Debate on Bosnia Fatigue: A Response to Kurt Bassuener

Kurt Bassuener from the Democratization Policy Council recently published the following response to Rosa Balfour and my commentary in the European Voice:

In their commentary entitled “Bosnia fatigue, and how to deal with it” (22-28 April), Rosa Balfour and Florian Bieber recognise that the EU lacks a strategy toward Bosnia and that this has resulted in policy failures such as last year’s ‘Butmir process’ – when the EU and the US sought to persuade Bosnian leaders to accept a ‘package’ of reforms necessary for deeper Euro-Atlantic integration – and the deep deterioration of the situation in recent years. Yet they fail to recognise why Bosnia is backsliding, or to propose a feasible way to arrest that slide.
Bosnia is dysfunctional because its governance was designed as a political lifesupport system for its signatories, rather than to provide for truly democratic accountability. Those who benefit have little incentive to change a system that may not work, but works for them. One can make the case for incremental change, but this is feasible only if the rules under which this occurs are predictable well into the future. That would require the EU to have an open-ended timeline. However, the EU’s current policy is based on a logical impossibility – incremental change with a short timeline and radical curtailment of international responsibility.
The EU institutions, and many of its members, state robotically that Bosnia cannot advance toward EU membership with the office of high representative (OHR) still in existence, an odd assertion given that the EU signed a stabilisation and association agreement with Bosnia with the OHR still in place. Without much deeper changes than those on the table, a Bosnia based on the Dayton agreement cannot function shorn of the enforcement mechanisms that are integral to it – an executive OHR and an EU peacekeeping force (EUFOR) empowered under chapter VII of the UN charter. The drive toward ‘transition’ to a still-undefined non-executive EU presence has helped encourage dangerous adventurism by the prime minister of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and corresponding fear and uncertainty throughout Bosnia.
Those with unfulfilled agendas perceive no resistance when they fail to comply with the Dayton rules or even call the state’s future into question. The EU policies have failed to deter; indeed, ‘deterrence’ seems absent from the EU’s lexicon.  Before Bosnians go to the polls in October, the EU, in conjunction with its non-EU Western partners such as the US and Turkey, could easily alleviate this perception that rules are being ignored.
First, EUFOR should deploy one of its mobile units to the autonomous district of Brcko, which links the two halves of the Republika Srpska, thereby rendering untenable proposals that the entity should break away.  Second, the EU, the US and other members of the Peace Implementation Council should state that as long as the Bosnian constitution contained in the Dayton agreement remains in force, its enforcement mechanisms will remain in place. The current policy has led Dodik to believe it is feasible  to have Dayton à la carte.
Bosnian citizens must be reassured that their country will not be allowed to collapse and that changes to the constitution (which are much-needed) will have to be broadly acceptable to them. Finally, the EU should rethink its pre-election communications strategy, which, since there is no overarching political strategy with which it is integrated, can be summed up as: “the EU is good for you – trust us.” Instead, the EU should pursue a public information course that would build up the EU’s currently feeble public credibility by spelling out the considerable realtime costs to citizens of their politicians’ foot-dragging on the ‘European path’. This would be a real public service in advance of the general elections in October.

Kurt Bassuener
Senior associate, Democratization Policy Council

I very much appreciated Kurt’s insightful response. While our recommendations and suggestions are often different, the assessment of the fundamental problems is similar. I guess one difference would be that I am less convinced than Kurt about Dodik’s desire to dismantle Bosnia. However, I would agree that Dodik’s ‘Dayton a la carte’ is equally troubling  (of course the OHR has also promoted Dayton a la carte, just in a different directions). When it comes to Bosnian governance, I am not sure that the constitution or its institutions are as problematic as Kurt suggests–the fundamental change to the political and constitutional system he suggestions is a) not feasible and b) unlikely to change the political dynamic sufficiently.  Of course the institutional set-up is sub-optimal and in need for reform, but as I have argued elsewhere (including on my blog), veto rights, autonomy and power-sharing will remain and will continue to offer political elites the option to sabotage the joint institutions.

Where I agree with Kurt is the suggestion to have a mobile EUFOR unit stationed in Brcko–it is here were Bosnia is held together. I would add a proposal to move some state institutions to Brcko.  I furthermore agree with Kurt that the EU needs to more effective in communicating why the integration process has been slow and pointing some fingers in public. As Kurt’s comment suggests, there is much which needs to be done by the EU.

One of the aspects which we did not raise in the commentary for reasons of brevity is the need for the EU to conceptualize a clear post-OHR strategy. There is no clear and reassuring plan on who would take over and it would be very important to acknowledge that there will be a need for continued external arbitration and intervention after the closure of the OHR (just like Northern Ireland has mechanisms for outside arbitration and mediation).

In brief, there is a fruitful debate to be had on these issues–let’s hope that the EU is listening.

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