Population exchange and trading territory as a solution for Bosnia and Herzogovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina is close to falling apart because the Serbian part of the country is moving towards secession. The Serbs have already withdrawn from the federal parliament and now threaten to withdrawn their troops from the federal army as well, in order to form their own army. They want complete autonomy in their part of the country.

When the Bosnian War was ended with the Dayton Treaty in 1992 the country was transformed into a federal state. It was divided in two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Islamic Bosniaks and Catholic Croats and the Republika Srpska for the Orthodox Serbs. I don’t get why they thought back then that this would work out. A federal state like Belgium already has difficulty in functioning properly while its two populations are still able to work together. It was easy to predict that a federal state with three population groups which hate each other is especially disfunctional. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that the fires of nationalism burn too hot and that we can’t impose a multi-ethnic state.

That’s why it would be best if both entities became independent and would exchange some populations and trade some territories. This has been done before in the past, such as between Greece and Turkey in 1923 after the Greco-Turkish War. Turkey and Greece agreed on a forced population exchange, which moved Christians from Turkey to Greece and Muslims from Greece to Turkey. In modern eyes this was a violation of human rights, but it was effective in preventing ethnic conflict.

To respect human rights this could be done with referenda today. First, both entities should agree on organizing a referendum on independence. This would only be possible if the sovereignty over the Brčko District, which is currently shared by both entities, would be transferred to the Republic. Otherwise that state would be split in two and wouldn’t have a continuous landmass. North of the Brčko District lies the Posavina Canton, which is part of the Federation. We should prevent this Canton from becoming an exclave of the Federation after the independence of the Republic. To do so, the inhabitants should be allowed to vote in a referendum on whether they want to be part of Croatia or the Republic. The majority of inhabitants of this Canton are Croats after all.

To reach agreement on referenda the Republic could make a concession to the Federation to trade the districts south of Banja Luka for the aforementioned territories. These districts currently form a large salient in the territory of the Federation. Trading these territories would smoothen the borders. These districts have Serb majorities, but are sparsely populated with just a few ten thousands of inhabitants. The Serb inhabitants can decide voluntarily to move to the Republic and receive financial compensation if they do so. Vice versa the same counts for Bosniaks and Croats, even if they don’t live in territories to be traded.

The Bosniaks and Croats seem to be able to get along with each other better. Still it would be a good idea to organize referenda in the municipalities in the south and southwest of the Federation and allow the inhabitants to decide on joining Croatia or remaining in the Federation. These municipalities have Croatian majorities. Note that the southern border of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Croatia is quite suboptimal. Currently the Croatian shoreline is interrupted by the municipality of Neum, which is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This municipality has a large majority of Croats however.

At the same time there is also unrest in Kosovo on Serbs which want secession. There are Serb majorities in a few municipalities in the north of Kosovo. Give them the option to vote in a referendum on joining Serbia as well. In exchange, Kosovo can demand that Serbia will finally recognize its statehood, which Serbia is still refusing.

In the magazine Politico they write that we should send a NATO-force to prevent further escalation by the Republic and Serbia, but I don’t see how this can be a structural solution. We have to acknowledge that the Dayton Treaty was a mistake and that we can’t simply smother nationalist desires for independence. You can’t impose a multi-ethnic state on peoples who don’t want to work together. The Republic and Serbia may be irresponsible and escalating the matter, but the nationalist desire for a nation state (one state for one people) isn’t unreasonable. Ethnic conflict in multi-ethnic state has always been the red thread in history. Nationalism and the formation of nation states has often been a good solution for that. See for example the Italian Unification, the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the Soviet Union. We don’t judge these events negatively. In the first three cases it was accomplished with war, so let’s strive to realize it by democratic means. Just let me sit at the negotiation table as a diplomat!

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