Get Tough to Break Bosnian Deadlock
Get Tough to Break Bosnian Deadlock
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 2 minutes

Get Tough to Break Bosnian Deadlock

The threat of strong action is still needed to convince Bosnia's leaders that compromise is the only option.

I wish we could say that, after nearly a decade-and-a-half as a charge of the international community, Bosnia and Herzegovina was ready to shed its protectorate status and prosper as a well-functioning, healthy state. Sadly, it is not. 

In fact, the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the Bosnian War is itself under threat. That deal established a state with two entities: the Serbian-controlled Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, dominated by Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats. But while Dayton stopped the conflict, it did not dispel animosity. Tensions are high and stability is deteriorating. The Bosnian state is weak and its leadership is too hostile and divided to take charge.

Progress toward EU membership has stalled. The Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the international body that oversees Dayton, set out requirements in 2008 for ending the protectorate. They are not onerous but most have not been met. The inability of Bosnian leaders to agree on these relatively modest issues shows that they still disagree about Bosnia's identity and future.

There is some reason to hope for progress. In November, the leaders of Bosnia's top three political parties, each representing one of the state's constituent nations, announced what they called an historic compromise. This evolved into negotiations on the remaining four criteria to end the protectorate as well as on other issues, particularly reforms aimed at facilitating accession to the EU.

This is by far the most serious attempt in years to end Bosnia's paralysis. But it is far from a sure thing. After more than four months of talks, only one condition seems likely to be resolved soon. The other three are deadlocked. Worse, talks on reforms appear to have broken down.

Why is it so hard for Bosnian leaders to agree on anything? The problem is that none of the communities is really content with the Dayton compromise. All still hope to leverage international support to change Dayton to their liking. For the Bosniaks, this means drastically reducing the autonomy of the Republika Srpska, or eliminating it altogether. The Croats have not given up on creating a third territorial entity that they could dominate. And the Serbs still aspire to independence.

As a result, Bosnia is stuck: important positions go unfilled, few laws are passed and movement toward the EU is barely perceptible.

When the PIC meets to confirm a new high representative today (26 March), it should give him a mandate to break this deadlock. The PIC should make sure that the high representative uses his powers to block any unilateral attempts to depart from Dayton.

If politicians fail to agree on appointments or laws, the high representative should cancel their foreign travel, their official cars and other perks. In extreme cases, he should freeze their salaries. Similar action recently broke a four-month deadlock within five days.

Once Bosnia fulfils the PIC's conditions, probably this year, the high representative's mandate will expire. At that point, the EU should assume responsibility for keeping Bosnia stable and moving forward. Its special representative will not have the powers the high representative now enjoys, but he will not need them.

To guarantee peace and progress, the EU will need to convince Bosnians that they cannot beat each other by playing for European support. The EU must guarantee the basic principles of Dayton: that no group or entity can impose its will on the others. If any party or individual breaches those principles, the EU's capitals should close their doors to the party in breach and contact should be limited to the special representative alone.

Before the lure of the EU can pull the Bosnians forward, the attraction of their separate ideal solutions must fade. Once the parties accept that there is no alternative to compromise, it will be much easier for them to start the reforms required by the EU.

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