WASHINGTON -- Nearly four years after the fighting stopped in Bosnia, an international study group has concluded that Western efforts have failed to realize the driving principle of the Dayton accords: a single, multiethnic country.
A lengthy paper released by the International Crisis Group, an independent group consisting of former national leaders, diplomats and analysts concerned with the Balkans, paints a bleak picture of Bosnia as a place divided into three ethnic entities propped up almost entirely by Western economic assistance. As aid begins to drop, social and economic tensions will increase, threatening the tangible success of peace, the report says, urging more robust action by outside governments to get what they want in Bosnia.
The hard tasks in Bosnia -- ensuring the return of refugees, reconstruction, building an economy -- have been largely overshadowed in the last year as attention focused on the war in Kosovo and its aftermath.
The assessment by the group, which was formed to monitor events in the Balkans and is chaired by former Sen. George Mitchell, coincides with other assessments of what has happened in Bosnia, where NATO troops have been deployed since the peace accord reached in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 21, 1995, was signed in December of that year.
Not all conclusions are as grim as those of the Crisis Group. In the coming issue of Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, two former Clinton Administration officials, Ivo Daalder and Michael Froman, argue that Bosnia remains deeply divided, with corruption and ethnic politics dominating society. But Daalder and Froman give credit for the reconstruction that has taken place in Sarajevo and elsewhere, and praise the fact that most people in Bosnia -- the vast majority of whom live among their own ethnic kin -- do not fear for their personal safety.
Like the Crisis Group, Daalder and Froman state that peace is the main accomplishment, but argue that peace in itself is probably a sufficient achievement for the outsiders who intervened to stop the three-and-a-half year war.
The architect of the Dayton accords, Richard C. Holbrooke, who is now the U.S. representative to the United Nations, wrote in a Sept. 14 Op-Ed article in The New York Times that "many of the forces of darkness -- separatists, racists, war criminal and crooks -- are still there, continuing their efforts to keep the people in the Dark Ages."
Like many other observers of the uncertain peace in Bosnia, Holbrooke noted that the number of refugees returning to their homes was only a trickle and that most of the "minority" returnees were primarily Serbs going back to Muslim and Croat areas. The Serbs continue to block most Muslims trying to return home. Even so, Holbrooke said that the wounds of war are beginning to heal and progress is being made.
For its part, the White House has been more upbeat. In July, the Clinton administration said that the "rate of refugee returns in Bosnia is exceeding that of the past two years." However, only about 8,000 people returned to areas where they are in the ethnic minority -- 2,000 of them Croats and Serbs who went back to homes in Sarajevo, which is dominated by Muslims.
The Crisis Group said that the ability of refugees to return to homes they fled during the 1992-95 war was the key measure of whether the accords were working. On this score, it concluded, they have failed.
The group noted that the Croatian president, Franjo Tudjman, who was one of the signatories to the accords, continued to oppose refugee returns as a way of consolidating his own control over ethnically pure territories. Croatia and Serbia, led by Slobodan Milosevic, came under strong criticism for continuing to encourage separatism in Bosnia and for financing the armed forces of the Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs.
The Crisis Group report said the failure to get refugees back home bodes poorly for Bosnia's future, predicting that the longer the absence from home, the more likely it would become that refugees would resort to violence against local authorities preventing their return.
One of the most troubling prospects was the likelihood of reduced economic assistance from the West. "The inability of donors to hold out the promise of aid could cause local leaders to be even more noncompliant than now," the report said. Social unrest could increase, especially since unemployment is already very high and pensions continue to be unpaid.
"Social discontent has already burst into open unrest, as demonstrators regularly block highways and buildings," the report said. "Ominously, in the past many local politicians channeled this unrest into nationalism."