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Report 150 / Europe & Central Asia

Building Bridges in Mostar

Making another attempt to unite the divided city of Mostar has become, unexpectedly but appropriately, a very high international priority in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) in 2003.

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Executive Summary

Making another attempt to unite the divided city of Mostar has become, unexpectedly but appropriately, a very high international priority in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) in 2003. By late summer, it had come to be ranked by High Representative Paddy Ashdown among his four major projects for structural reform. In each case, the High Representative appointed a foreign chairman to lead commissions composed of domestic representatives and charged with finding state-building solutions in the symbolically or substantively important realms of defence, intelligence, indirect taxation – and Mostar. All aim to unify divided and dysfunctional institutions. The first three commissions, which have already reported and whose draft legislation is proceeding through the various parliaments, have also sought to empower the state over the entities and their respective national establishments.

The Mostar commission, which is due to report by 15 December 2003, has a seemingly more modest and less far-reaching goal: to devise a new statute for a single albeit emblematic city. In comparison with the other commissions, this might not seem so significant. Yet Mostar has long been a particular concern of the international community, representing a piece of unfinished business that cannot be ignored as the foreigners contemplate their withdrawal from intrusive peace implementation in BiH. Moreover, the right solution in Mostar may serve both as an example of and stimulus for local government reorganisation in the country at large – a hope underlined by officials in the Office of the High Representative (OHR) contemplating how to jump start the reform of public administration required if BiH is to make its way towards a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the European Union.

The compromise peace that ended the war between those who had fought to defend the state and those who had sought to destroy it left BiH with, in places, up to six separate layers of authority and fourteen different governments with taxing and law-making powers. But what was necessary or even desirable to smother the embers of war in 1994-95 appears an intolerable and unsustainable burden nearly ten years on, even to some of those same political forces that once insisted upon and have since benefited from the power and patronage this system provides. As Lord Ashdown has observed, all these governments devour more than 64 per cent of public spending in BiH. A city of just over 100,000 inhabitants divided into six municipalities and an ostensible Central Zone, Mostar epitomises both the causes and consequences of such atomisation. And just because it is a special case, the rationalisation of Mostar’s governance could point the way towards overcoming the ethno-national barriers and redundant administrative structures that plague BiH.

In Mostar the international community is thus seeking to facilitate local remedies to the national-administrative partition that has characterised the post-war period, as well as to assuage those fears of relegation to minority status on which this partition has thrived. Yet just because Mostar remains one of the most divided cities in BiH – and has come to symbolise mutual intolerance, distrust and tribal politics – any genuine agreement on a new statute for a unified city administration would offer both a template for other segregated towns and encouragement for BiH in general. On the other hand, yet another failure in Mostar would also have disproportionate effects. Viewed in this light, the new attempt to reunify the city deserves to keep company with the other reform projects currently underway.

This report points out the crucial issues that must be settled in the current round of talks if Mostar is to be made whole. It provides a brief sketch of previous attempts to unite the city; discusses the major problems arising from its continuing fragmentation; seeks to offer an explanation of why Mostar has emerged once more as a problem requiring an urgent solution; and introduces the various proposals currently being canvassed in political and intellectual circles.

Its concluding section outlines the rudiments of an organisational solution, involving changes to the electoral system for the Mostar council and a reform of the legal concept of the city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This has the potential to ensure that Mostar can be reborn – both as a functional unit of self-government and as a multinational community in which all citizens feel themselves to be fairly represented.

Sarajevo/Brussels, 20 November 2003

Report 232 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia’s Future

While the physical scars of the 1992-1995 Bosnia war have healed, political agony and ethnic tension persist. Real peace requires a new constitution and bottom-up political change.

Executive Summary

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH, or Bosnia) poses little risk of deadly conflict, but after billions of dollars in foreign aid and intrusive international administration and despite a supportive European neighbourhood, it is slowly spiralling toward disintegration. Its three communities’ conflicting goals and interests are a permanent source of crisis, exacerbated by a constitution that meets no group’s needs. The political elite enjoys mastery over all government levels and much of the economy, with no practical way for voters to dislodge it. The European Union (EU) imposes tasks BiH cannot fulfil. A countrywide popular uprising torched government buildings and demanded urgent reforms in February 2014, but possible solutions are not politically feasible; those that might be politically feasible seem unlikely to work. Bosnia’s leaders, with international support, must begin an urgent search for a new constitutional foundation.

The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success: war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. The political agonies, however, show the intervention’s limits. Years of well-intentioned reforms, imposed or urged, have left a governing structure leaders circumvent, ignore or despise. May’s floods left scores dead and thousands homeless, exposing the price of poor governance. With growing frequency, Bosnians ask the questions that preceded the 1992-1995 war: shall it be one country, two, or even three; if one country, shall it have one, two or three constituent entities, and how shall it be governed?

The heart of the problem is in Annex 4 to the Dayton Peace Agreement, known as the constitution (and in several changes imposed by courts and international officials). It defines BiH as a state of two entities, in effect but not explicitly federal, but also the state of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs), and yet, simultaneously, of all citizens. A suffocating layer of ethnic quotas has been added, providing sinecures for officials increasingly remote from the communities they represent. The tensions created by constitutional schizophrenia are pushing BiH to the breaking point. A new design is needed: a normal federation, territorially defined, without a special role for constituent peoples, but responsive to the interests of its three communities and the rights of all citizens.

The state administration’s need to reform is made acute by a 2009 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that in effect requires BiH to change the ethnicity-based way it chooses its chief executive and part of its legislature. Existing proposals try to squeeze the constituent peoples into an ostensibly ethnicity-blind structure on top of which a complicated network of indirect elections would allow party leaders to choose the executive with as little democratic input as possible. The EU and the outside world support this tinkering with Dayton to satisfy the decision, though such proposals have manifestly failed. Bosnians need to rebuild their political structure from the bottom up.

There is no consensus on where to start, but Bosnia may have to break from its political system based on constituent peoples and their rights. Crisis Group has not reached this conclusion lightly. It reflects long experience and observation that no one has been able to frame a broadly attractive vision on the existing flawed basis. With stresses and frustrations accumulating in all communities, Bosnia must conceive new foundations to survive. Agreement may take years and much experimentation and debate, but the search should begin.

BiH is home to three political communities: those primarily loyal to the Bosnian state, usually but not always Bosniaks; those loyal to Republika Srpska (RS), usually Serbs; and those desirous of Croat self-government, usually Croats. Giving the Croats what they want, their own entity to make a three-entity Bosnia, is absolutely rejected by Bosniaks. Building virtual representative units for the three communities, possibly with new emphasis on municipalities as basic building blocks, is intellectually plausible but requires a leap of faith few seem ready to take. A purely civic state is inconceivable to Serbs and Croats.

Neither leaders nor civil society have deeply explored alternatives to three constituent peoples in two entities; any consensus would take time. Nevertheless, the goal should be clear. The head of state should reflect Bosnia’s diversity, something a collective does better than an individual. The same body could be the executive government. Some decisions should require consensus, others a majority. All three communities should be represented, not necessarily in equal numbers. There should be no ethnic quotas; representation should reflect self-defined regions and all their voters. Poorly performing, unnecessary state agencies and ministries should be slimmed or abolished, with powers reverting to the entities; but the state would need new ministries and agencies required for EU membership. The ten cantons in the larger of BiH’s two entities, the Federation (FBiH), are an underperforming, superfluous layer. They could be abolished, their powers divided between the municipalities and the entity government.

Political culture is part of the problem; an informal “Sextet” of party leaders in effect controls government and much of the economy. A multi-ethnic coalition persists, election to election, with only minor adjustments. Membership is earned by winning opaque intra-party competitions in which voters have little say. Change in this system can only come from within: Bosnians should join parties and participate in genuine leadership contests. Sextet power is further buttressed by control of hiring, investment and commercial decisions at state-owned firms, a situation that chokes private investment and growth.

Bosnia is unimaginable without the work of international officials who did much to shape political institutions and implement peace, but the international community has become more obstacle than help. BiH is trapped in a cycle of poorly thought-out, internationally-imposed tasks designed to show leaders’ readiness to take responsibility but that put that moment forever out of reach. The only way to encourage leaders to take responsibility is to treat the country normally, without extraneous tests or High Representatives. The EU could signal a new start by stating it will receive a membership application – the first of many steps on the long accession road. It should then be an engaged, not over-didactic partner in Bosnia’s search for a way to disentangle the constitutional knot.