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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Can It Turn Over A New Leaf?

Bosnian High Representative Paddy Ashdown (file photo) (AFP) The international community is putting pressure on politicians in Bosnia-Herzegovina for a thorough constitutional reform. It remains to be seen whether the deeply-entrenched power structures will prove sufficiently pliant.

The 10th anniversary of the conclusion of the Dayton agreements that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict falls on 21 November. That peace deal, backed by NATO-led troops, has been a success in that the guns have remained silent and the constitution included in it has remained in force.

But the Dayton system has its critics, both at home and abroad. They charge that some of the structures set in place 10 years ago have proven dysfunctional and led to the consolidation of gains by the Muslim, Serbian, and Croatian nationalists who have effectively ruled their respective ethnic groups since the first postcommunist elections that took place in November and December 1990.
The fourth model is the most radical, in that it calls for declaring the Bosnian state a failure and partitioning it between Serbia and Croatia, with the Muslims left with a rump ministate or the option of joining one of the neighbors.

Critics note that Dayton set up two parastates, or entities, namely the Republika Srpska and the Croat-Muslim Federation. The Serbs in particular have been adamant defenders of the entity system, arguing that Dayton confirmed the sovereignty of the Republika Srpska. Those who consider Dayton dysfunctional stress that the entities prevent the proper functioning of the central state, which must become the locus of real power if Bosnia is to achieve the long-sought aim of Euro-Atlantic integration and membership in the EU and NATO.

Muslims In The Majority

Support for the central state within Bosnia-Herzegovina is confined chiefly among the Muslims and some small nonnationalist parties. The Muslims are the largest single ethnic group and, unlike the Serbs and Croats, have no nation-state outside Bosnia that they might aspire to join or look to for protection. Exact population statistics will emerge only with a new census, but many observers feel that the breakdown among the three main ethnic groups would be something like 44 percent Muslim, 38 percent Serbian, and 18 percent Croatian.

Starting with the 1990 elections, most voters returned to the precommunist pattern of supporting parties associated with their own ethnic group, with notable exceptions in places like Sarajevo and Tuzla, where nonnationalist parties have been strong. Muslims have tended to favor the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) founded by late President Alija Izetbegovic. The SDA seeks to assert Muslim primacy within the federation and Bosnia as a whole and contains both secular and clerical currents.

Serbian voters have generally gravitated to the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) set up by Radovan Karadzic, who is now a leading fugitive war crimes indictee. The SDS stresses the sovereignty of the Bosnian Serb entity and has long fought the police reform demanded by the EU because this would create new police structures and administrative units that would cross the interentity boundaries. It should be recalled that former Republika Srpska President Biljana Plavsic convinced Serbs to accept Dayton in 1995-96 precisely because it affirmed the sovereignty of that entity. Bosnian Serb sentiment remains strong in favor of joining Serbia rather than accept a centralized Bosnian state. It might be noted that the ideological basis for the Serbian revolts in Croatia and Bosnia at the beginning of the 1990s was the desire to "remain in Yugoslavia," meaning under the rule of Belgrade, rather than become a minority in a state dominated by others.

Ethnic Croats, particularly those in western Herzegovina, tend to support the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), which was closely linked to the Croatian party of the same name, particularly during the rule of President Franjo Tudjman in the 1990s. The Croats main concern is not to become a powerless minority in a state dominated by Muslims and Serbs. Croatian sentiment has accordingly been strong either for a wholesale reorganization of the internal boundaries on a multiethnic basis or, for the creation of a third, Croatian entity based on but not limited to Croat-majority cantons within the federation, despite the vigorous opposition of the Muslims and the international community to this proposal. The Croats of central Bosnia and Sarajevo are used to living in ethnically mixed areas, but the temptation for the Herzegovinians in the southwest and the Posavina Croats in the north has always been to turn their backs on Bosnia and join Croatia, which their homelands border.

Legitimizing Ethnic Cleansing?

The legacy of the war and nationalist rule goes far beyond voting patterns, however. Critics of Dayton charge that the borders of the Republika Srpska in particular have served only to set in stone the results of ethnic cleansing campaigns during the war. In fact, members of all three ethnic groups lost their homes in the course of the conflict and have little hope of going back to an area now controlled by another nationality, to the extent that they have not begun new lives elsewhere. Many who do return do so simply to sell their property and leave again, even though statistics might record them as returnees.

Moreover, the SDA, SDS, and HDZ are all linked to power structures that emerged during the war and encompass the interlocking worlds of politics, business, the security forces and, in the last analysis, organized crime. These structures are the real beneficiaries of Dayton, which in practice largely left each ethnic group to manage its own affairs.

The central state remains weak and is best epitomized by the three-member Bosnian Presidency, which consists of one member from each main ethnic group, each of whom has a veto. This is but the latest manifestation of the "nationality key" principle associated with the last decades of communist rule in former Yugoslavia to ensure that no one ethnic group can lord it over the others, but in practice it has meant the paralysis of Bosnia as a state. Dayton Bosnia, in fact, is an impoverished country of just over 4 million people that supports 14 governments: the central body, two entities, 10 cantons, and the special UN-administered Brcko District.

Whither The High Representative?

The only way in which decisions ranging from the issuing of uniform Bosnian license plates to the firing of top nationalist officials for corruption have been taken was that Dayton established the post of high representative, who is a European foreigner appointed by the international community. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) has virtually unlimited powers and is not subject to any control by elected Bosnian officials. More than once the high representative has found himself in the position of overruling or sacking elected officials -- who happen to be nationalists -- in the name of promoting democratic values.

This paradoxical situation of imposing democracy by fiat has led to a lively debate in recent years about reforming the Dayton system, in the course of which four models emerged (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 July and 14 October 2005). One calls for strengthening the OHR on the grounds that it is the only institution that is capable of breaking the structures that emerged in wartime. The second advocates phasing out the OHR in the name of promoting democracy. The third approach would throw out Dayton and call a new constitutional convention, even if it would be dominated by the nationalists. The fourth model is the most radical, in that it calls for declaring the Bosnian state a failure and partitioning it between Serbia and Croatia, with the Muslims left with a rump ministate or the option of joining one of the neighbors.

In recent months, the discussion has begun moving in other directions, namely in favor of setting up a functioning centralized state. The idea is to have a new constitutional system agreed to by the Bosnian politicians themselves, albeit under great foreign pressure. What has made the centralized state a realistic option at the end of 2005 is that the Bosnians now have the clear assurance that the road to EU and NATO membership is open to them following the agreement on military reform that was a prerequisite to joining NATO's Partnership for Peace program and similar progress on police reform that the EU demanded before agreeing to launch talks aimed at securing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), possibly in the very near future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 November 2005). The argument runs that Euro-Atlantic integration will come all the faster if the dysfunctional, entity-based state is scrapped for one in which effective power lies in a single cabinet headed by a prime minister. In addition, one directly-elected individual would act as a largely ceremonial president. The state would have a unicameral, popularly elected legislature in which the veto rights of the three ethnic groups would be limited. Any reform that would speed the prospect of full EU membership would, moreover, have great appeal to the voters, who associate Brussels with aid money, job-creating investments, and the visa-free travel that all former Yugoslavs remember from the last decades of communist rule.

The international community's initial attempt at bringing leaders of Bosnia's eight main political parties to accept a new state model designed primarily by U.S. diplomats took place in Brussels from 12 to 14 November. The meeting did not produce even a final declaration, but U.S. representative Donald Hays said nonetheless that he hopes an agreement can still be reached by the spring of 2006 so that constitutional changes could take effect in time for elections due in October of that year. A second round of talks is slated for 19-20 November in Washington, on the eve of Dayton's 10th anniversary.

Although the EU, and the EC before it, have sought to play a dominant role in the Balkans, the circumstances leading to the 1995 Dayton agreement -- which was concluded on a U.S. Air Force base -- and to the end of Serbian atrocities in Kosova about four years later, have shown that the U.S. military and diplomatic role has been crucial in regional affairs. And in 2005, even with the prospect of EU membership as the main "carrot" being offered to Bosnian politicians and their voters, the U.S. still appears to be the necessary catalyst if real change is to have a chance of taking place.

A recent broadcast of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service noted, however, that the international community bears a good deal of the responsibility for the present dysfunctional constitutional system and the continuation of ethnically-based politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The commentators argued that it will ultimately be the task of the Bosnians themselves, with foreign assistance of course, to bring about a society based on the civic principle through elections in which civic-based parties triumph over the nationalist ones. This will be a tall order, indeed.

RFE/RL Balkan Report

RFE/RL Balkan Report


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