Bosnia is a wicked problem

The international community must recognize the key role of all relevant players, particularly Turkey and Russia, in finding solutions to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s worst political crisis since the signing of Dayton.

By Maja Sarkanovic-Volk

Fifteen years after the Dayton peace accords were signed, Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing its worst political crisis. The rapidly deteriorating situation has generated a flurry of diplomatic activity from both the US and EU. Nevertheless, insults continue to fly across the ethnic divide, spurred by tabloid media and populist politicians from both sides. Last month the Republika Srpska (RS) parliament passed a law creating the legal framework for holding a referendum, which many interpret as a test-run for RS Prime Minister, Milorad Dodik’s, final goal – secession.

The situation was further exacerbated by other recent developments – for instance, the arrest of former Bosnian Vice President, Ejup Ganic, at London’s Heathrow Airport on a war crimes warrant issued by Belgrade; plus the statement by Radovan Karadzic, wartime leader of the Bosnian Serbs, at the International War Crimes Tribunal that he was protecting Serbs against a fundamentalist Muslim plot, calling his cause “just and holly”.

Let’s not exclude the recent regional conference, entitled “Together for the European Union: Contribution of the Western Balkans to the European Future”, held in Slovenia, which was unanimously described as a complete failure; first, due to Serbia’s refusal to attend, second, because the much-anticipated appearance of the EU President, Herman Van Rompuy, did not occur and, finally, because the event was poorly planned and premature. Instead of showing unity towards pursuing EU membership, it has only highlighted the regional differences that remain.

However, the EU and US were quick to announce that a new initiative is being launched to change Bosnia’s constitution to ease tensions in the war-scarred country. According to one EU official, the gathering is an attempt to ‘defuse growing tensions and to revive the so-called Camp Butmir process’, launched last year by the same actors, which also failed to break the political impasse. The document was on the table at a meeting of US and EU envoys with the heads of the main Bosnian political parties on April 6th and 7th. This time, however, Western pressure won’t focus on the whole constitutional reform package offered to Bosnia, but on reaching an agreement on minimally acceptable parts. The fact that Washington and Brussels are getting ready to lower the bar regarding changes in the constitution is yet another victory for Dodik.

Over the years there have been a lot of lessons learned, but just referring to recent history (i.e the Butmir process), every time there has been a big diplomatic push to resolve political stalemate in Bosnia it usually backfired. Moreover, the fact that Russia and Turkey were not invited again can be viewed as laying the groundwork for another diplomatic failure.

Bosnia has entered its election year and, taking into account mix of emotions and battles typical of any election campaign, the meeting probably will not yield any tangible results. At the moment it will be very hard to break the Serb-Bosniak stalemate because both sides are very comfortable with the current status quo. In the coming months, the local leaders will continue to roil the country’s politics, and ethno-centrism will come to the forefront because nationalism sells and the parties really don’t have anything else to offer to the public. Allowing words such as “impasse”, “secession” or “peaceful divorce” to even be discussed is an indication that Bosnia’s once complex problem has morphed into a wicked problem. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but better or worse.

However, meetings do offer a method for the West to take the pulse of the current situation and could set the stage for post-election negotiations. In foreign policy, a touch of imagination can be a useful thing. Recognizing the role of all relevant players, particularly Turkey and Russia, in Bosnia’s diplomacy and demonstrating greater solidarity is the way to achieve complete success.


Maja Sarkanovic-Volk is an independent consultant to the US Government on media relations and Balkan affairs.

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