Today's Bosnia: a dependent, stifled, apartheid regime
by Jonathan Steele
The 10th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton agreement is Europe's chance to reinvigorate a recovery in the Balkans
Success in the Balkans is a rarity. So there will be much applause shortly for the 10th anniversary of the pact which ended Europe's last worst war, the carnage of Bosnia. Hammered out on a US air force base in Dayton, Ohio, which the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia were virtually forbidden to leave, the agreement was largely the work of the massive-egoed American diplomat, Richard Holbrooke.
There will be two celebrations: a Washington lunch to mark the pact's initialling, and an event in Paris in December for the anniversary of the signing. Dayton was achieved by US Democrats, but the Bush administration desperately wants something to tout as a US triumph in bringing peace and light to a Muslim country. In the long-running transatlantic rivalry, Dayton was also a case of America sorting out a mess where Europeans failed, on their own continent.
The Paris event will concentrate on the decade after Dayton. Shamed by their divisions and impotence during the Bosnian war, European leaders would rather look at what has been achieved since. Bosnia is at peace. Huge numbers of refugees have gone home. The country is about to start talks with the EU on a stability and association agreement, the first step towards membership.
But Bosnia's recovery is not secure and there is a real danger that the anniversary euphoria will mark a European retreat from the Balkans. Not in the sense that the EU does not want them as members (although enlargement fatigue is growing). The problem is more subtle: the EU may not do enough to help them join on the right terms.
Dayton was an eccentric construct, a long-winded ceasefire agreement rather than a blueprint for a functioning state. It produced a constitution which enshrined ethnic and group rights, created a self-governing Serb ‘entity’ and a Muslim-Croat one, and put an outsider, the high representative, in ultimate charge.
This UN-sanctioned liberal imperialism, which was later replicated in East Timor and Kosovo, may be necessary as a short-term, post-conflict measure. But it creates dependency, stifles civil society, and produces a highly visible financial apartheid in which an international salariat lords it over a war-wounded and jobless local population.
The success of the post-Dayton decade is patchy. The multiculturalism of pre-war Bosnia is gone. Although tens of thousands of people have returned home to areas from which they had been ethnically cleansed, most live in edgy enclaves. All but one municipality have populations which are 90% from the same religious or ethnic group. Central institutions have been created which overarch the separate entities, from a common currency, customs service and tax regime to a high court. But efforts to reform the police system so that it is not ethnically based have been fudged and diluted, as the International Crisis Group recently pointed out. Bosnian Serb police committed many wartime atrocities, and key figures remain in office.
The collapse of the state-dominated Yugoslav economy, along with wartime destruction, ruined most of Bosnia's industry and there is now an unusual new phenomenon, a kind of ‘re-ruralisation’. City people are going back to live in the countryside to grow food for their families. Foreign investment is put off by excessive bureaucracy and the many tiers of government. Measures to streamline the registration of new businesses only took effect recently.
Far from stable
Bosnia is still a long way from guaranteed stability, let alone postwar truth and reconciliation. Unreconstructed nationalist forces are still powerful in the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity, as well as Belgrade. It should not be forgotten that the war in Bosnia was not caused by ‘ancient hatreds’, as Douglas Hurd used to argue, or by wicked German diplomacy which recognised Croatia's independence ‘too early’, as others claim. It was a war of aggression instigated by a small group of nationalist Serb politicians, aided by Slobodan Milosevic.
Ten years since Dayton, it is generally recognised that the constitution is out of date and the high representative's imperial powers need to be cut. The incumbent, Paddy Ashdown, who leaves office soon, is a firm advocate of an early transfer to Bosnian rule, partly in order to shock Bosnians into reforming their constitution. Legal experts for the Council of Europe have long pointed out that the Dayton constitution's emphasis on group rights violates European standards. US think-tanks have been drafting reforms to put to Bosnian politicians, as the Guardian reported yesterday.
Tougher approach needed
Europe ought to play a stronger role in promoting constitutional changes. The path to EU membership places large obligations on applicant countries to clean up their governance, from judicial and police reform to the defence of individual rights. During the enlargement to eastern and central Europe, the European commission's practice was to be relatively non-interventionist in discussing the way applicants adjusted their domestic laws to the acquis communautaire. Benchmarks were laid down, but there was not much ‘front-loading’ whereby key issues became priorities that had to be fulfilled before further negotiations could proceed. In the case of Bosnia - and Serbia, which has just started its own association talks with Brussels - a tougher approach is needed.
Tony Blair has been looking for ways of making Britain's EU presidency more impressive. He does not want it to be bogged down in budget reform. Putting the finishing touches to peace in Bosnia might be the alternative idea. At the Paris celebrations of Dayton, or the final summit of his EU presidency in Brussels, he could promote a more dynamic strategy for the EU in the Balkans.
It would begin with a declaration on Bosnia that made two key points. Talks on EU-Bosnia links would not proceed until Bosnia's leaders moved towards agreement on a non-ethnic constitution to be ratified by the time the high representative's office is abolished. The same would go for Serbia's EU talks. The EU should insist on a pause until the government and parliament in Belgrade renounce any aspiration for Republika Srpska to join Serbia. If Blair could get his partners to agree on these points, he would have helped to restore the EU's reputation as a Balkan peacemaker. The lure of EU membership is a powerful incentive for countries to change their ways. But the road can take 10 years. The EU needs to tell Bosnians and Serbs what order the hurdles come in. Strengthening the unity of the Bosnian state is priority number one.
This comment appeared in The Guardian (London), 11 November 2005