Transcript of Andrew Gilbert’s Comments

Dr Andrew Gilbert is a faculty member in Anthropology at McMaster University. View his biography and publications.


Yes thank you, ah, Florian, and thank you for the invitation, and the book, you know, one of the nice things is you get these new books and then you decide to review them and I got two!


I got 23 but…(laughter in audience)…but I had to return them, unfortunately!


GilbertOh! (laughter in audience)  Um and I don’t think that I’ll probably use the full fifteen minutes because I am very much interested in seeing what Gerard has to say and what some of the other people here have to say and, um, but we’ll just mention a few things and we’ll first start off by saying that I agree with Florian that the book is an achievement.  It’s almost impossible in my mind to do justice to the story of the state building: war, its violence, and its aftermath, and the book does a remarkable job of pulling in an enormous number of strands and trends and moments and back and forth, and you can’t do justice to it all but it puts enough out there so that if you have an interest in this material as context- what came afterwards, what came before- then it gives you something that you can kind of use and it is useful in that regard, and in that sense it really is quite something, to have done that. And I should also do a little full disclosure: so I set out to do um, a study of Bosnia state-building through refugee return.  That was my doctoral dissertation project when I started out, I was in Prijedor in 2000 and 2001, two summers, and then um, there in Sanski Most for about a year and a half across 2002 and 2003.  And so, it was very interesting and rich to read the three other case studies against what I sort of knew and in the end I decided to actually talk far less about return per say than about what that process told us about international intervention kind of more broadly, and so, in a sense, I’m kind of happy that this book was there because it sort of felt like, you know, it needed to be written and I knew a lot about it but I wasn’t going to do it so it’s great that it… you know (laughter)… I do think it’s an important story so um, I have a few prepared remarks so I’ll talk about them and then pass it on to the next person and we’ll take it from there but I do want to say that it’s tempting when reading a book like this that you know a lot about, it can be tempting to make the discussion of the book as much about what is not there as what is there and I personally think that this would not make for a very interesting discussion for those who have not read the book, but I also think it’s unfair to the author.  I just, really feel, and this is just a… a principled position that you should talk about what is there and not what’s not there because then it becomes this sort of “you should have included this and not this,” and it doesn’t get us very far.  So I may touch on things that aren’t addressed in a straightforward manner but my sense is that what I want to do is relate that to what is there.  So we’re going to get to think of it as a potentially expansionist book so we can kind of think of ways in which we can think of what is in the book and use it to talk about some other things. So, not what’s not there as sort of missing element what should be but instead hear some other things that kind of connect to the book and how might the book kind of expand upon it.  Um, so that’s kind of going to be my approach.  And so, in some ways, one of the things that I know Gerard has done research on and what is not here and would be interesting to talk about in light of the book is the perspectives or the meaning of ethno-cleansing territorialization um, for the returnees themselves, which is to say, we get a lot of the reading on the meaning of this from law, from discourse, from the built environment, from the landscape, from mapmaking, but we don’t get a lot of the words of returnees and also how they may also change over time, so what it means to return, and the question of return over time, for the people themselves who are kind of implicated in it as its kind of objects are largely not there, and again, that’s a- you can’t do everything- but it is one of the things that would be interesting to hear from Gerard because I think that it is one of the things, if we want to answer the question which is posed, if you don’t know the book- the last, tenth chapter is, “was ethnic cleansing successful?” That in part we need to take the question to that level may not be something too surprising to hear from an anthropologist.  Um, Ok.  But the book sets up and provides vital context in answering the kinds of questions like that, and so I want to start out with a few arguments for the importance of the book.  And one argument for the importance of the book is the wider context of the book, and that is that this is a particularly European story of war and nation state building.  Um, that the Bosnian war and post-war peace lie in the center of global and post Cold War transformation.  So if you know anything about the region you know that NATO, OSCE, UNHCR, the EU itself were themselves remade as part of Bosnia’s remaking and I think that this is a critical context to this story.  Norms of international justice, self-determination, state sovereignty, were also significantly remade or newly institutionalized in the wake of the Bosnian war and its post-war peace and I also think that the contradictions of the EU project itself find stark expression in Bosnia.  Now why bring this up?  I think because it helps us to understand some of the stakes for the foreign actors the kind of decision making processes that went into what they did and um, but also because I think that at the center of each one of those transformations, though: NATO, OSCE, UNHCR, norms of international justice, self-determination, state sovereignty- at the center of all of this stands the problematic figure of the refugee.  And so, this is an argument for saying that this book is critically important because um, this kind of critical, this problematic figure of the refugee is as Hannah Arendt told us long ago is kind of indivisible from European state building- they go hand-in-hand- European state-building, its history um, is the history of refugees, and vice-versa.  Um, and so in some ways you could think about the war in Bosnia was in part about the attempt to create stateless peoples in their own homes.  It’s really, the state has now changed, you’ve stay in your home, and that’s really what the creation of refugees in part what about.  Um, and this persisted in the return process, as the book also points out in a really good way.  So, I think attention to refugees, their placement, their creation, their movement, their attempts to erase them as refugees, is critical because of the nature of the war and its conclusions.  Which is to say, this provides critical insight into contemporary Bosnian politics because the question of the state in Bosnia, right, its form, its legitimizing polity, its territorial expression, is still an open question.  It still is one of the dominant ways to think of politics in Bosnia- is the question of state form.  And it’s still a major- if not the major- division between the dominant political parties.  So again, and this is just an argument for the importance of the book and the story that it tells, the importance for the figure of the refugee, and for refugee return, etcetera.  Now, a few kind of, observations, that I came across or kind of had as I was reading this.  Um, and I just finished it recently so I’m still digesting it so I think this is going to be an interesting discussion because I will continue to digest it all through the discussion.  So, who are the protagonists of the story?  The protagonists are, for the most part, politicians, and/or war criminals, and/or foreign officials.  But, other people are largely left out of this, or they’re brushed in rather abstract strokes.  So, we hear about them when we hear about votes, or maybe, you know, people kind of attempting to return, but they’re not really the protagonists so much as these others are.  Um, very few other voices are here, and there’s no other limiting factor to the designs of ethno-political entrepreneurs, however you want to call them, other than foreigners.  So, in other words this really is often a story of political elites versus foreigners, so we don’t get any other sense of any other kinds of limiting factors to the exercise of power on the part of, um, of certain elite actors.  Um, those limits could come in a variety of forms but it’s not there. Now, one virtue of this is, in my sense, um, the book presents a clear view of how deeply implicated and embedded foreign institutions and agencies are to the contemporary forms and structures of Bosnian politics.  Deeply, deeply implicated and deeply embedded.  And that is kind of one of the clear lessons or images of this, that is… and of course this began at the outbreak of the war and it only deepened over time and it shows that basically foreign actors and agencies are part of the context such that even to describe them as foreign or outside is, in my opinion, a bit of a misnomer.  I really think that they are kind of constitutive of Bosnian politics in a way that the kind of epistemology of intervention which relies on images of insiders and outsiders, locals and internationals, I think doesn’t really help us to really understand.  And this book kind of collapses that or at least pushes us to push that aside.  Um, every foreign sponsored or initiated action is considered an occasion for the making of Bosnian politics, and certain people are masters of this, Dodik is certainly a master of this, using every possible occasion as a way to kind of perform his politics and make his political position kind of known and firm.  Ok, so here is a kind of, a critical observation of the book. So, and it flows from this idea about internationals and their role in the book and in the process.  Like other books and studies of post-Cold War Bosnia, the question of legitimacy of foreign actors and agents is largely elided, ah, in part in the book they play kind of a quasi-heroic position in, in that they are represented as saying that they are all that stands between ethnocratic elites or regimes and the disposition, disenfranchisement, and oppression of the population.  Um, and this is a curious lacuna in the discussion of foreign state building more generally because as, well, you know, Max Weber told us long ago, the question of legitimacy stands at the center of the exercise of state authority.  Um, so instead of questions of legitimacy we get stories of capacity building, law and rights-based social and political engineering, the manipulation of material interests, the use of force, um, but not a question of legitimacy.  And, the reason I bring it up both specifically for the book is that it could be there because in my kind of, understanding, the refugee was eventually taken to be a part of a… of… claiming a moral legitimacy to the foreign efforts to remake the Bosnian state.  That, the reason why we are here is done in the name of return to realize the rights of refugees to return but also to make good on a total moral failing by European powers during the war itself.  And so, in that sense, refugee return was also kind of a moral mission by foreign actors in the remaking of Bosnia in a variety of ways that I think could lead us to then pose the question of legitimacy, which would be interesting because again, as I say, most of the literature on foreign state building talks about the engineering side, talks about power, but it doesn’t really pose the question of legitimacy.  Like, how is it that they are, how are they taken up?  How are they seen by the population?  Are they legitimate, are they not? Did they wrestle with that idea?  Did they play into the kind of things that end up going on.  Um, ok, so I will conclude my comments there except just to say that one thing that the book does put on the table that I would love to talk about is the issue of political economy and the economy of war generally.  Um, the book does a nice job of talking about what, ah, what the authors call “accumulation by dispossession”, what is a critical war time strategy of war profiteering, and um, it’s just fascinating to me that kind of, foreign interveners touched on almost every possibly formal part of politics, from laws about election engineering, I mean every possible- property law- every possible thing that you could think of, but didn’t want to touch the issue of employment.  Um, and when I was in the field doing my research it was often said, well, that’s too complex for us to deal with.  Like, all this other stuff is somehow apparently not complex, but this was too complex for us to deal with and yet it remained one of the few things upon which every single Bosnian could agree, which was, I mean I had people tell me if everyone had a job all of this nationalist BS would have no traction at all.  And rather than taking that as a kind of, I mean, you can take that as a kind of canny critique of the way in which patronage networks are used in particular ways but it’s also, to my mind, um, total influence of, yeah the self-managing socialist ah, understanding, where national self-determination and economic self-determination were co-realized as rights rather than kind of separately.  So anyway, that’s just to say that I would love a discussion of the economy because in my sense that doesn’t really come up to much, and it’s introduced here in the book in a really interesting way.  Um, so I’ll leave my comments there so hopefully I’ve managed to make some sense and put a few things to talk about on the table to talk about and I look forward to hearing.

About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching territorial conflicts and the dynamics of geopolitical competition in post-Communist Europe.
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