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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ashdown Ousts Covic From The Bosnian Presidency

  • Patrick Moore --> Paddy Ashdown, who is the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, announced on 29 March the removal of Dragan Covic as the Croatian member of the Bosnian Presidency. Ashdown's move once again raises fundamental questions about the future and role of the international community's protectorate in Bosnia.

In making his announcement, Ashdown stressed that Covic has been a "good president" since assuming office in 2002 but must be replaced to spare Bosnia embarrassment while he stands trial on corruption charges dating from his time as finance minister of the Croat-Muslim Federation in 1998-2001. Ashdown argued that "anyone who is indicted for criminal offences, while holding high executive authority, [must] stand down from their post in order to defend themselves as a private citizen, so as not to damage the public office they hold," his website reported (see htttp://

Western diplomats have sought unsuccessfully in recent weeks to persuade Covic to resign voluntarily. Since assuming office in 2002, Ashdown has repeatedly used his sweeping powers to sack Bosnian officials, mainly Bosnian Serbs, who he believes are holding up reforms or providing clandestine support to fugitive war crimes indictees.

Covic responded to his ouster by calling Ashdown's decision unconstitutional. In recent weeks, Covic was supported in his determination to remain in office not only by his own Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) but also by Boris Paravac, who is Covic's Serbian colleague on the Presidency. Paravac has argued that that Covic remains innocent until proven guilty. Sulejman Tihic, who is the Muslim member of the Presidency, has said that it will be difficult for Covic to carry out his duties while on trial.

Covic has argued in his own defense that the corruption charges against him are part of an unspecified campaign to "put pressure on the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina." He was due to assume the chair of the Presidency in June. Ashdown has banned him from all state functions but not political activity, thereby holding open the possibility that Covic might become head of the HDZ in order to maintain a high profile.

Upon assuming office on 28 October 2002, Covic said that the Presidency's priority is to tackle economic questions. Born in 1956 in Mostar, he is a machine engineer by profession and worked from 1979 to 1990 at the former Yugoslav People's Army's (JNA) Soko factory in his home town. From 1998 to 2001 he served as finance minister and deputy prime minister of the Muslim-Croat Federation. On 26 June 2003, he testified in the Mostar Canton Court about his possible wrongdoing in the privatization of the Cronet mobile telephone company during his tenure as finance minister. The Federation's Interior Ministry and Finance Police brought the charges against him.

Now Covic again finds himself in court. One day after Ashdown's announcement sacking him from the Presidency, the trial opened in Sarajevo of Covic and five other men allegedly involved in corruption for the benefit of a Herzegovinian company in what is known as "the Lijanovic affair." Among the accused is Mato Tadic, who heads Bosnia's Constitutional Court. Under Bosnian law, judges may only be dismissed before the end of their term.

Ashdown's sacking of a member of the Bosnian Presidency has raised questions about the future of his office and of the political order in Bosnia. Many observers had expected the post of high representative to be phased out after Ashdown leaves later in 2005, but the "Financial Times" quoted an unnamed "senior U.S. diplomat" as saying that "Bosnia's leaders cannot go suddenly from having such an assertive high representative to swimming on their own, even if the European Union steps [in] with a strong role, as everyone expects."

Furthermore, many observers note that Ashdown's repeated sackings of elected and other officials underscore a central dilemma faced by the international community in administering what is in effect a protectorate in Bosnia. The issue is whether it is possible to promote Western democratic values by intervening by fiat to overrule the wishes of the electorate clearly expressed at the ballot box, including when the voters have elected nationalist officials, as is the case in Bosnia.

There is no clear answer to the dilemma, which stems from the provisions of the 1995 Dayton peace agreements. There are four basic models under public discussion to deal with the problem, the differences between them depending on what one considers to be the root of the matter. The first model calls for strengthening the Office of the High Representative (OHR) on the grounds that this is the only way to effect change and break the power of the nationalists. The second model seeks to empower voters by first reducing and then eliminating the role of the OHR. The third model calls for scrapping the Dayton system and calling a new constitutional convention to map a fresh start. And a fourth model calls for writing off the whole post-1995 constitutional experiment and partitioning Bosnia along ethnic lines.

There are at least a few flaws in each of these models, which has prompted some observers to argue the present system is better than any of the proposed alternatives. But a move like Ashdown's ouster of Covic can only serve once again to raise the question as to whether an appointed foreign governor can indeed promote democracy by sacking an elected Bosnian official.