bosnia report
New Series No:43-44 January - April 2005
Legitimacy and the B-H state


In 1992, when the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina was attacked by Serbia, its inherent sovereignty was universally accepted was universally accepted (other than by its attackers). As one of the successor states of the former Yugoslav federation, it had organized a referendum on independence in accordance with the provisions laid down by the European Community’s Badinter Commission, and had received international recognition accordingly. After the war, however, the Contact Group (USA, Britain, France, Germany and Russia) imposed a peace settlement at Dayton whereby that legitimate Republic was interred - with the agreement, extracted under pressure, of its leaders - to be replaced by a new de jure state called simply Bosnia-Herzegovina. This had virtually none of the powers and institutions of a normal state, these being entrusted instead to two formally subordinate ‘entities’ - which, however, were not defined as states. This would become a main source of political confusion and impotence.

Since 1995, the need to ‘normalize’ B-H and steer it gradually towards membership of European bodies has compelled de facto revisions of Dayton, with successive High Representatives implementing these, often surreptitiously. Despite differences between them of personality and political clout, they have done so within an overall framework laid down by the Contact Group. Since this process of revising Dayton, especially by shifting powers towards the centre and degrading those of the entities, has clearly accelerated during the present mandate, the evident unpopularity of the current incumbent Paddy Ashdown with the patriotically-minded Bosnian intelligentsia and media requires some explanation.

The hostility towards Ashdown has multiple causes. He clearly does not have his predecessor’s familiarity with Bosnian history, culture and language. His arrival in B-H was soon followed by the implosion and electoral defeat of the Alliance coalition in which most local anti-nationalists had vested their hopes, so that he became an easy target for their frustration when he found himself obliged to deal with nationalist parties back in government. The professional optimism of the Western career politician, moreover, could hardly fail to grate on the sensibilities of people labouring under the grim economic and social condition of Bosnia today. He also made some unfortunate gaffes by going beyond pragmatic deals with nationalists to what was perceived as inappropriate validation of them (his praise for the daily Avaz was seen as a particularly egregious betrayal). Most important, perhaps, his exercise of power often seemed arbitrary and non-accountable. Thus, paradoxically, the more he moved beyond Dayton, the more intolerable his powers came to appear to those Bosnians who have always opposed Dayton.

The need for the High Representative’s prerogatives to be handed back to the Bosnians has by now become conventional wisdom, not just in NGO reports and media comment, but even on the part of Ashdown himself. That would indeed be the only real cure for the current frustrations; but it is an open question whether centralizing reforms have gone far enough to set B-H on the road to a lasting stability. The dilemma is thrown into sharp relief by the emblematic issue of Omarska and Mittal Steel evoked in our last editorial (No. 42). Who other than a High Representative could insist on unimpeded exhumations of the Bosnian victims of those terrible concentration camps and the preservation of the White House as a fitting memorial to their sufferings, overriding equally the determination of the RS authorities to cover up the past and that of the new mine owners to start getting a return on their investment? His readiness to do that may well shape the ultimate historical judgement upon his mandate.


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