bosnia report
New Series No: 35 August - September 2003
Is Paddy Ashdown Bosnia's last governor?
by Ivan Lovrenovic


Paddy Ashdown, the latest international governor in Bosnia, likes to assert that he will be the last to fill this office: that with his term the international administration will end, i.e. the country will be politically emancipated and government pass into the hands of the local authorities. To this verbal repertoire belongs also another fiery and frequently modulated declaration of his - that during the eight years since the end of the war Bosnia has made greater progress than any other place in the world affected in recent times by war and post-war crisis. But the Bosnian street, which knows all about suffering and the art of being patient, long ago produced a cynical and sceptical saying: 'God grant that you marry a Pasha, my daughter, even though only Gypsies are knocking at the door. '

During the mandate of Wolfgang Petritsch the international community appeared inclined towards the dismantling of our ethno-national 'democracy' and ready to help with the installation of another model of government. This proved a futile and in fact absurd exercise, however, since it sought to achieve its aims without any significant alteration of the constitutional and administrative-territorial (Dayton) arrangement, whose basic meaning and task is precisely to preserve and perpetuate the status quo and legitimize ethno-national government. The best proof of this is the alacrity with which all authentic Serb nationalists - whether 'democrats' or 'legalists': the SDS in Banja Luka as much as Vojislav Koštunica in Belgrade - swear on Dayton as if it were the Bible.

Even before Petritsch had his Sarajevo suitcases packed, it became evident that the international community had become bored with this brief and - to judge by all the evidence - none too seriously conceived anti-nationalist undertaking. And indeed Petritsch's successor Ashdown did not wait long before moving smartly to make a pact with the devil. After the elections of October last year, when the nationalist parties despite their meagre results easily defeated the feeble Alliance for Democratic Change, he proclaimed those parties to be reliable and promising partners in the implementation of reforms. This attitude was recently described by the International Crisis Group (ICG) in one of their regular reports as follows: 'Compelling the nationalists who made and fought the war to take responsibility for reform may be the only option and the best revenge. But it is also a high-risk strategy. The High Representative can command, but he cannot actually implement reforms. For this he needs the genuine engagement of the domestic authorities.’

The following twofold deduction, which in fact simply underlies the dilemma and the uncertainty of the totality of the Bosnian situation, contains the paradox of Paddy Ashdown's rule and his 'pact with the nationalists': in order to fulfill his mandate (and thus become the last Bosnian vizier) he desperately needs reforms; his partners, however, in order to remain in power, which is their sole motivation, avoid true reforms like the plague, since these are their only serious enemy. As a result the pact between Ashdown and the nationalists necessarily entails a game of wits, in which all positive energy is spent not on serious and beneficial political, administrative, economic and social concerns and innovations, but on their postponement and their open or surreptitious obstruction. Hence, when one reads the sharp criticisms of Ashdown's rule recently voiced in some parts of Europe, to the effect that it is authoritarian and high-handed - as when German analyst Gerald Knaus was reported in the London Guardian as claiming that Ashdown 'governs Bosnia as if it were the Indian raj of the19th century' - it seems to me that such attacks, however justified in appearance, miss the main point. In the Bosnia-Herzegovina of today and for its sake, the least important thing is whether the high representative governs autocratically. What is of far greater and even fateful importance is that he should govern effectively. One could even state that it would be very good indeed if his mandate were more clearly defined in the direction of a protectorate, since in that case his responsibility would be clearer and the steps in the implementation of true reform more concrete and more fruitful. It is precisely the imprecise nature of the mandate of the OHR and the high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina which has from the start represented the greatest obstacle, and which has been the strongest source of suspicion concerning the final and considered aims of the international community in regard to this country.

This is why the other part of the quotation from the ICG report, the warning about the high-risk game being played by the high representative, may seem to the more sensitive ear to contain almost a fatalistic note: 'since the High Representative can command but he cannot actually implement reforms.’ Only the domestic authorities may do that. They will not do so, however, since they cannot. They are prisoners of the past, conspiring to maintain the status quo, not protagonists of reform and proponents of the new. They may not be aware of this, but the truth is that these ethno-nationally constructed and formatted structures (individuals and parties) - which are today once again in power in Bosnia-Herzegovina - are governed by the same kind of instinct as that of the fabled scorpion which the frog carried across the water.* It is simply stronger than them.

Ashdown's mandate too will come to an end, and the international community will once again, we may well fear, decide that it finds itself - back at the beginning. The ICG analysts are right to note in their report: The international community need not feel ‘neo-colonial guilt’, but it ‘needs still to expiate a different sort of guilt: for a war that need not have happened or lasted so long’, and for the years in which it failed to transform Bosnia-Herzegovina into a viable state.

*The story goes that the scorpion, being unable to swim, asked the frog to carry it across the river; but half-way across the scorpion, unable to resist its instinct, stung the frog so that both drowned.

This article has been translated from Feral Tribune (Split), 31 July 2003.


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