Type to search


Who Will Save Bosnia From Itself?

By Vinicius G. Lindoso

A view of Sarajevo at sunset from the Martyrs Cemetery

ONCE upon a relatively recent time, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) was perhaps the hottest conflict spot in the world. Sarajevo attracted some of the most ambitious journalists seeking to boost their careers by reporting first-hand on the horrors of a genocidal war.

By 1994, nearly three years into Europe’s bloodiest war since WWII, pressure from a public horrified by the news of multiple massacres, concentration camps, and genocidal practices forced the international community to cast aside its largely non-interventionist posture – based on the argument that the West was powerless to stop a conflict based on irreconcilable “ancient hatreds” – and take an active role in resolving the crisis. International mediation, particularly U.S. pressure, was vital in unifying Croats and Bosniaks within a Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and in ultimately bringing the three ethnic leaderships onboard the comprehensive Dayton Peace Agreement in November 1995.

Post-Dayton policy radically changed from non-intervention to over-intervention in every single aspect of the country’s government structure: high inflow of development and humanitarian assistance followed Dayton, with a High Representative granted ultimate executive authority over central Bosnian state as well as the relatively autonomous Serb and Bosniak-Croat entities. The hunt for war-criminals began alongside de-mining and infrastructural reconstruction projects. Through the 1996 and 1998 national, cantonal, and municipal elections, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) iron-handedly sought to root out radical nationalism from Bosnian politics.

Foreign aid flowed in huge sums, and though only 2% was distributed to the Bosnian Serbs, the heavy hand of the OHR elicited Serb leaders’ compliance, ensuring a relatively calm context for state-building. As of December 1998, the OHR put an end to the sacking of publicly-elected officials and expulsion of candidates from party lists, focusing instead on co-opting party leaderships to implement necessary reforms. Many U.S., OHR, and Bosnian officials agree that up to 2005, the country was headed to full implementation of the Dayton provisions in a foreseeable future.

In 2006, everything changed. Between then and now, Bosnia has experienced a protracted internal political stalemate characterized by lack of political agreement across the main ethnic parties, and gradually increasing inter-ethnic tensions at the level of municipal politics. Moreover, a gap has taken place between the international community, embodied in the OHR, and the quarreling, corruption-ridden ethnic leaderships. The history of international mediation in the country has been one of decreasing trust of the general public on the ability of the OHR to keep the country politically stable. On the political side, the election of Milorad Dodik as President of Republika Srspka (RS) on a highly nationalist, secessionist platform has thrown the Bosnian political stability down the gutter. There is little doubt now that the OHR’s 1996-1999 heavy-handed efforts at forcing Bosnian parties to converge on a non-nationalist agenda have failed.

More recent attempts at institutional reform by the International Community have met similar fates. In 2008, Bosnia and the EU signed the Association and Stabilization Agreement, a crucial step in the long road to accession to the EU, and in 2010 Bosnia was included in the Schengen Area in late 2010. Despite these latest carrots, the country’s slow progress toward membership in the EU and the perception that the EU favors both Croatia and Serbia its expansion has ensured decreased support for the EU as the latter attempts to bring the country out of political deadlock. In 2009, the U.S.-led Butmir talks on constitutional reform produced a document on constitutional reform – hesitatingly backed by the EU – that remains largely ignored by the Bosnian parliament.

Though highly underreported in the press, officials in Brussels admitted that the negotiations never really enjoyed the EU’s full-hearted support, signaling the beginning of a growing rift between EU and U.S. policies toward Bosnia. This has significant consequences for the future and credibility of international institutions operating in the country. After 2009, the U.S. by and large abandoned whatever little initiatives there were to push through the constitutional reforms necessary for progress in Bosnia’s path to EU membership.

Its presence is now limited mostly to supporting actions by the OHR, which is itself exiting Sarajevo to set up a new headquarters in Vienna from which long distance operations can be conducted. While the EU – through the role of a EU Special Representative (EUSR) independent from the OHR, – has surely enjoyed wider room to implement what it believes is a more gradual movement toward a political breakthrough, the EU’s lack of full U.S. support is likely to decrease its potential to both broker and implement agreements. Bosniak and Croat parties believe U.S. policies are much more favorable to their agendas.

The behind-the-curtains EU-U.S. rift has recently culminated in two ways. First, thirteen months after the October 2010 elections, Bosnia still lacks a government at the state level, and neither the OHR nor the EUSR have been able to engage the parties in meaningful discussion toward building a coalition. Second, the authority of the international community in Bosnia was called into question by Serb President Milorad Dodik in May, when he announced the RS would carry out a referendum on the legitimacy of Bosnia’s federal judiciary.

High Representative Valentin Inzko and Dodik engaged in heated exchanges through the media. An EU official speaking on condition of anonymity described Inzko’s position as being implicitly backed by U.S. wishes to see the OHR adopt a more proactive role in managing Bosnian politics. The EU, while officially supportive of the OHR, opened bilateral negotiations with President Dodik and convinced him to cancel the referendum in exchange for continued discussion of long-standing Serb grievances.

While its decision to appease Dodik has proven successful at keeping the Serb leadership at the negotiating table, it may have only exacerbated the Bosnian government crisis by alienating a Bosniak leadership accustomed to the international community’s die-hard support. Moreover, while it is early to tell, there is a clear risk that the EU’s decision to appease Republika Srpska might embolden the radical, secession-minded wings of the Croat leadership. Furthermore, as stated in a May 11 private intelligence report by STRATFOR, the EU’s strategy to force Bosnians to resolve their own issues without much international intervention may elicit influence from other powers such as Turkey, Russia, or even (albeit less likely) Saudi Arabia.

The prospect of Saudi influence in Bosnia is downplayed by EU officials. Nonetheless, visiting Bosniak villages or neighborhoods from Srebrenica to Mostar, one finds the first results of an Islamic religious revival supported by nationalist Bosniak parties and funded almost entirely by Saudi Arabia, through Wahabi missionary movements. Wahabis comprise a very small minority within the Bosniak population, and are in constant conflict with the mainstream Bosniaks, but the Bosniak leadership has refused to place greater emphasis on controlling the flow and use of money from Saudi Arabia.

The issue has become more pronounced in the past 18 months, after a Wahabi carried out a suicide attack against a police station in Central Bosnia in June 2010, and another Wahabi fired continuous shots against the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo last October. There is no reason as of yet to believe these are anything more than isolated accidents, but the unchecked growth fundamentalist factions within the Wahabi movement itself could potentially yield additional trouble for a country already immersed in political turbulence and economic stagnation. On the other hand, in the age of the War on Terror, Islamic fundamentalist action in Bosnia might elicit further international attention and better policy coordination between the U.S. and the EU.

Assessments of growth and development for Bosnia are at this point perhaps as bleak as they were in 1991, with the fortunate exception that two of the major actors involved in initiating the conflict in 1992 – Serbia and Croatia – lack the reasons to support secessionist movements in Bosnia. They have been effectively embraced by the international community in exchange for, inter alia, fully supporting Bosnia’s post-Dayton territorial integrity. Moreover, it is hard to believe that the EU and the U.S. would allow the country to slide back into violent conflict – for guilt of past ill-judgment, if nothing else.

Nonetheless, it is naïve to think that Bosnia will turn into a healthy country overnight. Failure by the UN negotiators back in 1995 to establish something akin to a Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the ambiguous success of the ICTY, and the failure by the OHR to purge Bosnia of ethnic nationalism mean that inter-ethnic rivalries remain alive. As the Bosnian political system moves into chaos, ethnic parties are more likely to push ethnic distrust to a climax unseen since 1995.

Bosnia may well be on its way back to the front page of the international media. Unfortunately, the current situation indicates that, absent a vigorous policy mix of co-opting and pressuring ethnic leaderships by the International Community, political conflict might spill over to the streets.

Vinicius G. Lindoso is a junior in Silliman College.