Clinton-Ashton ukazes – now what?

Whatever happens, regarding the Balkans as a whole, international notables once again have demonstrated they have no real strategy regarding how to grapple with the region beyond ad hoc, improvisational management of the various twists and turns they often neither anticipate nor efficiently adjust to.

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By David B. Kanin

The US Secretary of State and the EU’s Chief foreign policy officer recently delivered the latest in the never-ending series of great power admonishments to authorities in the region. They focused on two problematic American projects—the rickety Bosnian entity created at Dayton in 1995 and the contested independence of Kosova. Once again, Bosnia was warned that it is falling behind in its quest to join the EU, and both Kosova and Serbia were instructed to get back to the dialogue table. When the trip was over, it was not clear that anything had changed. Local developments soon pushed this round of diplomacy off the front pages (especially in Bosnia). The two Western paladins ignored Macedonia, which was in the midst of an ugly exchange with Bulgaria over national symbols and ever-present identity problems, but where quiet diplomacy engineered by Matthew Nimitz seemed to be creating an atmosphere conducive to another run at resolving the “name” issue.

Bosnia — the new sporazum
The Westerners had barely left Sarajevo when Milorad Dodik and Zlatko Lagumdzija dropped a political bomb that made their visit what bureaucrats call “OBE” – overtaken by events. The erstwhile adversaries came to terms on a deal that would cement the decentralization of the failing Bosnian construct and threaten to divide politics between them.

For Lagumdzija, this has been quite a year. The government he had cobbled together with leaders of the Bosnjak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) had failed to put him in the hegemonic position he sought, and so he worked to disgorge SDA ministers in favor of a deal with Fahrudin Radoncic, who has his own ambitions to become the Silvio Berlusconi of Bosnia. Lagumdzija also renewed talks with leading Bosnian Croatian politicians to pull them into a coalition that would permit Lagumdzija to play his shifting partners (to include those in the SDA he would keep in touch with if – as expected – that party’s internal tectonics took a turn for the worse) off against each other.

This political manoeuvring was enough to make an observer’s head hurt, but they were nothing compared to the dance of the master manipulators. Lagumdzija had started the process by adding to the Radoncic partnership a foray into international affairs. He took it upon himself (as foreign minister) to dictate Bosnia’s vote in the UN General Assembly in favor of Western-backed language on Syria, in clear defiance of the certain decision to abstain that would have come out of the required consultations with Bosnia’s collective Presidency. Dodik predictably lashed out against Lagumdzija’s behavior and made his sacking a condition for further work on virtually anything of interest to the country’s Western overseers. Lagumdzija responded with the usual legalisms, leading to the typical, meaningless, back-and-forth that proved once again that Bosnia does not work.

That basically remained the state of things when Clinton and Ashton showed up. Their tag-team scolding contained nothing different from previous versions, and did not appear to add much to news reports that the Americans were attempting to get Bosnjak and Croat leaders to “reform” their dysfunctional Federation so the thing would—somehow—function.

Within a day of their departure Lagumdzija and Dodik put paid to that. Dodik not only no longer demanded Lagumdzija’s head, but stood with him and announced a package of changes that would further devolve Bosnia’s legal as well as political framework. Never mind that a construction as weak as Bosnia might well not be able to absorb a debate over such changes without becoming even less legitimate than it already is to its fragmented publics.

It is important to stress the timing of this deal. Springing this within hours of the Clinton-Ashton visit amounted to a conscious decision by both men to demonstrate that they, not anyone in Washington, Brussels, or the Embassies in Sarajevo, run Bosnia.

Faction heads of a surprised SDA attempted to frame some kind of opposition to the Dodik-Lagumdzija maneuver. Suleiman Tihic complained that Dodik and Lagumdzija would “break up” Bosnia and Bakir Izetbegovic called for protests. At this point, it is not clear anyone in the fragmented SDA or the other Bosnjak parties are credible enough with their constituency to effectively challenge the new Sporazum. For his part, Radoncic’s Dnevni Avaz (3 November) dutifully reported that citizens, intellectuals, and business people were “excited” at the parts of the agreement related to improving the business environment in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

For their part, the surprised internationals had almost nothing to say as Bosnia once again shifted under their feet. Bosnia’s grandly named “High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council” (which would be a major loser) if the Dodik-Lagumdzija proposals became law, joined a few ambassadors to criticize the deal, but so what?

Lagumdzija’s part in this political swerve is the more fascinating. Dodik is just doing what he always does by thumbing his nose at the always off-balance foreigners and shifting political course whenever it suits his interest. (although, his idea of de-militarizing Bosnia has interesting implications for the country’s fit as a future NATO member.) Lagumdzija, on the other hand, has made the choice to risk whatever is left of his international image as the hope of civic politics for the sake of a Sporazum that – more, perhaps, than anything he has done before – highlights the personal ambitions that always are his sole priority.

Since Dodik and Lagumdzija presented their proposals, there has been considerable speculation about what the two men will give the Croats. After all, the two leading Bosnian Croat parties’ behavior during the latter stages of debate over whether Lagumdzija should resign as Foreign Minister signaled they were in on the deal. Both Dragan Covic and Bozo Ljubic publicly welcomed the deal once the duumvirate put it on the table.

Lagumdzija likely would not go so far as to permit the Croats a formal third entity (Dodik would). Nevertheless, if he is willing to divide the country with Dodik, Lagumdzija might be amenable to changing the rules to ensure a devolution of effective power from the failing Federation to local Croat politicians in Herzegovina. The two men also might consider – but here things could get tricky – an arrangement in Mostar somewhat akin to that enabled by the 1961 Yugoslav constitution (the last arrangement that satisfied Croatian notables). The future of Mostar is particularly important to Ashton. Since the opening stages of the 1992-5 Bosnian war the EU has claimed the town as a special interest, but has serially failed to midwife a deal between its dominant Bosnjak and Croat communities.
The internationals likely will scrutinize how the new Sporazum will affect selection of the seat on the collective presidency supposedly reserved for a Croat, and on whether the dynamic duo will obey demands reiterated by Clinton and Ashton regarding defense property and changes demanded under the Sejdic-Finci lawsuit. The arrangements Bosnia’s duumvirate make with the Croats, however, likely will be more significant in determining the next phase of Bosnia’s troubled trajectory.

In any case, the new Sporazum will not last forever – and may not last long. Dodik and Lagumdzija remain fundamentally at odds in terms of politics and personal pecking order. They each have many internal adversaries – and this cynical deal will gain each many more. Meanwhile, whether any of their specific proposals take hold is less important than the ability of these two politicians to turn attention at home and abroad to themselves.

Meanwhile, on 2 November, Dnevni List reported that many young citizens of all ethnic backgrounds have insisted on declaring themselves as civic Bosnians or Herzegovinians, rather than as ethnic nationals a Bosnia prepares for its first formal census since 1991. Perhaps this could finally indicate the presence of the bottom-up anti-nationalist groundswell Western NGOs and civic activists have longed for (and, sometimes, prematurely predicted). Otherwise, until some new political constellation or popular movement emerges capable of challenging Bosnia’s fractured status quo, further ukazes from foreign authorities—like the OBE Clinton-Ashton rhetoric—will amount to spitting in the wind.

Serbia-Kosova – striving for stasis

The part of the Clinton-Ashton devoted to the contested former Serbian province demonstrated how much the Americans have had to lower their sights over the past half decade. In 2006 they insisted that the UN Security Council – including the Russians – would agree on a new resolution sanctifying Kosova’s independence. When (after months of letting the Americans climb out on this limb) Moscow brushed that notion aside, Washington spent the next 18 months or so predicting universal acceptance of Kosova’s unilateral independence, insisting this was a unique situation – no one possibly could consider the issue comparable in any way to other issues of secession and sovereignty. This too failed, as five members of the EU rejected the US interpretation and held back recognition precisely for the sake of their own sovereignty politics. Since then, Washington has tried repeatedly to get those five to change their positions, with no success.

Now the US merely seeks a practical arrangement permitting Kosova to function like a state even though it will continue to lack universal recognition and a UN seat. While in the region, secretary of state Clinton told the Serbs she knows they will not recognize Kosova and avoided comment on the inconvenient split in the EU. She called only for a bilateral agreement between Belgrade and Pristina on how the area north of the Ibar will relate to each of them, how they will handle traffic and contact at the de facto border between them (or is it de jure?), and how they will manage other administrative issues and implement agreement already made.
There is an inverse relationship between Clinton’s strident assertion that Kosova’s sovereignty is certain and uncontested, her declaration that Kosova’s borders are fixed “forever,” and the facts of these issues. If these things actually were true she would not have to say anything at all. The declarative tone of Western rhetoric merely underscores the fact there are no final statuses south of the Sava.

Regarding Kosova-Serbia, as opposed to Bosnia, it is necessary to separate Ashton from Clinton. The EU split over Kosova’s contested sovereignty meant the EU foreign policy chief could not say the same things as the American secretary of state; in fact, she ignored the sovereignty issue in favor of a focus on her role in the ongoing bilateral talks between the sides. For Ashton, the visit was not perfectly timed, given EU auditors’ findings that the European Rule of Law (EULEX) presence in Kosova has been anything but efficient or effective.
The talks Ashton is moderating continued on 7 November, and might lead to some sort of arrangement that freezes local conditions without prejudicing a future outcome of the status dispute. It would be a good thing if Pristina and Belgrade can find a way to create some sort of arrangement that builds on the gradual willingness of at least some Serbs living north of the Ibar to accommodate themselves to international and even Kosovar administrative presence—something many of their southern counterparts have been doing for years.

This will not be easy, given the passionate, well organized and armed opposition to this attitude among a critical mass of northern Serbs. Chances for success likely depend in large part on whether international efforts somehow can replace the current informal economic system operating in the north with something that can be simultaneously transparent and effective. This would take force; diplomacy and rhetorical pressure on Belgrade will not do the trick, even though the apparent willingness of some Serbs on both sides of the de facto border to steal from their own people might help undermine the heroic image these political and economic entrepreneurs so far have been able to enjoy.

It is important to understand that the best case – a bilateral deal kicking the sovereignty can down the road while creating a mutually acceptable administrative regime – will merely freeze the conflict by creating conditions for a long-term stasis that all sides would be wary of threatening later by pressing for a decision on sovereignty. The EU would be able to avoid dealing with its own contradictions on Kosova’s sovereignty, and could delay admitting either protagonist as long as it chooses (perhaps by constructing some sort of special “partnership” with Serbia and Kosova along the lines some in the EU want to do with a Turkey they also are in no hurry to admit to the Club). Kosovar Prime Minister Thaci could not be serious when he said Serbo-Kosovar talks will result in “mutual recognition.”
Of course, best cases do not always eventuate in the Balkans. The current talks could drag on or come apart. Whatever happens, regarding the Balkans as a whole, international notables once again have demonstrated they have no real strategy regarding how to grapple with the region beyond ad hoc, improvisational management of the various twists and turns they often neither anticipate nor efficiently adjust to.

David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

To read other articles by David for TransConflict, please click here.

If you are interested in contributing to the debate on conflict in the Balkans, then please contact TransConflict by clicking here.

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