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Too Little Too Late: Implementation of the Sarajevo Declaration
Too Little Too Late: Implementation of the Sarajevo Declaration
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
Report 44 / Europe & Central Asia

Too Little Too Late: Implementation of the Sarajevo Declaration

Sarajevo’s Bosniac authorities were given the opportunity to demonstrate their much-vaunted commitment to multi-ethnicity when, on 3 February 1998, representatives of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina (Federation), Sarajevo Canton and the international community adopted the Sarajevo Declaration.

Executive Summary

Sarajevo’s Bosniac authorities were given the opportunity to demonstrate their much-vaunted commitment to multi-ethnicity when, on 3 February 1998, representatives of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia), the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina (Federation), Sarajevo Canton and the international community adopted the Sarajevo Declaration. The Declaration stressed the importance of the Bosnian capital “as a model of coexistence and tolerance for the rest of the country” and made it clear that: “The international community will condition continuation of assistance for Sarajevo on fulfilment of the benchmarks set out in this Declaration and on adequate progress toward meeting the 1998 goal of at least 20,000 minority returns.”

Seven months on, the Sarajevo authorities have failed to meet most of the Declaration’s main benchmarks or take adequate, concrete steps to enable the return of anywhere close to 20,000 minorities this year. Indeed, as of early August, only 1,300 minorities -- 7 percent of the target number -- had actually returned. These failures are, in large part, due to stalling, incompetence and general lack of will on the part of Sarajevo authorities and officials of the ruling SDA (Party of Democratic Action).

The much-heralded “year of minority returns” has failed to materialise. Nonetheless, the low number of returns to Sarajevo are among the most shameful failures, in light of several factors: the large amount of foreign aid -- 500 million DM -- lavished on Sarajevo since the end of the war, augmented by huge sums injected into the local economy by thousands of foreigners living in Sarajevo; a low level of violence against returnees owing in substantial part to the large foreign presence; and the low number of minorities who have stayed in or returned to Sarajevo -- only 13 percent today, compared with 50 percent before the war. Even this percentage is jeopardised by the continued influx of Bosniacs, including tens of thousands who did not previously live in Sarajevo; the outflow of minorities; and the fact that a large percentage of minorities who have returned (or remained) are elderly.

Sarajevo officials have argued that the main reason for the low number of minority returns is a lack of housing space, and have accused the international community of thwarting returns by not providing enough assistance for housing reconstruction.  In fact, the number of people per home on average has declined from 3.6 before the war to 3.2. A major reason for the housing shortage is that many families that remained in Sarajevo during the war now occupy two or more homes. Bosniacs displaced from elsewhere have been treated shabbily; many have been evicted from their temporary accommodation in order to make them available for people with political connections, including those whose pre-war homes are habitable.

In response to threatened sanctions in the Sarajevo Declaration, Federation authorities did eventually amend the entity’s property legislation in line with the demands of the Office of the High Representative (OHR). Although the amendments remove most legal obstacles to return, Federation authorities refused to make further reforms, citing the failure of Republika Srpska authorities to amend their property laws. Moreover, Sarajevo officials have applied the laws regarding socially-owned apartments so as to favour Bosniacs who remained in Sarajevo over minorities and even over Bosniacs displaced from elsewhere in the country.

  • In light of the slow progress in minority returns to both entities, and for numerous other reasons, the 4 October 1998 deadline for the filing of claims to recover socially-owned apartments should be extended for twelve months.
  • The international community should condition further aid to Republika Srpska on adoption of non-discriminatory property laws; and should urge that entity’s authorities to adopt property laws that do not suffer from the defects from which the Federation laws suffer, on the grounds that their greater obstruction of minority returns to date justifies demands for speedier progress now.

The Sarajevo Declaration called on the Sarajevo Cantonal Police Force to hire more minority officers, and to develop a plan for hiring officers over the next two years so as to reach percentages that reflect the composition of the pre-war population. The current force has an adequate percentage of Croats but only 2 percent of officers are Serbs or “others”, well below even the current population composition (5 percent Serb and 3 percent others).

Initial progress in identifying offensive passages in school texts and materials has not yet resulted in their deletion. The Cantonal Ministry of Education agreed to remove or black-out all offensive passages and accounts of the recent war, but by the start of the school year in September, had not yet done so.

In July of this year, because the Canton had failed to meet most of the Sarajevo Declaration’s main benchmarks, the US suspended 9 million DM of reconstruction assistance, and the European Commission introduced clauses in reconstruction contracts totalling some 18 million DM stating that the projects would not be started pending advice from the OHR concerning the Canton’s compliance with the Declaration.

Aid should continue to be withheld until the Cantonal authorities take at least the following steps:

  • They must accept the international community’s definition of double occupancy.
  • They must undertake a systematic investigation of the Canton’s property records in order to root out abuse, in particular double occupancy, giving high priority to the records of the homes of the 7,100 non-Bosniac families that have registered to return.
  • They must evict illegal occupants, especially where housing would thereby be made available for minorities who wish to return, and must find alternative accommodation for people who truly have no alternative accommodation available to them .
  • They must resolve the 80 or so remaining priority cases (out of 166) brought to their attention by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the Federation Ombudsmen and the Jewish community.
  • They must cancel permanent occupancy rights granted after 7 February 1998.
  • They must process claims for socially-owned apartments expeditiously, without discrimination and consistent with the law.
  • They must take concrete steps to hire immediately at least 100 Serb and “other” police officers.
  • They must stop making false or misleading statements in the media suggesting that compliance with the demands of the international community would require them to throw people out on the streets who stayed in Sarajevo throughout the war.

Sarajevans rightfully have urged that officials -- including members of the ruling SDA -- who are responsible for obstruction and are profiting from double occupancies should be punished. The OHR has not been sufficiently vigorous in pressing officials to live up to their obligations.

  • The Reconstruction and Return Task Force should appoint a team to investigate claims of housing abuse and identify the officials who are responsible for the failure to fulfil the commitments made in the Sarajevo Declaration and/or who are benefiting from double occupancies. This task should be made a top priority, and High Representative Carlos Westendorp should ensure that the investigatory team has the resources and political support to follow the evidence wherever it may lead.

Sarajevo, 9 September 1998

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.


The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.


The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.