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European-American Topics - Editorial - Bosnia

Why is the International Community Failing in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

By Damir Barisic
Posted October 7, 2007


    The 01 October 2007 will have marked one year since the 2006 general elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were held. In addition, it will have marked roughly nine months of the incumbent government’s rule. It had taken the ruling coalition, consisting of seven political parties, nearly three months to negotiate the establishment of the current government. A state in dire need of a competent and trustworthy leadership can hardly afford to lose days on political tug-of-wars, let alone months, yet no party seemed to mind. After all, the state was “functioning” under the then incumbent caretaker government. Once the agreement of these seven parties was made public it was hard to find any common denominator or any bond that would explain, even remotely, the motive that had brought them together except for the basic desire to govern. This is not to say that the government’s program, in the form presented to the parliament, lacked in ambition when it came to the numerous problems that needed to be solved or in, at times amusing, generalizations about the way how to solve them. Alas, the above glitch is only a superficial indicator of Bosnia’s intrinsic structural flaw.

    Three constituent peoples (Muslims, Serbs and Croats) inhabit a state consisting of the state level, two entities, one of which (the Muslim-Croat Federation) consists of ten cantons, totaling all in all thirteen governments and parliaments plus the local self-government (municipal) level. This is, needless to say, financially unsustainable structure for such a small and poor country. What has the international community (IC) achieved since the Dayton Peace Accord was brokered in 1995? Here I point the spotlight particularly at the Office of the High Representative (OHR). The OHR is the highest civil authority in Bosnia, armed with several important powers (i.e. the Bonn powers which enable the High Representative to impose laws, remove officials who are acting in obstructionist manner, levy financial sanctions on political parties etc.). The OHR was initially scheduled for departure some time during 2007 but this deadline keeps being prolonged, and at some point in the future is expected to be succeeded and survived by the European Union Special Representative’s (EUSR) office, which is expected to operate sans the Bonn powers and on a smaller scale. So the question is vexed: Is Bosnia going to become a state one will be able to describe as self-sustainable, democratic, stable and functional to any acceptable degree once the OHR closes its doors?

    This article argues that this tormented country will not have become any more functional than it was under the international tutelage during all these years. Why? The reason lies in the simple fact that the IC has been constantly, consistently and tenaciously reforming the country (which, granted, badly needed reforming) in the wrong direction. Namely, an entire decade has been wasted on the attempt to centralize the state, empower the state government compared to the set of competencies originally assigned to this level of authority by the war stopping Dayton Accord, disenfranchise the entities, which does not present much of a problem in the case of the Croat-Muslim Federation which struggles to keep its head and far from amicable relations above the water as it is, but is a significant problem in the case of the Serb dominated and almost exclusively Serb populated Entity of Republika Srpska. The bottom line is that piece by piece, and thanks to the OHR’s strong mediation and arm twisting measures, an entire set of entity competencies has been transferred to the state level (defense issues, state border service, tax administration portfolio, to name a few). The current front burner issue is the police reform which is publicly presented as the deal breaker for the signing of the EU Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). The Serb entity (politically incorrect term given that the three constituent peoples are nominally constituent throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina) is strongly opposing the idea of surrendering control over its police forces even if this would result in the suspension of the SAA talks.

    This standoff, in combination with the aforementioned transfer of competencies issues, resulted in homogenization of the ethnic Serb electorate and turned the last election campaign, in the Serb entity, into a competition for “the best protector of Serb interests”.

    Programs of political parties in terms of their position on the political scene (social democracy, ethnic radicalism, conservatism) were marginalized and disregarded. Come election time the electorate gave its plebiscitary support to the most vociferous “defender” of the Serb interests (The Alliance of Independent Social-democrats).

    Numerically smallest Croat electorate split its vote between its major ethnically colored party, which had claimed almost exclusive support of the Croat electorate until the latest election, and its runaway faction which opted for a new approach and hoped to distance itself from the legally tainted leader of the original party. Again party programs were of less importance compared to personalities and egos running these two parties. This split could also be interpreted as a sign of frustration in the Croat political body because of its inability to achieve the status enjoyed by the other two constituent peoples since numerical inferiority, regardless of constitutional safeguards, spells political inferiority. The two most important Muslim political parties, regardless of their minor differences and election results, share the common denominator of support for strengthening of the central state and gradual dismantling of the entities.

    So what is the solution for this dysfunctional, bureaucratic, semi-independent quasi state?

    The answer may seem too simple to be believable and it requires us to revisit the basic political theory. In the case where cumulative cleavages, and numerous do exist in Bosnia and Herzegovina (be it national or ethnic, religious, cultural etc.), are set in a country with unequally distributed population (i.e. distribution of ethnic and religious groups), as is the case in Bosnia, the least problematic solution is to devolve responsibilities, rights and powers to the lower and even the lowest authority levels given that in this case more of the people, or to put it more simply more of the citizens, will have more of their interests satisfied more of the time compared to the centralized model which is inevitably marked by majoritarianism. According to the devolution model the state level would deal with a very few selected tasks (e.g. defense, foreign affairs), entities would deal with matters for which local self-government units lack the necessary organizational and personnel infrastructure, while the cantons (that actually need to be abolished as they have worn out and overstayed their welcome and usefulness) and local units of self-government would deal with all the remaining issues. In addition, the local level would set the stage for political parties to make-or-break their positions, to promote and implement their ideas and to prove their commitment to the declared political programs. Until this approach is taken, the Office of the High Representative, NATO and EU bodies will have to remain in the country and continue with their attempts to resolve this conundrum known as Bosnia.

    However, the most likely scenario is the one where the sound of fanfare will announce the end of the OHR’s reign and proclaim handover of the majority of its powers to the domestic authorities. This, most likely showy, display will be probably accompanied with solemn declarations that the domestic institutional framework has been established (the fact that it is everything but functional will be “accidentally” omitted) and that it is now up to the domestic political parties to reach consensus on all the remaining relevant issues and bring the country closer to the European integrations. The “tiny” detail that uncoerced agreements between political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina are very few and far between will not create much anxiety either in the OHR or the EUSR’s office since this country is anyway riddled with numerous cases of form taking precedence over substance.


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