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Bosnia: Ashdown Takes Office As New High Representative

  • Jolyon Naegele

British politician Paddy Ashdown has become the new High Representative to Bosnia-Herzegovina. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele looks back at outgoing high representative Wolfgang Petritsch's accomplishments and what goals Ashdown has set for Bosnia to achieve greater integration of its disparate entities.

Prague, 29 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Paddy Ashdown -- a former British Royal marine, Liberal Democrat Party leader, and native of Northern Ireland -- took over the post of the international High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina on 27 May.

The charismatic Ashdown replaces Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch, an ethnic Slovene from Austria. Petritsch was known as a consummate diplomat whose intimate knowledge of the region and tough stand on constitutional issues made him plenty of political enemies.

Petritsch brought Bosnia a considerable way down the road from postwar occupation to normalcy. He says he is satisfied that at the conclusion of his three-year term, Bosnia has democratic foundations.

But Petritsch says he is also relieved the burden of ruling over a deeply divided international protectorate has been lifted from his shoulders: "I feel a great sense of relief."

Petritsch will be a tough act to follow, having built up considerable momentum for reform. This includes forcing changes two months ago to Bosnia's constitutions to ensure equal rights for the county's Serbs, Muslims, and Croats in both entities -- the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska.

Petritsch says his only regret is that Bosnia is not moving faster toward the European integration process.

Ashdown's three-year mandate begins at a time when former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, General Ratko Mladic, and paramilitary leader Milan Lukic, all indicted by the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague, are still at large -- seven and a half years after the Dayton peace accords ended the fighting in Bosnia.

Ashdown has been actively engaged in Balkan affairs over the past decade. As British Foreign Minister Jack Straw put it when Ashdown was named Petritsch's successor in March: "His long-standing commitment to and the considerable knowledge of the region make him ideally suited to this challenging position."

Ashdown visited Sarajevo several times during the 1991-95 siege by Serbian forces and was a strong critic of the West for refusing to use air strikes against the Serbs to lift the siege.

And Ashdown testified against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague tribunal in March, describing how he warned Milosevic to end the violence against civilians in Kosovo in 1998 or face international intervention and indictment for war crimes.

In a bid to assuage possible hostility from Bosnian Serbs, Ashdown -- shortly after his inauguration -- flew to the city of Banja Luka for talks with Bosnian Serb leaders.

In his inaugural speech yesterday in Sarajevo, Ashdown said in spite of progress Bosnia's future is not assured. He said a fork in the road lies ahead with one route leading to division and instability and the other to reform, statehood, and ultimately membership in the EU.

Ashdown says his task is to put the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina irreversibly on the road to statehood and EU membership. He adds that preserving the status quo of Bosnia as "two or, as some even say, three failed statelets within a failed state" is not going to happen.

Critics wonder whether Ashdown is not being overly optimistic. Bosnia continues to be threatened by internal divisions and instability elsewhere in the region.

Ashdown in his speech paid only lip service to regional issues, saying there will be no revival of wartime dreams of a Greater Croatia or a Greater Serbia. This comes in contrast to his counterpart in Kosovo, UN senior representative Michael Steiner, who sees any resolution of Kosovo's problems as forming part of a larger regional solution.

Bosnia's regional problems are potentially serious. Many of Bosnia's ethnic Serb and Croat leaders have yet to give up the idea of secession from Bosnia and seem to be waiting for a suitable opportunity to justify leaving, such as Kosovo independence or the disintegration of rump Yugoslavia.

In his speech, Ashdown decried what he called Bosnia's wasteful spending on government. Bosnia has separate government structures at the federal level, within the two entities, and in the federation's 10 cantons. Operating all of these levels of government costs almost $1 billion a year.

He points out the country has 760 legislators, 180 ministers, three armies, and 13 prime ministers. This is all for a country of less than 4 million people.

As the new high representative puts it, "the truth is Bosnia and Herzegovina spends far too much money on its politicians and far too little on its people -- and we have no option but to change that."

The answer, he says, is to establish justice through the rule of law and then proceed to create jobs. And as he did several times in his address, he switched to the local language for emphasis:

"First jobs, then justice, through reform."

Ashdown is proposing a 10-point plan to fight crime and corruption. The plan includes setting up a special court to take on sensitive, high-profile cases and completing various processes begun by Petritsch to improve the country's court system.

To boost employment, Ashdown proposes to "sweep away red tape and bureaucracy," develop laws to help small businesses obtain credit, and to establish accelerated procedures for dealing with business disputes. Perhaps most significantly, Ashdown proposes pushing forward reforms on property and land ownership law "so that people can invest and plan with confidence."

Some of these proposals have a populist ring and it is far from clear whether Ashdown will get very far. Unemployment is about 50 percent in the Muslim-Croat Federation and much higher in the Bosnian Serb entity. Foreign investment is negligible and the prevailing industry in many areas is smuggling, trafficking, and related criminal activities.

(The South Slavic Service contributed to this report.)