A makeshift eyesore of a structure now stands in the place of the fabled sixteenth-century stone bridge across the Neretva River in the Bosnian town of Mostar. The beautiful old bridge, which had been an unofficial emblem of Bosnia, was destroyed in the bitter fighting between Muslims and Croats. It is still hard to believe it is gone. The bridge, built by Bosnia’s Ottoman rulers and an object of tourist wonder, had withstood earthquakes, floods and wars. But not the battles of 1992-95.

As I stood on the rickety new bridge, I couldn’t help thinking of it as a metaphor for today’s Bosnia (officially Bosnia and Herzegovina), for the destruction of the old common “Bosnian” identity, which transcended religion and ethnic background. “Screw the country that doesn’t have a Bosnia,” people used to say, crudely summing up their pride. To be Bosnian was to possess an arrogant and irreverent attitude to life, a self-deprecating sense of humor and pride in the uniqueness and diversity of the place. But that Bosnian identity, which had seemed as robust as the bridge, also blew apart in the fighting and is unlikely to be rebuilt anytime soon, particularly under present circumstances. That much was clear in the recent parliamentary elections, which solidified hard-line nationalist divisions among the three main ethnic groups: Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

By way of background, early on in the Yugoslav wars, many Bosnians believed they could avoid getting caught up in the ethnic hatreds. The nationalist manias at the time were being directed from Serbia and Croatia. The Muslims felt caught in the middle (centuries earlier, they had been Serbs or Croats but changed their religion to win better treatment from their Ottoman rulers, and their new Muslim identities became fixed). They soon began to feel they would have to side with Serbia or Croatia to survive. The Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic summed up how they felt: It was, he said, a choice between “leukemia and a brain tumor.” Around Mostar, as elsewhere, the Muslims first joined with the Croats to drive out the Serbs. Then Muslims and Croats fought each other in bitter, house-to-house battles in which the bridge was destroyed.

Eventually–and under US pressure–Muslim and Croat leaders agreed in Washington to form a Muslim-Croat federation, which, under the 1995 US-brokered Dayton agreement ending the fighting, comprises just over half of Bosnia. The other half is the Serb republic. The two work together in a single parliament. It is a good arrangement–but only on paper. In reality, Bosnia is the ugly and resentful stepchild of a peace imposed and subsidized by resented outsiders. The country has received an estimated $5.2 billion in aid, excluding military expenditures, since the Dayton agreement. It has become, essentially, a Western protectorate. It has three ethnic armies and three ethnic police forces. It depends on foreign handouts. Unemployment is at 45 percent.

Attempts to create a semblance of multiethnic political action–as exemplified by the emergence in the recent elections of the Social Democrats as the party of enlightened professionals of all three nationalities–have made some inroads among the urban elites of Sarajevo and Tuzla. But small towns and villages are on a different vector; the Croats think of themselves as the true guardians of Croatian nationalism and regard most politicians currently in power in Croatia proper as pacifists and choirboys. Any idea of multiculturalism is dismissed out of hand. “We don’t want to have anything to do with the muslimanija,” said Vera, the waitress in a tavern in the Croat town of Capljina. Her voice was stony.

That pejorative term for the Muslims originated with the Bosnian Croat leader Ante Jelavic, who does not hide the fact that his objective is “union” with Croatia, which means the destruction of Bosnia. His deputy, Marko Tokic, was even more explicit on this point during the recent election campaign. There were newspaper reports that Tokic used the Hitler salute at campaign rallies.

The Serbs are equally adamant about their desire to join Yugoslavia eventually (which has shrunk to Serbia and the small republic of Montenegro). The newly elected Yugoslav president, Vojislav Kostunica, seemed to underscore symbolically his commitment to this idea when he turned up recently in eastern Bosnia to attend the reburial of a Serb poet who died in exile in the United States during World War II. The ceremony, in the poet’s hometown of Trebinje, about eighty miles east of here, was attended by the entire Bosnian Serb leadership as well as by top dignitaries of the Orthodox Church.

The Muslims are once again caught in the middle. The future of Bosnia seems to them more precarious now that Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman is dead and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic is no longer in power. Some voices in the West, formerly solidly behind the Muslims, are now suggesting that the “nation-building” project in Bosnia is doomed and that the only alternative is to allow the complete ethnic division of Bosnia.

The Muslims in general see this as a disaster, but are divided on how to proceed. On one side are the Muslim intellectual elites, who always favored a Bosnia integrated into a cosmopolitan Europe rather than a rump ecclesiastical state beholden to Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the other is rural Bosnia, which has supported Izetbegovic, the founder of an exclusively Islamic political party whose dream was to create a Muslim state in Bosnia. Even at the humblest levels people worry that the Muslims will be outmaneuvered by the new governments in Belgrade and Zagreb, which have suddenly emerged as respectable international players. “There’s no life for us here,” said Muharem Halilovic, a restaurant owner, brooding over a cup of thick black coffee. He had already moved his wife and two daughters to Detroit, he said, and was planning his own departure.

His friend Ibrahim asked in a voice full of disbelief, “Is [George W.] Bush really going to pull the troops out of Bosnia? If that happens, we’re going back to 1992.” Yeah, Muharem agreed, perhaps Izetbegovic was right when he said Dayton may turn out to be the “most expensive cease-fire in history.”

The idea that the present situation in Bosnia is an expensive cease-fire is pervasive. “We’ve made a mistake,” one man, formerly a top aide to Tudjman in Croatia, told me. “We should have worked much closer with the Serbs to solve this problem.” He was referring to an infamous meeting between Milosevic and Tudjman back in 1991. They made plans to divide Bosnia between them: some to Serbia, some to Croatia, swallowing the Muslims up. But–partly because of Washington’s intervention–Tudjman was kept in check. Soon Serbia and Croatia were at war with each other. And then came the Bosnia war.

And now this uneasy, outside-imposed peace.

What is quite clear is that the wars continue below the surface. Different forces pull different parts in different directions. Bosnia is an example of what is not working. Croatia and Serbia, ironically, are finding far steadier and more democratic feet since the fall of Milosevic and the death of Tudjman.

What needs to be applied now to the whole region is some clearheaded thinking and realpolitik. The United States has a particular stake in this. Of course, it is the “international community” that has taken responsibility for the Balkan protectorates, and it was the NATO alliance that waged a war against Yugoslavia in 1999. But it is impossible to find anyone in the region–Serb, Croat, Muslim or Albanian–who is not convinced that the United States is in complete control.

Clinton Administration officials remained stuck on the idea that it was possible to achieve some semblance of multiethnic society in Bosnia and Kosovo, even though there were some disputes over this with NATO allies. The Americans, one Western European diplomat said acidly, “are incapable of entertaining any options because that would be tantamount to acknowledging that they have failed” in the Balkans. American policy has continued to dominate NATO’s approach to the region, even though virtually nobody in a position of authority in Washington has paid sustained attention to developing a deeper solution.

The fall of Milosevic and a new presidency in America provide a chance for a new look at the broader picture. It could be an opportunity to work in tandem with Europe to try to use the vast sums of money already committed to make the region less dependent. What is needed, in short, is constructive imagination. Which first requires learning from recent developments.

One lesson that should stand out is that nationalist excesses in Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo have eventually brought popular retribution. The Croats voted in the moderate coalition government of Prime Minister Ivica Racan in early 2000. In power a year, it has set a more civilized tone after a decade of the militant nationalism and intolerance that were the hallmark of the Tudjman regime. The new government has handed over some accused war criminals to the Hague tribunal and cut off most financial subsidies to Croat nationalists in Bosnia.

The Serbs, meanwhile, threw out Milosevic later in 2000 and brought in a new leader in Belgrade, Kostunica, who has begun moving in the same direction. He has publicly acknowledged that Serbian forces committed crimes in Kosovo in 1999, and he has talked about creating a “truth commission” to examine Serbian atrocities committed during various wars. It seems only a matter of time before Milosevic himself is tried.

In Kosovo, the moderate party of Ibrahim Rugova, the long-time leader of Kosovo Albanians, who counts Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi as his heroes, won a resounding victory in local elections last fall over the thuggish radical nationalists who seized control of the province in 1999 after the NATO war. While he preaches nonviolence, Rugova’s goal has been independence. But he is a civilized and serious man who may be prepared to negotiate to accept a broad autonomy for Kosovo within a democratic Yugoslavia.

In Bosnia, in contrast, anger is instead being directed at the outsiders imposing and subsidizing the peace: military forces, aid donors and others.

Two other areas where anger is already exploding–against the United States in particular–are Kosovo and Montenegro. The people of both regions are anxious now, after the fall of Milosevic. In Kosovo the majority Albanians see this as a disaster for their quiet slide toward independence. The same applies for Serbia’s sister republic of Montenegro, whose president, Milo Djukanovic, turned against Milosevic in 1998 and proposed independence as a desirable option. As long as Milosevic was in power, both Kosovo and Montenegro enjoyed support in the West.

In Kosovo “they believed in Washington’s verbal encouragement for Albanian self-determination,” said one senior Western diplomat. “Now Washington’s opposed to independence. I worry about possible reprisals against NATO troops.” The fear of reprisals has lessened with the recent election of the more moderate Albanian leaders. But still, the tensions are high.

In Montenegro, many feel betrayed by the United States for encouraging them to break away from Milosevic and for now insisting that future relations between the two sister republics must be resolved by negotiations between Djukanovic and Kostunica. Montenegro was already deeply divided on the issue of independence, however, even while Milosevic was still in power.

An option that could be considered is the creation of soft borders–no worse, perhaps, than changing other internal borders of Yugoslavia. Much of the West once considered that a heresy, but Yugoslavia is now divided into five different countries. There could be rewards from the international community to all involved that need not cost more than present operations in the Balkans. It could be much like Scotland, which now has its own parliament but has not seceded from Britain–though in time it could do so. Britain continues to control defense, foreign policy and other matters. Soft partition in the Balkans would need similar rules in order to protect the interests of the Muslims as they seek to define themselves and a realistic future.

Such a soft partition of Bosnia has a precedent in the former Yugoslavia: Kosovo and Vojvodina were autonomous provinces within Serbia and enjoyed broad powers, including their own universities, assemblies and executives. It only failed when Milosevic, riding and encouraging a wave of nationalist hysteria, abolished their autonomy in 1989. The point is that soft partition could allow different entities enough autonomy to encourage solutions from within. Perhaps then, nationalist excesses (which would also bring international sanctions such as were imposed on Serbia) would be punished by the majority of the people at the polls, as they have been recently in Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo. Solutions from within seem necessary if the current veneer of peace is to take root. If not, the American-led course could quickly turn against it.

Of course, there are other keys to regional success–one of the most critical being sustained economic and social reconstruction of the entire region. Neither Bosnia nor Kosovo in its present situation is economically viable. Serbia has been economically devastated by Milosevic’s misrule as well as by indiscriminate NATO bombardment of its entire industrial base. Even Croatia’s economic viability is in serious question; once you leave the capital of Zagreb, you are assaulted by soaring unemployment and pervasive poverty.

But first and foremost, we should realize that the US model of multiethnic society cannot be transplanted to the Balkans and that any lasting solution has to be indigenous and within the European context. The Europeans must take the lead in this. If they fail to engage the region forcefully, they will insure more instability, strife and years of Western military presence to keep the peace.