Failure in Bosnia

Failure in Bosnia

Bosnia’s future as a single, unified state has never been promising, but without effective leadership the future will be bleak indeed. The recent riots need to be seen as a “wake up” call — not for political recrimination and scapegoating, but for intelligence, creative solutions, and cooperation. 

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By Steven E. Meyer

The devastating riots in Bosnia have been a long time in coming, but they are the inevitable result of a broken political system.  While the riots have been much more widespread and destructive in the Federation, the Republika Srpska too has witnessed demonstrations.  This is the most serious blow to the viability of Bosnia – and its entities – since the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995.  There are two underlying causes for the riots, which have finally been brought to the surface by a series of proximate events.

First, Western policy begun in the 1990s – and continued ever since – forced the construction of a state that satisfied Western interests, but had little to do with the interests and desires of the people who actually live in Bosnia.  Bosnia is the result of Western expediency—establishing the successor states of Yugoslavia quickly, from the top down and virtually in isolation from each other.  Western policymakers never understood the ethnic bases of political community in the Balkans and, therefore, found ethnicity to be an unacceptable foundation for modern society.  The attitude in Washington, Brussels, Berlin and London was – and is – that a political community based on ethnicity is a false, broken ideology that was inconsistent with the modern “enlightenment” of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Western ambassadors to Bosnia have seen themselves more as “viceroys” in the traditional British sense of the term – charged with overseeing the development of Bosnian society – than as true representatives of their countries.  The main occupation of too many American Ambassadors to Bosnia has been to guide Bosnia to a “better, more stable, prosperous future” – whether the people and leaders of Bosnia wanted their help of not.  In the event, these “well-meaning” officials have made conditions worse by creating an atmosphere of dependence and expectation among the residents of Bosnia that too often is inconsistent with the interests and aspirations of Bosnian residents.

Second, Bosnian leaders – indeed, leaders throughout the Balkans – have been unwilling or unable to determine futures of their countries.  Their reluctance is psychological – the product of generations of domination by outsiders which has led to a leadership class afflicted by self-doubt, insecurity and timidity.  The net result is a sense that they need to have everything they do approved by one or more Western capitals.  There is a sense that we are “too weak, too small and too poor” to act on our own for  the benefit of our own communities.

Clearly, this has been less true in the Republika Srpska (RS), and, indeed, the RS leadership often defies this trend.  But even in the RS leaders at times are too willing to “look over their shoulders” to see what the West thinks.  The RS has taken refuge in Article IV (the current Bosnian constitution) of the Dayton Agreement which means it still finds it necessary to stay tied to a failed, nearly fictional state. The Federation has never found its political footing; Article IV is almost meaningless.  Political community in the Federation is defined by political infighting, damaged leadership, poorly designed programs – or no programs at all – and ill-fated attempts by the U.S. Embassy to “correct the problems.”

While these two underlying issues have crippled Bosnia ever since 1995, the current violence has been brought on by the impact of the post-2008 economic and financial crisis.  Bosnia already had one of the most depressed economies in Europe and the current economic/financial crisis has made it even worse.  Levels of unemployment, poverty, public debt and corruption are already among the highest in Europe almost certainly will increase.  There is no evidence that these riots are the result of political plots by malcontents and thugs to destabilize one entity or the other.  They are the result of widespread desperation brought on by economic and financial conditions and the inability and unwillingness of the leadership to chart a way forward.  Bosnia – and the entire Balkans – are unlikely to become European “economic engines” any time soon, but they can become stable, productive, economically viable countries if political leaders in the region can find the courage and resources to actually lead – and say NO to Western embassies and capitals.

Bosnia’s future as a single, unified state has never been promising, but without effective leadership the future will be bleak indeed.  The Federation will become even more dysfunctional than it already is.  The gulf between the Federation and the RS will deepen, hastening the disintegration of Bosnia.  The EU will become an even more distant goal than it is now and investment will dry up even further.  In short, these riots need to be seen as a “wake up” call – not for political recrimination and scapegoating, but for intelligence, creative solutions, and cooperation.  If this does not sit well in Western capitals – so be it; they will learn to live with it.

Steven E. Meyer is a partner in the firm TSM Global Consultants and a Fellow at the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. Before that he worked for many years at the Central Intelligence Agency, where his last position was as a Deputy Chief of the U.S. Government’s Interagency Balkan Task Force during the wars of the 1990s. After leaving the CIA, Dr. Meyer taught national security studies, American foreign policy and comparative politics at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Earlier in his career, he taught at the University of Glasgow and the Free University of Amsterdam. He received bachelor’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin, an M.S. degree from Fordham University in New York and a PhD from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., both in comparative politics. He has published in several journals and is working on a book on the changing structure of the international system.

This article was originally published by Serbian daily “Politika” and is available by clicking here.

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24 Responses

  1. The country’s asymmetric entity structure has left one entity, Republika Srpska, with a unitary structure and a strong notion of statehood, while Bosniaks and Croats are forced together into the other entity, FBiH, an unwieldy improvisation governed by hundreds of ministers. As result the systemic gap between the two entities renders the country disintegrated and administratively dysfunctional. A radical way out from situation could be dissolution of the whole BiH, integrate RS with Serbia, FBiH’s Croat dominated cantons with Croatia while Bosniac dominated cantons could seek their national identity from the rest of Bosnia.

    From my point of view the protests which indeed have succeed to change rulers at regional level I see, opposing EU’s centralized dreams, now possibilities to create a new “lighter” administrative system, based to cantons in FBiH and stronger local level administration in RS. So Bosnian Spring in best case may give a boost to more decentralized and administrative easier Bosnia, which also can be kept less corrupted and more democratic.

    It is impossible to guess the outcome but from my perspective Bosnia is now between changes. People in many towns have demonstrated that together they can have influence at local level. Together without ethnic or religious tensions they can avoid failure like it happened with “Arab Spring”. What is clear is that the current political elites, at least in the Federation, have widely lost their legitimacy. It also for the first time politicians became afraid of citizens, some cantonal governments resigned and some reportedly even left the country. A wider impact might be that the ruling class in Zagreb and Belgrade, fearing what this might mean for Croatia and Serbia respectively, immediately took political action. The reactionaries will try to undermine the impact of recent events, but the wheels of history cannot be driven backwards. There is real change for progress by creating new power-structures at local level.

    On the opposite there is also change that counter-move by centralized establishment will win with help of EU and US. Bosnia has struggled under the most cumbersome political system in Europe created by the American-brokered and EU-backed Dayton peace accords. Constitutional reforms are needed and apparent political stability should be replaced by a new long-term strategy. However, if they are again conducted by the same power elite than before, the results will again lack the democratic legitimacy and nothing will change. In my opinion a new kind of engagement by both the US and the European Union is needed to replace the failed policies and approaches in Bosnia. EU and US should take new approach with Bosnia, the protests should be welcomed, old power structures and elite ousted and real implementation and progress led by masses at local grassroots level facilitated. By this way I think that “Bosnian Spring” could be flowering.
    (P.S: these were my conclusions of my article “The ‘Bosnian Spring’ Between Chances” – )

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