"The future of Bosnia now lies with Bosnians, not with outsiders"

An interview with Matthew Parish, the former Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brčko, on the politics of the Republika Srpska and the limits to international intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

1. Unlike the most of the rest political analytics and Bosnian public, you don’t seem to find Milorad Dodik threats to divide Bosnia as just one more way to buy more time and votes for October elections?

I believe he is serious. His threats are not just an electoral ploy. Strong rhetoric was emerging from the Republika Srpska (RS) in the run up to elections in October 2006. Many commentators – domestic and international – said Dodik was just manouevring to obtain votes. They were wrong then and they are wrong now. After the 2006 election the rhetoric did not subside, and Dodik deliberately chose a collision course with OHR. The crisis got worse, and he has mostly won the ensuing battles with the High Representatives.

Dodik has no reason to support the institutions of the central government. He does not need to share power with Bosniac and Croat politicians. He does not need the international community, which sends little money or support to the RS. We have every reason to take his assertions at face value.

SNSD is very powerful now. The population of the RS overwhelmingly supports its government. Dodik’s aim is to consolidate his own power. He will do that by undermining the central state. He is a shrewd politician. He will not take risks; he does not need to. He knows state institutions do not work well. Everyone in Bosnia knows that. He also knows they are kept on life support by the international community; but the international community has lost interest. The state institutions will therefore collapse of their own accord. He can just watch and wait.

2. What makes you so sure of Republika Srpska inevitable independence?

To a great extent the RS is already independent. I travel to the RS frequently. Since 2006, I have observed how unimportant Bosnia’s central government is there. Government ministries in Banja Luka set their own agendas, uninterested in what their colleagues in Sarajevo do. The Entity has its own legal system. It has opened its own diplomatic missions abroad. It conducts its own foreign policy, cultivating relations with Russia and Israel. It solicits its own foreign investment. Its police decline to cooperate with Federation or state police. Its judiciary is increasingly insulated from the courts elsewhere in the country.

The increasing autonomy of the RS is a gradual process. Dodik is not going to appear on television the day after the October elections and say “we are now independent”. He is just going to keep attacking different state institutions. Since 2006 he has undermined the Indirect Taxation Authority; the Constitutional Court; and the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council. This will not stop.

Therefore a “declaration of independence” is not really necessary for the RS, at least not for now. Bosnian Serb politicians can live within the formal Dayton constitutional structure; the weak central institutions will remain mostly irrelevant to them. A formal declaration of independence tomorrow would cause the RS too many problems: there would be pressure on Serbia not to recognize it, and it would set back Bosnia’s EU accession talks indefinitely. Dodik knows he must wait for international public opinion to change, and thus nothing will happen quickly. But Dodik calculates that he has time: SDS is weak, and he is not about to lose power.

3. Is disintegration, in your opinion, the only or just one of the options for the future?

Disintegration has already occurred. In truth, Bosnia never functioned as an effective central state. People in the central government can’t even answer the telephone, never mind run a country. The Parliament’s only interest is in voting themselves salary increases. That is what happens when you attempt state-building by international fiat.

The options for the future are all more or less bleak. The best alternative is that Dodik strikes a deal with moderate Bosniac counterparts after the election. The basis of this deal would be that significant further powers are devolved to the Entities, in exchange for Dodik dropping his demands for de jure independence. The Croats would also demand an Entity (or “region”).That would be the best possible result, and Dodik and Tihic almost reached that deal at Prud.

However, on balance I think that Bosniac politics are too divided for a settlement along these lines to be realistic. Any Bosniac politician who attempted to reach such an agreement would be accused of selling out by his political opponents. Simplistic nationalist messages – the RS is a genocidal creation that must be extinguished – will drown out the moderates. Whatever its history, the RS cannot be extinguished because it is too powerful.

If Dodik cannot achieve a deal of this kind, he will keep pushing for a unilateral course. In that case there are two options. The RS may become independent without incident. The international community will say they deplore it, and then they will come to live with it. Politicians in Sarajevo will say they don’t accept it, just like politicians in Belgrade say they don’t accept Kosovo’s independence. The reality in both cases is that a declaration of independence makes no difference. The RS is already de facto separated, just as Kosovo was before 2008.

A more pessimistic scenario is that the more extreme voices win out, and there is a new war to prevent Bosnian Serb secession. Ultimately, if Bosniacs want the RS to be abolished, they are going to have to fight for it. I do not want to see that. Political borders are not worth dying for. In modern Europe, it should not matter where borders lie. A return to war would be a depressing indicator of political primitivism. If I were to recommend to your readers how to vote in the forthcoming election, I woul say: vote for the individuals least like to push for war in the face of continuing detachment of the RS from the rest of the country.

Perhaps the most likely scenario is that the country continues to limp along in its current unsatisfactory stasis. This would be regrettable because with the perpetual political instability built into the Dayton constitution the country cannot address its real problems: rampant corruption, socialist bureaucracy, rotten courts, burdensome taxes and a consequent lack of economic growth and foreign investment.

4. EU and especially USA representatives in Bosnia and even highly ranked US politicians repeat almost on a daily basis that no disintegration of any kind will be allowed (Jonathan Moore from US embassy repeated that this week), and now you are saying that there is no way to avoid it. Do you find them to be hypocritical or they simply don’t have enough power to stop separatism?

International officials in Bosnia display an intriguing schizophrenia. On the one hand, they like to make endless pronouncements about what they will or will not “allow”. On the other hand they have lost all interest in the country. They have pretensions to colonial governorship; but they are willing to send none of money, troops or capable officials to enforce their demands.

The truth is that international officials involved in Bosnia are wedded to formal positions set by their predecessors, when they no longer have significant influence in the country. When the country had 80,000 foreign peacekeeping troops, foreigners could guide the country’s development. Now they can no longer do so. International officials feel beholden to the moral goals set back in 1997; but their rhetoric is unrealistic. They are powerless but they do not want to admit it.

My hope is that, by my writings and speeches, I can make the international community more realistic about its influence in the country, and I can help foreign officials new to Bosnia understand the complex nature of the crisis the country is currently undergoing.

5. In your article you are saying about the guilt of international community for failing to intervene earlier. Is it really possible to expect the same mistake in less than 20 years?

One of the themes of my writings is that state building is a science in its infancy. We don’t know how to do it very well, and Bosnia was the first time after the end of the Cold War that we tried. Therefore we were very likely to make a lot of serious mistakes.

Perhaps the most important lesson of the Bosnian experience in state building is the extremely long time scale it takes to make a sustainable difference. In Bosnia state building was pursued with vigour for about ten years. Then when the international community lost interest, everything fell apart. Ten years was not enough to achieve lasting change. If the international community had committed itself to Bosnia for twenty years, perhaps things would have been different. But with four year electoral cycles in the United States and many European countries, it may not be realistic ever to expect foreign countries to be committed for that long.

If we can’t commit to state building for the time necessary to make it to work, should we ever start? These issues are even more acute in Iraq and Afghanistan than they are in Bosnia.

6. In an unfair international game, who would have an interest in Bosnian disintegration, probably a new war even closer to EU border then before and one more newborn country to deal with?

I think this question overstates the interests foreign countries have in Bosnia. Bosnians have a habit of thinking they are the centre of international attention, whereas in fact very few people outside the country’s borders care much about its politics or its future. Bosnia is a small country in a world replete with serious crises. International officials are not concentrating on Bosnia’s problems, and are not seriously contemplating the prospect of another war. I put this risk to one former High Representative just a few weeks ago, and he dismissed the notion out of hand.

International policy towards Bosnia is not therefore driven by foreign interests. It is driven by indifference and carelessness. Foreign governments want to take the course towards Bosnia that causes them least inconvenience. They are not thinking about what happens next year or in five years, but just about next week or next month. That is unlikely to change. The future of Bosnia now lies with Bosnians, not with outsiders.

7. You spent lot of your time in Brcko and you wrote a book about the role of this city in after-war years. Could you please make a short recall of detailed explanation of Brcko role from your book. What role would that city have in your scenario with its position of physical dividing Republika Srpska into two parts?

I have a great love for Brcko, because I met my wife there. I even wrote a book about it, called “A Free City in the Balkans”. Therefore I am very disturbed to see all its successes unravelled. At the height of US government involvement, Brcko was the only place in Bosnia where there had been significant levels of genuine ethnic reintegration. But the US government pulled out too quickly. They turned off the money and withdrew the troops in 2004: those resources were needed in Iraq. Since then things have gone downhill. Now local politicians are quietly repartitioning the District. Genuine mixed schooling – the only place in post-war Bosnia where this was achieved – is being undone. Schools are re-segregating themselves voluntarily, because parents do not want their children to be educated with children from other ethnic groups. It is sad.

I fear Brcko will again become a flashpoint between Bosniacs and Serbs. As RS autonomy increases, and the territory moves towards complete de jure independence, the RS will need to take control over at least part of Brcko District to preserve a “land bridge”. The RS’s current strategy is to let the multi-ethnic government gradually to drop to pieces of its own accord. In time SNSD will fill the power gap with RS money and influence. The party already controls the Brcko Mayor – remarkable, given that SNSD is only the fourth most popular political party in the District. Dodik was handed this present on a plate by the US government. After the 2008 District elections, the two principal candidates for Mayor of Brcko were SDP and SDS. The Brcko Supervisor vetoed them both, for different but equally misconceived reasons. Thus he gave Brcko to Dodik. The US government has demonstrated bewildering strategic incompetence in Brcko.

8. In your opinion, are recent attempts of Milorad Dodik to gain more impact in DC part of plan for disintegration?

The RS is on a diplomatic offensive. It does not feel that the Bosnian Ministry of Foreign Affairs represents its interests; and it is right. The RS has a very poor international image, principally by reason of its associations with Srebrenica. It is trying to improve that image, to decrease foreign resistance to its ultimate goal of separation from the rest of Bosnia.

It is difficult to say whether it is succeeding. There is a diplomatic war underway in Washington DC (and elsewhere), as Bosniac representatives counter-lobby and seek to remind the international community of the more grizzly features of the Bosnian war. Serbs have traditionally been poor at public relations and international diplomacy, but with the parallel pushes by Vuk Jeremic and Milorad Dodik’s people, that may be changing.

9. In almost every of your article sentence you said that international reaction could come too late even if it happens for couple of months or a year. Are you saying that now is the time for strong US-EU intervention in Bosnia before it gets far too late for new and unpredictable conflict?

It is far too late for that. The sort of international intervention many people in Sarajevo now want is unrealistic. There is no way foreign governments will reengage in Bosnia in the muscular manner Wolfgang Petritsch or Paddy Ashdown did. That sort of intervention requires troops on the ground. In 1997 US troops jammed RTRS transmissions at the request of Carlos Westendorp. Those troops are not coming back.

The High Representative knows he is toothless. That is why he no longer uses his “Bonn Powers”. If he did, Dodik would flatly ignore him and the magic would be lost. The High Representative’s authority is a house of cards. [kula otkarata]

Let’s remember that the High Representative was never meant to be a legislative dictator. The Dayton Peace Accords give him no authorities at all. The office was given powers by the PIC in December 1997 because for his own domestic political reasons US President Bill Clinton wanted to push reforms and assert that Bosnian state building was a success. People went along with this because US troops and money gave them incentives to do so. Now those troops and money have gone. The High Representative is a spent force, and Bosnian politicians will have to take responsibility for the direction of their own country.

10. For the last few years, you wrote, it has been late for course change. In your opinion the reform time was best at 1999 but there was also a great chance to go ahead back in 2006 when Dodik accepted changes and Haris Silajdzic consciously shut it down. Did Silajdzic in a way, by doing that, also shutdown the last Bosnian chance toward country’s unity?

Silajdzic was manipulated by Dodik. He is an effective orator but he cannot compromise. Dodik knows this. Thus Dodik made offers knowing Silajdzic would not accept them. That way, Dodik can withdraw his offers, maintain his dirigiste [nepopustljiv] position, and assert that Silajdzic is blocking political reform. These manoeuvrings are typical of Bosnian politics.

11. Were you aware that your article will have a huge impact whatsoever and that it will be in a great favor of Dodik while you were writing it?

I don’t believe anything I say has an influence upon the course of Bosnian politics. I am not that important. I am a lawyer working in private practice, and I represent no government or politician in the Balkans. I represent the opinions of nobody except myself.

I realize my article created strong reactions in Bosnia, but these are views people have held ever since the end of the war. The majority of Bosnian Serbs (and indeed of Bosnian Croats) want nothing to do with the central Bosnian state, whereas most Bosniacs are determined to keep Bosnia a single country. These positions are incompatible, and I only stated the obvious. The reactions my article provoked were reflections of a deeper malaise that we all know pervades Bosnian politics.

My article was not directed towards Bosnian people at all; Bosnian politics will follow its own inevitable course whether or not I express my opinions. My article was aimed as a wake-up call to the international community. The policies of the EU and the USA are unrealistic and naïve. There are political forces at work in Bosnia that foreign officials are refusing to take seriously. The situation is in danger of spiraling dangerously out of control, and the international community is perilously short of influence. People in Washington, Brussels, London and elsewhere need to understand what is happening. If my article helped wake a few people up, it will have achieved its goal.

12. Current High Representative Valentin Inzko called you irresponsible for your statements saying for Dnevni Avaz in November 2009 that it is “irresponsible to talk like that in this phase”. Does that mean that there will be phase in which such opinion will not be so “irresponsible” as now and did you have any contact with Mr. Inzko after that?

If my views were crazy, he would not have felt the need to criticize them publicly. I have never met Mr Inzko (I left OHR before he arrived), but I feel sorry for him. I suspect he is a good man with an impossible job. He is watching the Bosnian state collapse all around him, and there is nothing he can do to prevent it. He did not like my article because it confirmed what he already knew and it revealed the weakness of his own office.

13. What is the actual time line for your scenario: approximately, when would that final scene of declaring separate state be played?

The next struggle will take place shortly after the October elections. Dodik will win a strong victory in the RS; Bosniac votes will be divided, as usual, between three political parties. Thus Dodik’s agreement will be needed to form a new central government; and he will use every measure to resist agreement for as long as possible. In the mean time, state institutions will decay, because legislation cannot be passed and ministers are not in place.

It will be interesting to see how the international community reacts to this problem. If they create enormous pressure, Dodik may agree to create another weak state government like the current one, with one of his men as Chairman of the Council of Ministers. If the international community’s response is weaker, Dodik may frustrate formation of a government indefinitely.

In this scenario, the independence agenda will be accelerated. The RS will argue that the central state is so dysfunctional that it must be abandoned. If a new government is created, Dodik will have to wait for a new crisis.

In either scenario, Bosnian politics move slowly. A major crisis is coming, but it will emerge gradually. I would give it three to five years.

14. Citizens with still hot wounds of all of the three major nationalities are still arguing about the nature of Bosnian war: was it aggression or civil war. Why did you decided to call it civil war and not aggression even though there are numerous Hague convictions that link Serbia with Bosnian war?

This is a semantic debate which I deplore. Wars of words are used to continue the struggle after the guns have stopped firing. I am well aware of the arguments about the legitimacy or otherwise of Bosnia’s 1992 declaration of independence. I am also fully aware of the horrors suffered by people of all nationalities in the Bosnian war. But my analyses are confined to post-war Bosnia.

Tragic as it was, the people of Bosnia need to put the history of the war behind them. Their politicians do not make it easy for them to do so, but the country cannot prosper until that happens. Digging over history does not help create new futures.

15. Would you rather admit that your projections were wrong in decade or so or see worst case scenario coming alive?

I have one hope for Bosnia’s people: that they plot a course in which peace is preserved, the economy can grow and people are lifted out of the desperate poverty that still infects the country. The political instability of the last fifteen years has retarded economic development. I do not care where the borders are drawn or whether power is exercised centrally or locally. I am more interested in jobs, salaries, health care and education. In ten years I would like to see progress in these areas. If that progress is made, the country’s political structure will not matter.

Matthew Parish was formerly Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brčko, a city in northern Bosnia subject to post-war supervision by the US government by reason of its strategic importance in the country’s conflict. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs. His book on international intervention in post-war Bosnia, ‘A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia’, is published by I.B.Tauris. For further details, please click here.

This interview originally appeared in Zurnal magazine on 26th August 2010.

If you are interested in supporting the work of TransConflict, please click here.

To keep up-to-date with the work of TransConflict, please click here.

Email