The problem with Bosnia’s last High Representative

The ideal role of Bosnia’s last High Representative is to disappear quietly, without any noticing that he is doing it. He needs to evaporate slowly but surely, leaving a country without this international structure that might just have a prospect of surviving without it. This may be very difficult; but it is Bosnia’s only hope. There will not be another High Representative.

Matthew Parish

Christian Schmidt, Bosnia’s latest High Representative, assumed office on 1 August 2021. His beginnings have been inauspicious. Perceiving some new and unusual level of instability associated with his arrival, he has threatened an increase in troops levels in the country. This is a foolish threat, since the issue is not up to him and no troop-contributing power is going to increase funding commitments for so dangerously an ethnically divided country. Schmidt has met Mato Tadic, the notoriously corrupt Bosnian jurist who was deposed from the Presidency of Bosnia’s Constitutional Court by international action in 2006. He has since crept back up the Chamber to the top spot; but few remaining in Bosnia’s international community have any institutional memory.

Schmidt has proven inept at managing the relationship with Republika Srpska, condemning what his advisors have told him is an illegitimate attempt to merge Bosnian Serb army units onto the Bosnian Police. At one point there was a purported extra-constitutional merger of mono-ethnic military units into a military force consistent with NATO membership, and those units were ostensibly under central control in Sarajevo. However Bosnia never advanced towards NATO membership and these efforts went nowhere.

Schmidt’s advisors have filled his diary with ceremonial nonsense constraining him from having the genuine regional meetings that might result in a Middle Eastern settlement for Bosnia. His Russophobia, for which he was well-known as a Bavarian parliamentarian, has shone through: something the Russians have exploited by baiting him, proclaiming that he has no legal authorities and was not properly appointed.

Schmidt has undertaken extensive contacts with the Roman Catholic Church in Bosnia. This author is not saying anything about Bosnia’s Roman Catholic Church, nor about Schmidt’s allegiance to Roman Catholicism. This author considers himself a Roman Catholic. The point is just that over-associating oneself with one of the country’s three principal religious identities as an international official in Bosnia and Herzegovina leads to an inevitable charge of partiality in favour of the Bosnian Croats, of whom few are left (some 15 per cent, according to the 2013 census; even less now). Croats are already over-represented in all three of legislative, executive and judicial branches of Bosnia’s obtuse consociational constitutional structures, so providing them with enhanced access to Bosnia’s governor only further stirs resentments.

The chorus of domestic condemnation of Christian Schmidt’s initial tenure as High Representative led the Peace Implementation Council, the informal international governing board overseeing Bosnia’s post-war reconstruction some 26 years after the end of the country’s war, to issue a rare statement of support in his favour on 10 November 2021. Naturally it was not unanimous; Russia dissented. The fact that such a statement was necessary at all suggested that Schmidt is treading perilous political waters indeed. Rumours exist amongst corridors of power that other major Peace Implementation Council powers may withdraw their support for him. He would need to lose only one such power, and his tenure would draw to a premature and humiliating close.

Schmidt is not a bad man. He is a regional German politician thrust into an international political role about which he knows little and for which he has failed so far to show the qualities of statesmanship that his role entails. After a bumpy beginning, he might well grow into the statesman he must be in order to hold the profoundly delicate role of Bosnia’s international overlord after a war that ended 26 years ago. But time is not on his side, and he might likewise continue to demonstrate that he is not up to the task or even harbour an understanding of what that task ought to be.

So much for a litany of mistakes and misjudgments barely within Mr Schmidt’s imagined honeymoon period of three months. Many of Schmidt’s problems arise out of the fact that he will be Bosnia’s last High Representative. The job was dumped upon him by the abrupt departure of Bosnia’s prior leading international official, Valentin Inzko, the Austrian-Slovene diplomat who wisely sensed that he had better retire before everything fell apart and the prospect of hot war might re-emerge. Bosnia has a generation-long history of post-war international governing officials from December 1996 onwards. As a result she is poorer than ever, subject to apart from anything else colossal population exodus. In 1991 her population was 4.4 million. In the nationwide census held in 2013 it was 3.7 million; current estimates suggest it is down to perhaps 3.4 million. Given that some 100,000 people died and that people reproduce, the dramatic reduction in the population over some 30 years is astonishing and disturbing.

Amidst a 22% population reduction, unique globally within this time period, the country has only succeeded in going backwards by virtually every measure. This is despite Bosnia at one point being the highest recipient of international aid on a per capita basis in history – and by a large margin. Not all Bosnia’s international governors have been incompetent; the reason why Bosnia’s development is is elusive is that the international governance structure imposed upon the Bosnian people and politicians at the end of 1996 (a year after the Dayton Peace Accords settled the country’s borders and constitutional structures) was a bad one, in which legislation could be imposed over the wishes of the country’s democratic legislatures and elected officials could be removed permanently from public office, contrary to all democratic principles. It is virtually a priori obvious that arbitrary officials undertaking arbitrary acts of government divorced from democratic and constitutional principles will yield unsatisfactory governmental outcomes.

Schmidt is just the latest official to occupy a constitutional position with Bosnia that should never have been created, and that Bosnia’s people and political classes never themselves agreed to. The so-called Bonn Powers are not mentioned in the text of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, but instead at an international conference of donor nations in late 1996. The Dayton Peace Accords anticipated the High Representative to be strictly a mediator, and that is the only role Bosnia’s first High Representative, Carl Bildt, exercised until he was ousted by US dissatisfaction with the non-muscular way in which he went about his duties. The transformation of the role into that of an international dictator was obtained by sleight-of-hand legal rewriting of one clause of the Dayton Accords; Bosnia’s domestic political actors had little presence in the Bonn Conference and no voting power, and hence did not agree to any of this.

International proconsulship in modern Europe does not work, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, over the last 26 years, is the principal case study in why not. The international community likes to blame Bosnia’s domestic institutions for the country’s comprehensive political, civil and economic collapse. But you can’t have it both ways. With power comes responsibility. If you establish an international governing structure of foreign civil servants with the power to write and rewrite legislation and remove domestic governing officials, then you are responsible for the state of the country that you are running. Inevitably, given such a structure, Bosnia’s democratic institutions corrode or, at the very least, remain deeply immature. That is because they know that they are not the institutions of last resort.

In Bosnia one can virtually forget the democratically elected officials. Another official, international power, without responsibility to a democratic electorate, is actually in charge, and therefore as a democratically elected politician you stand in the position of Zealot leaders to Pontius Pilate. You are irrelevant; the Office of the High Representative is relevant, and OHR will tell you what to do or you will be removed from office. This makes for bad political management, and the fault is that of the members of the Peace Implementation Council that created the Bonn Powers, something that recent history has demonstrated to be a comprehensively bad idea. Once a group of international actors have created institutions of overarching authority above the domestic political institutions of a country, they are responsible for the country’s welfare and in the case of Bosnia they have failed abjectly.

To understand why this is so, we might consider the respected journalist Julian Borger’s latest essay on Bosnia in The Guardian newspaper. His academic sources were poor, their prior work being in some cases unrealistic or racist. (One of Borger’s academic consultants, Jasmin Mujanovic, once wrote a blatantly racist article and the author of this essay, entitled “Open Letter to Matthew Parish, Colonialist Clairvoyant”, including photographs of persons from the British Imperialist era wearing pith helmets.) Nobody should write about Bosnia without being familiar with, and making enquiries of, persons familiar with all three of the country’s ethnic groups and their dramatically differing political views. The basis for his sources aside, the principal tenet of Borger’s article is that Bosnia now needs more international supervision, 26 years on from its inception, not less. This sounds inherently implausible; the fact that the very question is being imposed suggests that something has gone dreadfully wrong with international governance in post-war Bosnia.

The record, particularly combined with that in Kosovo (a study of which is outside the scope of this essay but about which this author has written much) suggests that international proconsulship is correlated with economic and population decline, and shockingly bad standards of rule of law. But actually the situation is even worse. Proconsular oversight is like an addictive drug that it is hard to shake off. Once a country’s population and politicians becomes so used to international officials managing all the country’s important decisions for them, they find it impossible to shake off the habit and revert to being a proper democracy. That is the problem with being Bosnia’s last High Representative. You have a country with a heroin-like addiction to international dictatorial rule, and that addiction has devastated your country’s economic and political body; but abandoning the narcotic is likely to cause the country to go into profound shock and collapse. Inartfully handled, it may kill the patient altogether.

Whenever it is that Schmidt himself retires, there are two possible subsequent scenarios. One is a reversion to the constitutional structures that the Dayton Peace Accords themselves created. The idea that a super-constitutional structure, imposed by various High Representatives since then, can be maintained in the absence of the international governing structure is fanciful. Without the international glue to keep them in place, and because there was no inter-ethnic consensus upon those super-constitutional structures without subsequent High Representatives applying constant pressure, they will inevitably collapse. The other option, that may come to pass as Schmidt pulls out, is renewed civil war. The various sides may decide that inciting civil war has the prospect of obtaining for them a better result than a return to Dayton. Any three of the sides might play this card, depending upon whether the other sides do. It only takes one side to escalate, and incentives to escalate will then automatically arise for all three sides. Hence the situation is extremely unstable. One wrongly played card may begin renewed civil confrontation, essentially in the form of a land grab by one or more of the three sides against the others. This was the principal dynamic of Bosnia’s first civil war (1992-1995).

The High Representative’s job is therefore very delicate. He should not be meeting with extremists or appearing partisan. He should not be using his theoretical legal.powers or even threatening to do so. He should not be expressing political opinions on behalf of what he imagines to be the international community. Instead he should be disappearing into obscurity, doing as little as possible and allowing the domestic democratically elected parties and officials to retake the political ground that he is abandoning. He must do this gradually, gracefully and deftly, to prevent himself creating an excuse by one or more sides for conflict. In an ideal world he would be continuing the work of his predecessors in promoting Bosnia’s economy. However since none of his predecessors achieved this to any significant degree, it is almost impossible for him to pick up that chalice.

Instead, the ideal role of Bosnia’s last High Representative is to disappear quietly, without any noticing that he is doing it. He needs to evaporate slowly but surely, leaving a country without this international structure that might just have a prospect of surviving without it. This may be very difficult; but it is Bosnia’s only hope. There will not be another High Representative. The structure is an absurd anachronism and by a substantial distance the longest international proconsular regime in recent history. It is a model destined for the dustbin of history. However its failings are sufficient potentially to trigger a new civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and if that does not happen then it will only be because Mr Schmidt has radically changed from his current course and has learned the wisdom of his role. That would be to slip out from the country quietly and without political disturbance, leaving Bosnia to be one more impoverished European democracy. After that optimistic outcome, the pressure for Bosnia’s subsequent economic development will need to be solely the prospect of EU membership. And that is something upon which Brussels and Berlin will actually need to deliver.

Matthew Parish is the Managing Partner of The Paladins,, a private firm of legal, security and intelligence consultants. He is the author of three books and over four hundred articles  on international law, international relations and geopolitics. The author wishes to state that other than a handful of interactions with Christian Schmidt (who was offered an opportunity to comment upon this article before publication), he has not been persuaded or lobbied by any person to write this essay.

Follow the author on Twitter @parish_matthew or The Paladins at thepaladins2.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.

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