Bosnia and Herzegovina – limping on: time for a new international approach

The US and EU have the political instruments to help direct Bosnia and Herzegovina towards stability and democracy – they should use them

2015 saw the celebrations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) of the twentieth anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement,which silenced arms in 1995. The conflict, though, is anything but over. Now it is being fought by political means, which have had further devastating effects on the post-war development of the country and its people. Alarmingly, the past year has brought a number of setbacks – from an increase of violent incidents to a de facto blockade of state-level judiciary, prosecutor, and police.

In the latest series of events, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) arrested five suspects of war crimes in Bosanski Novi on 10 December, and carried out multiple searches in the town, including in its police station and the municipal hall. Bosanski Novi – on the territory of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska  (RS) – was the scene of numerous crimes against Bosnian Muslims during the 1992-5 war, which left over 100,000 people dead and thousands missing. SIPA was acting on the order of the State Prosecutor of BiH, tasked with the prosecution of war crimes. In reaction to SIPA’s actions, the RS government announced the same day that it would halt all cooperation with the BiH state court, police and prosecutor’s office, abruptly cutting ties with the country’s only state-level judicial and police institutions.

Although the RS government reversed the decision five days later, this incident is only the continuation of a series of assaults by RS president Milorad Dodik against state-level institutions. Earlier this year, Mr Dodik announced a referendum on the jurisdiction of the Court of BiH, the Prosecutor’s Office and the international Office of the High Representative (OHR) in RS, accusing the judicial institutions of inefficiency and an anti-Serb bias. While there is no legal ground for holding such a referendum, there is a political strategy. By challenging central state institutions, BiH’s right to exist as a state is put into question, while the case for autonomous rule in the RS is strengthened. Such discussions may pave the ground for organising a straight yes-or-no independence referendum in RS, which has been announced multiple times previously.

These developments are mere symptoms of much deeper structural and economic issues that affect all parts of Bosnian politics and society. Most importantly, the political system rewards extreme positions and views with electoral success. Bosnian Serb leaders keep insisting on more autonomy for the RS, while Bosnian Croat politicians increasingly demand a third entity with a Croat majority, while Bosniak leaders seek to strengthen the central state, which is unacceptable to the other two groups. The lack of actual reforms in a power-sharing government thus appears as the ‘logical’ consequence since such positions are irreconcilable. Effectively, the struggle of political ideas has been replaced by a struggle over public resources among local politicians. These conflicts only worsened after the 2007 global financial crisis, which left the Bosnian economy – so painfully dependent on foreign loans and diaspora remittances – stripped of its primary fiscal injections. They also intensified since the elections in 2010 and 2014, leading to a series of unprosecuted corruption and embezzlement scandals, all involving major Bosnian companies such as BH Telecom and Elektroprivreda.

The combination of a catastrophic economic situation and ignored corruption led thousands of people to the streets in the largest post-war protests BiH has ever seen in February 2014. Though failing to transform into any sustainable political movement, the protests were a clear signal that Bosnia and Herzegovina is far from stable and that public discontent cannot be ignored forever.

Yet the domestic political elites showed only little interest in providing any remedy for the deepening poverty and debilitating lack of work opportunities. Even if notably delayed, the international response was more hopeful. Following the Anglo-German initiative of November 2014, all domestic governments pledged to launch a series of economic reforms, aimed at adopting packages of social and economic reforms, which had been blocked previously. The initiative later led to a change in the EU’s approach to Bosnia, now putting a greater focus on the economy and jobs. Though welcomed by most observers at the time, the initiative has so far not been able to change the general climate of corruption and inefficiency.

The latest troubling and destabilising events in RS are on the one hand only consequences of the unresolved structural problems the country is facing, and on the other a clear sign that the EU reform programmes have not led to any notable success. Against this background, it is astonishing that these developments have produced only limited protests from the international agencies that hold extensive powers in the country. Public condemnations and back-room warnings are clearly not powerful enough to stop the downward trend. There is enough ground to realise that a new strategy and approach is needed, as we showed elsewhere.

Unless international presence in the country abandons its technocratic approach to necessary reforms and its politics of appeasement through diplomatic lip service and instead shows a commitment and determination to the rule of law, there is little hope for Bosnia and Herzegovina to recover from its latest series of setbacks and become a functioning state. This is what we argued in an open letter, signed by a number of world-renowned academics.

The United States and the European Union have the political instruments to influence the domestic politicians and direct BiH towards European integration, the rule of law, democracy, and internal as well as geopolitical stability. The only question is whether or not they have the political will to do so in order to prevent the increasingly volatile situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina from further escalation. It is timely to remind ourselves that although the Dayton Peace Accords have brought peace twenty years ago, this peace is by no means perennial and is still very fragile.

Peace without development and progress towards prosperity and democracy and peace whose aim is to maintain conflict by other – equally divisive means – cannot be celebrated and applauded.

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


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