International Community Stuck in Bosnia

Due to ongoing political obstruction and rising ethno-nationalist tensions, western powers have opted to maintain their political and military presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but still lack a precise strategy for the country’s future, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.

Following a recent meeting in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the group of 55 countries and organizations sponsoring and directing the peace and reforms implementation process in Bosnia, concluded that local authorities had failed to fulfill the conditions necessary to close the doors of the powerful international envoy, the Office of the High Representative (OHR).

Just few days earlier, the UN Security Council had voted to extend the mandate for the some 2,000-strong EU peacekeeping force (EUFOR) in the country for another year, stressing that Bosnia “remains ethnically divided and dysfunctional as a state.”

In its communiqué following the 18 November meeting, the PIC stressed the need for talks on constitutional changes, saying that such reforms “would make state institutions more functional and better enable the country to meet criteria for EU and NATO integration.”

The PIC meeting followed weeks of still ongoing intense diplomatic activity in Bosnia aimed at persuading the country’s bickering leaders to agree on a reform package proposed in October by the international community.

In late October, the EU and US mediated two rounds of talks at the EUFOR military base in Butmir on the outskirts of Sarajevo with representatives from Bosnia’s two entities, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska.

Negotiations collapsed after Bosnian Serb parties accused the international community of trying to suspend Republika Srpska, while Bosniaks and Croats said the changes were merely cosmetic. The so-called Butmir talks even further distanced the leaders of the country’s three main ethnic groups, which used their differences to inflame nationalist sentiments.

The talks focused on issues such as constitutional reform, fiscal sustainability and measurable improvement in the country’s political situation. The constitution talks are aimed at improving Bosnia’s administration, which is overstaffed and expensive.

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.

On 24 November, international community distributed to the ruling parties a revised proposal of the reforms, which they described as the minimum. However, those proposals have already been rejected by all parties.

International mediators say that the Butmir talks, if they had shown any positive results, would have allowed Bosnia to take the first key step toward political autonomy and EU integration, closing the OHR.

Too early for OHR exit

Spokesperson for Bosnia’s main opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) Damir Masic agrees with the PIC conclusions that it is too early to close down the OHR.

“In a country where there is no reform progress, its authorities cannot make proper decisions, and in a country that is basically not self-sustainable, an institution like the OHR, with all its powers, is necessary,” Masic told ISN Security Watch.

Furthermore, he said that the Bosnian state did not have the necessary tools or political will to sanction obstruction, corruption and possible violence. All those mechanisms are in the hands of the OHR.

The OHR was set up in 1995 only to monitor and supervise the implementation of the Dayton Peace agreement, but later on received broader governing powers, such as the power to fire obstructive politicians and impose laws where officials failed.

It was due to be phased out in 2007 and replaced with the Office of the EU Special Representatives who would not have executive powers. However, its mandate was extended because of political instability and the failure of local politicians to pass reforms.

Since its founding, the high representatives have put forth hundreds of laws that Bosnian politicians have failed to agree on. High representatives have implemented some 530 decisions in various fields, including economics, war crimes, politics, judiciary, and the hiring and firing of officials.

High representatives even implemented decisions on state symbols, the national anthem, passports design, and other laws that had been stuck in the divisive parliament for years.

But since British diplomat Paddy Ashdown (often referred to as the ‘Bosnian Maharaja’ due to his frequent use of his sweeping powers) left office in early 2006, many would agree that there has been absolutely no progress in the country’s economic, political and security situation.

After much arm twisting and the sacking of obstructive politicians, Ashdown succeeded in abolishing the two entities’ ethnically separate armies and police, creating unified, state-level forces. (Post-Ashdown, Republika Srpska officials claim that those powers have been returned to entity jurisdiction.)

Ashdown was criticized for wielding too much power, both by local officials and the international community, while his successors have been criticized for wielding too little.

What his successors did, in essence, was to hand over major decision-making powers to Bosnian citizens and politicians, giving the country a chance to run its own government. It was a strategy that, sadly, failed – miserably.

Rethinking the OHR

Should the OHR close its doors – and it will at some point since Bosnia cannot join the EU with the Office running the all major reforms in the country – it is clear that local politicians would annul all the reforms made in the past 13 years and further divide the country.

Then again, the international community will not allow the collapse of Bosnia, its main project since World War II, into which it has pumped billions of euros for reform and reconstruction.

Many experts agree that western countries should either increase the OHR’s power or find another way to make the international presence felt in the country.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG), which after three years renewed its work in Bosnia due to the political stalemate and growing ethnic tensions, recommended a reconstruction of the OHR.

In a mid-November report, the ICG wrote that abandoning Bosnia would be a costly mistake, as would leaving the OHR in place in its current form. The group suggests that the PIC seek to reinforce the Office, but a preferable course would be to reinforce the Bosnian state, close the OHR and put in place strong alternative stabilizing measures.

“Keeping the OHR open into the summer of 2010 or after will not push Bosnia’s citizens and leaders to take the tough decisions needed to adopt vital reforms […] instead, it may sow enough discord to put the country’s stability at risk,” Sabine Freizer, ICG Europe program director, said in the report.

However, Masic warned that Bosnian citizens should not expect the international community to improve their future, and that that should be their own task. “Citizens have to understand that the international community is here to help us. But the rest of the responsibility is on them when they cast their vote. Most of the time since the end of the war, Bosnian voters have chosen parties who can agree only on what day it is,” Masic said.

Status quo

However, political stalemate is expected even for 2010. On the political scene, nothing dramatic regarding the reforms proposed by the international community is likely to occur.

Next year is election year, and looking back at the past 13 years, no rational Bosnian politician will even discus reforms in fear of losing votes. After winning elections, Bosnian ruling nationalist parties might be rounded up for some Butmir-like meeting, but surely no progress will be made.

It is clear that the OHR, instead of working to solve problems and monitor reforms, has indeed become a problem itself as it has become embroiled in local politics, such as being labeled by Republika Srpska officials as an anti-Serb organization and by Bosniak nationalists as Islamophobic.

Many western countries wish to see the OHR closed; they believe it is time for the Bosnian people and its leaders to take responsibility for the fate of their country. However, the last two decades has shown that neither are capable or willing.


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