Germany’s Push for New High Representative to Bosnia is Worrying

At a time when the West desperately needs to coordinate its policy towards Bosnia, Berlin’s unilateral push to appoint a new international overseer for the country is a troubling development.

Berlin wants to replace Bosnia and Herzegovina’s long-serving High Representative Valentin Inzko – responsible for monitoring implementation of the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords – with a little-known German parliamentarian, Christian Schmidt.

Who is Schmidt and why is Germany – seemingly without any backing from the EU, the US or UK – pushing for a new High Representative? And why is it doing so in the twilight hours of 2020, with a new US administration only days away from taking office?

The story was initially reported in the Bosnian media on December 23. A day later, the German Ambassador in Sarajevo, Margaret Uebber, met Bosnian presidency members Zeljko Komsic and Sefik Dzaferovic, and, according to Komsic, informed them that Berlin was seeking to replace Inzko with Schmidt.

By Christmas, the Austrian daily Der Standard had carried confirmation from Inzko himself that Germany was seeking his departure. And on Sunday, fellow German parliamentarian Josip Juratovic went on a Bosnian media blitz, praising Schmidt’s credentials and hinting at more sustained European engagement.

The question is, why is Germany doing this and why now?

It’s not as if Inzko is an irreplaceable pillar in Bosnia’s politics. He has long become something of a joke among ordinary citizens in the country, especially over his frequent communiques in which he expresses “deep concern” about various events in the country, without ever drawing on his expansive Bonn Powers to do anything about them.

But, in fairness, Inzko’s use of said Bonn Powers largely depends on the support of the Peace Implementation Council, PIC, the international body overseeing his Office of the High Representative, OHR.

And Russia, a PIC member, has spent nearly a decade-and-a-half systematically undermining the work of the OHR, while throwing its weight behind the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and his secessionist ambitions for Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, RS.

But aspects of Russia’s critiques of the OHR are widely shared. Whether they admit it publicly or not, nearly every member of the PIC, including the US, has toyed with the office’s closure. This is why, as early as 2008, the PIC made clear the format for the OHR’s departure from Bosnia – the so-called “5+2 Agenda”.

The trouble is that implementing the 5+2 Agenda would require creating a functional, democratic Bosnian state, which is precisely what the OHR’s loudest critics, like Dodik, want to prevent.

Forcing concessions from Dodik could happen, even without using the OHR’s Bonn Powers. But, except for the US and the UK, no one on the PIC has shown any appetite to challenge Banja Luka’s would-be autocrat, or any of the other malign actors in Bosnia, or their various foreign patrons.

Schmidt would be no more effective than Inzko if the structural dynamics of Western coordination in Bosnia are not addressed.

As it is, while the US has imposed sanctions on Dodik, and the UK has prepared the legislative framework to do so, possibly as early as 2021, the EU and its member states have been categorical in refusing to meaningfully defend Bosnia’s constitutional order, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.

Germany, above all, has been zealously devoted to the status quo. It maintains that the European perspective remains a credible possibility for the entire region, but it does little to assist this process.

It refuses to address the structural barriers to reform processes within Bosnia’s constitutional regime, refuses to enact sanctions against corrupt elites who stonewall change, and refuses to clearly speak out against the likes of Russia, Serbia, and even Croatia, who sponsor and encourage these malign elements.

And there is also Germany’s commitment to Russia’s Nordstream 2 pipeline, a project opposed by all of Berlin’s European and transatlantic allies, but which Berlin maintains is critical to its energy needs. Less clear is why Germany maintains such close ties to the illiberal Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban, or his associates in Poland,. Or why Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most influential leader in Europe, has dragged her feet on ejecting such characters from the centre-right European People’s Party, EPP.

In other words, Germany is not quite the good-faith actor many often assume it to be in the Western Balkans, or in Europe.

Yet now Berlin wants Schmidt in Sarajevo, a man who last appeared in Bosnia in 2016 to help cajole Dodik and his Bosnian Croat partner, Dragan Covic, to permit the implementation of the EU’s Stabilisation and Association Process.

At the time, he was Germany’s Minister of Food and Agriculture, a portfolio that did not obviously lend itself to European accession negotiations. While the SAP was eventually signed, Schmidt disappeared down the memory hole, until now.

What is striking is that Germany has advanced his appointment alone. There has been no indication that Berlin has coordinated this push with any of its EU partners or with Washington or London. Bosnian media, in turn, have presented Schmidt as Berlin’s concession to the Kremlin, and Zagreb, rather than as the consensus choice of the NATO Quint – th US, UK, Germany, Italy, and France.

The American dimension is especially strange. Has Berlin made a last-minute deal with the chaotic outgoing Trump administration? Unlikely. But just as unlikely is that Germany has already won agreement from Joe Biden’s transition team – whose administration is widely expected to be hawkish on Russia – for Schmidt’s appointment.

This leaves us with the troubling possibility that this rare German unilateralism is meant as a small but significant shot across the bow of Biden, and perhaps also of Britain. Berlin does not want to be pushed by two non-EU states to take a more confrontational line in Bosnia or the region, especially not on bigger ticket items like the Nordstream pipeline.

It recognizes that a joint American-British action plan in Bosnia would not actually require German or European acquiescence, especially now that EU enlargement is a dead letter.

Yet, by re-animating the question of the OHR, its staffing and implicitly its very existence, Germany can effectively complicate any effort that does not have its explicit backing.

If any version of that latter assessment is true, it’s bad news for Bosnia. Actual democratization and reform require at least mutual understanding between the key Western actors.

Long-term success requires real joint effort, especially as concerns the OHR, an organ which still has an important role to play in Bosnia, if it is used right. Without coordination, though, even tin-pot tyrants like Dodik can impose their will on Bosnia and the international community.

Germany must clarify its posture in Bosnia and bring it in line with that of its key allies. Failure to do so will only aid Bosnia’s most reactionary and recalcitrant elements.

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