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Bosnia's Continuing Chaos
Bosnia's Continuing Chaos
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia's Continuing Chaos

Originally published in Foreign Policy

The killing may have subsided, but the mess in the Balkans lingers on.

Fourteen years after its brutal war ended, Bosnia is today in political, if not literal, turmoil. Half of the country is deadlocked in a feud with the international governor, the High Representative. And a meeting this week of the Peace Implementation Council, setup in 1995 to monitor the peace accord, could prove decisive in moving forward. With the status quo unviable, the council will have to decide between reinforcing the existing, international executive authority in Bosnia or transitioning to a new, forward-looking approach based on ever-increasing integration into the European Union and NATO.

The trouble started back in September. Bosnia is divided into two main political-territorial parts, and the Serb half, Republika Srpska, rejected a series of decisions imposed by the Office of the High Representative, Bosnia's international governor. Some were technical and innocuous, but others -- relating to control over the electric monopoly -- were controversial. In theory, the High Representative can impose virtually any law without review by national authorities. But this crisis shows his practical ability to enforce decisions has been weakened or even curtailed. The Serbs have since threatened to pull out of common Bosnian institutions if the High Representative imposed any other laws. There is no obvious way out of this confrontation, and further escalation would threaten Bosnia's hard-won stability and viability as a common state.

Rather than backing the High Representative as they have done in the past, the United States and the European Union launched talks in October between Bosniak, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat leaders to break the impasse. At the "Butmir talks" -- so called because they are taking place at the Butmir military base near Sarajevo  -- Washington and Brussels presented a package of constitutional reforms. These are part of a broader attempt to move the country toward EU and NATO membership, thus stabilizing it and allowing the Office of the High Representative to close.

Ideally, Bosnia's leaders would accept the EU-U.S. proposal in its entirety. It is a good compromise and the most that can be hoped for under trying circumstances. But time is running out. The High Representative's conflict with Republika Srpska has been frozen for two months as the Butmir talks have been ongoing. But it will not stay frozen for much longer, as Bosnia's parties gear up for what promises to be a tense campaign leading to next year's general elections. If negotiations achieve little or only partial agreement on the proposed reforms, as now looks likely, the international community will be left with only two choices.

The first option would be to strengthen the Office of the High Representative. That may require sacking obstinate Bosnian political leaders -- something the High Representative has the right to do but has not done in years. The trouble with this option is that the office has no public support among Serbs, meaning that enforcing decisions might entail a very real show of force, potentially from the small peacekeeping mission still in Bosnia. Forcing tough political choices would also entrench Bosnia's position as an international protectorate, where ultimate political responsibility lies with international rather than democratically elected leaders. It would buy stability at the expense of a big step backward in Bosnia's viability as a state.

A more forward-looking approach would be to reinforce the Bosnian state, close the Office of the High Representative, and put in place new, strong stabilizing measures based on close EU engagement coupled with continual U.S. and NATO involvement.

The EU has long been eager to take on new responsibilities in Bosnia. A new special representative should have a stronger mandate that enables the envoy to call out parties and persons who are in noncompliance with the Dayton Agreement, barring them from further EU benefits. The EU will equally need to be the guarantor of the Dayton Peace Agreement, seeing the process through to final implementation.

What makes this arrangement different from the current High Representative is executive power -- which the new EU representative would lack. He or she would be there to facilitate Bosnia's political process, and make decisions on the disbursement or restriction of EU financial aid to Bosnia. Such a mechanism would ensure that political pressure would remain while still giving Bosnia's leaders something they have never really had before: responsibility for their country.

At the same time, the U.N. Security Council should renew the mandates of both EUFOR and NATO for at least one more year, endorsing their authority to maintain Bosnia's security under the Dayton Peace Agreement. In addition, both the EU and NATO should invite Bosnia to apply for membership and spell out the conditions for joining both organizations.

Meanwhile at Butmir, the EU and United States should work toward getting agreement on the urgent reforms necessary for Bosnia's next stage in EU integration: candidacy status. These include authorizing the state to make commitments to the EU and implement obligatory EU reforms, including ensuring that the constitution is compliant with the European Convention of Human Rights and improving the state's administrative and legislative capacity.

There is no viable middle ground here between these two options. The current situation -- an endless stalemate -- risks bringing the state to a standstill and derailing its EU ambitions. Keeping the High Representative's office in its present form, with broad authority but without the ability to enforce it, is dangerous. It's time for a new approach. Full Bosnian responsibility, reinforced by the EU and NATO, offers the best insurance against fragmentation and stagnation and the best chance to for Bosnia to become the mature and normal state its citizens deserve.

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.


The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.


The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.