The silent passing of Bosnian proconsulship

By lifting the OHR’s remaining bans, Valentin Inzko has quietly conceded that the OHR no longer has the moral authority to dismiss people from public office or to punish them by international decree, thereby marking a profound change in the international community’s attitudes towards Bosnia and Herzegovina.

By Matthew Parish

An era of tyranny has quietly drawn to a close. On Friday 10 June 2011, Bosnia’s High Representative Valentin Inzko lifted the suspensions from public office of virtually all the remaining officials subject to his predecessors’ bans. He removed the blockages of all individuals’ bank accounts that had been frozen by prior High Representatives’ orders, and lifted the restrictions upon the finances of the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, that have been in place for the better part of a decade.

These are significant steps. Since December 1997, successive High Representatives have used increasingly repressive measures against Bosnian politicians to force the country to develop in the direction the international community desires. Initially, a series of local mayors were dismissed from office for presiding over failures by OSCE to achieve substantial refugee returns. These decisions were arbitrary, in the sense that no evidence was presented against the officials and no studies were undertaken of their work. The individuals were simply declared complicit in failing to facilitate return of refugees, and fired with immediate effect. They had no opportunity to respond to the allegations against them, and no right of appeal or review. In all cases they had been democratically elected. They were also banned from holding further public office for an indefinite period of time, a severe burden in a post-conflict economy with few jobs of substance in the private sector.

A step change followed with the dismissal of Dragan Cavic, then Vice-President of SDS, from his position as a Republika Srpska parliamentarian in October 1998. He was the first senior official to be removed from office by the High Representative. His crime was to give a political speech about the then unfolding Kosovo crisis that was not to the High Representative’s liking. In March 1999 the President of Republika Srpska, Nikola Poplasen, was dismissed for refusing to support a minority coalition government led by Milorad Dodik (now himself President of Republika Srpska). Peremptory sackings were subsequently used as a policy instrument, as the Office of the High Representative transformed itself into an absolutist colonial governor. Laws and policy initiatives for Bosnia were conceived and drafted by foreigners in the hallways of OHR; elected officials would willingly adopt and implement them, or they would be dismissed.

Mass dismissals became common shows of force. High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch dismissed 12 people (and imposed 24 laws and amended the constitutions of both Entities) in his last two days in office. Ashdown dismissed some 58 officials on one day in June 2004. The so-called “Bonn powers”, named after the international conference that created them, became used with increasing frequency and capriciousness. Some of the most repellent exercises of this unrestrained authority took place quite late. In July 2007 High Representative Miroslav Lajcak accused a hitherto obscure official Dragomir Andan, then Deputy Head of Police Education in Republika Srpska, of supporting Radovan Karadzic, fired him from office, confiscated his identity documents (and those of 90 other people) and ordered the police to investigate him. In September of the same year his Deputy, Raffi Gregorian, fined a Brcko District parliamentarian two months’ salary for making an obscene gesture on television. Bosnia’s Constitutional Court, despairing of the gross failures of due process and right to a fair trial inherent in OHR’s methods, declared that the Bosnian courts should review OHR’s decisions. OHR annulled its judgment and threatened any judge with the same sanctions should (s)he seek to implement the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

The greater majority of OHR dismissals were justified in byzantine terms. The following text is typical of the reasons given. “As a constituent of the current political culture within Republika Srpska, [name] is derivatively culpable for contributing to the institutional failure to purge from the political landscape of conditions conducive to the provision of material support and sustenance to individuals indicted” by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. OHR pretended that individuals removed from office were part of an extended support network throughout Republika Srpska for Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. No evidence of this was presented at the time; and it has now been shown to be untrue. Both Karadzic and Mladic were found in Serbia, not in Republika Srpska, and the final years they were surviving without external support. The support network hypothesised by OHR simply did not exist. The reason these fugitives evaded capture for so long was because the government of Serbia did not find their arrests to be convenient until relatively recently.

The true motives for OHR’s dismissals had nothing to do with Karadzic or Mladic. The High Representatives pushed a model of central government far beyond that anticipated by the Dayton constitution. Serb and Croat politicians had no desire to see the creation of a central state, which they anticipated would be dominated by the Bosniak plurality. Hence their compliance had to be secured by threats. Dismissals were used as tools of political terror, to force recalcitrant Bosnian politicians to do what OHR wanted. They were the principal instruments in a novel model of neo-colonial administration of a post-conflict state, and it is for this innovation that historians will principally remember OHR.

As well as being unfair to the individuals concerned, this model was not sustainable. Unless the international community was going to run Bosnia as a colony indefinitely, sooner or later the dismissals would have to stop. At that point the pressure upon Serb and Croat politicians to accede to a centralising state-building agenda would be relieved; and they would revert to their latent centrifugal goals. That account has characterised Bosnia’s steady disintegration since 2006, when Ashdown’s departure coincided with the rise to power of an aggressive Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, unsullied by wartime associations and thus unsusceptible to the High Representatives’ threats.

To his credit, the current High Representative Valentin Inzko has realised this. OHR is on its very last legs. Although its death has been drawn out in an unnecessarily tortured manner over the past five years, everyone realises that the institution has lost all credibility in Bosnian politics. In last month’s crisis over a threatened referendum in Republika Srpska, OHR played no role. The affair was brought to a conclusion by concessions from Catherine Ashton, the EU’s head of foreign policy, who travelled to the Bosnian Serb capital to pay Dodik homage. Inzko’s mandate runs until 31 August this year. He views his draconian powers with palpable distaste. It seems unlikely any credible replacement for him can be found; when his predecessor resigned, several candidates turned the role down before the previously unknown Mr Inzko was discovered.

The High Representative is therefore making the final preparations for his organisation’s closure. Chief amongst these measures is the rehabilitation of all those dismissed and banned for life from public office. It cannot be right that people are deprived of work and the right to political association just because they crossed the wishes of a foreign diplomat five to ten years ago. On Friday Inzko rehabilitated almost everyone. Yet this measure, while welcome, is not the end of the problem: Bosnian and international courts will spend several years hence adjudicating compensation claims for indefensible breaches of the affected individuals’ human rights. Given the large number of individuals affected, the size of these claims may be substantial; yet it remains unclear who will satisfy them. OHR has no money, and the Bosnian state has little spare cash. Ultimately the intervening powers responsible for creating OHR may have to foot a sizeable bill for this unfortunate foray into internationally sanctioned despotism.

In lifting OHR’s remaining bans, Inzko has quietly conceded that OHR no longer has the moral authority to dismiss people from public office or to punish them by international decree. An educated and civilised advocate of European values, he considers the use of these powers out of place in a modern democracy. In taking this decent stance he deserves to be praised in the highest degree, because his embrace of principle is likely to subject him to significant attacks. Abdication of the Bonn powers confirms there is now no domestic tool to prevent Bosnia’s Serbs and Croats from pursuing their secessionist goals. Bosnia and Herzegovina may collapse over the coming months, and the international community will shortly find it convenient to blame Inzko. We will hear expressions of despair about his weak leadership and lack of resolve in letting Dodik push the country to the brink of failure. The period of proconsulship is now over, and the international community will need a scapegoat for the fact that its labours over the last 15 years have proven to be for naught. The Americans in particular will inveigh over European weakness, refusing to countenance that their heavy-handed model of state-building, pioneered by Richard Holbrooke in reconstructing Bosnia and Kosovo, has proven unsuccessful.

Once Inzko departs, OHR will be eclipsed by Peter Sorensen, the recently appointed head of the EU delegation to Sarajevo. This new position created by Catherine Ashton at the end of May went with relatively little comment; but its significance is profound. It represents a dramatic change of emphasis from the American model of intervention to the EU approach pioneered in Macedonia. Sorensen’s instructions are that Bosnian politicians will do what they will, at least in the short term; but whatever the country’s future, it is only by improving the quality of public administration and the courts that Bosnia may reap the benefits of ever closer association with the EU. As Bosnia’s citizens see their neighbours move slowly towards EU membership, they may long for the same results. In turn they may demand that their politicians put their differences aside and pursue the same goals.

This soft power strategy carries its own dangers. It risks underestimating the depth of inter-ethnic animosity, which may impede meaningful political cooperation whatever the external incentives. It also assumes a maturity to Bosnian democracy – in which the electorate can be expected to vote for the outcome most economically beneficial to them – which so far has proven absent. The most desirable solution for the future of Bosnia may be as a radically decentralised state which maintains formal unitary sovereignty only in name. The Scottish, Swiss and Northern Irish models all may provide insights in this regard. But such an approach would entail dismantling many of the institutions of central government that OHR previously created. If the EU tries to resist this course, then it may perpetuate political crisis in much the same way as OHR has done and its soft power will prove uninfluential.

We are on the brink of a profound change in the international community’s attitudes towards Bosnia. Bosniaks will not like it, because they perceive the authority of OHR to have been exercised mostly in their interests. Croats and Serbs will welcome it because they will be able to advance their agendas to dismantle the loadstones of central government institutions that successive High Representatives compelled them to bear through fear. Many dangers lie ahead if the transition is not managed with care. But those concerned for democracy and the rule of law in one of Europe’s most impoverished and benighted corners should admire Inzko for finally jettisoning a discreditable model of building states. International officials cannot credibly exhort domestic politicians to observe the bedrock standards of European governance set out in the European Convention on Human Rights, if they do not see fit to submit to those standards themselves. We should applaud Inzko for correcting his predecessors’ wrongs, and restoring the civil liberties of those unjustly deprived of them through international executive fiat. This is not an attractive way of helping ruined countries recover from the horrors of civil war.

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. His new book, “Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law”, will be published by Edward Elgar in 2012. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs. www.matthewparish.com

Mr. Parish’s book on international intervention in post-war Bosnia, A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia (International Library of War Studies), is published by I.B.Tauris.

His new book, ‘Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order is published by Edward Elgar.

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