Bosnia must "cease being a protectorate"

An interview with Ian Bancroft, the co-founder of TransConflict, on the recent elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the role of the international community and the prospects for reform in the face of prevailing inter-ethnic divisions.

1. What is your opinion on the outcome of the October 3 elections in Bosnia? Will the ethnic rift deepen as a result?

The most surprising outcome is the defeat of Haris Silajdzic by Bakir Izetbegovic – son of the late president, Alija Izetbegovic – in the race for the Bosniak member of the presidency. Silajdzic has long been one of the most uncompromising of Bosnia’s politicians; rejecting the April 2006 package of constitutional reform and regularly calling for the abolition of the entity structure. Izetbegovic’s more reconciliatory rhetoric will hopefully have a positive impact on the tone of Bosnian politics, if little else. Though Izetbegovic has been widely portrayed by the media as a ‘moderate’ – versus the supposed ‘hardliner’, Nebojsa Radmanovic, elected to the Serb member of the presidency – such false dichotomies have little analytical value when it comes to understanding Bosnia’s complicated political dynamics.

As expected, Milorad Dodik – once himself a perceived ‘moderate’ and darling of the international community, particularly during the days of the ill-fated Alliance for Change – has strengthened his grasp on power in the Republika Srpska with the strong performance of the SNSD (the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats) and his own convincing election to the post of president. Dodik will now choose one of his close associates to replace him as prime minister – possibly one of his former advisors, Slavko Mitrovic, or the Republika Srpska’s minister of finance, Aleksandar Dzombic. Dodik – as the undisputed centre of power – will ensure that the presidency of the Republika Srpska, which played a largely symbolic role during Rajko Kuzmanovic’s tenure, becomes ever more prominent and assertive.

One of my biggest concerns, however, relates to Bosnia’s Croats, who once again feel disenfranchised by the election of Zeljko Komsic as Croat member of the presidency; primarily on the back of Bosniak support. Indeed, Dragan Covic, the leader of the HDZ (the Croatian Democratic Union), has already spoken about the creation of a third Entity – a predominantly Croat Entity – and has insisted that the post of Chairman of the Council of Ministers should go to a Croat politician, given that the position was last filled by a Serb and, before that, a Bosniak. These factors will certainly complicate the formation of a governing coalition at the state level, with Zlatko Lagumdžija – the leader of the Social Democratic Party (DSP), with whom Dodik also has an uneasy relationship – keen to secure the post of Chairman.

Though optimistic estimates suggest a governing coalition could be formed by February, the persistence of such disputes and tensions will only serve to further deepen ethnic rifts as the horse-trading and political bargaining gets under-way in earnest.

2. Have ethnic divisions deteriorated mainly as a result of collective economic hardship?

Fifteen years on from the end of the war, any optimism that existed around the turn of the millennium has all but dissipated thanks to Bosnia’s economic woes. The dire economic situation, especially during the economic downturn of the past two years, has encouraged politicians on all sides to seek to distract attention from the harsh realities of daily life – particularly rising unemployment and poverty – and growing sense of frustration by playing the nationalist card; thereby contributing to a further deterioration in ethnic divisions. Strong support for the SDP, which has traditionally campaigned on social and economic issues, however, suggests that some voters have become more alert to the ploys of their politicians.

Indeed, much of Dodik’s support derives from the steps taken to reform the Republika Srpska’s economy, promote foreign investment and create employment opportunities. The same cannot be said about the Federation, which remains hamstrung by bloated bureaucracy, ineffective decision-making structures and poorly-controlled public spending (particularly to war veterans); leaving it lingering on the verge of bankruptcy for several years now. It is clear that persistent failures to reform the Federation have impeded efforts to strengthen state structures. Many in the Republika Srpska question why they should seek closer ties with what they perceive to be a failed part of the state.

3. Former international high representative for Bosnia, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, recently complained that the EU and US “are not connecting on Bosnia.” Do you think that western powers have failed Bosnia? Are you worried about the impact of western withdrawal?

One of the key failures of the international community has been the failure to foster local ownership of the reform process. By inverting the political hierarchy, politicians have been responsible not to their constituents but to the international community itself; meaning that the former have little reason to take difficult decisions, as they can simply attribute painful and politically costly measures to international pressure. They have rarely had to engage in the difficult politics of negotiation, concession and compromise. Such a dynamic has also created a relationship of dependence, with local institutions lacking the necessary capacity to undertake, for instance, the reforms and administration required by the process of EU integration.

My primary fears revolve around disagreements over the nature and structure of the international intervention in Bosnia. These disagreements relate in part to my first point – namely a feeling that Bosnia is not yet ready to take responsibility for its own affairs. Another concern – particularly amongst American diplomats – is the capacity of the EU to lead Bosnia out of its political paralysis. Accordingly, proposals for reform in the international community itself include reinforcing the role of the OHR – something that will be notoriously difficult to do given the delegitimization of the Bonn Powers and the reduced enforcement capacity deriving from reductions in troop numbers – decoupling the EUSR and the OHR, or closing the OHR and merging the EU delegation with the EUSR. Combined with a lack of consensus about the roles of Turkey and Russia, it is clear that the international community urgently requires a new strategy for Bosnia.

Whilst Dodik regularly talks about the possibility of secession for the Republika Srpska, there is a realisation in Banja Luka – one that is rarely publicly expressed – that they lack the guarantors necessary for any independence bid. Of two possible sponsors, Serbia is currently unwilling and Russia unable to both recognize and secure the territorial integrity of the Republika Srpska after any unilaterally declared independence, even if supported by a referendum of its citizens. It is, however, clear that Banja Luka will look to safeguard its remaining competencies and even seek to regain those lost during the state-building process to date. Whilst this will severely complicate efforts at constitutional reform and Bosnia’s European aspirations, it will not lead to the disintegration of Bosnia as widely feared.

4. Some critics wonder whether there is really any reason in trying to keep together an “artificial state” that does not wish to continue to exist as one? What is your opinion on this?

Bosnia is a country where the allegiances of roughly half of its population lie elsewhere; though I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as an ‘artificial state’. No amount of nation building will help foster an over-arching Bosnian identity, at least not for several generations. Indeed, the more Serb or Croat national identity is perceived – whether rightly or wrongly – to be threatened, the more resistant and vociferous that identity becomes.

Given such allegiances – of Bosnian Serbs towards Serbia and Bosnian Croats towards Croatia – it is important to foster the strongest possible ties between Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia; the so-called Dayton Triangle. This is, of course, complicated by the role of the latter two in the conflict of the early nineties; but nonetheless it is something that has to be pursued with greater vigour. Important lessons can be learnt from the experience of Northern Ireland, where the North-South Ministerial Council institutionalises cross-border co-operation in areas of mutual interest, such as agriculture, education, transport and tourism.

Indeed, it is possible to conceive of a similar body – comprised of ministers from Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia (or both entities, where the issue at hand falls under their competence), respectively – that would provide a framework for consultation and co-operation. Special parallel relations already exist and have brought a number of successes, particularly in the spheres of transport and energy between Serbia and Republika Srpska. Strengthening the external dimensions of Dayton, therefore, may help simultaneously reinforce Bosnia’s internal cohesion.

Whilst Bosnia may lack an overriding identity and a civic conception of the state, it does have a largely shared orientation – membership of the EU. In order to progress down that road, however, Bosnia will have to cease being a protectorate; meaning that the OHR will have to close at some point. It has been made absolutely clear that Bosnia cannot secure candidate status whilst the OHR exists. Securing this will not only require the fulfilment of the “5 plus 2” agenda – of which the issue of state property is the most challenging objective – but reinforcing the EUSR with the necessary tools and instruments to ensure that the EU can play the key role that should be assigned to it.

Ian Bancroft is the executive director of TransConflict and a United Nations Global Expert.

Extracts from this interview appeared in an article, entitled ‘Divided we stand’, which can be downloaded in pdf format by clicking here.

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