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Helsinki Commission Urged To Renew U.S. Engagement In Western Balkans

  • Heather Maher

Paddy Ashdown advocated for the "full-hearted, engaged support of the United States."

Paddy Ashdown advocated for the "full-hearted, engaged support of the United States."

WASHINGTON -- A panel of experts has told the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission, that the United States must renew its commitment to help the Western Balkans along the road to European integration.

The committee heard that the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is especially critical and the United States must help Europe in its efforts to reverse the country’s decline.

Paddy Ashdown, who was the international High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006, told the committee that Bosnia will suffer further democratic setbacks unless the United States fully engages with the European Union on a new policy of assistance.

He made a direct appeal to U.S. Congress for “engagement, support for EU policy, and unity on a single strategy drawn up between the United States and the EU,” and said that he was asking for political support, not additional U.S. resources. Currently 2,153 troops serve in EUFOR Althea, which is the European Union Force deployed in Bosnia. Approximately 1,800 of those serving are from EU countries, and 300 from non-European countries.

To jump-start progress in the region, Ashdown told the committee on April 2 that Europe and the United States should use the one lever that will produce results: the goal of membership in the European Union.

“That is what everybody wants. Of whatever their ethnicity, of whatever their political view. Across the Western Balkans, that is what the population wants," Ashdown said. "And I think it’s very important that we use that lever more effectively.”

'The Right Framework'

Ashdown said the Dayton Agreement, which ended the Bosnian war in 1995, was the “precisely the right framework to stabilize” and bring peace to Bosnia. In the decade following, the country made “miraculous progress” toward a fully functioning state, he said.

But in the last three or four years, that dynamic has gone into reverse.

“I have to bluntly say to you that I think the progress of forward movement of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards a position not just of stability but also functionality as a state has now moved substantially into reverse," Ashdown said. "There are elements -- largely in the Republika Srpska -- who would wish to even undo the reforms toward statehood that have already been established. And indeed, [they] have been allowed to do so.”

Despite rumors that paramilitary groups are on the rise and acquiring weapons, Ashdown told the Congressional panel that he does not believe Bosnia is in danger of falling back into conflict. The peace is “fragile,” he admitted, but said the real danger is the country becoming “another Cyprus.”

“Divided, dysfunctional, a black hole, corruption heavily embedded, a space that we cannot afford to leave because it’s too destabilizing if we do, but we cannot push forward toward full statehood, either," Ashdown said. "That, I think, is the danger.”

'Full-Hearted Support'

Ashdown offered the committee several recommendations -- all focused around the United States recommitting to full participation in a new policy on Bosnia to be agreed by both the EU and United States.

Divided, dysfunctional, a black hole, corruption heavily embedded, a space that we cannot afford to leave because it’s too destabilizing if we do, but we cannot push forward toward full statehood, either. That, I think, is the danger.
“Europe needs to be in the forefront of that but, Mr. Chairman, we do need the full-hearted, engaged support of the United States in that process,” he said.

He called on the United States to use its influence to support and strengthen the European Union, which he said suffered from “a lack of purpose” in the Balkans. The country’s backsliding cannot be reversed without U.S. participation, Ashdown said.

He also said he does not believe that the leader of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, is trying to lead his majority-Serbian region to secede from the majority Muslim Bosniak Federation. But Ashdown did say that Dodik is undermining a sense of cohesion in the country. He said it is "vital" that the territorial integrity of Bosnia be maintained, and said Belgrade should be told that if it wants to proceed toward EU membership, it must “actively support” the EU-U.S. policy in Bosnia by telling the government in Republika Srpska that the question of secession “will not ever be on the table.”

Worrying Signs

Also appearing before the committee was Ivana Howard, the program officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy. She echoed Ashdown by warning that democratic freedoms and civil society in the Western Balkans have suffered serious setbacks in recent years.

She cited several recent worrying signs that media freedom is under attack in Serbia, including attacks on journalists, the interruption of printing presses, and government intimidation of journalists seeking to expose corruption that leads to self-censorship.

Media in Albania is in a similar situation, Howard said, noting that the magazine “Tema” was recently evicted from its offices and had its print run stopped after it reported on allegations of corruption by government officials, and TV News 24 was fined for “ridiculing another station’s promotion of the prime minister.”

In Bosnia, Howard said the pressure on the media and civil society NGOs, especially in the Republika Srpska, is reminiscent of “the darkest period under Milosevic.” Transparency International had to close its office in Banja Luka last summer over fears for its staff’s safety following a wave of threats and verbal attacks by government officials, she said, and a group of investigative journalists working for Federated Television (FTV) was recently attacked in Trebinje by government officials.

Howard told the committee that the main priority for the international community in Bosnia must be constitutional reform, because an “inherent flaw in current system allows political elites to use [people’s] fear” as a mobilizing tool, especially ahead of elections.

“This ‘fear factor' must be removed if Bosnia and Herzegovina is to have a chance at becoming a fully functional, democratic state integrated into Euro-Atlantic structures," Howard said. "And this is why the major task and the center point of [the] international community’s efforts should be constitutional reform.”

Like Ashdown, Howard called on the United States and EU to renew their commitment to the Western Balkans and articulate a clear policy for addressing outstanding issues. She told the committee that any expression of interest in the region from Washington has an “immediate effect” on the ground.

“The simple announcement of a series of policy events in Washington, related to the Balkans and Bosnia Herzegovina, including this one, dampened nationalist rhetoric in the RS, whose leaders have remained fairly moderate in their statements for the last few weeks,” Howard said.

'Pluralistic Approach'

Most importantly, the EU and United States should adopt “a more pluralistic approach” to reform processes in the region, Howard said, by reaching out to a broader, more diversified group of political and civil actors. That is especially true when it comes to constitutional reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she noted, “where self-proclaimed ethnic leaders should never again be allowed to monopolize and manipulate the process.”

“Constitutional reform in Bosnia should not be a top-down process but include a broad public participation and awareness and thereby ensuring popular legitimacy," Howard said. "Pro-democratic opposition leaders, as well as civil society, should be recognized, and allowed to participate as equal players in drafting, debating, and advocating for the new constitutional provisions.”

Also appearing before the committee was Ivo Banac, a professor of history at Yale University and the president of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. Like the other panelists, Banac appealed to members of Congress to become more engaged in the Western Balkans, saying the Europeanization policy toward the region has not been successful and cannot be resurrected without U.S. help.

But Banac warned that there are obstacles in the way of the full integration in NATO and EU, namely that the global financial crisis has dampened EU expansion plans, the failure of all members to ratify the Treaty of Lisbon, and Slovenia’s attempt to block Croatian membership in the Union.

Banac said Bosnia should take priority in the region for the EU and United States and said the country needed “a new plan for integration” that isn’t measured with an ethnic yardstick.

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