Dayton Bosnia may be over – but what next?

Rather than advocating one solution to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ongoing crisis, the EU should offer a range, or menu, of reform options – all leading to EU membership.

By Florian Bieber

There appear to be two Bosnias in the debates among policy makers and think tanks – the country on the brink of disintegration or, some say, even war. The other Bosnia is the country of slow progress towards EU integration, taking small but visible steps towards visa liberalization and reform. So, which Bosnia is it?

Talk of conflict or disintegration not only overestimates the odds of such a scenario but is dangerous.

Warnings of a serious crisis and of the failure of the 15-year project of post-war Bosnia started out as a way to grab the attention of Western policy-makers focused on Kosovo, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It worked.

However attracting attention comes at a price. Talk of the dissolution of Bosnia or of war filter back into Bosnian debate, makes headlines in newspapers and confirms one party or another and helps re-create fear and uncertainty. This is not what Bosnia needs nowadays. Thus, inadvertently those pundits warning of conflict and chaos in Bosnia, might in fact be contributing to it.

But is such a scenario realistic? The crisis scenario starts from the premise that the Republika Srpska might secede, and, in the words of Matthew Parish (, author of a recent book on Bosnia, become the newest state to emerge from Yugoslavia (in fact, if he were right there would be at least two – the Republika Srpska and the Federation). There are three compelling reasons why despite all the talk this is not realistic.

First, the Republika Srpska is not a geographically contiguous territory. The bulk of the population of the entity lives in its Western half, surrounded by Croatia and the Federation. The only link to the rest of the entity and to Serbia is through the northern town of Brcko. It is unimaginable that an independent republic (or as part of Serbia) could exist in such borders. As a result, independence for the RS is only possible by changing the existing borders, incorporating the District of Brcko. This in itself would present an insurmountable problem for the entity’s independence – once the issue is not over the status of the entities, but over the borders of the entities, the Republika Srpska would find itself in a very vulnerable position, as the risks of forcing unilateral border changes are clearly high and any consensual change is unimaginable.

Second, the independence of the Republika Srpska is only realistic with implicit or explicit support from Serbia. Despite the close ties that Serbian President Boris Tadic and the Prime Minister of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, have forged, there is little to suggest that Serbia would support such an adventure. Serbia has emphasized its status-quo oriented position, emphasizing the 1995 Dayton peace accords rather than asking for changes to them.

Endorsing independence would not only undo this policy but not be consistent with its domestic policy choices. In May 2008, Serbia effectively voted to pursue EU integration, despite the independence of Kosovo, and rejected parties advocating a more aggressive line. Why would Serbian citizens support an independent Republika Srpska (or support it joining Serbia), when they voted against any confrontational policies over Kosovo?

Third, it is not clear that the political elite of the Republika Srpska genuinely supports independence for their entity. It seems unlikely that Dodik’s party would have consented to include the District of Brcko in the Bosnian constitution – the only formal change to the Dayton constitution to date – if it planned to take the entity out of the country.

Then again, with strong support for EU integration in the Republika Srpska (albeit declining), abandoning EU integration for an independent Republika Srpska that has to change its borders is a high-risk strategy – it would bring about international isolation as well as an end to European integration for the time being and possibly even military intervention. Considering the alternative, namely the status quo, such a scenario appears unattractive.

That the independence of the Republika Srpska, as outlined above, is unlikely rests on one premise – continued international support for Bosnia. Without a clear commitment to support the territorial integrity of Bosnia, the country is doomed (which applies to a number of other countries). By suggesting that the international community should oversee Bosnia’s dissolution, as Parish suggests, he underestimates the ability of international actors to shape the future of Bosnia.

While the imminent dissolution of Bosnia does not seem realistic, there is no doubt the country is in a crisis. Support for secession is not the cause or main driving force of this crisis. As the surveys of the UNDP early warning reports from 2000 suggest, most inhabitants of the Republika Srpska have favoured their entity’s independence throughout (thus preceding the current crisis), though at the same time, this is not a priority for most citizens.

Neither is it ethnic hostility, as the same surveys suggest few cases of ethnic discrimination and in November 2008 only 13.2 per cent or less Bosnian citizens (depending on the ethnic group) rejected the return of minorities from other ethnic groups to their municipality.

Instead, the causes of the current crisis must be found elsewhere. In addition to the domestic political dynamics between the Bosniak politician Haris Silajdzic and Dodik, international actors have contributed their fair share to the current crisis.

International, and first and foremost EU, policy in Bosnia has been inconsistent and counterproductive. The High Representative, OHR, as an institution has outlived its usefulness. However, instead of leaving the scene with a bang, the OHR has been reduced to a whimper. Marginalized, excluded from key decisions, without the backing of key states in the Peace Implementation Council and at times the EU, the institution has been allowed to become an institution with great powers, high expectations and little ability to make use of them.

This has dealt the leadership of the Republika Srpska a hand it has played well since 2006. In addition, international criteria appear to be in constant flux. The recent, failed Butmir talks suggested that constitutional reform was once more a requirement for the closure of the OHR and reduced international engagement. However, over the past years, the EU has displayed only lukewarm support for constitutional changes. This back- and-forth over conditions and criteria undermines the credibility of international actors and the EU and creates confusion that facilitates political elites’ stonewalling. It is also indicative of the lack of a clear goal.

Trying to push for quick constitutional changes, as happened in Butmir, has been a particularly striking error of international policy in Bosnia. Constitutional reform appeared to become the solution – a quick fix to address the political blockade of Bosnia. While I and many other scholars have supported constitutional reform in Bosnia for years, the purpose and manner of the Butmir talks have been fundamentally flawed.

Constitutional changes make sense to a) streamline the decision-making process b) strengthen human rights and c) facilitate EU integration. However, a botched constitutional reform process can further raise the stakes and jeopardize the biggest prize that constitutional reform can offer, namely the establishment of a new consensus over the Bosnian state. Constitutional reform – not conducted as a hasty round of debates between party leaders in a EUFOR base – can create a compromise that can close debates over secession or abolition of the entities.

At the same time, the hope that streamlining the decision-making processes in the constitution will help overcome the current blockages is naïve. Bosnian institutions will for the foreseeable future need to have a system that allows one of the entities or constituent peoples to block decisions. Bosnia would be more dysfunctional and more likely to fall apart if most decisions did not require broad consensus. While changing certain voting rules and quorums might make taking decisions easier, its impact on policy-making in Bosnia will be long term at best. The current stalemate in Bosnia has political, not institutional causes and solutions.

Instead of quick crisis-style constitutional changes to overcome the current impasse, the emphasis should be on what the EU does best – process. How can there be confidence in Bosnian institutions if decisions are taken by party leaders under international supervision, far from parliament? Less might be more when it comes to institutional and constitutional change. For example, there appears to be broad consensus that parts of the Bosnian constitution that are not in harmony with European human rights standards need to be changed. Such changes are not as controversial as entity voting but can be achieved before the next general elections in 2010.

They would also help open the door to changing the constitution. Here international actors can be of tremendous help. The European Union could help provide Bosnia with options on how it can organize its competencies and decision-making between state and entities to allow it become an EU member. Rather than suggesting one solution, the EU would be well served to give Bosnia an institutional “menu” that defines the framework within which Bosnia can define its institutions and division of powers to be part of the EU.

After all, the only way in which Bosnia can succeed is as an EU member state. As such, the era of Dayton Bosnia is over, while the contours of the new Bosnia are yet to take shape.

Florian Bieber is a Lecturer in East European Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.



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