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The Konjic Conundrum

On 1 July 1997 Konjic became the first municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) to be officially recognised as an Open City by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Executive Summary

On 1 July 1997 Konjic became the first municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) to be officially recognised as an Open City by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  At the time, the Open Cities Initiative was supposed to form the backbone of UNHCR’s approach to minority return.  To obtain Open City status Konjic had to demonstrate a willingness to accept the return of minority displaced persons.  In return, the UNHCR endeavoured to reward the municipality with additional funding.  However, despite large-scale financial assistance and although close to 2,000 minority families have formally registered their intent to return, reliable sources estimate that fewer than 300 minority returnees have made their way home to Konjic since the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) brought the Bosnian war to a halt.

Konjic has to date received more than $14 million in aid.  That represents nearly a quarter of the $60 million disbursed or committed to the Open Cities Initiative by the end of April 1998.  The Open City of Kakanj, by contrast, has received less than one-fourth of the economic assistance Konjic has but has accepted a greater number of minority returnees.  International aid has paid for the reconstruction of 501 homes and several municipal buildings in Konjic.  However, some two-thirds of the reconstructed homes remain empty because their owners, who signed contracts pledging to return to their homes, once rebuilt, have failed to do so.

Although the ratio between habitable dwellings and population is almost the same as before the war, the main hurdle facing potential minority returnees to Konjic town is the difficulty of re-claiming their homes.  The principal obstacle is “double occupancy”, that is, the occupancy of two or more homes by a family that before the war occupied only one home.  Municipal authorities have dragged their feet on this issue and generally failed to evict families currently sitting on more than one property.  Minorities also cite a lack of basic services, such as health care, in outlying areas and security concerns as obstacles to return.  That said, Konjic has not been the scene of any serious ethnically-motivated violence.

Most displaced Serbs and Croats from Konjic currently live in areas controlled by hard-line nationalists of their ethnic community: Serbs in Trebinje and Visegrad, and Croats in western Herzegovina.  They are thus targets of a mixture of propaganda, carrots and sticks to keep them where they are.  The goal of the hard-liners is to maintain and re-enforce the ethnic separation caused by the war.  The displaced Serbs and Croats are needed where they currently live to occupy the homes of other minorities to prevent their return.  Konjic’s weak economy is also a major deterrent to returns.  This is especially the case for Croats, many of whom believe they have better employment prospects in the areas in which they currently reside.

Since UNHCR originally designated Konjic an Open City and itself put up much of the reconstruction assistance, it bears a particular responsibility to scrutinise the municipal authorities and their approach to minority returns.  However, it has failed to take a pro-active approach; failed adequately to monitor reconstruction and housing issues; and failed to mobilise donors and agencies with a political mandate to exert pressure on the municipal authorities.

Despite the problems outlined above, Konjic remains one of the most promising municipalities in Bosnia for minority returns, and in particular for Serb returns.  This is because of the relative availability of housing; the relative receptivity of the municipality to minority returns; and the amount of aid already given to the municipality.  In addition, Konjic appears to be a safe destination for minority returnees; the police has a high proportion of officers from minority communities; and the municipality has already benefited from considerable international assistance.  Konjic is not, however, a model for how best to spend scarce funds to support minority returns.  The report ends with three pages of recommendations, including the following:

  • Municipal authorities, NGOs involved in reconstruction, and UNHCR must take more effective steps before starting to rebuild homes to ensure that pre-war occupants and/or owners are genuinely committed to returning there.
  • UNHCR’s implementing partners, and ultimately UNHCR, should ensure that the pre-war owners have indeed been notified that repairs have been completed and that, if the families do not reclaim the home by a certain date, another family will be given the legal right to live in the home temporarily.
  • Rather than reconstructing homes in areas that international monitors believe are attractive for return, international agencies should meet with displaced persons in groups, support the formation of associations, and take guidance from these meetings as to where returns are most likely to be successful.
  • Municipal authorities must issue and implement eviction orders in cases of double occupancy immediately, and UNHCR, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and donors must make clear that international assistance projects will be suspended until they do so.
  • UNHCR, OHR and the International Police Task Force should urge donors to provide additional funds, or else insist that funds already given be used, for essential police equipment such as cars and radios, and essential services in villages to which minorities are actually returning.
  • Donors, the American Refugee Committee and OHR should support the formation of displaced persons associations, particularly in Visegrad and Trebinje, where most of Konjic’s 6,000 displaced Serbs are concentrated.
  • UNHCR should be more active in monitoring, and taking steps to unplug, the bottle-necks obstructing minority returns.

Sarajevo, 19 June 1998

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.