Building bridges in Bosnia

Reconciliation ceremonies sponsored by the UN won't heal Bosnia's ethnic divisions. David Chandler reports from Mostar.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

The newly reconstructed ‘Old Bridge’ in Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina, was opened to the public with gushing speeches by the international high representative Lord Paddy Ashdown and other invited international dignitaries, who all asserted that the rebuilding of the bridge symbolised Bosnia’s recovery from the war and road to self-government and independence.

At the ceremony on 23 June 2004, Lord Ashdown celebrated not merely the restoration of the Old Bridge over the Neretva river – painstakingly reconstructed by Turkish craftsmen in the style of the Ottoman architects who built the original in 1566 – but also the international community’s wider contribution to Mostar’s unity. The town, ethnically divided since the war between a Muslim-dominated east bank and Croat-dominated west bank, has recently been the subject of a new edict from Ashdown’s office creating a stronger central city authority and taking power away from the six municipal governments dominated by either Muslim or Croat representatives (1).

When I spoke to people in Mostar a few days before the opening ceremony, many felt that the restoration project for the Old Bridge was motivated more by the needs of the international community than of Mostaris. While the tourist stalls were doing a booming trade in the old town where the bridge is located, the reconstruction of the bridge will have little impact on the lives of most people in the town. Although it is not obvious from the postcard pictures of the bridge at the southern end of town, there are, in fact, many bridges that cross the Neretva at regular intervals throughout the city – all of which are more accessible and of more use for regular commerce and local needs.

The international funders have invested £5million in a symbolic architectural project that will do little to transform the city’s political divide. The Old Bridge will not bridge the ethnic divisions of the war any more than the many other bridges in Mostar.

Even more symbolic of the international community’s role in Bosnia has been the recent reforms of the city administration. Ashdown’s Office of the High Representative has sought to impose unity on the people of Mostar, through the means of legal and administrative diktat.

In September 2003 the high representative appointed a 12-member Commission for Reforming the City of Mostar, comprising party representatives, experts and an international chairman, Norbert Winterstein. Rather than seek to address the political concerns of the communities on either side of the divided city, the commission chair started from the bureaucratic need for a ‘unified legal and administrative structure’, a ‘single budget’, ‘reformed central administration’ and ‘the most cost-effective and transparent’ governance procedures (2).

One of the international advisers on the secretariat of the commission told me that, rather than starting from the concerns of the two communities, in a genuine attempt to bridge the political divisions of Mostar, the commission chair started with the international policy recommendations and was faced with two approaches for imposing international administrative plans.

The first was ‘salami slicing’, the gradual search for small agreements, building up as they went along. The second was the ‘boulder in the road’ approach, forcing through decisions in the most difficult areas and hoping that the rest would be easy. The political parties agreed with most of the administrative procedures proposed by the international advisers – the sticking points were over political guarantees, namely the powers of the municipal authorities and the electoral system. These questions were resolved by international edict in January 2004.

On paper the new administrative reforms for the city of Mostar may look impressive. But the fact that neither the people of Mostar nor their political representatives were involved in drawing up the proposals or in making the final decisions means that the reforms look likely to be just as symbolic as the reconstruction of the Old Bridge.

Political and ethnic divisions in Bosnia cannot be overcome through symbolic architectural projects or by imposing symbolic legal and administrative edicts. While the symbolic route may appear to be the easiest for the international administration, the people of Mostar, and of Bosnia more generally, would happily swap international symbolism for more of a stake in the political process and in deciding their own futures.

David Chandler is senior lecturer in international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. He is the author of:

  • Constructing Global Civil Society: Morality and Power in International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)
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  • From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention (Pluto Press, 2002)
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  • Bosnia: Faking Democracy After Dayton (Pluto Press, 2000)
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  • And he is the editor of:

    • Protecting the Bosnian Peace: Lessons from a Decade of Nation Building (Routledge, 2004)
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  • Rethinking Human Rights: Critical Approaches to International Politics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2002)
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  • (1) Office of the High Representative, Decision Enacting the Statute of the City of Mostar, 28 January 2004

    (2) Commission for Reforming the City of Mostar, Recommendations of the Commission Report of the Chairman, 15 December 2003

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    Topics Politics


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