Ten years on: who’s running Bosnia?

The only people freed up by Bosnia’s ‘democratic’ reforms will be EU administrators.

David Chandler

Topics Politics

The international administration of Bosnia is being fundamentally reshaped – 10 years after the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war and established a transitional international administration. These changes are presented as a step forward for Bosnian self-government – and a badge of success for the international administration.

But these reforms have little to do with the Bosnian people’s concerns or interests – and are instead about replacing one kind of outside control with another.

Certainly, the reforms will mean a less overt form of rule. Until now, Bosnia has effectively been run by an absolutist tsar, known as the High Representative, who was put in place by Dayton and derives his authority from the United Nations (UN). The current High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, has used his powers to sack elected politicians who he didn’t like. There are plans to phase out some of the High Representative’s powers to impose legislation and dismiss elected representatives. There are also plans to create a stronger central government, and to strengthen individual rather than group rights – so apparently making Bosnia more like a liberal democracy (1). But just as the Dayton Agreement was drawn up in Dayton, Ohio and signed in Paris, so these latest changes have been planned in Brussels and Washington. Indeed, these new arrangements do not abolish international control at all – they actually make it more pervasive. International bureaucrats will still be at the heart of Bosnia’s government.

Heady reports describe Bosnia’s new beginning as a success story for the international administration. We hear that there has been a large-scale return of refugees to their pre-war homes, and the return of pre-war property to those who have made new lives elsewhere (2). We are told that the security situation has stabilised, and that the coercive powers of international administrators are no longer necessary (3).

But these arguments don’t ring true. There have actually been very few security problems over the past 10 years – unlike in Kosovo, not one serving member of the NATO or European Union (EU) military forces has been killed or seriously injured. The level of inter-ethnic violence is extremely low, and has not been used to justify the extension of international administration over the past decade.

The flurry of reform proposals isn’t driven by any recent policy success or change in the security situation inside the country. Instead, it is pressures outside Bosnia that explain the attempt to talk up a ‘new beginning’ for the tiny state. In the past few years the role of the Office of the High Representative has come under challenge. This challenge has come not from Bosnian political parties or civic groups – but instead from the prime movers behind Dayton, the USA and the EU.

When the management of Bosnia was the responsibility of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) – a group of 55 countries and international organisations that coordinate the administration and appoint the High Representative – there was little pressure for reform. Since 2000, the PIC has increasingly handed over responsibilities to the EU, and in 2007 it is likely that the PIC will hand over entirely to the EU. Paddy Ashdown, appointed in June 2002 and due to retire in January 2006, holds the ‘double-hatted’ position of both representing the PIC and acting as the EU’s Special Representative. As the EU has assumed a central role in the administration of Bosnia, the European Commission and Council of Europe have urged reform.

The Council of Europe has consistently questioned the role of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), for example, arguing in the Venice Commission report of March 2005 that the powers of the OHR were ‘fundamentally incompatible with the democratic character of the state and the sovereignty’ of Bosnia; and that ‘there was a strong risk of perverse effects’, including the development of a ‘dependency culture’ that risked Bosnia’s political progress in the future (4). The April 2005 report of the Independent Commission on the Balkans, chaired by the former prime minister of Italy, Giuliano Amato, similarly has argued that the OHR plays a counterproductive role and ‘has blocked the development of self-government which is a precondition to becoming an EU candidate state’ (5). Carl Bildt, the first international High Representative and still a leading player in the region, argued in October 2005 that it was ‘now high time to close down [the OHR] and hand full powers and full responsibilities to the elected representatives of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ (6).

The overt domination of Bosnia has caused the EU some embarrassment. The EU prides itself on its non-conflictual ‘partnership’ relations in the region, organised around the concentric rings of the EU enlargement process. The open exercise of coercive authority by Paddy Ashdown’s office is seen as far too crude and inflexible. It is not the regulative authority that the EU objects to, but the fact that the relations of domination are posed in such a transparent form. The new reforms seek to ‘normalise’ the EU’s relations with Bosnia, and to emphasise the soft power of EU integration rather than the hard power of external coercion.

This reform process is as externally driven as the original Dayton settlement 10 years ago. Bosnian representatives are being flown out for constitutional talks in Brussels and Washington, where new constitutional drafts are put in front of them to sign – with the carrot of EU finances and the promise of eventual membership, of course. This process bears no relationship to Bosnian people’s concerns or interests. Bosnian polls show that the last thing people are interested in is the international community drawing up a new constitution. Over half the population would leave the country if they could because of a lack of economic opportunities. It makes little practical difference to Bosnians whether international regulation takes a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ form.

If anything, the separation of policymaking from Bosnia’s representative institutions and the concerns of the public will be even greater in the new Bosnia. It seems as if the international control over and regulation of Bosnian state institutions will be much more invasive under the EU’s watch. EU civil servants will work closely with newly created ministries, such as the Directorate of European Integration, to implement thousands of detailed EU ‘Partnership’ reforms (7). While we should criticise Ashdown’s arrogant undermining of democratic rights in Bosnia, the exercise of external power was at least transparent. It appears that it is the international administrators who will be liberated by the phasing out of the High Representative’s powers, rather than the people of Bosnia.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster. His latest book is Peace without Politics: Ten Years of International State-Building in Bosnia (buy this book from Amazon (UK)).

(1) Ian Traynor, ‘Revealed: US plans for Bosnian constitution’, Guardian, 10 November, 2005

(2) See, for example, Daniela Heimerl, ‘The Return of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: From Coercion to Sustainability?’, International Peacekeeping, Vol.12, No.3, 2005

(3) See, for example, Ed Vulliamy, ‘Farewell Sarajevo’, G2, Guardian, 2 November 2005; Nicholas Wood, ‘Absolute authority in Bosnia coming to end?, International Herald Tribune, 4 November 2005

(4) European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) Report, Opinion on the Constitutional Situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Powers of the High Representative, 11 March 2005, p90

(5) The Balkans in Europe’s Future, Independent Commission on the Balkans, April 2005, p24

(6) Carl Bildt, ‘Bosnia from 1995 to 2014’, presentation at the International Conference ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina: Ten Years of Dayton and Beyond’, Geneva, 20-21 October 2005. Documents available here

(7) See the website of Bosnia’s Directorate of European Integration

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Topics Politics


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