With a clear absence of political will on the part of Bosnia’s leaders, US and EU officials recently initiated, organized and led (failed) talks on reforming the country’s constitution – a much needed measure to move it out of political deadlock and closer to EU membership, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.
International mediators are now warning local politicians that the success of the so-called Butmir talks will also be linked to potential EU visa liberalization for Bosnia.
The Butmir talks opened on 20 October, but concluded before any concrete results were achieved. The two rounds of talks, held at the EUFOR military base in Butmir on the outskirts of Sarajevo, ended in total failure, even further distancing the leaders of the country’s three main ethnic groups. A third round is expected to be held before 18 November, but the atmosphere is not an optimistic one.
But still there is a glimmer of hope that intensified pressure will lead to some form of progress: In the past decade and half since the end of the 1992-1995 war, whenever the international community has taken the bull by the horns to initiate reforms in the face of a lack of local political will – employing pressure, various persuasion techniques and threats – reform progress has been made.
Messing with the constitution
This time around, senior US and EU officials presented a package of proposed constitutional changes to Bosnia’s most influential leaders at Butmir. For some, the measures were too drastic; for others, too cosmetic.
The first day of talks, according to some participants, began three hours late due the absence of Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Bosnian Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska. At the time, Dodik was actually heading for the Serbian capital Belgrade to welcome Russian President Dmitry Medvedev; it was only after pressure from the organizers of the Butmir meeting that he showed up in Sarajevo.
“I don’t really love Bosnia and Herzegovina, I am interested in Republika Srpska only, but we can open the talks,” Dodik was quoted as saying early on in the meeting, making it clear that little progress would be made.
Likewise, the leader of the Bosnian Croat ruling party, the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) said: “Bosnia needs to change the constitution and to divide the country into four territorial units, and Bosnian Croats would support that.” (Bosnia is now divided into two separate entities, Republika Srpska and the Bosniak- and Bosnian Croat-dominated Federation.)
Damir Arnaut, the legal adviser for Haris Silajdzic, Bosniak member of the country’s tripartite, rotating presidency, demanded that the country’s constitution be changed in a way that those Bosnians who do not wish to declare themselves members of any of the three ethnic groups could be fairly represented in the presidency. As an example, he said that his son, being of a mixed ethnic background, could not run for president.
Momcilo Novakovic, an independent politician from Republika Srpska, responded sarcastically to Arnaut’s statement by saying that his children were also from a ‘mixed’ marriage: his mother was female and his father male. Following Novakovic’s comment, the opposition left the meeting, saying it the entire procedure was a joke. Taking their cue, Dodik then quit the proceedings and flew to Belgrade to meet the Russian president.
And that was how talks on the country’s future started and ended, though it was no little success simply to have managed to bring all the country’s officials together in the same room, for however short a time.
At Butmir, expectedly, the representatives of three ethnic groups assumed their poker faces, claiming they would not back down from their age-old positions; however, it is likely that there will be an easing of stances as the negotiations develop.
Dodik accused the international community of trying to suspend the Republika Srpska entity and create a unified state, while Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats said the changes were merely cosmetic and would not solve the country’s political crisis.
The Bosnian state government, which is largely comprised of the same parties as the entity governments, launched constitutional reforms in 2005 under pressure from the international community. Since then, the reform process has halted as the international community withdrew from the talks.
But the fact is, the Bosnian Constitution has to be changed if the country is ever to move out from under the protection of the international community and toward true sovereignty. Those who reject constitutional changes fear they will lose the power they have accumulated under the current arrangement; politicians are not, as they would have their constituents believe, ultimately concerned with protecting so-called ethnic rights.
The (potential) new deal
The international community’s proposed package contains measures to strengthen the role of the state-level Parliament and government. Instead of a tripartite, rotating presidency, the new proposal calls for one president and two deputies. It also reforms what is now a highly complicated institutional set-up with veto rights and ‘ethnic’ and entity voting, which have been used frequently to block reforms. Most of reforms have been rejected by Republika Srpska officials, and to a lesser extent by Bosniak and Bosnian Croat officials.
Bosnian Croat representatives claim that proposed reforms do not respect the interests of Bosnian Croats because they do not provide any new mechanisms to guarantee full equality for their ‘ethnic group.’
Bosnia and Herzegovina unites the Republika Srpska entity with the Federation in terms agreed under the US-brokered Dayton Accords, which ended the four-year Bosnian War in 1995. The Butmir talks were symbolically dubbed ‘Dayton 2.’
The Dayton negotiations produced a hastily written constitution that has proven good enough to end a war, but not to create a functioning country. The new EU-US proposal includes measures to end Bosnia’s status as an international protectorate and to initiate constitutional changes to help make it a credible EU and NATO candidate.
International mediators still hope that local leaders will reach some kind of deal by 18 November, ahead of a meeting of the Peace Implementation Committee, a body of over 50 countries and international organizations that oversee the peace process in Bosnia. The meeting will discuss the closure of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which has in effect been running the country with sweeping powers that allow it to push through reforms when the Parliament fails and to suspend obstructive officials.
A goal of the Butmir talks was to establish functional institutions on the state level, which would undermine entity jurisdictions in order to allow Bosnia to move toward European integration. The talks were aimed at improving Bosnia’s administration, which is overstaffed and expensive. Dayton created an enormous bureaucracy with three presidents, three parliaments and several hundred ministers on various levels in a country of 3.5 million people.
“We now have a situation in which the whole region moves toward the EU, and it’s extremely dangerous to leave Bosnia behind. If the talks continue, everyone will have to swallow things which they perhaps will not like, and will have to find some kind of compromise,” Srecko Latal, analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, told ISN Security Watch.
In 2004, estimating that Bosnia was on the right track to European integration, the ICG closed down its offices in Sarajevo. But due the political stalemate and growing ethnic tensions in the past couple of years, the think tank has decided to renew its work in the country.
“Regarding the Butmir talks, since it is clear that Bosnia cannot rely on joining the EU with its existing constitution, all three sides will have to back down from their hardline stance. The fact that none of the sides, including some officials from the international community, is fully satisfied with the proposal is maybe the best thing,” Latal said, suggesting that this will lead to further and more in-depth negotiations.
Though there are international community assurances that the Butmir talks are just the beginning of constitutional reform and bearing in mind that in the past they have found ways to persuade obstructive politicians to cooperate, the situation is bleak.
The nationalist game
After two rounds of talks failed, the international community stressed that Bosnia would not be able to join the EU without major reform, nor would it enjoy a visa-free EU travel regime along with most of its neighbors. This message, most likely, was intended to reach the wider public, in hopes that citizens would be forced to react and pressure authorities into action.
However, local politicians have so far managed to address their voters more successfully than the international community, taking the opportunity to stir up ethnic sentiments. What the international community should learn from the past 15 years is that they cannot be nationalists in their own game.
First of all Dodik, who enjoys the support of all Republika Srpska parties, claims that the Butmir talks were an unnecessary adventure, and that for him, the process does not exist. He has rejected further international mediation and called for his largely Serb-populated region to have the right to a referendum on independence.
Some Republika Srpska officials and Bosnian Croat ultra-nationalist groups called for a boycott of the talks, saying that their initiator, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, was a Bosniak lobbyist. On other side, Bosniaks called for a boycott of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, labeling him pro-Serb. Bildt was the first international high representative in Bosnia after the war.
And now, according to vox populi in the local media, it seems that Bosnian citizens from all three ethnic groups are more caught up in debating who is the true persona non grata, and talking of various international community conspiracies. The masses chiming in for local media are not discussing the merits of the reform package, or the fact that the country is being left out of EU integration and visa liberalization.
Without a cooperative public, nothing can change. But then again, institutional change is not a cure-all: Without a change in politicians, a new constitution and a new face for institutions will be, as some officials lamented, purely cosmetic.