02 January 2007

Testing the limits of intervention

By Eric Jansson
Published by Financial Times, 20 December 2006

W hat will be the political legacy of more than a decade of international intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Few experts have answered this question more provocatively than the European Stability Initiative, a think-tank founded in a Sarajevo café seven years ago and now based in Berlin. Researchers there argued three years ago that, although the peace achieved in 1995 had laid a foundation for future stability, ongoing involvement by the international community had infantilised Bosnia’s domestic political leadership.

Successive UN-appointed high representatives have wielded powers to impose or reject laws, to back elected politicians and ban others from office. ESI called this situation an outrage. Bosnia resembled a “European Raj”.

Vigorous international intervention in Bosnian politics had reached the point of diminishing returns, the think tank said. The high representative had grown into a de facto executive whose farthest-reaching powers – a set of extra-constitutional levers called the Bonn powers – should no longer be used.

The UK’s Paddy Ashdown, the previous high representative, left office last year after using the Bonn powers frequently and aggressively in an effort to prepare Bosnia to fly on its own.

Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the veteran German parliamentarian who became high representative in January this year, is a staunch proponent of the ESI perspective. The resulting changes in the workings of Bosnia’s political system, from Lord Ashdown’s time in office until today, have therefore been immense.

A friend of the Berlin think-tank with a long background as an international mediator in Bosnia, Mr Schwarz-Schilling took up his post in early 2006 as the choice of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, whose turn it was to select a candidate. He brought with him an ESI member, Chris Bennett, as his spokesman.

The infusion of anti-interventionism into the Office of the High Representative, an international office established on an interventionist premise, has not been universally welcomed. Mr Schwarz-Schilling endures much fierce criticism behind his back, even from OHR staff. Yet he is keen to defend a record that, according to his critics, has been mostly “doing nothing”.

Taking a hands-off approach may have caused some backsliding, he says, but “when we intervene, the truth does not rise to the surface”.

One of his highest-priority jobs is to determine whether his job can be eliminated next June, when the post could be downgraded to that of a European Union “special representative”. The EU supervisory position envisaged for Bosnia would carry fewer powers, in effect shifting the country from post-war semi-protectorate to fully sovereign status. When the international committee formed under the Dayton peace treaty makes its final assessment in February, “the question has to be really open”, he says.

Mr Schwarz-Schilling says he has not yet made up his own mind about the closedown date, but a retraction of the Bonn powers would be “too dangerous” at this moment. The country’s reform agenda is in a “very bad” state, with local political leaders failing to take sufficient responsibility for their own proposals – some of which would bankrupt the state if allowed to proceed.

Before Bosnia’s October general elections, the international community suffered a significant failure when a US-drafted proposal for constitutional reform failed narrowly to attract the required two-thirds support in the state parliament. That disappointment has left the US and EU without a clear plan for strengthening the domestic political system to ensure readiness for sovereign rule.

“We have no starting point at this time for constitutional reform,” Mr Schwarz-Schilling says.
Some senior European diplomats describe 2006 as a grim year for Bosnia. Yet Mr Schwarz-Schilling says there has been at least one big breakthrough. “Before I came, there was an illusion that everything was great. Now there is not.”

Yet the OHR remains, as the ESI pointed out, the country’s de facto executive.

With the relaxation of authority at the top, Bosnia’s elected leaders have tested the limits of international patience.

Milorad Dodik, the dynamic prime minister of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb sub-state, raised the high representative’s ire by floating the idea of a referendum on independence. Such secessionist talk is the ultimate taboo in post-war Bosnian politics. While no one denies that the referendum would gain overwhelming support from Bosnian Serbs, the inviolability of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s borders as an ex-Yugoslav republic were a central plank of the Dayton accords.

Lord Ashdown might well have fired him outright. Mr Schwarz-Schilling’s reaction was more tentative. He spoke about sacking Mr Dodik, but then backed off. A Bosnian Serb political cartoon showed Mr Dodik casually urinating in Mr Schwarz-Schilling’s eye. Not many years ago, even the cartoonist would have faced international sanctions.

Mr Schwarz-Schilling insists he was “not outplayed” by Mr Dodik, even if the incident “did damage”. The Bosnian Serb leader “now knows that a referendum is not a possibility”.

Mr Dodik has strengthened links to Serbian leaders in Belgrade. Meanwhile the Bosnjak-Muslim and Croat members of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency insulted their Serb counterpart – a member of Mr Dodik’s party – by leaving together, unannounced, for a meeting with Stipe Mesic, president of Croatia.

Haris Silajdzic, the Bosnjak president, shows little appetite for painstaking diplomacy despite his relentless insistence that multi-ethnic rule can work. He even attacks the constitutional viability of the three-member presidency to which he has been elected. “It’s ridiculous, for God’s sake, a merry-go-round.”

Yet the president says that the US and EU, in particular, played with fire when lobbying for constitutional change this year. The proposed amendments would have enhanced “entity-based” voting in the state parliament, further cementing the powers of the Bosnian Serb sub-state. “It was practically the dissolution of the state,” he says, adding that it convinced some Bosnian Muslims previously allied to the US that Washington is no longer a friend.

Many true Bosnians from all ethnic groups remained peaceful despite facing the gravest threat during the war, Mr Silajdzic says. The international community should keep its high-mindedness to itself. “They come and lecture us on civility? I mean, come on.”

It may be time for Mr Schwarz-Schilling’s hands-off approach. But the initial results are not heartening.

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