An Open Letter to Matthew Parish: Colonialist Clairvoyant?

Some might say I have a passing interest in Balkan politics.This is a harsh fate as much for the many tragedies of the region’s recent history as for the sheer abundance of dubious “analyses” free-flowing from the pens of still more dubious analysts. Case in point: Matthew Parish. As unlikely as it is that the man will ever read this, I still feel it necessary to respond to the main thrust of his work, at least, as it pertains to the Balkans and Bosnia in particular. I am less interested in his opinions, than I am in the opinions of the general public who might be exposed to his work, hence this intervention.

So, who is Matthew Parish? He is many things, to many men: lawyer, advisor, lobbyist, clairvoyant.

To begin with, he is someone who, according to his own terms, is interested in promoting and perfecting the practice of “state-building”. It is worth taking Mr. Parish at his own words, and dissecting them at length:

“State-building is a fashionable theme in international relations. It is a subject in which I am particularly interested. The thought is that the cause of civil wars and failed states is weak political and legal institutions [sic]. Thus, so the reasoning goes, to prevent the recurrence of those problems one needs to provide training and support to build strong and effective social institutions where none existed before. An army of specialists offering just these skills has recently emerged, deployed to all four corners of the world. And yet state-building is truly a science in its infancy, about which we know remarkably little.” [Source]

I begin with this statement because it is both a summary of his views, his politics and is emblematic of the many problems with it. Let us begin with the notion that it is the responsibility of outsiders (read: Westerners), to build “social institutions where none existed before.” Personally, any time someone makes a claim that something has never existed before, or that something is so because of some innate “human nature,” I become immediately skeptical. And so it is here. How are we to define “social institutions”? It is obvious Mr. Parish means the term in a very narrow, Western sense: good, responsible and transparent government, efficient and independent courts, and, of course, a functioning, liberalized, market economy. A common triumphalist teleology, in short, to be enforced, presumably, by an army of specialists.

What becomes immediately apparent within this short opine of his, and it is a theme very carefully woven throughout his narratives on Bosnia in particular, is that history, as such, is a dead thing, useless really. History begins “post-conflict.” Indeed, history as a narrative or survey of the past, a repository of lessons and lived practices, is either unnecessary or actively dangerous. Thus, when Parish comments on recent developments in Bosnia he is able to remark, for example, that “Bosniaks therefore would do better to focus on wealth creation and consolidating their political authority in areas of outright Bosniak control. Business interests should trump intractable political battles. The Serbs and Croats should be left to go their own ways.” [Source]

Notice: “political concerns” about addressing the effects of genocide and ethnic cleansing are non-existent. “National” and “ethnic” groups are presented in essentialized, unitary wholes. All Serbs want to leave or secede from Bosnia, as do all Croats. The main multiethnic party in the country, and the biggest vote-getter in the recent election, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) is presented as “a party which purports to be multiethnic but in reality is overwhelmingly Bosniak.” This, of course, despite the fact that the party is replete with secular and religious Bosnian Serbs, Croats, Jews and, of course, Bosniaks, many of the former of whom hold high level positions within the Party and the in-coming cabinets and ministries. They don’t really count.

Indeed, the only Croats that count, are the ones that voted for the right-wing, nationalist HDZ—both of them. Only the HDZ is allowed to be a representative of Bosnian-Croats, no one else. They must hold an absolute monopoly on all the votes of an entire people, and we are all to believe that Bosnian Croats only have one opinion on all things: that of the HDZ policy lines.

Of course, we might wonder then why there are two incarnations of the HDZ, if the Bosnian-Croats are so single minded. Well, it’s because before the elections, and for years now, the nationalists within the two HDZ camps could not even agree among themselves—and now they expect everyone else in Bosnia to be held hostage to their whims? Odd. Even odder is that someone with a supposed understanding of the way established democracies operate would support such behavior.

One might also want to mention the significant percentage of Bosnian Croats who did not vote for any of the HDZ parties. Oh, but wait, as those are non-HDZ-voters they ought not to be counted at all. Really, only HDZ-supporters count as “real” Bosnian-Croats, everyone knows that! 100% of HDZ voters support the HDZ! Well, sort of…there are two of them. And their pre-election rhetoric has nothing to do with their post-election behavior so…hmm?! Look, just don’t worry too much about it: just listen to Matt, he knows the score. Trust him!

So, the entire history of Bosnia prior to the war of the 1990s is simply ignored. So what if for the overwhelming majority of its history, Bosnia was a space constituted and actively understood as a one which Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews and others could all understand as their home? So what if Sarajevo, the historic capital, was for centuries referred to as the “Jerusalem of Europe”? And indeed, so what if the Bosnian War, though it polarized and placed great stress on the historic inter-connected and polyethnic qualities of this polity, demonstrated precisely the unwillingness of thousands of Bosnian Serbs and Croats to buy into the fascist and nationalist propaganda of “their” regimes? It doesn’t matter. That’s history. And history is an inconvenient stumbling block in the reconstruction of “post-conflict” societies along new, more enlightened lines.

Matthew Parish dealing with “primitives” in Brčko?

Thus, remarkably, Parish arrives at a position nearly indistinguishable from your run-of-the-mill Serb or Croat nationalist within Bosnia today—much as we saw with his rhetoric on the elections. Parish will begin with what appears, on the face of it, a critique of the imposed apartheid structure of the Dayton Peace Accord which still operates as Bosnia’s constitution: “the war divided the country into mono-ethnic Bantustans and despite all the international community’s efforts, that has not been significantly reversed.” Alas, though we may desire otherwise, efforts at reconciliation have failed—so, why don’t we just go our separate ways? Parish puts it more eloquently:

“The least bad option is to preside over Bosnia’s inevitable gradual disintegration with a moderating hand, ensuring it happens slowly, so its citizens become accustomed to the evolving political landscape. We must procure its occurrence in the context of a steady increase in living standards, so that Bosnia’s people realise they have a lot to lose. We must keep all parties calm and moderate, to prevent outbreaks of local violence or even wholesale mobilisation.” [Source]

Notice again, “inevitability” is at the forefront. And though Parish earlier purports to critique Bosnia’s “Bantustans”, he is rather eager to make them supposedly prosperous, internationally recognized “Bantustans.”

Though the man purports to provide a great critique of the failed policies of the West towards post-war Bosnia, his position is merely a retracing of an earlier position—that of the West towards Bosnia, during the actual war. It is what David Campbell has referred to as “apartheid cartography.” Campbell has correctly identified one of the key struggles regarding ongoing political developments in Bosnia: “The major fault-line in this discussion is between those who think that the pursuit of an integrated, non-nationalist Bosnia is ethically and historically sound, thereby warranting a commitment of resources, and those who regard this aim as misplaced if not wholly mistaken, and advocate instead the partition of Bosnia.” It is readily apparent on whose side Mr. Parish is and the sort of logics contained within that belief. [Source]

Marko Attila Hoare, among the most acclaimed historians writing on the topics of Bosnia and the Balkans, has called this “the racist case for partition.” In reference to William Montgomery, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria, Croatia and Serbia-Montenegro and former advisor to President Clinton on Bosnia, Hoare notes that “the supporters of appeasement/partition have long tended to justify their abandonment of principle with reference to the fact that the Balkan peoples are supposedly ‘not like us’ and don’t think like ‘we’ do, but are just a bunch of savages in the grip of ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’, to which civilised standards of right and wrong cannot be applied.”

“In defiance of mainstream US opinion,” Hoare continues, “Clinton sided with the pro-appeasement Europeans over Bosnia. In the autumn 1995, he rescued Republika Srpska from the jaws of defeat and imposed the Dayton settlement on Bosnia that gave the Serb nationalists most of the territory and autonomy they wanted, and that has ensured Bosnia has never been able to function as a state since.” [Source]

Parish is of this ilk. “Recruiting capable people to work in primitive or even dangerous conditions is hard” he bemoans. Without a hint of irony, he goes on to add that “Foreign political systems and cultures typically take longer to understand than the time scale within which one can expect an educated and trained international expert to commit to the country in question.” Indeed! [Source]

Now, pray tell, how long did Matthew Parish spend in Bosnia that he has been able to make all these astute observations, that he has been able to assure us of the inevitability of its dissolution?! Two years, 2005-2007, working “for the Office of the High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR). He was employed as the Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brčko, and managed a team of lawyers engaged in a range of legal and judicial reform projects.” Managing a team of lawyers and foreign officials, as the Iraq war demonstrated of course, is the surest way to truly understand a country and its peoples.

But worry not, gentle reader,  Mr. Parish remains “involved in Bosnian politics, knowing many of Bosnia’s senior politicians well and frequently giving talks, lectures and interviews on topics relating to post-war Bosnia. His critical analyses of the international community’s efforts in rebuilding the country are well known. Matthew also retains strong personal connections to the country for which he retains great affection, and to which he is a regular visitor.” [Source]

Well thank heaven and 7/11! A regular visitor with well known views! My, how they must love him the primitives, what with his sharp pith helmet and all. But these “well known” views are worth mentioning.

For instance, in a 2008 interview Parish gave to a Bosnian Serb daily, where he was asked by the interviewer: “You have claimed that the Bosniaks view BH [Bosnia-Herzegovina] exclusively as their country and that they are quietly arming themselves to prevent the seccession of the Serbs and Croats. Do you have information on how far they have come with the arming process?” In a post-conflict situation, claims about the concentrated rearmament of one group of former combatants is deadly serious. So, how does Parish respond? He doesn’t, he in no shape, way or form addresses the charge. Confirm nor deny. Just pretend the guy didn’t ask it.

But Parish does say something and, boy, is it interesting: the “independence of the RS [Republika Srpska] remains an unrealistic goal, principally for reasons of territory. Republika Srpska has few cities, little infrastructure (for example motorways) and its territory is too stretched out to be realistic as an independent country.” [Source]

Wait a minute, in 2008 Parish told us that the independence of the RS was unrealistic. A year later, it has become “inevitable.” Uh, there must have been some major developments in Bosnia in that year? Maybe the constitution was amended or maybe some significant inter-ethnic clashes occurred? Except, none of that happened. Status-quo. Parish just changed his mind. And with all the confidence of someone who has no interest in history, the views of 2008 Matthew have no import on the opinions of 2009 Matthew.

Parish has also commented on the other “hot spot” of Balkan politics, Kosovo, writing after the ICJ decision of 2010 that confirmed the independence of the country, that the “Advisory Opinion on Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence is…that the subject is not a part of international law at all.  The judges’ majority opinion breezily declares that international law has nothing to say on declarations of independence. To many lawyers, this will appear threadbare.” [Source]

I have commented on the matter myself.

The argument is hardly “thread bare”, as there was no other possible logical decision for the court to reach. As I said then: putting all obscurantist legal jargon aside, the Court found it impossible to negate what has been apparent since at least 1776: a declaration of independence cannot, by definition, be “illegal” because its entire raison d’être is premised on the negation of laws which would hold as much. That is, after all, the entire purpose of a declaration of independence. It is not to ask for permission for independence from former masters or oppressors (and they were certainly the latter in the case of Serbia’s relationship with Kosovo) but rather to announce it as an objective (de facto) reality or a stated goal. I may not be a learned lawyer such as Mr. Parish, and my humble PhD-to-be in Political Science may arouse the laughter and mockery of jet-setting colonialists such as himself, but, respectfully, it is his argument that is “thread bare.”

Parish warns that there will be a Kosovo precedent, and that it will be a “boost to separatism everywhere.” He notes: “Acting on this logic, the Prime Minister of the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, RS, could call a meeting of the RS National Assembly, which then declares independence from Bosnia acting as representative of the people of Republika Srpska rather than as an institution established under the 1995 Dayton peace accords.” Hopefully, at this point, you’ve cocked at least on eye brow. Why would a man who seems so adamant that the dissolution of Bosnia will be in everyone’s best interests be concerned about separatism in Kosovo? After all, Matthew, pal, old buddy of mine, why not apply the same logic to Kosovo as to Bosnia? Just say it with me:

The least bad option is to preside over Serbia’s inevitable gradual disintegration with a moderating hand, ensuring it happens slowly, so its citizens become accustomed to the evolving political landscape. We must procure its occurrence in the context of a steady increase in living standards, so that Serbia’s people realise they have a lot to lose. We must keep all parties calm and moderate, to prevent outbreaks of local violence or even wholesale mobilisation.

What’s the matter, don’t like your own medicine? Ah, could it be, as I said before, that this is yet another example of the double-standard banner flying high? Yeah, I think it just might be.

Hoare, once again, is succinct in his assessment of the matter: “Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Bosnia’s Serb Republic…has suggested that the ICJ’s ruling on Kosovo opens the door to the potential secession of the RS. The RS is not a real country, but an entity created by genocide and massive ethnic cleansing; anyone who equates it with Kosovo is at best an ignoramus and at worst a moral idiot. Nevertheless, we sincerely hope that the RS’s leadership be inspired by the Kosovo precedent and attempt to secede – such an attempt would inevitably end in failure, and provide an opportunity for the Bosnians and the Western alliance to abolish the RS or at least massively reduce its autonomy vis-a-vis the…central Bosnian state, thereby rescuing Bosnia-Hercegovina from its current crisis and improving the prospects for long-term Balkan stability.” [Source]

So, where does this leave us, Mr. Parish, in particular, in regards to the recent situation in Bosnia? Let me say this much, the HDZ, along with Dodik, are not outraged, they are frightened. They understand that if this new government is formed, and it should be eventually, then it is the first potential step in dismantling the power of nationalist blocs in Bosnia. What the SDP said was that they wanted to form government based on policy and platform (a radical idea, no?) rather than simple ethnic sectarianism, where government seats are distributed on an ethnic basis and then no one does anything for years.

The HDZ, much like Dodik, have nothing to offer the people of Bosnia but fear and hatred. And they understand well that if multi-ethnic parties are allowed to form government and actually accomplish something in power, it makes fear-based politics that much more difficult.

As for the ignorant proselytizing of the likes of Parish, I’ll finish on this. I noticed you have a fondness for Bosnian hip-hop Matt. Finally, something we have in common. So I’ll leave you with some rhymes from the renowned Tuzla-based artist, Frenkie; Tuzla having been one of those many cities defended by Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats, and Bosnia Serbs from the forces of Serbian nationalism and fascism:

“They want to divide our city with Doidk, you couldn’t do it with cannons, and you think you can do it now? There are no nations here, get that through your head. In this city there are only Tuzlaci.” [Video]

Smrt fašizmu, sloboda narodu!

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Jasmin Mujanović

Jasmin is a PhD candidate in Political Science from York University in Toronto. Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, he regularly blogs about the Balkans, international affairs and social movements in Canada and abroad. His commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, Balkanist Magazine, Balkan Insight and TransConflict among other platforms. You can contact him through Twitter or through his personal website.

4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Matthew Parish: Colonialist Clairvoyant?”

  1. “The thought is that the cause of civil wars and failed states is weak political and legal institutions [sic]“.

    Mr Mujanvoic added the expression “[sic]“, denoting an error transcribed from the original. Presumably he thinks that the word “is” in the foregoing sentence should instead be the plural “are”, because the phrase “weak political and legal institutions” is plural.

    However the usual grammatical rule in the English language is that verbs conjugate with subjects, not with objects. In this case, the subject of the phrase is “the cause”, which is singular. Hence the verb to be should be conjugated in the singular. Accordingly “is” was used correctly in the original and the expression “sic” is not appropriate.

    As for the rest of Mr Mujanovic’s diatribe, the reader (if there is any) may draw his own conclusions. “Ad hominem” might be the most appropriate label for this style of debate.

    1. Mr. Parrish, if this article is (admittedly) dismissive of your purported expertise, it is solely on the basis of your own writing. I’m sure you’re a lovely guy, otherwise. As such, I find your supposed “stickling” over grammar quite telling. Take care.

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