by Dzenita Mehic Saracevic
Kurt Bassuener left DC to move to Sarajevo in 2005, as part of the organization which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia-Herzegovina. When asked to explain what he did at a party Kurt’s father threw for him, Kurt eagerly described how he was trying to promote a more assertive American role in creating a durable peace in the Balkans. He was talking thoughtfully and calmly, but was so adamant about the issue that one of the guests, a Canadian professor, asked him afterwards if he was “some kind of a zealot.” This brought a smile to Kurt’s face even though he had never thought of himself that way, it stayed in his mind as perhaps one way to describe his interest in the Balkans.
By the time Kurt left his neighborhood near Politics and Prose, he had been working on Bosnian issues for at least eight years. When he was offered a position as a political analyst in the Office of High Representative Paddy Ashdown – whom he had previously advised and whose judgment he trusted – Kurt took the opportunity and left his comfortable life and Politics and Prose, a favorite haunt, for a war-torn city thousands of miles away. Currently, he is an independent policy analyst and co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization and Policy Council.
Dzenita: You studied Eastern Europe history and politics at American University, but what sparked your great interest in the Balkans and Bosnia-Herzegovina in particular?
Kurt: When I was studying at American University , Yugoslavia did not grab me as much as other East European countries. I think it was that one COULD go there easily – it wasn’t beyond the Iron Curtain. The only time I was in former Yugoslavia was in October 1990, when I went to Slovenia for a weekend with two classmates while studying in Vienna. I knew something about the ferment in Yugoslavia then and got a sense from a friend, one of my classmates we stayed with, that it was getting worse.
So in the summer of 1991, when I saw tanks in Slovenia, it really freaked me out. I was a pretty ardent Cold Warrior when I was younger, and the idea that a war in Europe would be allowed to proceed really blew my mind. So I can honestly say I was for Western/NATO intervention from Slovenia on – before the war in Bosnia began.
I do remember a photo in the Washington Post from Fall 1991 that made a strong impression – it was a grandfather, his son, and grandson all crouching – the 12- or 13-year old with his dad teaching him how to shoot a sniper rifle, with the grandfather smiling and looking on. That was devastating. I think it was from Dubrovnik – definitely Croatia.
So I was for intervention from the beginning. I just saw it as a failure of U.S. leadership as a European power. When we did act in summer 1995, it didn’t take long to have the desired effect and get a lasting ceasefire – which allowed for the Dayton Agreement two months later. Like Assad’s forces now, the Bosnian Serb Army was reliant on its heavy weapons advantage. They were vulnerable to airpower and couldn’t absorb casualties easily.
So by the time you and I met at Center for Strategic and International Studies, I was already pretty opinionated and pissed off about the U.S. inaction in Bosnia. The war could have been deterred altogether, and even if allowed to begin, would have ended far more quickly. One hundred thousand dead makes putting the state back together that much harder.
Dz: You have studied the region of former Yugoslavia and Bosnia, in particular, for at least 15 years. If you wanted to summarize things and explain this conflict, would you be able to do it in simple terms?
Kurt: That is a fair challenge. I think one can say, it was not a multicultural society, it was a single society in which you had different faith-based communities. But it was very secularized by the time conflict happened here. There was never really an honest appraisal of what had happened in the Second World War, which gave nationalist politicians a lot to play with in terms of generating fear and a sense that justice was not done after the war. Because there were dysfunctional, divided governments, from on top things were allowed to simmer and boil. The situation was not getting a lot of international policy attention at the time and what sparked the conflict was – the ingredients were there but it took a lot of effort by a few well-placed individuals to actually make it burn.
Dz: Were your family members and friends concerned about your safety here? After all, this was the country that had gone through a terrible war and was still recovering when you arrived here.
Kurt: It is so much safer here than it is in Washington, DC! The only time I have ever come face to face with a gun was on my way home from Politics and Prose, just off the Connecticut Avenue in May 2002, when I was held up at gun point, walking down Jenifer Street, so I have never felt or seen any such menace here. The level of violent crime here is very low. I hear local people here complain about it rising and maybe it has but, compared to what Americans are accustomed to, it is actually ridiculously low – especially when you consider the kind of firearms available to people here. There are things that would make the NRA squeal with joy. There is a lot of military stuff floating around, but it does not come to play except in organized crime, so personal safety is the least of my concerns here.
An Uneasy PeaceDz: What is it that you are trying to accomplish here?
Kurt: I am trying to influence the policies of the U.S, and E.U. on how they need to engage with Bosnia for it to become a durably democratic state that won’t need external buttressing anymore. The Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia set up a power-sharing agreement among the wartime leaders who built the system around their own needs and prerogatives. So while Bosnia has a façade of a democratic system, it is really an oligarchy and it operates as such. There is a small stratum of people who run the show in this country. They live a completely different sort of existence than average citizens of Bosnia, drive black Audis and send their children to schools abroad. They don’t have to care about the fact that the citizens they supposedly represent are losing ground both in actual and relative terms in this part of Europe, because it does not affect them. There are very few mechanisms for the popular will to be translated into political will… so they do not have to care.Those countries, which are guarantors of the Dayton Agreement, have an obligation to ensure that things do not fall apart – because that would boomerang on us – and set a context in which those citizens, who do want to make the Agreement work for them and their kids – can. Right now, the ability of the ruling class to leverage fear trumps almost any progressive impulses that have been identified in the population – and they are there. I would say that at least 75% of people in this country could come to some modus vivendi on what would constitute a functional governing system, but they are undefined, atomized, and the system keeps them that way.
Dz: In this frustrating atmosphere, what makes you still want to do things? Are you still an optimist?
Kurt: I am a frustrated optimist, I am not a pessimist. I do feel that at the popular level there are all the ingredients for hope, but there is this blockage….Everybody operates rationally within the incentives of the system. At some elemental level, people know they are getting screwed, but the fact that they are scared trumps all their knowledge and concerns.
I do not think that it would take a lot of doing on the part of the U.S. to turn this around by making clear that, there needs to be a consensual agreement to change the Dayton rules (which create perverse incentives)…. I do not see that as an impossible task, but it is very hard to get on the agendas of those at the levels who can make the change. However, I feel optimism that things could be different within Bosnia.
I will give you a concrete example, I was in Belfast for the first time in March, just for a day, so my impressions may be completely wrong impressions. But in the thirty-odd years of “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 people were killed. Here, in three and a half years, over 100,000 were killed. It is actually quite remarkable I have never heard of a “revenge killing” here. It is not because there is nothing to avenge. It is not because the means are not available. So you have to ask yourself “why?” The only way I could understand it, as somebody who has not lived through a war here, is that people saw the social fabric unravel once, so they are afraid that if they pull that thread that it would all come apart. And it was bad enough the first time; they do not want to go there. That speaks of a remarkable sense of restraint and rationality on the part of the citizens of this country.
But it should not give a false sense of security, because it was not up to them the first time either. It took a lot of engineering to destroy Bosnia the way it was in 1992; it took generating fear, a sense of inevitability, a sense of insecurity, and all that is going on now. So the fact that we have not seen any of that in the last 17 years does not mean it cannot happen. I worry about that, because on the trajectory we are on, it will fall apart violently unless something is done, it is just a question of where, how, when – not if, simply because there is no countervailing force now. We (in the West) used to be that; we are not anymore – by choice.
Dz: Any hope on the civil society front?
Kurt: There is a great deal of potential among the civic organizations that I have become familiar with over the past few years and have been working with more closely for about two years. There is the potential for a different approach to the relationship between citizens and government. There is a recognition that there needs to be accountability, transparency. The system does not provide it, certainly not above local level.
The biggest hurdle to clear is convincing each self-defined group of people that whatever option you are trying to promote can prevent their worst fears being realized. If you can’t do that then you can’t even really start the conversation on how to do things differently. Concretely what does that mean? For Bosnian Serbs, their main concern is that Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks will gang up on them. Whether that is a legitimate fear or not does not matter, because that is the fear they have been inculcated with. So if you are promoting an alternative system in which that is even theoretically possible, you do not have a chance of getting it done. I do not think it needs to be that way.
There is potential to come up with solutions… and I think that the local municipal level is the fundamental building block of a functioning democratic system in this country. For example, mayors started getting directly elected in 2004, which was one of the main positive innovations since the Dayton Agreement and now people have somebody to blame between electoral cycles. Above that level, in both entities and in the state, there is nothing you can do between elections, and “representatives” do not feel like they owe you anything. They are elected on a party list system and you do not have any door to knock on.
But civil society actors need to unite behind these broader common goals to develop a popular constituency for them. They are very atomized, and in a way the donor community helps keep them that way. There are success stories – efforts to change the census form did succeed, despite entrenched opposition and just inertia. The potential for more of that is there. But it needs to come together. This is a unique window of opportunity. Popular faith in the political system is at an all-time low.
“Politics is viewed a something alien”
Dz: Getting back to your personal life – are there places in the city you always want to show to your visitors?Kurt: When my sister was visiting it was winter, but I wanted to take her to the Tunnel Museum. It shows how people had to get supplies here during the siege [of Sarajevo] and I wanted to take her up to a high vantage point so she could see how easy it is to besiege a city like Sarajevo. I also went with her to the city of Mostar, which is very different climatic zone. It is much more Mediterranean and drier. It’s a quite beautiful country.
Dz: Does it ever remind you of the U.S.?
Kurt: No, it doesn’t! It would be hard to put my finger on the fundamental difference; there is a different pace of life . . . Perhaps the greatest difference is that people are just not mobile here. For example, if you told somebody that there were jobs available in Visoko (town about 20 miles from Sarajevo), they would not move there. They would say, “I will stay unemployed here,” which is different from the US. I don’t think it is just a Bosnian thing, I think Europeans in general are less mobile when it comes to job seeking, even though they have a lot of opportunities with the single market within the E.U. I come from a family that is spread all over the North American continent. So whenever I go home I spend a lot of time in the air just to see everybody. Here, people tend to stay pretty close knit.
This is home to me now, And, yes, I am more comfortable in this environment than I was in Washington actually. I enjoyed what I did in Washington; it was where I had to be to do it. However, everything revolved around one thing in Washington – work! I find that I love my job here too, but not everybody else is working in the same field. That is sort of refreshing.When you finish doing whatever it is you need to do, you can go to a cafe or have a dinner and realize that people get on with their lives…. It is very interesting, and sort of self-defeating. Politics is viewed as something alien. People are concerned with it, but the sense is that government has obligations to us. We have rights and privileges that need to be served but we don’t have influence over the way the government actually operates… government isn’t us. This strange detachment empowers elites.
Dz: Isn’t it something that has to be changed?
Kurt: It has to be changed if the country is going to work and that comes to the structures and incentives and how you do things. I have to mention the poor air quality here, which has gotten noticeably worse even while I have been here…. To my knowledge, nobody is making improving air quality in the city an issue. Partly because the city government is so subdivided that nobody is responsible so it is very easy to shift that blame around. It is very comfortable to not be responsible and it is not just socialism that has that legacy, I think that it has exacerbated what was already there. There are people who exercise civic responsibility, but they are small minority – and those are the people who need to convince other people that they have responsibilities, that they have to exercise them if they want to protect their rights. You can’t have citizens under this system; that is the problem. It does not encourage citizenship.
Dz: After living abroad for at least 11 years (Kurt has lived in Austria, Slovakia, and Czech Republic in the early 90s), perhaps your perception of your own society is different than it used to be.
Kurt: I think Americans are inculcated environmentally as well as the way we are taught about this whole concept of American exceptionalism…everything is the best in America. That is not true. Don’t get me wrong … I love my country and I love a lot of things about it, but the idea that we have come up with the best possible solutions for every social issue and problem, that our lifestyle is superior to everybody else’s, or the sense that our role in the world is always well intentioned and well-executed is not right… I knew some of these things intellectually, of course, but to experience them is different….
And when I go back to visit, I used to get into arguments with my Republican grandmother all the time on politics and everything else. I was the only one in the family who would argue with her about politics, nobody else wanted to deal with that! And she said – “oh, you are European now!” And I am not… I mean I never feel more American than when I am dealing with European Union types; then I feel almost like an American nationalist. It is not detachment… It is a sense of being able to be more self-aware about your own prejudices and standpoints that you can’t have unless you have something to compare them to.
Dz: I feel the same way. I often talk with friends about how America has opened my eyes.
Kurt: Yes, Bosnians here notice it when Bosnians from the U.S. come back here… they are Americanized. “Why are you busting my ass for being ten minutes late?” “Why are you always in a hurry?” “Why are you so pushy?” You name it… There is definitely more of an assertive pragmatism that Bosnians who have lived in North America and even in Western Europe get.
Books on the former Yugoslavia/Bosnia-Herzegovina recommended by Kurt Bassuener:
The Hearts Grown Brutal by Roger Cohen;
The Death of Yugoslavia by Allan Little and Laura Silber (essential guide to what happened in the region; it gives the political play-by-play of how things happened);
My War Gone By, I Miss It So… by Anthony Loyd (personal reportage dealing with Bihac and central Bosnia, theaters of the war that were overlooked in most of the writing in Bosnia);
Fortress by Mesa Selimovic (fiction that gives an idea of the contemporary era’s antecedents).