Bosnia Faces Critical Challenges in 2010
Bosnia Faces Critical Challenges in 2010
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Bosnia Faces Critical Challenges in 2010

All three communities have much to lose if their leaders continue on their current confrontational course.

After fifteen years of intensive international action, Bosnia is starting to fracture. Bosnian Serbs threaten an independence referendum, Croats call for a separate entity within the broader state, Bosnian Muslims demand a new Constitution, and an economic and social crisis is worsening. To avoid breakdown, Bosnian leaders must consider what kind of country they want, and their international partners must find a more effective way to assist them to get there.

Milorad Dodik, premier of the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, RS, one of Bosnia’s two entities, last month defied strong international warnings and pledged to hold a springtime referendum, asking voters to reject the decision of the High Representative, Bosnia’s international governor, to extend the mandates of international staff working in Bosnia’s Special Department for War Crime. Dodik said that “one day”, a referendum would also be held on “whether Republika Srpska will stay within the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina or not.” 

This is the most serious challenge yet to the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended Bosnia’s war and gave the country its Constitution. 

Sensing international weakness, Bosnian Croat leaders subsequently renewed calls for establishment of a third federal entity where they would be the majority.

Amongst the majority Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, these steps by Bosnian Serbs and Croats revive fears of independence referendums which divided the country much as during the lead-up to the bloody 1992-5 war. Bosniaks’ larger numbers and their domination of state institutions are used by both Serb leaders to claim they need a referendum to protect their national interests and Croats to call for a separate entity. In reaction, Bosniak politicians increasingly try to dominate state institutions and the larger federal entity they share with the Croats.

As long as Bosniak representatives in the legislative and executive bodies continue trying to outvote Serb and Croat officials, it will be hard to know whether Serb and Croat initiatives are motivated by their genuine national concerns or renewed separatist drives. The picture is further distorted by lame opposition and rough nationalist rhetoric, which often overshadow concrete arguments and increases tensions.

The nationalist and divisive rhetoric is made worse by a deep social and economic crisis that is expected to worsen, and what promises to be a nasty campaign for October general elections. Today, everyone in Bosnia feels vulnerable and unfairly treated, and this sense of persecution drives all into a vicious circle of conflict escalation.  Inter-ethnic incidents are on the rise, from a monthly average of seven in 2007, to nine in 2008 and almost 13 in 2009.  It is an ominous sign. Local politicians could be losing their control over the masses. Further radicalisation of political rhetoric can have devastating consequences.

The RS leadership says it respects the letter of Dayton. This is a hollow claim as long as RS ignores the High Representative’s authority to interpret and protect the Dayton peace accord, that office’s role since 1997.  The Dayton Constitution is far from a dead letter; it is a living document whose meaning has evolved along with Bosnia and the High Representative’s powers are now part of it.

The state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, its entities, cantons and even municipalities, should be allowed to gauge public opinion on important issues from their respective jurisdictions through polls and referendums.  The international community would do best to avoid playing into the hands of those in RS seeking to use the threat of a referendum to provoke a tit-for-tat confrontation. A decision to reject the High Representative’s ruling on the State Court is clearly not in the competence of the RS, but a state matter. Bosnia's Constitutional Court can and should rapidly annul any such move.

RS leaders must also understand that their radical statements overshadow real arguments they may have and raise justified fears among local and international leaders. Continued worsening of their relations with the international community would almost certainly come at a high price for RS politicians and citizens. Nowhere but within the legal and territorial boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina will they have so much autonomy as well as the real perspective for a brighter future through EU and NATO integration.

Bosniaks and Bosnian Croat leaders have also much to lose if they continue with the current course.

Bosniaks must understand that when the biggest ethnic group in a country abandons good neighbourly attitudes in politics and starts outvoting their neighbours, it creates concerns and fears among the others. If Bosniaks want to move towards a better future, they should stop playing righteous victims, and start taking into account the concerns of other communities. No partnership based on majority rule and forceful implementation of legal regulations can survive, no matter how good these regulations might be. Views of your partners must be respected not when they mirror your own views, but when they differ.

Bosnian Croats can protect their national interest only through negotiation and compromise. Unilateral proclamation of a third entity, advocated by some, would bring only further marginalisation and misery to the shrinking Croat community.

The international community and the High Representative should also tread carefully. By wrapping itself in the mantle of Dayton and equating attacks on it with attacks on the state itself, the Office of the High Representative risks bringing the state down with him. The international community must accept that the High Representative’s role, while legitimate, is long past its expiration date and must close.  The European Union, backed by strong international support, including the United States, must then give Bosnians a strong guarantee that their country, united but decentralised, will survive and take its place in the European family.

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