The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Bosnia Faltering

October 23, 2009

As Charli pointed out a while ago, I co-authored a piece in the current issue of Foreign Affairs on the backward slide in Bosnia over the past three years. My co-author, Patrice McMahon, and I noted that the institutions created by the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 successfully ended the war, but created a decentralized duel-entity political system based on ethnic quotas and divisions that are now contributing to the current crisis. For the better part of a decade, the international community poured money and resources into Bosnia’s post-war state-building experience. In large part, the extensive international effort hid (and ignored) the underlying problems of ethnic segregation in many communities, pervasive corruption, and the disfunctionality of state institutions. By and large, the successful end of the war and the absence of any organized inter-ethnic violence convinced many in Washington and Brussels that Bosnia was a great success story.

However, for reasons we unpack in the article, the contradictions left unresolved at Dayton began to intensify beginning in late 2005 and we began to observe a series of disturbing trends: the re-emergence of ethnic chauvinism, heightened nationalist discourse, economic stagnation, and international missteps, complacency, and fatigue. These have contributed to an intensifying crisis this year in which there is complete political deadlock on all major issues and there is almost no functioning central governing institutions. Serb leaders are now openly talking about secession of Republika Srbska (RS) while many Bosniak leaders are calling for the effective dissolution of the RS.

Since that piece went to press in early August, things have continued to deteriorate.

In the past two weeks, Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and Carl Bildt, former High Representative for Bosnia (OHR) and current Swedish Foreign Minister (Sweden currently holds the EU presidency), initiated two separate meetings in Sarajevo to try to break the current impasse. They presented a package of reforms ostensibly designed to establish some functionality to state institutions and told the Bosnian parties that no EU or NATO membership talks would be forthcoming without the reforms. However, the latest talks on Tuesday broke down as the Serbs balked at efforts to shift some powers from the entity level to a stronger central government while Bosniak and Croat officials criticized provisions that would leave in place entity voting structures (thereby allowing the Serbs veto authority over most national legislation).

While both Bildt and Steinberg tried to put a positive spin on events, the international effort had an air of desperation to it.

Much of the problem is that the international community is divided on its overall assessment of the situation in Bosnia and in its approach to resolving the sitution.

The Europeans do not view the current situation as a crisis. For the most part, Brussels sees the political stalemate as an irritant, but ultimately its position is that nothing will move forward in Bosnia until the international community closes OHR and ends Bosnia’s status as an international protectorate of sorts. As a result, Bildt’s general approach to the recent talks has been to secure some small concessions from the three ethnic groups but not to shake things up fundamentally. The priority seems to close OHR as quickly as possible regardless of the potential consequences.

The Obama administration, by contrast, is much more inclined to view the situation as serious. The political stalemate not only hampers EU ascension efforts, but will also contribute to greater nationalist rhetoric, and possible return to some levels of violence. The Americans wanted to get an agreement on constitutional reform before the end of the year and the start of next year’s campaigning for national elections. However, Obama’s commitment to a multilateral effort led the administration to defer some of the initiative to Bildt and the EU. In the end, the compromises and constitutional reforms put forward by the US and EU representatives were too weak to garner support from any of the three major groups in Bosnia.

For my money, I applaud the renewed attention to Bosnia. However, Brussels and Washington will have almost no influence in the internal Bosnian political dynamic until they get their collective act together. The various factions in Bosnia clearly see the gaps in the US and EU positions and will not even begin serious discussions unless they see a unified international front. I don’t envision a return to a full-blown war as we saw between 1992 and 1995, but I am very concerned about greater political fragmentation that could very easily spark a return of organized militia violence.

Perhaps I’m being a bit over-sensitive to that threat, but I recall the level of complacency in 1991 and early 1992 when too many folks in Brussels and Washington seemed to dismiss the idea the war could come to Sarajevo — which, as we were told over and over was a very cosmopolitan city that had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, war won’t happen there….

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.