Can Bosnia-Herzegovina Survive without the OHR?

This article was collaboratively written by the staff of the Wilson Center's East European Studies program based on meetings they conducted with a wide range of Bosnian and international officials.

Oct 20, 2006

The post-war reconstruction and nation-building in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which the international community—-led by the United States—-undertook, is still far from complete. Despite hopeful progress in many areas, including refugee returns, the last six months has seen a dramatic reversal in that progress, even to the point that Bosnian state unity has again come into question.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-candidate George Bush and his foreign policy advisor Condoleezza Rice advocated a United States withdrawal from state-building in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This policy of withdrawal from Bosnia has been implemented over the last six years, as the State Department and Department of Defense continue to reduce their involvement in the Balkan region. Only a symbolic US force remains stationed in Bosnia today, which works alongside the EU's Althea contingent. If all goes as planned, the Office of the High Representative—-the international community's representative in Bosnia-—will be shut down by June 2007 and the Bosnians will officially be self-governed without the international intervention that has worked to quell ethnic conflict and drive the reform process for the last ten years.

In place of the strong arm of the OHR, the international community will rely on the European Union's soft power to guide Bosnia into the community of stable democracies. By bringing Bosnia into the process of European Union integration, the Bosnian government, it is thought, will be compelled to make the necessary reforms in order to achieve member state status. The international community envisages the OHR's final stage as having the High Representative wear two hats—-that of High Representative and as representative of the EU—-in an effort to underscore Bosnia's trajectory towards the EU.

The appointment of Christian Schwartz-Schilling as the successor of Paddy Ashdown was clearly a step in that direction: rather than appoint someone who would match Ashdown's forcefulness and willingness to intervene in Bosnia's domestic affairs, the job was given to someone who clearly opposes ruling Bosnia with an iron fist. Schwartz-Schilling's approach is based on the premise that the international community's strong involvement in Bosnian politics has crippled the country's ability to govern itself and move towards self-sustainability. At an April 18, 2006 meeting of the UN Security Council, Schwartz-Schilling argued that the international community should resist the temptation to intervene, especially through the use of Bonn powers, which give the High Representative the power to impose laws and dismiss officials who do not comply with the Dayton Agreement.

Schwartz-Schilling's open reluctance to use the Bonn powers has created the conditions that will indeed be in place after the OHR is closed. It has been, in effect, an experimental period in which we can witness how the Bosnian government will operate without the threat of international intervention. The results of this experiment have not been encouraging, to say the least. Each of the goals set by the US and the International Community over the last year have failed, including constitutional reform, the adoption of a unified Bosnian police force, and full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Over the last six months all progress on meeting the requirements of the Stabilization and Association Agreement has been stalled, and along with it all progress toward European integration: the often stated goal of the region.

Moreover, Bosnia-Herzegovina's territorial integrity has again become a question. In response to Montenegro's referendum on secession from its union with Serbia last May, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, called for a similar referendum in the Serbian entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In response, Schwartz-Schilling declared that no part of Bosnia would be able to secede while the OHR is in place, but one week later, announced that the OHR would be closed by June 2007. Dodik's rejoinder was to schedule the referendum to be held next July! There is no way to tell how much of Dodik's swagger reflects his true intentions and how much it was simply a matter of taking an opportunity to raise his popularity in the electoral campaign season. In any case, the OHR has come to be seen as not only unwilling but also unable to reign in Dodik's nationalist rhetoric. At the same time, Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina leader Haris Silajdzic's calls that the Republika Srpska should cease to exist as a separate entity, in clear violation of the Dayton Peace Agreement, were similarly ignored by the OHR.

Even more alarming than the country's lack of progress is that the ultimate goal for the region—-EU accession—-may be undermined. Because the EU is now associated with the OHR, the EU has also become a target of nationalist's jeers: within a few weeks last September, the cover art of two of the leading news magazines featured political cartoons in which both Schwartz-Schilling and the EU were seen as powerless against the nationalist rhetoric of the electoral campaigns. While the cartoons themselves are easy to dismiss, their effect on public attitudes towards the EU could undermine the international community's current policy there. If they manage to convince the Bosnian people of the EUs impotence (or if they reflect that general sentiment), there is little hope that the EU can rely on its "magnetism" to compel Bosnian officials to build a viable democracy on their own.

The elections held a few weeks ago do not offer much hope that the newly-elected officials will catalyze the process of reforming the state and consolidating democracy in Bosnia. Although the traditionally nationalist parties are now in the minority, the supposedly centrist parties that succeeded them won by borrowing their nationalist rhetoric. The question now is whether those parties, such as Milorad Dodik's Alliance of Independent Social Democrats and Haris Silajdzic's Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, will continue their nationalist rhetoric in the post-election period or if now, with their position secure, they will return to a more cooperative relationship with each other and the international community.

In any case, the politics of the last six months do not bode well for a post-OHR Bosnia. The international community is scheduled to revisit the decision of closing the OHR in early 2007. At that time, it would be reckless to continue to push the current policy without a few modifications. First, although no one would want to deny that the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina is in the EU, it seems clear that the dual hats of High Representative and EU representative are incompatible, since the High Representative was created to impose order, and the EU accession process operates on the basis of soft power through conditionality. Of course, the EU accession process is itself incompatible with the maintenance of the OHR, since democratic consolidation is the top criteria for EU accession and the mere presence of the OHR makes Bosnia fundamentally undemocratic.

But in order to maintain Bosnia's course toward the EU, it might be wise to decouple the EU from the OHR. This split could be underscored by the appointment of an American to the position of High Representative, who would work with the EU representative towards the enlargement agenda but still be able to reign in local actors when necessary. This would help to disassociate the OHR's undemocratic tactics from the EU. It would also add a measure of symmetry: since the US played the leading role in the initial phases of post-war Bosnian state building, it would be fitting in the final phase for the US to return to a more active role in an effort to ensure that its intentions will be fulfilled.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant