You Can't Stop an Avalanche Halfway Down

June 15, 1995|By ROBERT M. HAYDEN

PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh. -- NATO and U.N. ''credibility'' have been put forth as primary reasons why the West must ''stay the course'' in Bosnia. But credibility for what?

The Bosnian agony has been prolonged because of American insistence that what had been the Bosnian republic within Yugoslavia be recognized as an independent state when the larger country collapsed.

The flaw in this apparently moral argument was that a large portion of the population of the supposed country, Bosnian Serbs and Herzegovinian Croats, rejected inclusion in a Bosnian state. These people controlled most of the territory and weapons, and were prepared to use them. When Bosnia was recognized in spite of their opposition to it, the Bosnian Serbs and Herzegovinian Croats went to war, not with each other but with the government that the U.N. recognized but that they, its supposed citizens, did not.

What, then, are the U.N. and NATO pledged to do? Impose a Bosnian state on the large portion of the country that rejects it? Or expel them? There is no third choice.

When the matter is put this way, the intransigence of the Bosnian Serbs becomes clear: They fight, brutally and horribly, to ensure that they are neither subjugated nor expelled. Of course, to do so they are subjugating and expelling the non-Serbs in the regions they control, as the Herzegovinian Croats have expelled the non-Croats from the areas they control.

This process of ''ethnic cleansing'' is about moving populations, not exterminating them, and will always accompany partition of a mixed region. The atrocities in Bosnia since 1992 are remarkably like those induced by the partition of India in 1947 and of Cyprus in 1967, or the ''population exchange'' between Greece and Turkey in 1920, or in Nagorno-Karabakh since 1990, or by the creation of ''Tamil Eelam'' in Sri Lanka since 1984. They are driven by the political logic of the ethnic state, where minorities are, by definition, dangerous, polluting, to be excluded from the bodies politic and social.

It was this logic that destroyed the former Yugoslavia. The assertions of the right of self-determination by the various Yugoslav peoples in 1990 and 1991 were based on the political promise of creating the ethnic state. ''The West'' ratified that logic by recognizing Slovenia and Croatia in 1991. The supposed guarantees of minority rights in those states were cant, the scaffolding of Potemkin democracies that the West accepted as real. The Bosnian Serbs have noted the fate of the Serbs of Western Slavonia, expelled by the Croats who conquered the region last month, with scant protest from the United States and other world powers.

Once the world accepted that there could not be a joint state of Serbs, Croats and others called Yugoslavia, it was clear to all who knew the region that there could not be such a state called Bosnia and Herzegovina, because the majority of Serbs and Croats would reject it. Proclaiming Bosnia a state with ''inviolable'' borders amounted to trying to stop an avalanche half way down a mountain. But avalanches cannot be stopped half way. Once unleashed, they go to the bottom.

NATO and the U.N. thus seem to have staked their credibility on an impossible task. To actually create the Bosnian state that has been recognized internationally would require a huge army of conquest and occupation, with accompanying casualties, and this the U.N. and NATO cannot do. They can support the recognized government to conquer the peoples that reject them and either expel them or create new West Banks or Kosovos, but this amounts to supporting a more brutal war than we have seen thus far.

The credibility argument amounts to saying that even though we have made a mistake, and pledged to do something that we cannot do, we must do something more along the same lines, even if it is bound to be counterproductive. In other words, we must maintain our credibility to say that we will follow a mistaken course by actually following that course, even into disaster. The march of folly, indeed.

There is a way out, which is to acknowledge that Bosnia has been partitioned, that the Bosnian Serbs and Herzegovinian Croats did indeed win the war. Diplomatically, this could be accomplished through the fiction that Bosnia will be a ''confederation'' of Serb, Croat and Muslim entities.

Yes, this would mean the dismemberment in fact of a ''sovereign member of the U.N.,'' but then the former Yugoslavia was a founding member of both the U.N. and the League of Nations before it. Unlike Bosnia, the former Yugoslavia really was a state for 70 years. Bosnia has been a legal fiction since it was recognized against the will of so many of its supposed citizens.

The larger lessons to be learned from this tragedy are two.

First, avalanches should be prevented whenever possible, a thought that should drive policy toward problems such as that of India in regard to Kashmir. Second, if avalanches do occur, promises to stop them halfway down the hill can never be credible.

Robert M. Hayden teaches anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.

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