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Preventing Minority Return in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Preventing Minority Return in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 73 / Europe & Central Asia

Preventing Minority Return in Bosnia and Herzegovina

The 1999 action plan of the Reconstruction and Return Task Force (RRTF) represents the most determined effort yet to implement a policy of mass minority return in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Executive Summary

The 1999 action plan of the Reconstruction and Return Task Force (RRTF)[fn]The RRTF was set up under the High Representative in 1997 to combine the task of co-ordinating the international effort on refugee return with a mechanism for applying political pressure to combat obstruction from host authorities.  In its three years of life it has grown progressively stronger, and for 1999 it has a much extended network of field offices.Hide Footnote  represents the most determined effort yet to implement a policy of mass minority return in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  But the signs at mid-season are that the results for 1999 will once again be disappointing.

The plan’s fatal weakness (of which its authors were well aware) was the proposition that returns could be agreed with Bosnian authorities, using a mix of bribes, threats and any other available leverage.  This in turn is based on the general theory that the role of the international community in BiH is to help the indigenous authorities implement the Dayton Peace Agreement. In fact few if any Bosnian authorities are prepared to promote inward minority returns (that is, return of alien minorities to their own area of control), and most are ready actively to resist.

This paper examines the motives driving the attitude of Bosnian authorities, ranging from simple racism to the genuine need to protect displaced people already occupying the property of potential returnees.  It then looks at the factors underlying the decision of the individual prospective returnee whether to go back or not.  It goes on to examine the record in several locations in Bosnia and suggests which factors have been at work in these cases.

The report concludes that many of the arguments used by Bosnian authorities to obstruct return appear reasonable to the authorities themselves but may conceal less reasonable arguments which are actually more important.  It would be better to remove these ‘justifiable’ reasons from the argument altogether.  Against this background the report examines the policy responses available to the international community, and advocates an approach based on treating return not as a separate problem but as an aspect of the more general question of rule of law throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The report suggests that, without sacrificing successful elements of the existing policy, this might change the terms of the debate, making opposition to return much more difficult to defend with reasonable-looking arguments, since rule of law is an ideal endorsed (in public) by all forces in BiH, and accepted as a necessary condition of entry into the Western family of nations and, in due course, the European Union.

Finally the report offers some policy measures along these lines.

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.