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Clearer thinking required to solve Bosnian conundrum

HDN | 4/3/2011 12:00:00 AM | DARRAGH FARRELL

The most recent political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina highlights that fundamental status issues remain to be addressed in the country.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is currently in the middle of yet another of its characteristic political “episodes,” this time over government formation at both the entity and state level and the exclusion from power of the most popular Croat parties. This somewhat predictable situation, which follows last October’s general election, has once again heightened international concern over the apparent degeneration in the political atmosphere in the country, with the European Union deciding last week to “reinforce” its representation in Sarajevo. 

It is hard to see, however, what a strengthened EU office in the country could achieve, given the difference in opinion that exists between Brussels, Moscow and Washington over the international community’s role in the country. This lack of a cohesive international approach, combined with the protests of the excluded Croat parties and their claims that Croats are marginalized in Bosnia and Herzegovina, together with the opportunism of Serb representatives, who have used the disagreement over government formation as a sign of the country’s apparent essential dysfunction, has sparked another flurry of opinion from political commentators on what the future holds for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Their alarm at politicians questioning the state and increasing ethno-national rhetoric is, however, surprising, given that fundamental constitutional questions surrounding Bosnia and Herzegovina have existed since the country’s independence. It is these status issues that continue to ensure one political “episode” will be followed by another, and that “normal,” “right-left” or issue-based politics remains pushed to one side.

The Dayton framework that provides the current administrative structure for Bosnia and Herzegovina, while viewed by some as “final,” is so decentralized and convoluted to the point that it is ambivalent. This ambivalence has allowed status issues such as the fundamental structure of the state, to remain open and in question. This scenario, combined with the ever-present and universal potential for politicians to play the nationalist card, further squeezes out the space for issue-based politics.

The question then is how Bosnia and Herzegovina addresses the fundamental state questions, allowing it to finally move on to “certainty,” to “normal” or “boring” politics. The example of Northern Ireland shows that this can be achieved through an agreement between political leaders at the elite level. This elite, made up of former extremists, have come together to share power in a single assembly in Belfast, and they have a vested interest in making the peace agreement succeed, thereby keeping the benefits that come with holding office and power. They have also managed to quell any dissidents within their respective communities and any potential to be outflanked by extremists. This model, however, cannot be readily applied to the Bosnian and Herzegovinian context, as unlike Northern Ireland, the situation in the country is far more complex, involving multiple power centers, multiple actors, and multiple administrative levels, all of which make a deal among the political elite difficult to achieve, as among other things, some would have to give up their current benefits and power.

Another example of how fundamental state questions may be overcome is by being presented with a fait accompli, such as that experienced by Serbia through the internationally administered independence of Kosovo. Despite Serbia’s official position, there appears to be a general acceptance that the province is lost, and with this comes the opportunity for the country to finally move beyond the national questions that have cast a shadow over its past 25 years. If it had the will or inclination, the international community could impose a “solution” on Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example through devising a “new” Dayton, abolishing the entities and creating a centralized state. Even if the international community did have the unity and stomach for such a proposition, it would be far from ideal, lacking solid domestic legitimacy and almost certainly provoking fierce opposition from Serb and Croat representatives.

Another extreme and unrealistic method to resolve the status issue is the secession of the Republika Srpska, the mostly Serb ethnic entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina that is one part of the two part federal system and that enjoys wide autonomy, a scenario that is unlikely to receive any international support in the short-to-medium term future. Despite the collective trauma and weariness caused by the 1992-1995 conflict and the general disdain felt by the public for political conversations such as the one contained in this article, the secession of the Republika Srpska is likely to face resistance from the rest of the country, including military opposition, especially when one considers the unresolved status of the city of Brčko.

The general contempt towards politics shown by the Bosnian and Herzegovinian public in recent years can be partially, if not largely, explained by the level of corruption which continues to pervade through the various administrative levels throughout the country. Sections of the public have shown in the past year their willingness to take to the streets to protest against certain government policies, and although unlikely, it is not beyond the realm of belief to suggest that public protests against corruption and inept politicians, similar to recent protests in Croatia, could take place in the future and lead to a change of political direction. However, any movement from below that could fundamentally alter the political atmosphere in the country would have to gain support from all ethno-national groups, and could be easily undermined by nationalism and factionists. 

In conclusion, it appears that there is no easy way to overcome the essential constitutional and status questions that continue to underpin Bosnian and Herzegovinian politics. Accession to the EU, whenever it does occur, is unlikely to be the panacea that many think it will be, with the examples of Northern Ireland, Cyprus and Belgium demonstrating how constitutional issues can remain unsolved and problematic within EU member states. Furthermore, the EU is going through its own internal problems, and it is difficult to predict what condition the union itself will be in when Bosnia and Herzegovina does finally join. However, the example of Belgium also shows that the presence of fundamental constitutional issues does not necessarily have to cripple the state in question. Indeed Bosnia and Herzegovina has been living with these issues for years, yet has still made progress, if limited, towards the promised land of banality.

Nonetheless, at some stage in the future, the questions surrounding the state will have to be resolved once and for all, and the sooner the international community recognizes this, the better. Creative thinking from international officials and domestic representatives is required in order to come up with a solution that will allow for certainty and for issue-based politics to take center stage. Perhaps the best hope is for a simpler version of Dayton, one with less ambivalence. This would have to contain enough carrots to entice Republika Srpska representatives to sign up to it, but it could also finally put to rest any talk of secession. A clear (re-)commitment by the representatives of each ethno-national group to a defined future structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whatever that may look like, is required to end the cycle of political “episodes” and for the country to move once and for all to a less dramatic, quiet life. 

* Dr. Darragh Farrell is a member of the Centre for the Study of Wider Europe at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He has written a number of articles on the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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