Bosnia: The end of integration?

Debate over how to help a crisis-striken Bosnia ranges from involvement to encouragement. But a third, unpalatable option for a frustrated EU may lurk just behind the scenes: abandonment

about the Bosnia-Herzegovina is today dominated either by a focus on crises,
which talks up the risk of violence, or an obsession with the EU enlargement
process, which exaggerates the EU’s leverage in the region. The two
perspectives inform the views of two factions in an on-going policy struggle
about how to deal with Bosnia,
which goes all the way from the coffeehouses of Sarajevo to High Representative Catherine
Ashton’s office. But fifteen years after the Dayton Peace Accords ended the
war, Bosnia
may be facing its worst crisis yet, and one that suggests an unpalatable third
option lurking behind the scenes.

mid-February, Republika Srpska passed a law making it possible to hold a
referendum, widely interpreted as a step towards secession of the Bosnian Serb
entity. It comes in the run-up to an October 2010 election which has seen
leaders in the country’s two self-governing regions – the Federation of Bosnia
and Herzegovina, made up mostly of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and Republika
Srpska, made up of Serbs – rehearse language not used since before the war.

Two Factions, One Hope

far the conflict may spiral out of control and how to deal with it is the issue
of contention between the two factions. Yet both factions share something; a
belief that the international community can somehow help the war-torn country
break free from the stranglehold of ethno-territorial politics. They are both
heirs to a liberal, interventionist tradition that was born over Bosnia policy
debates in the 1990s.

group believes that it can be done either by maintaining the international
community’s present role, particularly the OHR, or by replacing it with an
equally powerful successor body, which maintains the involvement of both the US
and Europe in the country. The other group believes that it is the nature of
the international community’s set-up which retards the country’s progress and
that it needs to be replaced with a different EU presence.

both have powerful backers in the EU, from several European governments to
European parliamentarians. Sweden’s
foreign minister, Carl Bildt, takes one side; his successor as High
Representative in Bosnia,
Paddy Ashdown, takes another. Intellectual fuel for each sides is provided by
two former OHR employees, both of whom have gone on to establish think-tanks;
Gerald Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative, and Kurt
Bassuener who runs the Democratization Policy Institute.

sides have data to prove their perspectives. One group hails Bosnia’s
progress on the Visa Road Map as evidence that a conditionality-based programme
can overcome divisions and produce reform. The other group highlights the
obfuscation which allowed Bosnia
to claim it had fulfilled the necessary requirements. Based on their respective
data, one group insists that Bosnia
is so different than the Central European countries which joined the EU that
the standard EU accession process cannot hope to succeed; the other insists
that the EU has not even tried to apply its accession policies and will succeed
if it begins to do so in earnest.

all EU debates, the struggle between the factions is as much about the EU’s
power and future role as it is about Bosnia. For if the EU cannot
“hack” Bosnia to
use US
diplomat Mort Abramowitz’ phrase, then what can be expected of the EU elsewhere
in the world? But if the EU can transform Bosnia, its power to influence
countries on its eastern borders (and beyond) may still be potent. As it has
been since the war in the mid-1990s, Bosnia
is about so much more than Bosnia.

But a Third Option Exists

there may be a third and altogether more depressing possibility: that both
groups are wrong and that there is little the international community can do,
whatever guise it takes and whatever methods it uses, to fundamentally change Bosnia. It may be
able to prevent an immediate crisis, by lifting visas for Bosnian traveling to
the EU and by granting participation in the Membership Action Plan for NATO.
But it cannot any longer change the underlying dynamics – the back-sliding has
gone too far.

no matter where one looks, Bosnia has now regressed so far back from even the
reforms of yesteryear and the politics of accommodation that are key to a
peaceful country and EU accession that it is hard to believe international engagement
can change the situation. The socialist/nationalist elite, which dominate
politics in both the Federation and Republika Srpska, will not allow it and
ensure that all independent initiatives, from NGOs to political parties, are
co-opted into the system of control.

this reading, the EU’s main short-term leverage – granting visa-free travel to
Bosnians wanting to visit the EU in exchange for reforms – is a one-shot deal. Nothing
the EU has to offer in the short-term is as attractive as the chance to travel
into the EU – and there is even disagreement about whether this promise created
long-lasting reforms or only superficial changes.

is a scenario few would want to accept. For if true, it would mean that it was time
either to give up on Bosnia’s
viability as a unitary state or the country’s EU integration. As the former is
likely to be more unacceptable to most (but not all) EU governments, it would
mean the EU would have to develop a strategy of containment for the country,
not integration – one that would see the EU engulf Bosnia, like South Africa
engulfs Lesotho, as the rest of the region proceeds to integrate into the EU.

such a scenario, the country will survive on European hand-outs, remittances
and the few businesses that can make a profit after the political elites
extract their rent. Politicians would continue their nationalist rhetoric, but
be barred from making any concrete steps either towards secession or internal
violence – by an over-the-horizon military capability and garrisons of EU
troops. Years of economic deterioration and a sense of regional incarceration
will likely increase the flow of illegal migrants and spawn recidivist and even
violent reactions. But the alternative – integrating a Bosnia that is not ready
for EU accession, let alone peaceful co-existence, will be seen by many in the
EU as worse.


this third policy is not going to become reality, Bosnians are going to have to
understand the choice before them. For the Bosnian Serbs, it is not a choice of
European integration or an independent Republika Srpska. For the Bosnian
Croats, it is not between European integration and a third entity in Bosnia. And for
the Bosniaks it is not a choice between European integration and a centralized
state. For all groups, it is between the dysfunctional status quo, ad infinitum, or a reform process that re-starts the
country’s long-term European integration.

The Bosnian
people are said to want their country to move forward. They are said to be
tired of hateful rhetoric which has brought nothing but poverty and isolation.
But if they want to convince the EU that it can still have a role to play in
helping the country reform, then the choice is theirs. They will need to
produce a movement like “MJAFT!” in Albania,”
“Ya basta!” in Spain or
“Otpor” in Serbia.
They will need to allow a new style of politicians to emerge. They will need to
show that they do not want the EU to give up on them and they will not give up
on themselves. For as things stand now, the two factions that have argued over Bosnia policy
may give way to a different faction.


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


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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