What about democracy for Bosnia?

Western commentators fret about dictatorships in Burma and Pakistan yet turn a blind eye to the EU's colonial rule in 'over-emotional' Bosnia.

David Chandler

Topics World

While international attention has focused on the political instability in Burma and Pakistan in recent weeks, few commentators have picked up on turmoil in one small corner of Europe. Last week, the Bosnian government collapsed in a series of protests and recriminations over the role of the international High Representative, demonstrating that 12 years of international bureaucratic rule has done little to bring social and political cohesion to this tiny state.

Bosnia seems to be in the midst of its most serious political crisis since the Dayton agreement brought the civil war to an end in November 1995. Senior officials of EUFOR, the European Union peacekeeping force, have for the first time openly discussed the possibility of renewed conflict (1).

On Thursday 1 November, Bosnia’s Serbian prime minister Nikola Spiric resigned in protest at the international High Representative’s meddling with the country’s constitutional framework. Following Spiric’s resignation it seems possible that no new Bosnian Serb prime minister will be appointed, making new parliamentary elections necessary and further delaying the process of European Union-orientated reforms (2).

The crisis has been brought to a head by the actions of the international High Representative, Miroslav Lajcak, who represents the international community and is also the EU’s Special Representative in Bosnia. He has the powers to dismiss elected politicians and to directly impose legislation. Last month, he brought in new measures to streamline the operation of the central governing institutions by drastically reducing the quorum needed, preventing the requirement of a consensus of support from all three of Bosnia’s segmented ethnic communities (Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs) (3).

This measure fundamentally questions the post-Dayton constitutional framework based on consensual decision-making and effectively means that state institutions no longer have to take into account the opinions of Serb representatives of the Republika Srpska entity. From the perspective of the bureaucratic mandarins running the tiny country, avoiding the need to reach a tripartite consensus on every issue certainly facilitates the policymaking process. However, it clearly makes little sense to understand this reform, which the High Representative has sought to impose without consultation, as purely a technical administrative measure.

Nevertheless, this is exactly the tack publicly taken by the international overseers of Bosnia. The Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council (the ad hoc international body which formally appoints the High Representative) stated that ‘the only objective of the [High Representative’s] measures is to streamline the decision-making process in the Council of Ministers’. Lajcak himself argued that: ‘It is paradoxical that the Chairman of the Council of Ministers should resign over measures that are designed to make the Council of Ministers, the body that he chairs, more efficient.’ (4) Presenting the imposed constitutional changes as merely designed to facilitate efficient governance makes Lajcak appear to represent the rational interests of Bosnian citizens, and it has enabled him to denounce Spiric’s concerns with consensus and representational legitimacy as ‘over-emotional, irresponsible and insufficiently rational’ (5).

Considering Lajcak’s views of the irrational nature of those who disagree with his edicts, it is little surprise that he has appeared to be unmoved in the face of widespread Bosnian Serb opposition. This has included protests across the Republika Srpska (RS) entity by as many as 10,000 Bosnian Serbs on 29 October, and the threat by the members of the leading Bosnian Serb party, the Party of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), led by the prime minister RS Milorad Dodik, to resign from all governing posts (6).

High Representative Lajcak is so confident in his executive authority over the ‘over-emotional’ and ‘irrational’ Bosnians that he has publicly stated that the constitutional changes should really be of no concern to Bosnian politicians or the Bosnian public: ‘It would be better if people in this country did their job, concentrated on their own work. It is interesting that when we were working on police reform everyone here saw it fit to interpret the European principles themselves, and today they are all interpreting the Dayton peace agreement. I think that both those subjects are my mandate, and the politicians have a different mandate – to do their jobs, to go to work and fulfil the commitments and obligations they have undertaken.’ (7)

According to the EU’s bureaucratic bagman, it is his job to interpret the Dayton agreement and to lay down the reforms necessary for European membership; it is the job of Bosnian politicians and the Bosnian people to fulfil their ‘commitments and obligations’ of abiding by his decisions on these issues.

It is little wonder that Bosnia’s resigning prime minister Nikola Spiric has stated that ‘Bosnia-Herzegovina is absurd’. It is clear that elected institutions and titled government posts are a mockery of democracy if politicians have no real power to set the policy agenda, let alone any genuine capacity to debate and discuss the policies put in front of them by the international administrators. Spiric argues that: ‘If the international community always supports the High Representative and not the institutions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then it doesn’t matter if I am the head of that state, or Bart Simpson.’ (8)

Bosnia’s governing framework is absurd because there is little point in having executive powers vested in an international bureaucrat and then pretending that Bosnia is governed by Bosnian politicians. As Spiric rightly has pointed out, executive powers ‘cannot be held by the international community while I’m supposed to be taking over responsibilities’ (9). Spiric observes that Bosnia-Herzegovina ‘is unfortunately not a sovereign state’ over a decade after the war’s end and the declaration of Bosnia’s formal independence: ‘Twelve years after Dayton, foreigners have exclusive rule over this country and I believe this isn’t good for this country or its citizens.’ (10)

One of the key problems of bureaucratic rule over Bosnia since 1995 has been the tendency of international actors to seek to impose reforms over the heads of the Bosnian public. Rather than engage in public debate, international administrators have sought to argue that every reform is essential in order to fulfil Bosnia’s obligations under the Dayton agreement or in order to meet EU membership requirements. This has meant that Bosnian political institutions have been reduced to rubber stamps for externally decided policies or have degraded into nationalist grandstanding in an attempt to convince voters that politicians are standing up for their interests.

Unfortunately, the absolute powers which the High Representative wields have meant that the international bureaucracy has been effectively able to act autonomously. Often, the High Representative’s Office has reinterpreted politically sensitive questions as merely technical bureaucratic issues and then sought to force through preferred solutions. One key example has been that of police reform: former High Representative Paddy Ashdown insisted that the centralised management of the police should be forced through as a condition for EU membership negotiations.

Because police reform was politically divisive and not open to a pre-decided solution, negotiations on the basis of Ashdown’s proposals were much more problematic and drawn out than they might have been had there been more room for a freely negotiated settlement. Many EU member states voiced doubts over Ashdown’s handling of police reform because attempting to force through reform using the conditionality of EU membership threatened to undermine Bosnia’s reform process by adding unnecessary conditions. This was seen as an entirely artificial connection as there was no EU requirement for centralised police control, with several EU states, such as Germany and Belgium, having long-established federal police administrations (11).

It would appear that Lajcak has followed the confrontational approach of his predecessor Ashdown in seeking bureaucratically to enforce major policy reforms. It is a sad indictment of 12 years of international rule over Bosnia that Lajcak would rather reform the Dayton constitutional settlement by bureaucratic edict than through a process of public debate and consultation. It is the absurd dictatorial powers of the High Representative which are irrational and have resulted in corroding and undermining Bosnia’s representative bodies – institutionalising Bosnia’s wartime political divisions rather than allowing Bosnian people the opportunity of overcoming them.

David Chandler is professor of international relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster and editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding.

Previously on spiked

David Chandler noted that the EU is in denial over its domination of Bosnia and explained who really runs the country. Dutch intelligence expert Cees Wiebes told Brendan O’Neill that we are only allowed to see Bosnia in black and white. Philip Cunliffe showed how a failed British politician was lording it over Bosnia. Or read more at spiked issue Former Yugoslavia.

(1) EUFOR Ready to Intervene in Bosnia, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, 31 October 2007

(2) Bosnia presidents ask PM to reconsider resignation, Reuters, 2 November 2007

(3) Decision Enacting the Law on Changes and Amendments to the Law on the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Office of the High Representative, 19 October 2007

(4) Bosnia-Herzegovina Council of Ministers to Function in Technical Mandate, Office of the High Representative, Press Release, 1 November 2007

(5) Press Conference by the High Representative Miroslav Lajčák, following the PIC meeting, Office of the High Representative, Press Release, 31 October 2007

(6) Anes Alic, Dangerous rumblings in Bosnia, ISN Security Watch, 2 November 2007

(7) Press Conference by the High Representative Miroslav Lajčák, following the PIC meeting, Office of the High Representative, Press Release, 31 October 2007

(8) Bosnia prime minister resigns amid tension, Financial Times, 2 November 2007

(9) Bosnia prime minister resigns amid tension, Financial Times, 2 November 2007

(10) Bosnian PM quits over EU reforms, Al-Jazeera English, 2 November 2007

(11) See Thomas Muehlmann, ‘Police Restructuring in Bosnia-Herzegovina: An Example of an Internationally-Led Security Sector Reform Process’, Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding, Vol.2, No.1 (forthcoming March 2008)

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Topics World


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