What Next in Bosnia?

EUFOR barracks in Butmir, Bosnia, April 2007. Photo: Brenda Annerl. This image is subject to a Creative Commons License.

October 22, 2009
By Kurt Bassuener

In 2006, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s progress toward state functionality first stalled, then began to reverse. In response, on October 9, 2009, the European Union’s Swedish Presidency and the United States called together most of Bosnia’s major political party leaders to the NATO/EU military base at Butmir, in a desperate high-level diplomatic effort to pull the country out of its accelerating decline.

The Butmir gambit

There a “package” of reforms to improve the functionality of the Bosnian state was – and it was made clear that without such reforms the country would not be eligible for NATO and EU membership. On October 20 Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, and US Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg returned to Sarajevo in the hope that by then a deal had been struck. Yet, on October 21, the talks ended without results. Bildt and Steinberg, though, did not admit failure and declared that “limited progress” had been made. At the working level, efforts to forge agreement will continue up to November 18, 2009, when the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the body that oversees the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, meets.

The effort has damaged the international safety net in Bosnia. And it has weakened the High Representative, Valentin Inzko, who was only invited to Butmir in his capacity as EU Special Representative (EUSR). While the effort to arrive at a deal continues, the work of the OHR remains effectively on hold. For the duration of the talks this allows a rules-free environment. Republika Srpska Premier Milorad Dodik has taken full advantage of the situation: He demands that the right to a referendum has to be included in any constitutional amendment package. (Ian Traynor, “Threat by Bosnia Serbs alarms EU and US,” The Guardian, October 14, 2009)

What is success?

The only real success would be a governance system that allows the country to sustain and to reform itself without the OHR. Yet given the lack of results, this seems highly unlikely.

It is unlikely that substantial constitutional, governance, and political reforms will be agreed by mid-November. Yet, should this happen, the implementation of such reforms will have to be ensured. Given that such a deal would include changes that would only be enacted after the elections, this “trust but verify” approach would have to extend into 2011. Beyond that point, maintaining a High Representative (note: not “OHR”) with minimal staff, perhaps out-of-theatre, would ensure compliance with the deal and with the Dayton Agreement. The military side of peace implementation, EUFOR, under a UN Security Council Chapter 7 mandate that is up for renewal next month, will also have to continue.

A coherent, long-term international strategy to ensure Bosnia’s governance is self-sustaining and capable of undertaking the reforms needed to join the EU and NATO must emerge from the Butmir effort.

Lack of standards

Bosnia’s politicians claim they want to join EU and NATO, but as yet they have not shown any willingness to expend political capital to meet the standards required. They have been conditioned to believe this is a viable approach – for years the international community has fudged its own standards to create the illusion of progress. Most egregious is the case when, in late 2007, the EU abandoned its standards for police reform. It will take some time, even with new resolution on the part of the EU and others, to change the ingrained expectation that standards are flexible.

The European Commission’s most recent progress report for Bosnia and Herzegovina, published on October 14, identifies problems with Bosnia’s constitutional order. It states that “it still offers too many possibilities for political obstructionism…prevent(ing) swift decision-making and, therefore, hinders reform and the country’s capacity to make rapid progress towards the EU. Among other things, the problem of blockages due to the entity voting rules needs to be addressed.” (Bosnia and Herzegovina 2009 Progress Report, European Commission, PDF, page 7) The report goes on to note Bosnia’s non-compliance with standards set by the Council of Europe. In its House of Peoples and Presidency, citizens who do not identify with one of the three “constituent peoples” – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – are being excluded. The EU should set forth a broad set of criteria on what kind of Bosnia it would be willing to accept into its ranks. NATO, like the EU, has said constitutional reform is required. It should now clarify such requirements.

Where does Germany fit in?

Germany’s role in determining the direction of EU policy toward Bosnia is pivotal. The ugly reality is that, other than Turkey, no PIC member sees Bosnia as a foreign policy priority. This has a potential upside, as well as the obvious downside. The upside is that, it would take a relatively minor shift in the balance, along with political will, to force a shift in policy. The downside, of course, is that it works the other way too: Even countries sceptical of the current approach are unlikely to expend political capital to turn it around.

At present the dominant effort is that of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, for whom closure of OHR is an idée fixe. This approach is shared by the EU’s Mediterranean and Central European members. Outside the EU, it is supported by Russia. It is clear that the EU institutions, the Council and the Commission, fall firmly in this camp. This approach is based on the claim that a “protectorate” cannot advance toward EU membership (the term “protectorate” is also used by Republika Srpska Premier Dodik to describe Bosnia). As one EU member state diplomat once told me, so long as there is an OHR with powers, we have responsibility. Once OHR is closed, the responsibility will be transferred to Bosnia.

Hardliners and softliners

A second, smaller group is more sceptical of the magnetic “pull of Brussels” on Bosnia’s political elites. This group is more inclined to articulate the need for strict conditionality, the need to maintain executive powers and a military deterrent, and the overarching need for constitutional reform. Turkey and the U.S. are the strongest supporters of this position. Within the EU, Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Ireland favour such an approach.

In this equation Germany is the swing vote. So far, Germany has aligned itself with one group or the other on an issue-by-issue basis. Should it go with the hardliners, there is potential for a strategic rethink of the current EU approach. Should it remain on the fence or clearly align itself with the softliners, then the current bureaucratic regime led by Brussels will stay in place.

Options for Bosnia

The Butmir effort has been a high-stakes gamble. The measure of success must be clear: a self-sustaining functional state.

Since the Butmir process has not produced a deal, the entire international approach needs a fundamental rethink. The fallback option should include the following elements:

  • OHR and EUFOR should be reinforced. And it has to be clear that they will stay put and that their current mandates will continue until Bosnia graduates from its current constitutional and political order. An open-ended commitment would signal to Bosnia’s recalcitrant politicians that they can no longer hope to wait out the international community.

  • The roles of the OHR and the EU Special Representative should be uncoupled. The current arrangement ensures nothing but the lowest common denominator. An independent High Representative, preferably an American, would be better able to confront violations of the Dayton Agreement. The EUSR mission, on the other hand, could then focus on preparing Bosnia for EU accession.

  • The EU and NATO should make it very clear that while constitutional reform cannot be imposed, it is a condition for Bosnia’s further progress toward membership. Clear guidelines are required. An international expert commission with a mandate to interact not only with politicians, but also with civil society and citizens at large, should attempt to identify legitimate solutions for Bosnia’s governance.

  • Episodic high-level attention is no substitute for a consistent and sustained policy. The United States could ensure the consistency of its own engagement through a special envoy. In a sense, there already is such an envoy: Ambassador Clifford Bond. He should be granted the status of presidential special envoy and work to forge a long-term strategy for Bosnia.

  • The disposition of state and defence property, included in the so-called five objectives and two conditions set for OHR closure nearly two years ago, must also be resolved.

  • Due to the Butmir talks the extension of the tenure of international judges and prosecutors in the State Court’s special chambers for war crimes and organised crime has been put on hold. Bosnia’s political elite fears the organised crime chamber. The High Representative should impose the extension immediately.

Had the EU and US based their approach on the political situation in Bosnia rather than their own bureaucratic imperatives, the Butmir effort could have launched a long-term strategic effort to ensure Bosnia’s stability. This in turn could pave the road towards EU and NATO membership. It is time for a co-ordinated and focused policy. The present haphazard pursuit of self-serving goals will lead to nothing but more damage in Bosnia.


Kurt Bassuener is a Senior Associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a global initiative for accountability in democracy promotion. He lives in Sarajevo.