Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Facing Our Fears

Bosnia won't collapse without its crutches, and the sooner they are removed, the better.

Fourteen years after its foundations were set on an American air base, Bosnia's constitutional architecture is being shaken to the core, and many Bosnians - and outsider observers - are nervous. Two months have passed since Republika Srpska, one of the country's two entities, defied the authority of the High Representative, Bosnia's international governor. Instead of backing him up, the European Union and the United States are trying to persuade Bosnian leaders to adopt a set of constitutional reforms that would propel the country toward EU and NATO membership and allow the High Representative's mandate to end.

But success remains elusive, and time is running out. The conflict between Republika Srpska and the envoy, Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, is frozen while the talks continue. But it will heat up sooner or later. A solution must be found now.

Responsibility falls equally on Bosnia's political leaders and on the international community. The members of the Peace Implementation Council, the international policy-setting body that oversees the High Representative, met last week in Sarajevo and took no action. At their next meeting in February, they will have to act or risk Bosnia's hard-won stability. Bosnia's parties will have to choose between enacting reforms now or waiting until after the next year's election season.

There are several reasons Bosnia's leaders balk at the U.S.-EU reform package.

Most Bosniaks want extensive reforms, especially to the state's complicated and restrictive governance rules. Representatives of Bosnia's three major ethnic groups must agree before the state can make any decision - pass any law, appoint any officials - and this gives the Serbs an effective veto power. Bosniaks, a majority of the overall population, understandably resent this; Serbs have used their veto to hold up important laws needed for obtaining visa-free travel to Europe, among other things. So two of the three predominantly Bosniak parties have publicly opposed what they call "superficial" or "cosmetic" reforms.

Still, the proposed reforms are important, and there is no good reason to reject them. One, for example, makes Bosnia's constitution comply with the European Convention for Human Rights. Another gives the state the authority to manage the country's integration into the European Union. Parties have every right to strive for reforms beyond these, but that is no excuse for vetoing other improvements.

Many Serbs, on the other hand, like the current constitution and want only minor changes. The oppose reforms that create a stronger prime minister's post and weaken the veto powers in one of the parliamentary chambers, fearing that this would strengthen the state and make it more likely that sooner or later, the state will whittle away their autonomy. This was once a reasonable fear, but Republika Srpska's autonomy is now firmly entrenched. None of the U.S.-EU reforms reduces the Serbs' protections in any meaningful way. Their votes will still be required for any law to pass.

The real threat to Serb interests is the failure of the reform initiative. If they reject even the minimal changes on offer, Serbs will confirm Bosniak and international suspicions that they mean to sabotage the state. And if the international community believes it must choose between an autonomous Republika Srpsk and the survival of Bosnia, there is no doubt it will choose Bosnia.

Serbs want minimal or no reforms, Bosniaks want a new constitution. If they can agree to pass the few necessary measures acceptable to all, however, the council will likely end the High Representative's mandate. This is the sticking point: for many Bosniaks, it stirs fears that without international supervision, their country will collapse and disintegrate. And this awakens memories of the brutal war that took about 100,000 lives, most of them Bosniak. So the reform initiative has become a hostage to the debate over the future of the High Representative and his powers.

It is time to overcome these fears. The High Representative is not what is keeping Bosnia together; the Serbs' defiance of his recent decisions shows the limits of his powers. Bosnia will stay together because of the absence of viable alternatives and because of a common expectation for progress and a normal life.

Republika Srpska is strong enough to fight the High Representative, but far too weak to secede from the state. Its fragile geography, cut in two by the Brcko District; the complete absence of international sponsors; its lack of armed forces and war-weary population all make a serious breakaway unthinkable. Nor is a stealthy campaign of undermining the state likely to bear fruit; if Bosnia stagnates and sinks, the Serbs' fortunes will suffer with it. Its citizens may not love Bosnia, but they are used to it and have years of experience collaborating with their Bosniak and Croat partners on matters of common interest. European integration will greatly strengthen that attraction.

The real danger facing Bosnia, ironically, comes from the international community's indecision. Some interested states want to keep the High Representative in office and reinforce him enough to impose his authority on Republika Srpska; other states want to end his mandate and move to a different, reinforced European engagement. The temptation will be to split the difference, either by keeping the envoy's office in its present, weakened form, or in a reduced, perhaps nonresident mandate. Either of these decisions could keep Bosnia's political process in a stalemate that would endanger the viability of the state.

In either case, Bosnian habits of dependence will keep the country stuck in a circle of mutual accusation and nationalist posturing. Serb parties will pick fights with the High Representative's office hoping to pick up nationalist votes, and Bosniaks will try to enlist it in their own nationalist struggle with the Serbs.

Bosnia desperately needs two things: stability and responsibility. After 14 years, the High Representative can no longer provide either. The EU together with NATO can more effectively buttress Bosnia's stability, and has a strong UN-endorsed peacekeeping mandate. Ending the High Representative's mandate will remove Bosnian leaders' favorite excuse for inaction and nationalist provocation. Bosnian leaders will not like this; they have learned to thrive in an internationally dominated environment, which they exploit to their narrow benefit at Bosnia's cost. It will take time to learn how to operate without international targets and excuses; that time should start now.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.