosnian people accepted their aid, but rejected their ideology.

Bosnia's Muslims identify with Europe far more than the Middle East. So, our comparison of Bosnia to Iraq faltered in a typical westernized manner, it assumed a homogeneity in Islam that simply doesn't exist.

I recast my question. This time, I focused on the U.S.'s role in Bosnia as a point of departure. To my relief, the Prime Minister softened and nodded his head, "It was America that stopped the war in this country. For that, Bosnia is eternally grateful."

With all the pessimism and anti-American views harbored abroad, I was really struck by these words. Their frame of reference was dated in a touching sort of way. Terzic's and so many Bosnians' reverie recalls a liberal agenda long-abandoned on UCLA's campus. President Clinton, Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, and our own Warren Christopher -- these are leaders that Bosnians treasure.

Without missing a beat, Terzic segued into analyzing the role of the international community in post-war Bosnia. For the next 40 minutes he explained in detail how Europe's disparate views harmed reconstruction. Whether he knew it or not, the Prime Minister laid out the hard lessons of rebuilding Bosnia with clear parallels to Iraq. L. Paul Bremer should have joined the three of us to take notes.

*    *    *

It took the Prime Minister a full cigarette to really hit his stride. Between the intermittent click of our photographer's camera, his hand gestures grew bigger and bigger and his voice overtook our translator.

"The big mistake," he said, "was that Europe and America imposed elections too soon."

I countered and asked him whether OHR with its comprehensive powers was able to address these problems. Terzic stared at me pointedly, "War-time nationalists took over the government because there was no unity in the country or the international community. OHR was not unified back then and it achieved very little."

"These early problems remained because there were constant elections." Terzic continued. "Elections poisoned people with apathy and removed vital politicians from power."

I must admit that it was strange to hear the Prime Minister explain Bosnia's biggest problems in virtue of elections. It's not to say that he had communist or fascist sympathies, if anything he was just being realistic. Democracy may very well have been the goal of nation building in Bosnia, but self-governance was a convoluted opportunity for the post-war country.

But all this said, things were getting a lot clearer. I looked over at Alicia and we both exchanged a smile. The day before, we had gone through the Dayton Peace Agreement line by line. Hearing Terzic explain Bosnia's follies during the early years of Dayton's implementation it was now easy for us to read between the treaty's annexes and constitutions.

The Prime Minister carried on and explained the "system of division" that decentralized the national government and strengthened the two Entity governments: The Bosniac-Croat Federation and the Serb Republika Srpska. As an American, I placed this conflict in terms I know well: states rights. This analogy holds up in form, not substance. Alicia and I know from our work at OHR that these polarized Entities have caused enormous political problems.

After the war, it was a constant battle for the ethnic groups in their respective Entities to come together on fundamental issues. At the same time, billions of dollars of aid poured into Bosnia to rebuild the country's infrastructure, enable the return of refugees, and establish military stability. Tough lessons were learned as the Entity governments became fraught with corruption and squandered millions of these dollars.

Without a strong national government, smuggling across the country's unpatrolled borders devastated the economy and bolstered black markets run by organized crime.

In hindsight it is clear that so many of these problems could have been dealt with by creating an effective legal system in the early days of reconstruction.

*    *    *

Terzic was astute to move beyond the lessons of the recent past and present his views on the future. Many Bosnian politicians have dim and narrow views of what lies ahead, especially when they think of a future without the international community. Regardless, Terzic has more credibility than most politicians. The Prime Minister's very position is emblematic of the future of the country.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is composed of three constituent peoples, Serbs, Bosniacs (Muslims), and Croats -- and Others (citizens who do not identify themselves with any of the previous three categories). Government positions are allocated to these groups according to constitutional quotas. The presidency and many other positions rotate the three ethnicities for one-year terms. This past December the Parliament appointed Terzic as the first Prime Minister to hold a nonrotating 4-year term. It was a major step forward in Bosnian democracy. It consolidated a unified political voice that is (in theory) comparable to the position of Prime Minister in Britain.

Terzic spoke to Alicia and I at length about his platform. Hearing him deconstruct his strategy made us feel privy to reforms being developed by the next generation of politicians. Beyond lessons from the past, the next chapter of reconstruction seemed to unfold before us. "Look," he said "my ideas are often taken as being 'pro-Bosniac' although I am actually trying to work to the benefit of all citizens of Bosnia. But, when I step out and say something that is European nobody has objections. European Standard and European Union are ideas that are attractive to everyone and they are achievable."

According to Terzic, by 2009 Bosnia could be a member of the EU. This goal has developed into a broad banner of the whole political leadership as they enact wide-reaching reforms: Strengthening the economy, building rule of law, fighting organized crime and corruption.

The Prime Minister was almost fatalistic as he rendered the strategy: "There are no alternatives. A better tomorrow is a primary human need. We see our future within the united Europe."

*    *    *

Terzic's optimism left a strong impression on us as the interview wrapped up. Our follow-up research would sober us up somewhat. Terzic is hardly a knight in shinning armor. His fallibilities of inaction and "suspicious" activities are not unlike many of his colleagues in the Parliament. This country has come far but it cannot afford to get ahead of itself.

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister's insight is undeniably valuable. His rhetoric towers in sophistication over the hardliners that continue to hold government posts.

Bosnia is miles away from Iraq in geography and culture, but the lessons of nation building persist between the countries.

As Alicia and I walked to elevators on our way out of the Parliament we overheard one of the Prime Minister's aides making preparations for an official trip to Turkey. The significance of this conversation did not escape us.

Bosnians striving for European integration, with all the difficulties that entails, have a model to follow in Turkey's pending application for EU membership. But we also got to thinking that this relationship might well be another post-war lesson. Perhaps, even Bosnia's successful EU aspirations might be a prelude to Iraq's distant future.

Published: Wednesday, June 11, 2003