Great power politics in Bosnia: How Berlin can stabilise a dysfunctional state

Germany should rally its allies to imbue the Office of the High Representative with new purpose and authority to fulfil its mission

Angela Merkel and Christian Schmidt at the opening of the 2nd ‘diesel summit’ on November 2017 in Berlin
Image by picture alliance / Michael Kappeler/dpa

While policymakers in Berlin, Brussels, and Washington have spent much of the past four years focusing on Donald Trump’s tweets and Europe’s epic quest for sovereignty, a state run by kleptocrats on the edge of the European Union has teetered on the brink of failure. Once a showcase of successful state-building, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has progressively lapsed into corruption, dysfunction, and paralysis due to the ethnic-based governance system bequeathed to it by the 1995 settlement of the Bosnian war. The recent migration surge at the bloc’s borders and a related humanitarian crisis in BiH are bringing the country back into the German headlines.

Germany has awoken to the dangers of the situation – or so it appears, given that Chancellor Angela Merkel has nominated an MP from the Christian Social Union to be the next head of the Office of the High Representative (OHR). If confirmed, Christian Schmidt – a former junior minister in the Ministry of Defence and former minister of agriculture – will guide the UN-mandated institution, which is responsible for the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement. The role has executive powers that, in theory, would allow him to remove officials and introduce legislation to overcome the obstruction of the agreement and safeguard BiH’s sovereignty.

Berlin’s high-level political interest in BiH is a welcome development. But this will need to extend beyond just persuading Germany’s allies to approve Schmidt if his mission is to have any chance of success.

In recent years, BiH has received little international attention and the OHR has languished. The institution’s executive powers have lain dormant and it has failed to prevent the takeover of the Bosnian state by kleptocrats who want to maintain BiH’s current lack of governance and development. In the process, the OHR has transformed from a powerful driver of state-building and rule of law reforms into a constitutional whistleblower and an increasingly weak guardian of BiH’s constitutional order.

Many analysts criticise the OHR’s lack of democratic accountability. Outside powers, whose political support the high representative relies on for the enforcement of OHR decisions, mostly ignore it. Yet the OHR was never meant to be democratic. It was designed as – and remains – a necessary check on those obstructing Dayton and BiH’s statehood. These figures are primarily local kleptocrats, whose campaign against the country’s institutions and abuse of office has led to a heightened risk of state failure on the EU’s border. The OHR remains relevant in this regard, given the widespread capture of the state and the judiciary, as well as the absence of functioning domestic checks on the abuse of the system.

The EU’s attitude towards the OHR is reminiscent of Middle Ages dogma: the way we do things now is right, and there is no room for experimentation

But Germany’s and Schmidt’s path to revitalising the OHR is fraught with danger. The deeply conflicting positions of world powers that have a say on Schmidt’s nomination indicate the challenges he is likely to face if he gets the job.

Germany’s candidate faces strong opposition from Russia, which wants to close the OHR altogether. Moscow’s position is neither surprising nor new: from its perspective, a dysfunctional BiH is better than one that integrates with the EU or NATO. Russia has traditionally opposed the high representative’s initiatives in Sarajevo, while lending support to political actors who challenge the OHR and undermine the Dayton Peace Agreement.

The nomination of Schmidt could prompt Russia to go one step further and undermine Western objectives in BiH through the UN Security Council, a body that has approved most appointments to the position (but not all of them). Germany could attempt to circumvent Russia’s opposition by not submitting Schmidt’s candidacy to the UN Security Council for approval. But Moscow could respond by vetoing the renewal of the current mandate of EU’s military operation in BiH, EUFOR Althea, which requires an extension by the UN Security Council each November. Without such reauthorisation, the EUFOR mandate in BiH – as well as that of NATO – would expire, leaving the OHR’s civilian mission without military enforcement of the peace agreement or its decisions. This would, in effect, mean trading the EUFOR or NATO mandate for the appointment of a new high representative, who would be in a severely weakened position.

Beyond the Russian challenge, BiH faces almost equally significant threats in the lack of political support from allies, quibbling between the EU and the OHR about its mandate, and the institution’s marginalised position on the ground. The US government is preoccupied with domestic issues and other foreign policy priorities. It is nowhere close to developing a Balkans policy, let alone an assertive one. Moreover, the United States is unlikely to engage robustly with BiH if Germany and its European allies fail to demonstrate effective leadership and strategy – including by using instruments such as sanctions, travel bans, and asset freezes against kleptocrats – to deter obstruction and protect BiH’s sovereignty.

Berlin should, therefore, take steps to encourage strong US engagement with BiH, not drive it away. After Merkel leaves office later this year, Schmidt would need even more US support in handling the myriad challenges in the country. Thus, the first step for Germany is to convince the US and its European allies in the ‘Quint’ (the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and the EU) to support its candidate’s mission based on a clear strategy – rather than just urging them to support the nomination. This will require Germany to persuade its allies to imbue the OHR with new purpose and authority to fulfil its mission.

With the right strategy and sufficient political support, the OHR can be a powerful tool for the EU and the Quint to achieve three main goals. These are: stabilise the political situation by deterring secessionist threats and preventing the obstruction of the Bosnian state; incentivise the minimal constitutional reforms necessary to remove decision-making bottlenecks created by the abuse of Dayton procedures; and help break up a patronage system that feeds the nationalist hydra suffocating the state.

Germany also needs to use its leverage in Brussels to convince the EU to stop undercutting the OHR. The EU’s attitude towards the OHR is reminiscent of Middle Ages dogma: the way we do things now is right, and there is no room for experimentation. The doctrine promoted by the bloc is that the institution must close as soon as possible because its presence prevents BiH from becoming an EU member state. This would be a reasonable argument if the country was stable and about to open its last negotiating chapter. Instead, BiH’s institutions are being hollowed out by kleptocrats, making accession a far-fetched, almost utopian, goal. While the OHR must close eventually, it is unclear when and at what price – but now is clearly the wrong time.

The backers of the OHR have agreed to close it only after BiH meets several reform conditions, including the entrenchment of the rule of law in the country and a satisfactory assessment of the situation there. Instead of demanding the OHR’s immediate closure, Brussels should insist that the institution complete its tasks before BiH is close to becoming an EU member (whenever that might happen). For now, it makes sense to use the OHR to confront the malicious forces in the Bosnian political system – which the EU accession process cannot currently do by itself.

The German government needs a strategy for the OHR and BiH – and, just as importantly, a plan for re-establishing a unity of purpose among its key allies to counter Russian opposition. The German agenda for BiH need not be ambitious, but it should re-establish the notion that the obstruction of Dayton and BiH’s sovereignty has consequences. And it should push for minimal constitutional reforms to end the dysfunction of the Bosnian state. Germany should make decisions about BiH based on German security interests, which are to ensure that this country on the EU’s border has a functioning state, and to preserve the institution that it needs to address the deteriorating situation there.

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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