Crisis and reform: a turnaround in Bosnia?

Peter Lippman
18 December 2007

Between October and December 2007, Bosnia has experienced a startling roller-coaster of events. A governmental crisis that sparked fears of war led to a completely unexpected rapprochement among bitterly divided nationalist parties. The first few months of 2008 will show whether or not Bosnia has finally achieved a breakthrough in its built-in, long-term political stalemate.

Due to the unwieldy political structure that was cobbled together as part of the Dayton peace agreement of November 1995, the Bosnian government comes to a standstill on a near-annual basis. The Dayton accord ended a devastating war that lasted from early 1992 to the end of 1995. The new Dayton constitution recognised two autonomous "entities" formed during the war: a Serb-controlled Republika Srpska (RS), and a Croat- and Muslim-controlled Federation. Many of the leaders of these entities were the very same officials who had prosecuted the three-way war. Where these leaders have departed, new figures who inherited the wartime separatist agenda have taken over.

Peter Lippman is a writer and human-rights activist from the United States who has worked extensively in Bosnia and much of ex-Yugoslavia since the early 1980s

Also by Peter Lippman in openDemocracy: "Srebrenica's search for justice" (23 August 2006)

"Kosovo: approaching independence or chaos?" (30 October 2006)

The international community, meanwhile, established the Office of the High Representative (OHR), effectively the proconsul heading up a modified protectorate. The High Representative, currently Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak, has broad powers which include the ability to decree laws and to remove obstructive officials. His long-term task is to encourage the contentious leaders of Bosnia to cooperate with each other in creating the new state of Bosnia & Herzegovina, and to help this country find its way towards membership of the European Union.

Dayton frustration

To date, six successive High Representatives have struggled with recalcitrant nationalist officials on all sides, and made precious little headway towards these goals. Bosnian leaders would like to "go to Europe", but on their own terms; most Bosnian Serb and Croat politicians insist on the maintenance of separate territories where they can control their own ethnically homogenised constituencies. Only the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) leaders call for a political reunification of the country, but most often on terms that their nationalist counterparts reject as too extreme.

The Dayton arrangement has ultimately worked as a straitjacket, legalising ethnic division. With time, the more extreme wartime leaders have given way to "moderate" politicians whose work differs from that of their predecessors more in style than substance. Leaders such as the powerful prime minister of the Serb-controlled entity, Milorad Dodik, publicly swear by the inviolability of Dayton, but their messages to their constituencies constantly exploit left-over wartime fears.

In this context the international community and the OHR have tried all manner of strategies to strengthen the weak central government of the Bosnian state, a multi-ethnic institution that the entity governments are, for the most part, able to ignore as they continue to implement their ethnic policies. To date, the primary success in the centralisation drive has been the unification of the three armies that had been left in place after the war; now there is one Bosnian army, which functions in a reasonably cooperative way.

The international community would like to see Bosnia's governmental institutions simplify and unite, so that the agencies of the international protectorate can dissolve and go home. This would enable Bosnia, on its own feet, to join the European Union. Anything less than this will be a continued guarantee of instability in the region, with the possibility of war always looming in the background. There is a particular feeling of urgency to make progress in the process of accession to the EU, because all of the surrounding states are ahead of Bosnia in that process.

The Dayton political structure, with governments at state, entity, canton, municipal, and city levels, is one of the most unwieldy imaginable, and fully 60% of the national budget is consumed by governmental expenses. This situation works well for politicians and their cronies who are engaged in crooked privatization and who periodically vote salary increases for themselves, but not for the average citizen. Unemployment has hovered around 40% nationwide for a decade, and foreign investment has been discouraged by political turbulence. Regular surveys show that in the face of such a deadlock Bosnian citizens feel hopeless, and a two-thirds majority of young people would leave the country if they had the opportunity. Tens of thousands have already done so.

Reform and reaction

In response to this disastrous state of affairs, recent High Representatives have encouraged domestic officials to make reforms. The most outstanding remaining reform - and the most difficult sticking-point - is the creation of a centralised police administration. Currently there are entirely separate police forces run by the entities and, in the federation, by regional units known as the cantons. This chaotic arrangement not only prevents coordination among the various police forces; it ensures continued ethnic division, with accompanying discrimination, throughout the country.

For the past several years the OHR has been pressing local leaders to draft an agreement on a nationwide unification of police administrations. A draft package on this unification came close to adoption by Bosnia's parliament in early 2006, but it failed by two votes. Further work on this issue was delayed by national elections in October, and the floundering process came to a head in September 2007. As the six political parties in Bosnia's governing coalition prepared for a new vote on police reform, High Representative Lajcak warned that there would be "difficult consequences" for Bosnia if reform were not finally approved.

However, once again police reform was defeated, this time by Serb representatives who insisted that control of police must remain at the entity level. This sparked what came to be termed the worst governmental crisis since Dayton, with rumblings of political disintegration and even renewed war.

Although previous High Representatives have not refrained from widespread removal of recalcitrant local officials, Lajcak's warning referred more to the simple fact that Bosnian leaders, by virtue of their obstruction of reform, could destroy Bosnia's chances for advancement in the process of accession to the European Union. Rather than simply remove the offending politicians, shortly after the last reform failure Lajcak proposed two procedural changes designed to prevent repetition of boycotts in parliament and in the central government in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo. In the post-war period such boycotts have traditionally been used as a way of obstructing passage of unwanted reforms. This tactic has been especially popular among Serb politicians.

Among openDemocracy's articles on the Balkans after Yugoslavia:

Vesna Goldsworthy, "Au revoir, Montenegro?" (23 May 2006)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice" (2 February 2007)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

Neven Andjelic, "Serbia and Eurovision: whose victory?" (25 May 2007)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's Kosovo claim: much ado about..." (2 October 2007)

Juan Garrigues, "Kosovo's troubled victory" (7 December 2007)

Ginanne Brownell, "Kosovo's Serbs in suspension" (10 December 2007)

On 19 October, Lajcak thus proposed reforms redefining voting quotas in the state-level council of ministers and in the Bosnian parliament, and he allowed time for the government to adopt the reforms by 1 December. These measures were intended to streamline the processes of the central government. If they were not adopted, Lajcak declared that he would exercise his power of decree and promulgate the laws on his own.

Lajcak's first proposal made it possible for Bosnia's council of ministers to hold sessions whenever a majority of its members are present, and for decisions on certain matters to be made by a majority of those attending. This compels all representatives to ensure attendance at central proceedings, thus eliminating boycott.

The second measure stipulated that laws could be passed in Bosnia's parliament, as long as the majority voting for them includes at least one-third of the deputies from each of Bosnia's two entities. This measure does not eliminate the veto power of the ethnic-based entities, but it does, again, eliminate their ability to veto by boycott.

Seen rationally, these were mild measures that can hardly be characterized as punitive or discriminatory. However, in ethnic politics in Bosnia, rationality often takes a back seat to the more compelling tactics of fear-mongering and division, which at times approach hysteria. The Serb response to Lajcak's proposals could justifiably be described in those terms.

From Republika Srpska's prime minister Milorad Dodik downwards, Serb leaders hastened to decry the measures as "endangering the freedom of the Serb nation", saying that Lajcak's proposal was "anti-constitutional" and "anti-Dayton". Representatives of the RS quickly threatened mass resignation if Lajcak did not withdraw his proposals. Lajcak held fast, and at the beginning of November the ethnic Serb prime minister at the state level, Nikola Spiric, announced his resignation. Other Serb officials, including Dodik, promised to follow suit.

Tensions were heightened in late October when thousands of Serbs held demonstrations in the Republika Srpska capital of Banja Luka, as well as in a half-dozen other RS towns. Demonstrators held placards reading, "Hands Off Republika Srpska", and "Give Us Back Dayton's Bosnia, or an Independent Serb Republic". Tellingly, some demonstrators held signs bearing the image of Russia's president, Vladimir Putin.

The regional context

As always, events in Bosnia & Herzegovina are profoundly influenced by developments in nearby countries. The most prominent of these is the ongoing drive for separation of Kosovo from Serbia. Since the Nato intervention of 1999 this province, formally still part of Serbia, has been governed as a United Nations protectorate. Protracted negotiations for "final status" have, over the last two years, proved fruitless. Until early 2007 it appeared that, under the guidance of the United States and European allies, Kosovo would be granted independence regardless of steadfast resistance from Belgrade. However, this trend was derailed by the threat of a United Nations Security Council veto by Russia, taking the side of Serbia.

A further round of essentially stalemated negotiations over Kosovo's fate was initiated in September. Countering Serbian and Russian insistence that no decision be taken without Serbia's full agreement, Kosovar Albanian leaders stated that they would declare independence unilaterally upon the 10 December ending of these negotiations, or soon thereafter. The United States and most members of the European Union have promised to recognise this declaration, but such a development bears promise of regional upheaval, even violence, if it takes place.

In fact, Serbia lost Kosovo in 1999, but there is no Serbian leader who can afford to acknowledge this publicly. Thus, Serbia and the international community remain on a collision course over this issue. In an apparent effort to bribe Serbia's leaders into cooperation, the European Union initialled a preliminary accession agreement with Serbia. This put Serbia, the region's last holdout, a half-step ahead of Bosnia in the European integration process, underlining Bosnia's state of political chaos and isolation.

In this context, bracing for the ultimate loss of Kosovo, Serbian officials intervened rhetorically in the Bosnian crisis. Serbia's prime minister Vojislav Kostunica blasted the international community, accusing the west of fomenting the crisis by "mistakenly challenging Bosnia's division into entities". Kostunica linked the fates of Kosovo and the Republika Srpska by saying that the international community was mistreating the Serb population in both places.

For many Bosnian Serbs it is Belgrade, rather than Sarajevo, that is the political centre of gravity. With Belgrade enmeshed in a mutually-exploitative political embrace with Russia, Serbia's interference in Bosnian affairs automatically involves Russia as well. In the current crisis Russian leaders have taken an ambivalent position, but sent a veiled message of support for the Serbs' confrontational stance. Russia's ambassador to Bosnia, Konstantin Suvalov, referred to Lajcak's measures as a violation of consensus, and the country's deputy foreign minister Vladimir Titov called for the reduction of the powers of the Office of the High Representative.

Republika Srpska's prime minister Dodik has asserted for public consumption that the Kosovo question is not related to Bosnian developments, but he takes encouragement from from Serbian public figures who are free to be less circumspect. Tomislav Nikolic, leader of the powerful, extreme nationalist Radical Party in Serbia, advanced the possibility of holding a referendum in the Serb-controlled entity on the question of separating from Bosnia and joining Serbia. Dodik had broached this explosive idea in the campaign for the October 2006 election, before being rebuked and threatened by Lajcak's predecessor. While the secession option is illegal under the Dayton agreement, it is never far from the surface in the minds of Bosnian Serb nationalist leaders.

An unexpected resolution

Throughout November the governmental crisis deepened to the point that fears of war returned to the consciousness of ordinary Bosnians. Some commentators said that, with such centrifugal impulses, these were the "end times" for the failed state of Bosnia. In response, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon expressed concern over increasing tensions, and the European military "stability force" remaining in Bosnia expressed its readiness and ability to respond to any violent provocation that may happen.

This mix of political ingredients, both regional and domestic, indeed made the crisis look particularly explosive. While Kosovo's Albanian leaders at least temporarily postponed a unilateral declaration of independence, international officials worked behind the scenes in Bosnia to end the stalemate. To the surprise of the public and most commentators, a resolution was achieved in the first days of December.

In late November a Bosnian parliamentary commission worked overtime, haggling over a draft law that would accept a version of Lajcak's proposals. Serb representatives offered a watered-down version, and Bosniak officials vacillated. Finally, legal experts from among the Serb party worked out a compromise with the OHR that essentially amounted to a climbdown on the part of the Serbs, with a rhetorical concession provided by Lajcak. The Serbs accepted the new quorum arrangements, with ameliorating language designed to prevent ethnic outvoting.

Thus, the Bosnian parliament was able to enact the procedural changes on its own, without intervention by decree from the OHR. This set in motion a remarkable, positive chain of events. By mid-December, Nikola Spiric was reinstated as prime minister. Meanwhile, Bosnia's six governing parties negotiated a framework agreement on police reform. This was based on a declaration passed by the parties in Mostar, and an "action plan" developed in Sarajevo, in recent months.

The action plan for police reform is not detailed, but it does contain the three basic principles required by the international community: exclusive police competency at the state level, but operational control at the local level; police areas drawn up on the grounds of operational efficiency, not political control; and no political interference in policing. As such, the plan was accepted by the European Union as a commitment to appropriate reform.

After a review of the reform plan, European Union enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn agreed in the first week of December to initial a stabilisation and association agreement (SAA), as Bosnia's first step towards eventual EU membership. This preliminary gesture may have been as much a way to reduce tensions and to encourage Bosnian officials to concentrate on positive changes as anything else. But if police reform can indeed by achieved in the next couple of months, the SAA may be signed by spring 2008.

Between Bosnia and Brussels

High Representative Lajcak has declared that there is a "new political dynamic" afoot in Bosnia. But there is much work to be done before this assessment can be believed. Part of that dynamic may be a decision on the part of both the international community and Bosniak politicians, in the face of potentially extreme instability, to back down from its insistence on radical reforms. Nationalist Serb politicians may have adopted a similar conciliatory approach. Certainly, cooperative negotiations appear to have become possible at least for the time being.

The substance of the police reform has yet to be created, and Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik still calls for entity control of the police. It is possible that he and his counterparts among the other ethnicities will find a way to finesse their differences with a partial transfer of powers; the international community seems prepared to accept less than what it had previously demanded.

In a meeting in Dodik's hometown in recent days, Bosnia's leading political parties made further progress on police reform and related issues. The six parties agreed to create a task force to develop legislation on police reform. It appears that the international community, at least for the time being, has softened its requirement for a completely centralised police force; this part of the reform will most likely be put off until broader constitutional reforms are enacted. These include establishing European standards in a public broadcasting service, and widespread restructuring of governmental bureaucracy.

How much of this work can be done by next spring remains to be seen. It will depend on a continued atmosphere of conciliation among negotiators, but also on the absence of unrest prompted by disorder in Kosovo. There may be a race for resolution of Bosnia's EU candidate status before Kosovo's Albanian leaders declare independence, in order to avoid repercussions of that act in Bosnia.

Aside from regional influences, there are continuing domestic possibilities for breakdown; the real structural change that would prevent such tendencies has yet to happen. It remains to nationalist leaders - Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks - to show that they are serious about developing the reforms that would allow Bosnia & Herzegovina to exist as a functional state that can join the European Union on its own. And it is urgent that the international community and the OHR maintain a robust stance with regard to these reforms, in order to prompt and encourage Bosnian leaders to see them through.

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