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Douglas Davidson is Visiting Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund. He spoke at an EES Noon Discussion on February 4, 2009. The following is a summary of his presentation. The views expressed in this speech are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government. Meeting Report 358.

This is an interesting time in Bosnia and Herzegovina; interesting in the sense of the old Chinese curse—may you live in interesting times. Another High Representative has just resigned. The future of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) itself hangs in the balance. Will it close this summer, as many want? Or will it stick around even longer than everyone thought a few years back? I do not have the answers to these questions, but I would like to offer few thoughts on why we are still having this debate 13 years after the war in former Yugoslavia came to an end and why we should perhaps not slam the door on OHR quite so fast.

The main reason, of course, is that things do not seem to be going well in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Although not many people in the world's major capitals are still paying attention, those who are seem worried. Last November, for instance, the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) expressed "its deep concern about the frequent challenges to the constitutional order of BiH and, in particular, to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of BiH or to the existence of the Republika Srpska as one of two entities under the Constitution of BiH." The Steering Board also stated that "addresses by BiH officials on behalf of institutions of BiH which do not reflect the agreed positions of those institutions are harmful and unacceptable. These types of behavior, which directly impact on the political situation by making compromises even more difficult, have to stop." The following month, NATO's Foreign Ministers noted in a communiqué that: "Despite progress in some areas, we are concerned by the deterioration in the political climate in Bosnia and Herzegovina over the past few months, which puts at risk the constitutional structure of the country as well as its Euro-Atlantic integration prospects." A few days later the then-High Representative, Miroslav Lajcak, told the United Nations Security Council that "the political situation remains difficult, as the old and fundamental challenges in Bosnia and Herzegovina stay in place."

These old and fundamental challenges are the same ones that led to war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Dayton Accords, which ended the war, created a constitutional structure and functional governments, but they did not—and probably could not—resolve the deeper divisions in the country's political life. As Lajcak and many others have noted, these divisions are rooted in differing perspectives among the citizens of the country about who should run it and how it should be organized. These perspectives by and large correspond to the ethnicity of the person expressing them.

The problems everyone complains about ultimately derive from a single source: the lack of allegiance to a shared state. Bosnia and Herzegovina ended the war as it began it—as a country composed of three "constituent peoples." Each of these peoples describes themselves as a "nation." None agrees with the other two on how their shared state should be structured and governed.

In 2003, the International Crisis Group (ICG) produced a report entitled "Bosnia's Nationalist Governments: Paddy Ashdown and the Paradoxes of State Building." This report described Lord Ashdown, who was then the High Representative, as a man "in a hurry to accomplish what might, in better circumstances, have been attempted at the outset: to establish the rule of law; to regenerate a non-productive, aid-addicted, post-communist economy; to streamline and enhance the competence of public services; and to equip the virtual state inherited from Dayton with the attributes necessary for [Bosnia and Herzegovina] to aspire to EU membership." Four years later, having decided that Ashdown and his successor had failed to achieve these goals, the ICG issued another report. This one described Bosnia as in "disarray," a condition it blamed on the international community. It then called for a "new engagement strategy." But it added that, "Bosnia remains unready for unguided ownership of its own future—ethnic nationalism remains too strong."

In Bosnia, the French saying "plus ca change, plus ce le meme chose" is often applicable. What the ICG was attributing to Lord Ashdown in 2003 had, in fact, been the aim of the international intervention since the end of the war. In 1996, the PIC had described its goals this way: "to consolidate peace; to encourage reconciliation and economic, political and social regeneration; to take the radical steps necessary to restore a multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina to economic health and prosperity and to enable it to take its place in the region and in Europe." The real problem is not a lack of will. It is the difficulty of the task. The things that both the PIC and the ICG want have turned out to be much more easily said than done.

During the war, many commentators (and some politicians and diplomats) liked to ascribe Bosnia and Herzegovina's troubles to "ancient ethnic hatreds." I hate to differ with so many learned and distinguished people, but I have to say that I do not think these ethnic hatreds, if that is what they are, are all that ancient. On the other hand, the presence of "ethnic and sub-State agendas" in political life is not new. Most scholars seem to think they truly took hold somewhere around the departure of the Ottomans and the arrival of the Habsburgs in the late nineteenth century.

"Nationalist" political parties prevailed in the elections held in 1910, just as they did in elections held before the war in 1991. A pre-war constitution also awarded rights to the national groupings much like those awarded in Annex Four of the Dayton Agreement. Much of Dayton's constitutional structure and many of the problems of post-war political life, in fact, simply reflect modes of thought with deep roots in the local soil.

In his book Empire Lite, Michael Ignatieff argues that the purpose of "nation-building" is to extend "free elections, rule of law, democratic self-government to peoples who have only known fratricide." This was clearly the intention of those who fashioned the Dayton Accords, too. It remains the intention of all those foreigners and foreign institutions still at work in the country today. Thanks to the Dayton Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina has the institutions characteristic of a modern constitutional democracy. Subsequent "reforms" to Dayton have added to them, primarily by building a stronger "state"—that is, central—government. (Bosnian-Herzegovinian terminology is the opposite of ours—the state is above the federal level, the latter referring to the government of one of the two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. If this does not confuse you, then you are clearly ready for life in the Balkans.) These reforms have had a dual purpose: both to prepare the country for membership in the European Union; and, perhaps more important in the short term, to overcome ethnic divisions by forcing the three constituent peoples to cooperate in a central governmental structure larger and stronger than the one given by Dayton.

On paper at least, Bosnia and Herzegovina also has a model array of electoral and parliamentary rules and procedures, human rights safeguards and guarantees, and criminal laws and judicial structures. All these, because they both protect individual rights and prevent the tyranny of the majority, should reassure the sometimes fearful inhabitants of the country. They should thus contribute to building what is necessary for Bosnia and Herzegovina to survive and prosper as a multi-ethnic and democratic state. But, for whatever reason, they do not; the country still threatens to come apart at the seams. The Serb entity, the Republic Srpska, is progressively walling itself off from the other half of the country and is even now trying to take back competencies it had, in more cooperative days, awarded to the central government. The Croats, who have repeatedly been thwarted in their attempts to create a "third entity," are now calling for a new "federal" structure with four parts, one of them being Sarajevo, which would amount to the same thing. The Bosnian Muslims, the Bosniacs, who are numerically the largest group, meanwhile, say they want a unitary and "civic" state without entities and with "one person, one vote" as its guiding democratic principle—or they did until last week, when the leader of the largest Bosniac party agreed with the leaders of the largest Serb and Croat parties on a division of the middle level of government into four parts. Typically, though, they all immediately disagreed about what this agreement meant, with the Bosniac Suleiman Tihic arguing that it meant the abolition of entities and the Serb Milorad Dodik proclaiming that the Republika Srpska is eternal. Typically, their Croat counterpart seems to have decided for the moment that discretion is the better part of valor.

A civic or civil state is actually a goal to which all three nations say they aspire. In two cases, however, they also argue that the time is not yet ripe for such a thing. This is because, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the idea of "assimilation" is anathema. Political leaders of the two smaller constituent peoples justify their actions by claiming to be acting to prevent assimilation by the third and largest. This then leads them to argue for the necessity of systems of government that enshrine and protect the rights of "peoples." Group rights, in other words, must necessarily take precedence over individual rights.

Such reasoning makes it difficult to build a modern, liberal democracy. This is perhaps why, over time, the international community has tried almost every conceivable approach, from heavy-handed intrusiveness to hands-off "local ownership," to overcoming these difficulties. None of these have fully succeeded.

A number of commentators have argued in recent years that these approaches—and with them the whole international post-war intervention—have somehow ultimately done more harm than good. They conclude that the only solution now lies in the international community pulling back and allowing the locals to go on together without the foreigners. There may be virtue in this, though it seems to me that the experiment with a hands-off approach and an encouragement of "local ownership" two years ago may have called this line of argument into some question. Those who prefer this approach also tend to describe Bosnia and Herzegovina as an "international protectorate," usually in a sort of disparaging tone of voice. Such a protectorate it may be, but I think it is fair to ask what it would be like today if internationals had not tried to protect it.

I also do not believe that this protectorate has been all that malign in its intent. I have the feeling that the length of the international presence has had less to do with some hidden desire to run an international protectorate for life than with trying to turn Bosnia and Herzegovina as quickly as possible into a secure and stable democratic state. This has not gone as quickly or as smoothly as we might have hoped. When, for instance, the U.S. first deployed its troops into Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 1995, they were expected to stay only for one year. Elections were to take place as quickly as possible, thus leading to the successful creation of a multi-ethnic democracy, and the need for the troops would very soon be gone. As we all know, it did not quite work out that way. People did not return to their pre-war homes and so restore the ethnic balance—and presumed harmony—that existed before the fighting began. The nationalists won the elections instead of those we would all have liked to see come to power, and our troops stuck around for eight years.

From this experience and others like it, people have drawn many different lessons. There are those, for instance, who argue early elections are bad and that we should wait to hold them until we establish security first. I suspect there is some validity in this. But my experience in Kosovo and my distant observations of Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that this, too, is easier said than done. In such situations, especially those with the goal of building or restoring democracy, it would seem, you almost inevitably run up against strong popular will and pressure for the most visible expression of democracy—elections. Unfortunately the good guys—or at least those whom we view as the good guys—do not always win those elections.

Of course, as our new president and secretary of state have recently noted, there is more to democracy than just holding elections. It also requires the establishment of things we take for granted, not the least of which are a law enforcement and judicial system that works and a nexus of citizens' organizations and civic associations that we lump under the catch-all term "civil society." Something as simple as a willingness to obey laws you do not like and to follow judicial and executive decisions you do not approve of are also important. At the moment, Bosnia and Herzegovina falls short in almost all these categories.

Why, after so much investment from the outside and so many years of trying, this remains so is somewhat of a mystery. I can only ascribe it to two things. One was best put by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Great Britain years ago. Asked what was most likely to blow government off course, he replied, "Events, dear boy, events." The same, I think, goes for international interventions. The other I would describe simply as "human nature." I will return to this in a minute.

But first I want to take a moment to chart the ever-changing course of the intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is worth doing, I think, if only because Bosnia has been something of a trail-blazer and theory-generator for subsequent such ventures. As far as I can tell, even after, or perhaps despite, the early elections, the first few years after the war were spent largely on establishing—or, perhaps better put, maintaining—security and on reconstructing the country's houses and schools and buildings and roads and the like. Then the international overseers began to grow alarmed that the country was not exactly coming together—that people, as I noted a moment ago, were not returning to their pre-war homes and that politics was not working for the common good. They therefore turned their attention to practical remedies such as the restitution of property, the establishment of regimes that would regulate and reduce hate speech in the media and bring together the ethnically-based public broadcasting services under a common roof, and the creation of a common currency, a common automobile license plate, and even a single border service. Most important, perhaps, meeting near Bonn in late 1997, the PIC added muscle to the High Representative, awarding him the powers to remove recalcitrant officials who were impeding the implementation of the Dayton Agreement and imposing legislation that would also add to that implementation. Finally, especially in the first half of this decade, all sorts of state-building began to take place. This resulted, among many other things, in a single bank account into which all tax revenue flowed, a whole host of new ministries and other central institutions, a new state court to prosecute war and organized criminals, and perhaps, most amazingly, a military formed out of two previously hostile ones. Necessity had actually proven to be the mother of invention.

All this, unfortunately, more or less ground to a halt in early 2006. The attempt to follow the military model and unify the country's police forces seems to have been a bridge too far. So did, for different reasons, attempts to enact mild reforms to the country's Constitution. Although the constellation of forces arrayed against both attempts at change was different, the expressions of protest were strangely similar: Some thought these changes went too far, and others that they did not go far enough. In this, as in so much else, these voices of support and opposition simply mirrored the larger, underlying political debate.

This, I think, is where human nature comes in. But to explain why requires another slight detour. The international community has poured in so much money per capita in Bosnia and Herzegovina—far more, I gather, than we have spent in Afghanistan—for the results to date would tend, I would guess, to bear out the thesis that money is perhaps not the key in such situations. In Bosnia and Herzegovina today, religious and ethnic ties are, unfortunately, still predominant. This goes as much for the Bosniac community, which is normally the staunchest advocate of a unitary and multiethnic state, as for the Serb and Croat. The refusal of the Sarajevo authorities to allow "Father Frost," the traditional local version of Santa Claus, into local kindergartens and pre-schools at Christmas-time last year as well as the attempt earlier to mandate Islamic religious instruction in those same pre-schools suggests that even "Europe's Jerusalem," a city for so long a symbol of multi-ethnicity and religious tolerance, is not immune to such backward sources of authority. It is probably no coincidence that Sarajevo is now overwhelmingly Muslim. Nor is Sarajevo unique in this ethnic and religious one-sidedness. In many places across the country, the return of refugees and displaced people to their pre-war homes has largely ceased; members of all three constituent peoples are now settling instead in communities where the members of their ethnicity predominate. In those few communities where substantial numbers of two ethnic groups still live side-by-side, tensions remain high, divisions stark, and reconciliation largely absent.

In their book, The War In Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention, Steven L. Burg and Paul S. Shoup refer to what they call "the profound ‘reality gap' … between the Western model of what Bosnia ought to be … and what Bosnia has become in the aftermath of catastrophe." Almost a decade has passed since they wrote this book, but their words unfortunately remain as pertinent and applicable today.

I am therefore led to conclude that ceasing the attempt to build a state on the "Western" model by dispensing with the OHR and other such institutions would be an act fraught with peril. Granted, OHR is not what it was a decade ago. The peace-keeping forces, which now belong not to NATO but to the EU, are also a shadow or at least a fraction of their former selves. But if nothing else, their presence indicates a continued outside interest in the successful creation of a liberal democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Keeping both there, along with related international organizations, and particularly those representing the EU, might at least help hold Bosnia and Herzegovina together long enough to allow the kinds of civic and other institutions necessary for a functional liberal democracy to develop.

Bosnia and Herzegovina clearly needs to develop habits of conflict avoidance and cooperation (or at least coexistence) if it is to survive, much less prosper. But, it is probably going to take time for this to happen. If history is any guide, then, it seems likely that without the continued and intense involvement of "external factors," the multi-ethnic and democratic society that the international intervention has sought to create in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the past 13 years may remain something of a chimaera.


About the Author

Douglas Davidson

Visiting Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund
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