Clinton Misses Another Opportunity to Arrest Bosnia’s Downward Spiral

US-American politician Hillary Clinton is Secretary of State since 2009, Picture: Aaron Webb/flickr (edited), Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

November 21, 2012
Kurt Bassuener
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived Monday evening, 29 October 2012, in Sarajevo at the front end of a Balkan tour that would take her to Belgrade, Prishtina, Zagreb and Tirana. It is her last visit to the region in her current office; whatever the outcome of the American presidential election, she has stated that she will leave her post early in 2013. She was joined for the first three stops by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

Beginning the trip in Bosnia and Herzegovina made sense, given the country’s continued and accelerating negative trajectory. While Western policy attention regarding the region has been heavily focused on restarting the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, the situation in Bosnia is far more dangerous and problematic.

The country's political elites feel like they have nothing to fear

The extent to which the joint visit with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton affected the decision making processes of BiH’s political class was vividly depicted by the new understanding reached by Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik’s Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and BiH Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdžija’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) , announced Wednesday – one day after Clinton’s and Ashton’s departure. Though the definitive full list of ingredients to the deal has yet to be publicized, what is already openly declared constitutes a direct assault on transparency, rule of law, fiscal sustainability, and democratic practice in general. In short, if what is already known about this deal is realized by these parties and the others that will probably join them in a ruling coalition (the SBB, HDZ BiH, HDZ 1990, and SDS), it will further undermine all the efforts expended since 1996 toward making Bosnia and Herzegovina a functioning and democratic state.

The agreement was likely made the very day of Clinton and Ashton’s arrival, as Dodik and Lagumdžija met. The only courtesy was for the leaders to wait until the two dignitaries departed for Belgrade to announce it. The substance of the deal demonstrates the abject contempt with which the international community as a whole is now treated by the country’s political elites, who (according to the EU enlargement philosophy) are our “partners” in reform. They clearly feel they have nothing to fear – from either the West or their own citizens.

The visit would have been an opportune time for Clinton and Ashton to lay down new markers to Bosnia’s political elites, stating that Washington recognizes that things are going wrong, knows why, and will fulfil its legal obligation to prevent further degeneration, which has been characterized by the circumvention or hollowing-out of state institutions – even the regular questioning the state’s territorial integrity by RS President Milorad Dodik.

To her credit, Secretary Clinton did make some needed points at a press conference following her meeting with the three members of the state presidency . According to some international sources, she delivered stronger messages privately, both to BiH politicians and the EU. But what was not said publicly was far more important. While noting that questioning sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina is “unacceptable,” Clinton did not state that should such statements continue, there would be consequences – or that an RS bid for independence would be forcefully resisted. Furthermore, her statement implied that the problem was merely rhetorical, rather than one borne-out over the past 6+ years of ongoing efforts to subvert state institutions. It is highly unlikely that her statements will affect the behaviour of any of the country’s political elites, least of all the RS’s Dodik.

In the "too hard" box: Establishing new governing structures

Her statement about the need for Dayton to be respected and preserved was left as simply an admonition – and an implicit self-exculpation by the US Government. The fact is that the US is obliged to support the enforcement of the Dayton Peace Accords though the instruments designed expressly for that purpose: the international High Representative and the international military peace enforcement force mandated by Annex 1A of Dayton, a responsibility which the EU undertook in December 2004. Both these tools have been allowed to fall into disuse due to lack of collective Western will, in which the US shares culpability. Furthermore, her statement did not acknowledge the reality that once was proclaimed quite openly by the US State Department and its European Union partners – Dayton BiH is too structurally dysfunctional to be able to assimilate into NATO and the EU without fundamental change. The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission stated this clearly in its 2005 opinion. That opinion was the foundation for the last serious attempt at constitutional change, the so-called “April package” of 2006. The goal of establishing a new governing structure with real mechanisms for political accountability seems to have been consigned to the “too hard” box on the desks of bureaucrats dealing with the country.

“Constitutional reform” now connotes not improved functionality and accountability, but mere implementation of the December 2009 European Court of Human Rights’ Sejdić-Finci ruling, which mandates that the country’s constitution be amended to ensure equal ability to run for office. The EU appears so desperate to declare something positive that any political deal to implement the ruling would be welcome, even if the substance of the deal contradicts the point of the ruling, which was to ensure civic equality in politics. Such policies do not merely ignore the machinations of BiH’s entrenched political elites against popular accountability and rule of law. They aid and abet them.

Empty high-level engagement

Catherine Ashton’s joining Clinton’s farewell tour was supposed to project transatlantic commonality of purpose – as well as declaring the EU’s ability to operate as a foreign policy player. Insofar as the stated goal of BiH’s eventual entry into the EU and NATO goes, that commonality is real. But in terms of getting the country from where it is now to that goal, there is considerable difference of opinion within the EU, let alone with the US and other Western powers, like Turkey. Simply declaring unity doesn’t make it actual. One senses that much effort was devoted to ensuring that Clinton and Ashton made no discordant noises.

Three and a half years earlier, US Vice President Joe Biden and Ashton’s predecessor, Javier Solana, openly expressed diametrically opposed situational assessments of whether BiH was headed in the wrong (Biden) or right (Solana) direction. The different situational assessments, while still present, remained below the waterline this time around. The visit displayed the lowest common denominator of Washington’s and Brussels’ policies, the latter of which is itself the distillation of differing policies among the 27 – hence the blandness. Overall, the signal seems to be that the US is ceding the “lead” in Bosnia to a rudderless EU policy.

Far from shoring-up BiH from further degeneration, it seems that – as has often been the case in the Balkans – empty high-level engagement has emboldened the worst in local political leaders. Waiting for a credible warning from the US, which retains some political credibility from the past, and hearing none, they went ahead with self-serving plans that will compound the damage to the state and the rights of its citizens.

This was the second Clinton visit in two years without any positive outcome. Unfortunately, the situation in BiH will surely deteriorate further, leaving Secretary Clinton’s successor to address it.

Kurt Bassuener is co-founder and Senior Associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a global initiative for accountability in democracy promotion.