bosnia report
New Series No: 23/24/25 June - October 2001
Democracy-building in B-H
by James Sandbach

Each year at the beginning of July in Bosnia an eclectic gathering of scholars and civil society activists arrive in Konjic, a municipality forty miles south of Sarajevo, to participate in the Institute for Strengthening Democracy’s four-day seminar on themes related to democratisation in B-H. This year’s seminar addressed the human-rights dimension of building democratic confidence in a multi-ethnic society, although papers and presentations addressed a variety of cultural, social and reconstructional themes. Attending for the first time I found it to be highly informative in the range of issues addressed, but also invaluable as a forum for the exchange of perspectives, and most especially as a process in searching out medium-range concepts between the exigencies of international policy and realising the long-term goal of a peaceful, prosperous and securely independent multi-ethnic and self-governing B-H.

Policy-practice gap

Day one placed a particular focus on gender issues and aspects of the conflict, and explored conceptual relationships between gender, ethnicity and globalised models of identity. The seminar then proceeded to a plenary session looking at the basic concepts behind pluralism and democratic participation, and adopted as a discussion point for the rest of the seminar how to bridge the ‘policy-practice gap’ in the democratisation process.

Several speakers on day two revisited the theme of conflict ‘misrepresentation’, exorcising the ‘Balkan ghosts’ from media discourse. For example, Chris O’Sullivan’s paper ‘Yellowed Clips and Stale File Footage: the news media and the resolution of ethnic conflict: its role in the process of peace, reconciliation and democratization’ was part of a wider research project on the influence of media representation of conflicts on policy-makers’ perceptions in the unfolding socio-political changes in the Balkan landscape. It was followed by a paper by Biljana Bijelic on ‘Balkan Stereotypes’. For O’Sullivan, Bijelic and others, the continued relevance of these issues lay in whether future Balkan policy would remain cast within a narrative of ethnicity or in a wider framework of systemic political transformation.

A number of the papers on international policy were highly critical of the ‘failed democratisation paradigm’ underpinning the efforts of international actors to build functional democratic institutions in Bosnia. Chris Solioz’s paper ‘Ownership in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ traced the assertive approach to Dayton implementation, first adopted by the December 1997 Peace Implementation Council in Bonn, to the failure of conditionality as a mechanism of compliance, and explored the paradox of a policy which, whilst orientated to the goal of ownership, pursues that goal by denying Bosnian political parties ownership of that very same process. Broadening out the debate, Andrew Gilbert’s paper ‘Democratization as Development: Implications for Bosnia-Herzegovina’ noted, through an analysis of USAID papers, just how dependent the Western emphasis on democratisation was on a particular model of political development.

From the international community’s perspective, Ambassador Matthias Sonn representing the Office of the High Representative made the familiar doctor-patient analogy regarding the ICs ‘soft-protectorate’ role in Bosnia, and addressed the question of ‘when would be the time for the doctor to pack his bags’. He pointed to the entity commissions on constitutional reform and the implementation of the law on civil service as the most hopeful sign yet that the process of transferring ‘ownership’ from international to domestic institutions was working. He was unequivocal that certain ways of state-building work whilst others don’t, and tended to dismiss concerns from the floor that the real roadblocks to democratic recovery did not lie in macro-political management disputes ‘from above’, but in the depletion of social capital ‘from below’

Personal accounts

Some panelists departed from the traditional academic format and gave highly personal accounts of their work assisting democracy building and electoral administration. Bjørn Frode Moen, ‘Consciousness and meaning, ambiguous questions and answers’, and Sverre Bungum, ‘What the Balkans has done to me (which is far more than what I have done to the Balkans)’ noted from their own experience the problem of applying rational models to understanding the overlapping paradoxes of Bosnia’s social divisions, and suggested that such understanding could not lie in academic discourse, but only in a deep engagement with local people, to the extent of such understanding becoming a ‘spiritual condition’.

Another interesting aspect of the seminar were reports from municipality-based projects (Sund and Konjic) to create new fora for grassroots participation in civic issues, which were refreshingly far removed from the politics of election law implementation. However, it is perhaps most telling that those attending who were most critical of the Dayton framework confining Bosnia’s democracy were Bosnian professional economists, concerned that the poor interaction of multiple tiers of governance with different levels of functionality was impeding the limited capacity of the economy to attract investment and growth.

Overall this remarkable and possibly unique exchange of perspectives was immensely rewarding to all the participants. It was also interspersed with social and cultural activities, including the showing of the harrowing film Perfect Circle in Konjic’s outside cinema. Speaking for myself, I want to go back.




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