Barking up the wrong tree in Bosnia

Bosnia and Herzegovina has made progress along its road map, but the international community is focusing on the wrong issues.

By Ian Bancroft

With the closure of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) seemingly imminent, the international community has convened Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political elites in a determined bid to induce constitutional change in return for accelerated progress towards membership of the EU. The glaring contradictions and shortcomings of these latest efforts, however, are indicative of a failure to sufficiently take into account Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complex political dynamics. With the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina drifting into a deeper governing malaise – one that threatens the entire country’s access to IMF assistance – the discourse of ‘functionality’ and ‘efficiency’ appear hollow without a firm commitment to reform the larger of the country’s two entities. Transition to a reinforced EU special representative (EUSR), however, provides an important opportunity to fundamentally transform the international community’s approach towards, and relationship with, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Both the tone (dubbed ‘mini-Dayton’ or ‘Dayton Two’ by some) and location (Butmir military base on the outskirts of Sarajevo) of the latest talks are designed to create an artificial sense of urgency that, when combined with repeated talk of disintegration and the imminent threat of war, is not only largely self-serving, but also distracts from the positive progress that Bosnia and Herzegovina has recently made on several key fronts.

With respect to visa liberalization, as a European Stability Initiative (ESI) report applauded, a concerted effort by the country’s politicians has ensured that, in terms of fulfilling the outstanding road-map requirements, Bosnia has largely caught-up with those countries that the European Commission previously recommended for visa-free travel (Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). In early October, meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for a NATO Membership Action Plan; a key step on the road towards full membership. An application for EU membership is also on the horizon, once the OHR is terminated. On the major issues of visa liberalization and Euro-Atlantic integration, therefore, Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to make important progress; contrary to the symbolism and message of these talks.

Whilst this is not to deny that significant challenges remain, closer analysis of these reform successes demonstrates that they have been achieved thanks to painstaking and patient negotiation and compromise, conducted within strict conditionality frameworks (of the EU and NATO, respectively) and with unambiguous goals and outcomes. Theatrical attempts to impose a reform imperative only serve to constrain the political space in which politicians can meander their reluctant way to often difficult concessions, particularly with general elections only a year away. A reinforced EUSR – who will soon succeed the high representative, ideally without the temptation of executive powers – must therefore refrain from the contrived confrontations and bluster that have characterised too much of international policy towards the country.

As with the foolhardy pursuit of police reform, the international community have too often focused upon the wrong problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though Carl Bildt, Sweden’s minister for foreign affairs, and James Steinberg, the US deputy secretary of state, claim to seek “constitutional changes to achieve functionality and efficiency in government structures”, this discourse is fatally undermined by a failure to contend with the continued dysfunctionality of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina; whose costly social transfers, contrary to the IMF’s conditions, threaten to jeopardize the entire country’s access to a three-year €1.2bn stand-by arrangement. The internal dynamics of the Federation, not the issues of the distribution of competencies between the state and entity levels, constitute the biggest threat to the long-term viability of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In spite of this, however, the issue remains disconcertingly under-discussed, partly out of fear of disturbing the delicate balance between the country’s Croats and Bosniaks.

In revealing the contradictions and shortcomings of international policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, the latest rounds of talks have reconfirmed the urgent need to transition away from the outmoded OHR towards a reinforced EUSR. The very tone and structure of the current talks not only serve to distract from the country’s recent progress, but also fail to take into consideration how such progress was achieved. Failure to tackle the Federation’s defects, meanwhile, has eroded the very discourse on which the talks are premised. The current impasse afflicting international policy towards the Bosnia and Herzegovina therefore necessitates a new approach; one that values patience and pragmatism over confrontation and conceit.


This piece first appeared in The Guardian on Thursday October 15th 2009, and is available by clicking here.

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