Bosnia: the limits to EU rule

Recent protests in Bosnia reveal the problems of the EU’s stage-managed democracy.

Tara McCormack

Topics World

Bosnia has recently been wracked by angry public demonstrations. In this regard, it is far from unique among central-European countries. Over the past year, there have also been significant anti-government protests in new EU member states such as Romania, Slovenia and Bulgaria, as well in two more established member states, Poland and Hungary. But what sets Bosnia apart is that it is directly controlled by the European Union (EU) through the Office of the High Representative. Moreover, Bosnia is a model for EU-managed democracy that is becoming increasingly widespread.

As has been seen with other protests in central Europe, Bosnians are angry at unemployment, deindustrialisation, and the corruptness and ineptitude of the political class. With high unemployment, falling wages and no economic growth, Bosnia’s situation is particularly disastrous.

The protests began in the town of Tuzla in early February and quickly spread to other cities, mainly in the Bosnian-Croat federation part of Bosnia. Government buildings were set alight in Sarajevo and other towns, and citizens’ plenums have sprung up. The initial reaction from the current high representative, Valentin Inzko, was to panic and threaten to call in the troops. The protests have since calmed down but there are still pockets of fighting, and the Sarajevo canton assembly has agreed to some of the demands of the Sarajevo citizens’ plenum.

Inzko’s initial reaction apart, the EU has generally been telling Bosnian leaders they need to listen to their people, take responsibility for the political and economic mess and make reforms that will hasten EU entry (Bosnia’s application process is currently frozen). Carl Bildt, a former high representative, said the solution to Bosnia’s problems is in the hands of its elected officials: ‘At the end of the day, Bosnia is the responsibility of the elected politicians of Bosnia.’ Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign-policy chief, urged Bosnian leaders to show leadership and resolve the crisis. Other political figures such as UK foreign secretary William Hague have argued that the EU needs to make more effort to encourage Bosnia to apply for EU membership.

This presentation of Bosnia’s problems is an astonishingly dishonest inversion of reality, even by the EU’s standards. Far from being outside the EU, Bosnia is a state created, maintained and preserved by the EU. Moreover, through the Office of the High Representative, Bosnia is directly controlled by the EU. A succession of past-it European politicians and bureaucrats have overseen Bosnia and intervened in every aspect of its political life, including sacking elected politicians, overturning laws, and removing police chiefs, judges and ministers. The level of control and interference has been astonishing. As Miroslav Baros has pointed out, the high representative has exercised powers even surpassing those of nineteenth-century colonial governors.

How did this come about? The Bosnian war was finally ended by the Dayton Agreement in 1995, which set up a highly convoluted system consisting of multiple layers of bureaucracy and government. According to the agreement, each layer must be ethnically balanced, representing the three constituent groups in Bosnia. Bosnia currently consists of two ‘entities’, the Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, both of which are ruled over by a federal presidency. Each entity also has several cantons. It is an irony that this mirrors the structure of Yugoslavia with its multiple governments, both state and federal, and an ‘ethnic key’ system for political positions.

This bureaucratic edifice is governed absolutely by the high representative. The reason for this is not because Bosnia has been so wracked by violence it can no longer govern itself. Rather, it’s because without external rule, Bosnia would simply dissolve. Contrary to the standard narrative, which says Bosnia was destroyed by aggressive Nazi-like Serbs, Bosnia’s real problem was much more prosaic. In the context of the dissolution of the federal state of Yugoslavia, and the independence of the constituent republics, of the three main groups in Bosnia (Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims) only the latter wished to live in an independent Bosnia. The Serbs and Croats wished to leave Bosnia and join their respective states. This was not permitted by the EU’s precursor, the European Community, and several years of brutal fighting ensued – it was only towards the end of the conflict that Bosnians and Croats joined forces (1).

Combined with the devastating economic impact of the IMF/World Bank microcredit schemes, international control has been a disaster for Bosnia. Bosnia is a state that does not function in any sense. The EU has set up a grotesque system of ethnic patronage and corruption. As a Guardian editorial stated recently: ‘The result [of international control] was a mess of overlapping and competing administrations which turned into a happy hunting ground for ethnically based politicians who could exploit its many possibilities for patronage and personal enrichment. Its extreme inefficiency and failure to create the economic growth that Bosnia needed would in a normal country have soon led to both fiscal and political bankruptcy, but the subsidies, mainly from the European Union, just kept rolling in.’

Of course, the Guardian, being one of the key cheerleaders for international intervention during the 1990s, fails to grasp that this is the result of intervention and the externally imposed settlement, not an accident. Bosnian political elites have only acted within the rigid framework provided by the EU. Given that, it is hardly surprising that Bosnian elites have refused to allow other ethnic groups to get a piece of the action.

Despite the ebbing of the protests, Bosnia’s problems remain. One very positive development has been the citizens’ plenums which have sprung up. Unfortunately, the first demand of the Sarajevo plenum has been for a government of experts. While the anger at Bosnian politicians is understandable, the Sarajevo plenum’s demand shows a refusal to grasp the root of the problem – and a failure to grasp the potential solution, too. That is, only Bosnian citizens of all groups can make their country work through self-government. Technocratic governments that rule according to externally imposed agendas divorced from the people are precisely what have brought Bosnia to the state it is in. They do not work.

In Bosnia we see the clear limits of EU stage-managed democracy. The EU has been increasingly managing democracy in member states in a variety of ways, including pursuing economic policies, regardless of political and economic realities, revoking referendums and staging soft coups in Greece and Italy. To some extent, Bosnia has been an experiment in more extensive EU rule – and the results are not good. In a starker form, Bosnia’s problems represent those of Europe. Unfortunately, Bosnians’ anti-political technocratic leanings are also echoed in Europe as a whole. It seems that, as is the case throughout Europe, only democratic control can provide a solution to Bosnia’s problems.

Tara McCormack is a lecturer in international politics at the University of Leicester. She is author of Critique, Security and Power: The Political Limits to Critical and Emancipatory Approaches to Security, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Amel Emric/AP/Press Association Images

(1) One of the best and most balanced treatments of the break-up remains Susan Woodward (1995), Balkan Tragedy, Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War (Washington: The Brookings Institution)

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Topics World


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