Close to home: Germany’s state building challenge in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Germany insisted on its choice of new high representative. Now it needs to reveal if it has a plan to make the Bosnian state workable enough for the high representative institution to finally end

Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, inspects the Gendarmerie, a new, controversial special police unit, in Banja Luka, September 2019
Image by picture alliance/AP Photo | Radivoje Pavicic

As the foreign policy bubble in Berlin laments the fiasco of the state building project in Afghanistan, Germany has effectively assumed responsibility for a state-building task closer to home.

Berlin recently won its bid to appoint former German government minister Christian Schmidt as the new high representative in charge of civilian implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia. It fought hard to secure the appointment in the face of strong Russian opposition, and Balkans watchers are assuming Berlin has a plan to deal with the fallout. It has therefore taken on the burden of Colin Powell’s warning that “you break it, you own it” – dubbed the “Pottery Barn rule”. It is true that every high representative since 2006 had been mandated to close the institution, but it is highly likely that Schmidt will be the one to finally do so. If this transpires then – like the United States in Afghanistan – both he and Germany will be held responsible for the success or failure of the mission.

Since starting a month ago, the new high representative has already had his first taste of local obstruction: a boycott of Bosnia’s central government by political parties from the Republika Srpska entity (one of two that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina). The parties are leading this boycott following the decision by outgoing high representative Valentin Inzko to impose a new law criminalising genocide denial. The boycott was initiated by Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency. He is also the leader of the SNSD party, which runs the executive of Republika Srpska but which is also in coalition with two other nationalist parties (the Bosniak SDA and the Bosnian Croat HDZ) in Bosnia’s central government. Opposition parties in Republika Srpska have joined in by boycotting sessions of the national parliament, fearing that Dodik may outbid them in nationalist rhetoric in the run-up to the general election next year.

The boycott is the first lesson for Schmidt on the devastating ease with which Bosnia’s government can be paralysed by representatives of one constitutional entity or constituent people. It is also a lesson in foul play, by which a corrupt ethnic oligarchy abuses the past and war crimes in the absence of any other achievements to show their voters. The most striking example of this foul play was Dodik’s refusal to agree to the initiative by the chair of the Bosnian presidency to use the armed forces to help put out wildfires raging in Bosnia.  

Two questions now face Schmidt and the members of “Quint” group (made up of Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the US, which provide his main political backing): how to end the boycott; and how to prevent future obstruction. More broadly, they will need to work out how to avert the further deterioration of the political climate, which dates from 2006 and which has eroded previous state building achievements.

Dodik has publicly said he wants to bring the boycott to an end. Last month, he attended the formal meeting of the presidency only in order to block every single decision set before it. After the meeting, he declared the boycott could end if what he termed an “internal dialogue” began, covering three key issues: the genocide denial law; the appointment of the new high representative, which he claims is illegal and illegitimate; and other matters relating to how the central government functions.

Dodik used to condemn the genocide in Srebrenica before realising that abuse of identity issues can be electorally useful

It is important that Schmidt and the Quint do not fall into this trap. Permitting such a dialogue would have the following consequences.

Firstly, as Dodik is technically not requesting anything concrete in merely saying he wants a dialogue, it would be a cheap but powerful victory for him. His political activity is all about generating conflict with Western officials and the high representative in particular, in order to boost his electoral fortunes. More broadly, the commencement of such a dialogue would undermine what was a valid high representative decision, and would immediately weaken Schmidt in post. It would harm the credibility of the institution, including if it needs to use the Bonn Powers, which is what Inzko deployed to impose the genocide denial law.

Secondly, the dialogue request would render the central government’s decision-making process even more cumbersome, setting the stage for further erosion of national institutions. The move fits into Dodik’s long-established pattern of claiming the central bodies are unworkable, the ultimate goal of which is to secure the return of competences to Republika Srpska. This is precisely what must be avoided if the departure of the high representative is ever to take place, as this should only happen if they leave a functioning state and stable country behind. 

Finally, such a dialogue would allow Dodik to use the coming 12 months until the election to shape the political debate around divisive issues that boost his standing with voters (such as war crimes, the high representative’s mandate, and the legitimacy of Bosnia as a state) rather than issues such as the country’s weak economy, corruption, and the rule of law. This is precisely what Dodik needs given his popularity had been on the wane. Even the appearance of the international community negotiating with Dodik would go down well with Republika Srpska voters.

The answer therefore cannot be to give in to Dodik’s demands or to offer carrots. The only useful incentive for ending this boycott and deterring future ones is a credible threat that such actions will be met with harsh consequences.

Despite his extremist rhetoric, Dodik is not a nationalist ideologue, but a ruthless political opportunist who profits from manipulating ethnic issues and using them to distract from blatant corruption and failure in governance. In fact, he has no war crimes on his hands, and indeed he used to condemn the genocide in Srebrenica before realising that abuse of identity issues can be electorally useful. His target has always been only those international judges and prosecutors working on criminal and corruption cases, not those considering war crimes.

The Biden administration recently passed an executive order that would enable financial and personal sanctions. But, although Dodik has been on the US sanctions list since January 2017, the US approach has been undermined by the unwillingness of the European Union to follow suit. But if the EU were to add its weight to this effort, it can show that, after 15 years of appeasement, obstructing the Dayton arrangements now comes with consequences.

Germany should work to persuade the US and other Quint partners to enact joint sanctions. It should not wait around for an elusive EU-wide consensus to emerge on the matter. In the past, Germany has rejected calls for unilateral sanctions, arguing that the EU financial and Schengen regimes allow targets to circumvent such measures. However, the 2018 decision by the German government to impose unilateral travel bans on 18 Saudi officials implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi illustrates that individual member states can target rogue politicians and officials even in the absence of broader agreement.

“No amount of external intervention can compensate for lack of domestic political will” is a phrase oft repeated since the Western powers started disengaging from Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006. These days, the same conclusion resonates in think-tank discussions about “lessons learned” from Afghanistan for Europe. The phrase not only exemplifies lazy thinking, it also absolves external powers of blame, allowing them to tell themselves “we all did our best”. Moreover, even if Afghanistan was mission impossible, Bosnia certainly is not. Its population is equivalent to Berlin’s, and since the late 1990s the country has been remarkably stable, experiencing no episodes of intercommunal or other violence. But Europe and successive high representatives have allowed the political situation to deteriorate by tolerating obstruction and kleptocracy, and repeatedly sending signals that they will impose no penalties on uncooperative local leaders.

Targeted sanctions alone will not be sufficient, and these will need to be integrated into a broader strategy led by Germany, the high representative, and the rest of the Quint. But reinstating the notion that obstruction will be met with consequences is a first step to reforming the culture of impunity that has been allowed to flourish in Bosnia.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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