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Bosnia-Herzegovina: What Future For Bosnia?

Bosnia's haunting past still looms over its future 18 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Most observers of the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina agree that there is room for improvement. That, however, seems to be where agreement both begins and ends.

It is perhaps not a wise idea to allow political agendas to be driven by anniversaries. This year, however, has lent itself to reflection on the current state of affairs in Bosnia because 2005 marks the 10th anniversaries of two important events in the 1992-95 Bosnian war: the Srebrenica massacre of about 8,000 mainly Muslim males by Serbian forces, and the U.S.-sponsored Dayton peace agreement that ended the conflict that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic began almost four years earlier.

In the years since 1995, Dayton has been widely credited with preserving the peace, but has come in for much criticism because of its alleged political shortcomings. There are essentially four models for reform under discussion, depending on what one considers the source of the purported dysfunctional nature of the state.

Models For Reform

The first proposal calls for strengthening the already powerful Office of the High Representative (OHR), who is appointed by the international community, as a way of breaking the power of the nationalists. Such people led the Muslims, Serbs, and Croats during the war and subsequently remained in power through the ballot box and a series of networks linking politics, business, the security structures, and organized crime.

The second model calls for reducing and eventually eliminating the OHR in the name of democracy. The third proposal envisions scrapping the constitution included in the Dayton agreement and calling a constitutional convention to make a fresh start. The problem with models two and three is that they are likely to strengthen the nationalists' positions even further, since the nationalists are the best vote getters. A nationalist victory would also result from the fourth model, which calls for giving up on Bosnia as a single multiethnic state and partitioning it along ethnic lines as the only "realistic" option (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 October 2004, and 25 March and 1 April 2005).
Some Germans warned that both the EU and the countries of the region are suffering from "tunnel vision" if they think that EU integration is a cure-all for the problems of the western Balkans.

Germany's leading Balkan studies society, the Suedosteuropa-Gesellschaft (SOG, or Southeast Europe Association), recently co-sponsored two conferences dealing with Bosnia and its problems. The first gathering took place on 21-22 June in Munich under joint sponsorship with the European Center for Minority Issues (ECMI) based in Flensburg, while the second was a podium discussion on 5 July co-hosted by the SOG and Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle at the latter's headquarters in Bonn.

Rising Concern

Both sessions took place against a background of two developments. The first is the renewed international discussion about Bosnia's future pegged to the two major anniversaries that fall in 2005. The second trend is rising concern about the future of the "European perspectives" of the western Balkans following the failure of the referendums on the proposed EU constitution in France and the Netherlands (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3 and 17 June and 1 July 2005).

In view of these developments, it was striking that few, if any, of the participants from the region called for a major revision of Dayton or its abolition. It seemed that the Bosnian politicians present in Munich were already preoccupied with the October 2006 elections, while the Bosnians in Bonn were wary of doing anything that might strengthen the hand of the nationalists.

Srebrenica-based Bosnian journalist Marinko Sekulic argued in Bonn that Dayton did not really end the war but simply transformed it from a military conflict into one conducted by other means. He noted that children attend three different school systems, learn from three different sets of school books, and are taught three different versions of the 1992-95 conflict.

For his part, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who is the former international mediator in Bosnia-Herzegovina and now occupies that same position for Kosova, told the audience at Deutsche Welle that the OHR should not try to "teach democracy" because the OHR itself combines executive, legislative, and judicial functions in a very undemocratic arrangement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September 2004). Some other participants, however, argued that even if Dayton is in need of some revising, the OHR served its purpose by leveling the political playing field to some extent.

Lack Of Consensus

It probably came as no surprise that neither conference reached any sort of consensus as to what to do about Dayton, if anything, even though Bosnia remains as prone as ever to ethnically-based thinking. It did seem clear in both gatherings, however, that the Bosnians were willing to take more responsibility for their own affairs than was the case a decade ago.

Perhaps the most striking differences between German and Bosnian participants in both Munich and Bonn came out in discussions about the EU and its role in the western Balkans. Almost all the German participants seemed keenly aware that the French and Dutch referendums had brought about a qualitative change within the EU that will make further enlargement very difficult, even if commitments to Romania, Bulgaria, and possibly Croatia are met.

Most participants from the western Balkans, however, seemed unconcerned by the two "no" votes and even tended to speak as though nothing had changed as a result of them. Those participants generally stressed the stabilizing role of the EU in the region and reminded their hosts of Germany's and the EU's promises of a "European perspective" to the countries of the region.

Such attitudes prompted one German to quip in regard to the former Yugoslavs that "they haven't noticed that a train has just run through the flat" and "all they're interested in is the money." Indeed, one Croatian businessman politely listened to the entire discussion in Bonn and afterward approached one of the German hosts with the comment: "The Americans come in [to the Balkans] and shoot things up, but what we need is long-term development. When are Germany and the EU going to start investing in earnest?"

Some Germans felt that their colleagues in the western Balkans do not understand the complex nature of what qualifying for EU membership actually involves in concrete practical terms. Those participants suggested that a status short of full EU membership might be best for the countries of the region. Other Germans argued that Brussels must send a clear, positive signal to those countries by speeding up the integration of Croatia and Macedonia. Such a move, those Germans maintained, is necessary if the EU does not want to undo what progress it has already made in the region and even generate new sources of instability. Failure to integrate the region will cost Brussels even more in the long run, as Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has repeatedly said.

Finally, some Germans warned that both the EU and the countries of the region are suffering from "tunnel vision" if they think that EU integration is a cure-all for the problems of the western Balkans. Such participants argued that this "naive attitude" has led many former Yugoslavs to accept almost any "reform" advocated by Brussels, and at the same time prompted many in the EU to think that the integration process is something inevitable and organic that will lead to all things falling into place.