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The Case for a Unified Bosnia

The Bosnian elections have yielded few surprises. Nationalist candidates on all sides have won decisively. The legitimacy that has been bestowed on these extremists, many of whom have openly advocated a partition of Bosnia, pushes the country further toward permanent division. In light of the apparently widespread support for nationalists, many observers are asking, not unnaturally, why the international community is clinging to the notion of a unified state. The Serb and Croat populations in Bosnia have spoken: They want to separate. Why should we force people to live together?

It is imperative that this question receive a satisfactory answer, for the work of knitting together a Bosnian state has become, thanks to the elections, even more difficult than it was. Without a clear understanding of the importance of a unified state, the effort may very well falter; partition is a beguilingly easy alternative.

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Partition would be a serious mistake, however, for reasons of both pragmatism and principle. A division of the country along present lines ensures further war. Those who have been displaced from their homes will not, nor should they, give up hope of returning to their original communities. As division persists, refugees and displaced persons, who constitute nearly a third of Bosnia's population, will become increasingly radical. The pressure they generate will be immense. The Bosnian government, unsatisfied with the current division, may very well be stampeded into military action to reclaim lost land.

There is recent precedent for this. Last year the Croatian government resorted to military means to recapture the Krajina region, held by breakaway Serbs. If the division of Bosnia seems likely to become permanent, we should expect the same reaction from the Bosnian government, which now has more military resources than ever before. Renewed fighting in Bosnia, however, will be more bloody and prolonged than that in the Krajina. The military balance is far more even in Bosnia than it was in Croatia. Advocates of partition believe they have found an easy way out of the Bosnian dilemma. They are wrong; the price of partition will be additional bloodletting.

If partition is a short-sighted policy in pragmatic terms, it is just as serious a mistake in principle. There has been much loose talk in recent weeks of how a policy of unifying Bosnia stands in the way of self-determination.

If Bosnian Croats and Serbs want to secede, this argument runs, who are we to say no? But this is a distortion. The principle that would be endorsed by partition is not self-determination, but ethnic cleansing. Advocates of partition seem to have forgotten that what are now Serb- and Croat-controlled regions of Bosnia were not, before the war, ethnically homogenous. They were made that way through terror, violence, and intimidation.

The version of self-determination that partition would endorse is a warped and violent one. The international community would do itself no credit and much harm by accepting the principle that an ethnic group may kill, terrorize, and evict other ethnic groups - and then declare itself independent.

The battle to restore a unitary Bosnia will be an uphill one. A de facto partition already exists, and the elections have given it a measure of legitimacy. In the face of these realities, an increasing number of observers are willing to countenance partition. In doing so, they may think they are yielding on principle for the sake of peace. The reality is that a permanent division of Bosnia would be ruinous to both peace and principle.

*David Bosco has just returned from Bosnia, where he was serving as head of the American Refugee Committee's Sarajevo office.

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