Tilting at Windmills? Bottom-Up Individuals Trying to Undo the Damage of Top-Down Politics

Book Review

Surviving the Peace: The Struggle for Postwar Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Peter Lippman

Vanderbilt University Press

This book, published in 2019, had a long journey to Sarajevo where I awaited a review copy. An initial copy sent by the publisher was lost in transit. A second copy, this time sent to a friend’s office in Zagreb, arrived, but then planned travel and delivery was postponed due to the initial pandemic shutdowns. Then the book gathered dust in a building that was affected during the first wave of earthquakes in Zagreb. The winter 2021 Covid wave led to further travel delays, and so I was delighted to finally get the copy in the first quarter of 2021, more than a year after the first copy had been posted to me.

The timing was worth the wait and fortuitous, for two reasons.

The first reason is personal – this is an excellent book that deserves reading by specialists and newcomers alike. I devoured it in just a few days, pen in hand, reading it at the expense of other tasks.

The second reason is related to the political discourse in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in the first half of 2021 as two developments have unfolded, showing that a generation after the end of the war, the international community remains involved in ways that often still reinforce the worst and most divisive inclinations of the country’s leaders. The first was the poorly managed appointment of German politician Christian Schmidt as the next (and many hope, last) High Representative to BiH. The second was the decision by the western international community to press for long-needed constitutional reform/electoral reform, but in a manner that could further empower the voices of political polarization and fragmentation. Reading Lippman’s book is a reminder that from the bottom up, Bosnia and Herzegovina has always been more than the sum of its parts, while the top down calculus inevitably results in a diminution of all.

Lippman is the perfect combination of journalist, researcher, and activist to write a book on this topic. As a highly informed non-scholar he is able to avoid the trap of conceptual frameworks and academic literature reviews, the formulaic nature of which can very often obscure the subject matter at hand. He’s also able to avoid the trap of studied dispassion, in which the efforts to appear unbiased can in fact turn a writer into an unwitting apologist.

His book is the culmination of a more than a quarter century of work in and on Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is nicely structured to ensure both detailed case studies that provide granular and very human details, while demonstrating how these parts interact against the bigger picture local and regional political ecosystem.

Of the many themes around which he could structure a book of this scope he selects the topic of return. In doing so he effectively allows himself a prism through which to understand the human and the political, as the return of people to their pre-war homes – or the decision (personal or socially pressured) to not return – goes to the heart of the demographic cleansing projects that continue to this day.

Following an effective and efficient description of the dynamics of the war – both within BiH and courtesy of BiH’s neighbors Serbia and Croatia, he introduces the topic of return through a series of individual studies and a survey of the broader background of international engagement in implementing the peace agreement. The right to return had been enshrined into the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war, articulated in Annex 7. Unlike more common elements of peace agreements that call for the separation of warring forces (Annex 1) or the provisions for elections (Annex 3), Annex 7 was innovative, guaranteeing the right of people who had been internally displaced or or who became refugees abroad to go back home. This reflected the extent of wartime displacement through both violent and non-violent yet highly coercive pressure that made ethnic cleansing a part of the war, and added a new phrase to the political science lexicon. Inclusion of this Annex was likely a response to western guilt at having stood by as multitudes were physically uprooted at the close of the 20th century in a Europe that thought it had learned better, and an attempt to “reverse” this human rights abuse. However, it was also reflective of the deals that had to be made to secure signature of one of the representatives of the three warring parties – the leader of the Bosniaks, Alija Izetbegović. Izetbegović was the only negotiator actually from/representing Bosnia, as the others, Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević, were from neighboring Croatia and Serbia respectively, belying the notion that the war in BiH was one that had ever been generated solely from within – something that Lippman explains in simple and effective prose.

The codified promise of the right to return was likely critical for Izetbegović, as Bosniaks – and, in particular, Bosniak civilians – had suffered the brunt of ethnic cleansing. It likely made the legitimization of the Republika Srpska more acidly palatable, as, in theory, the return of heterogeneity to that entity would relegate the gains of that travesty less vivid and meaningful, as people returned, voted, sent their children to school, and started to rebuild.

However, commitment to Annex 7 from the start paled in comparison to the military dedication and precision of Annex 1 fulfillment (which prioritized short-term technical stability at the expense of war crimes accountability), or even Annex 3’s elections (which were quite speedily organized – though highly flawed). The ethnic cleansing so brutally carried out – particularly in the east along the border with Serbia, and in Prijedor (in the north central part of the country, to ultimately create a corridor to connect Serbia with the breakaway Serb province in Croatia’s krajina) – made Annex 7 much more difficult to implement, for reasons of individual security and confidence, as well as higher-level policy and practice. The obstruction to return in the post-war space was evident among all three sides. Lippman describes the post-peace exodus of Serbs from Sarajevo’s suburb of Dobrinja, a final population movement that resulted from both extreme pressure by Serb politicians against “their own,” and made easier by the halfhearted effort to prevent this action by Izetbegović and political allies who had themselves been radicalized towards homogeneity over the course of the war, showing that while the three nationalist political party groupings often seemed to be at loggerheads, they increasingly shared an interest in formalized division. He quotes writer Gojko Berić, who already in 2002 wrote, “What worries me is the gradual drift away of those Bosnians who are committed to Bosnia as a single state, as the homeland of all its people, and who have been with us all these years…….. Many of them have stopped tilting at windmills realizing that the villains have already brought their work to a close in Bosnia” (35).

Yet over the years Lippman stayed in close contact with these individuals facing the entrenched political windmills.  He explains the early struggle of returnees seeking to go back home to Kopači (near Goražde), detailing the political bureaucratic obstructions that made a mockery of Annex 7 and any semblance of a rules-based and accountable governing system. He describes the rise and fall of a return movement of Gacko in the Herzegovina portion of the RS, where property claims were resolved, yet eventually most returnees simply gave up. His survey of return issues in Mostar provides an opportunity to describe the highly organized and orchestrated post-war efforts by Croat nationalists to establish that city as the seat of a Croat entity – an effort to “get their share” that continues to this day in the ongoing US, UK, and EU sponsored talks on the structure of the country’s election and constitutional systems.

His discussion on return in Srebrenica is deep and nuanced, describing the shift from an often forgotten discouragement of return by Bosniak leaders eyeing population consolidation in other places (e.g., formerly Serb-majority communities around Sarajevo such as Vogošća), to the elevation of return to the site of genocide as focus of Bosniak political identity. In addition to reviewing the continuous historical revisionism and genocide denial among the Serbian political elite and the search for justice among survivors through the courts, he also describes the exploitation of tragedy for profit, through “humanitarian profiteering” but even more so by the pervasive corruption that attended hasty and ill thought-out privatization and ongoing manipulation of investments and opportunities. His review of the political economy of both the mines near Sase and the Guber Spa should be required reading for outside financial and business experts seeking to promote investment and understand the investment climate.

Throughout it all he highlights individuals struggling against the odds for the life they want: a return activist in Prijedor, a brave political commentator questioning governance and corruption in the RS, the farming families seeking dignified work in their fields rather than handouts as a displaced “other.” He also moves from this micro detail to macro themes that, if anything, have expanded in scope and prevalence, as the whataboutism and post-truth reality that is shaking the foundation of more consolidated democracies both have deeper roots in BiH and the region, suggesting scope for learning how to resist such corrosive trends.

Reading this book in a steady sitting offers a chance to contextualize present day challenges and agendas with a generation of recent history. It is one thing to know that certain leaders have been active for a long time; it is another to be reminded of the details of their tenure, and the evolution (or consistency) of their political interests. It is also useful to be reminded of the at times contradictory role of international actors in providing vital support to the people Lippman calls the pozitivci through projects and donations, while at the same time providing legitimacy and support to the structural and political forces that work against these very same individuals. Lippman’s book is both a love letter to a country that has, as with so many outsiders, captured his heart and attention, and a written reminder that policies that outsource conscience to a handful of individuals will rarely result in the changes they purport to impact.