No Sweet Sixteen: International Policy in Dayton Bosnia

This week, Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat currently acting as High Representative to Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereafter Bosnia), came to the University of Ottawa to speak about the Dayton Agreement, a 1995 peace deal ending a war that  had left more than 100,000 people dead and two million displaced. While successful in stopping the bloodshed where other attempts failed, the agreement has been mostly unsuccessful in accomplishing its main ‘civilian’ task, which was to build a workable, democratic state for its Bosniak, Croat, Serb and ‘Other’ citizens. (‘Other’ is an actual constitutional term for members of minority groups who are disallowed to hold office.) As Inzko explained to his Ottawa audience (and in his 15 November report to the UN Security Council), Bosnia is anything but workable today. The country has not had a central federal government since the October 2010 elections because its leaders continue to disagree on cabinet positions for Croat representatives.

Bosnia’s political problems are complex and multifaceted, but let us isolate some of them. The current political impasse has, most directly, to do with the expressed preferences of Bosnia’s three ‘constituent peoples’ and their ethnocratic elites (who are skilful in rotating their politics from closet nationalism to nationalism to ultranationalism and back, as needed). Sixteen years after the end of the war, most Serbs and Croats still question the legitimacy of the state in which they live (or, as some of them would put it, were forced to live). Politically, this typically translates into calls for reforms that would take ever greater powers away from the central government and towards ethnically-defined confederal units. (In Dayton, an ‘entity’ was given to the Serbs; many Croat leaders want the same.) Sometimes demands for decentralization are replaced with threats for a referendum on seceding from Bosnia and joining Serbia and Croatia, respectively. In contrast, many Bosniak leaders want to abolish all ethnically-defined territories, the ultimate goal being a unitary Bosnia dominated by the Bosniak majority.

This type of politics is meant to win elections with people who lived through war and ethnic cleansing, not to make and break nation-states. Bosnia’s Dayton constitution is directly underwritten by the United States and virtually all European governments, including neighbouring Croatia and Serbia, which means that neither partition nor French-style centralization are possible with outsider consent. Indeed, Bosnia is still governed by the Peace Implementation Council, an international body made of states and agencies that work together on implementing the Dayton Agreement. As its representative, Inzko is responsible for “steering” the peace process in any way that he sees fit. Like his six predecessors, he holds the authority to dismiss elected and non-elected officials who are found to be ‘difficult’. Thus far in his mandate, Inzko has used these powers 31 times, bringing the total number of uses to over 800 since this authority was first claimed in 1997. None of these decisions was appealed, because an appeal mechanism does not exist.

This authoritarianism has not improved administrative effectiveness in the country, but it has almost certainly chipped away the legitimacy of international power. For critics, Bosnia is the ‘European Raj,’ while international officers like Inzko are ‘proconsuls’ and ‘viceroys’. The gap between the international and national levels of ownership of the Dayton process was evident even in Ottawa: Inzko’s talk was co-sponsored by the embassy of Austria, but not the embassy of Bosnia.

In some ways, Bosnia’s political woes have been proportional to the dissipating power of Inzko’s office, whose responsibilities are being transferred to an office that reports to the Council of the EU, which brings together the governments of the 27 EU member states. Bosnia is simply old news. When yet another EU-U.S.-sponsored constitutional reform plan was rejected by the ethnocrats in 2010, few international actors paid it much heed, for obvious reasons. Combined with what is now a deep-seated enlargement fatigue, Europe’s economic troubles have simply erased the already peripheral Balkan country from the map; in Washington, the same happened even before 9/11. Inzko’s report to the Security Council is an attempt to reverse this trend, if ever so slightly.

Broadly, there are but two international policy options in Bosnia. The first is Dayton II – a big bang imperial fiat that would remove some of the excesses of the current constitutional arrangement. Dayton I, recall, gave birth to a polity not seen in Europe since the times of the Holy Roman Empire: parallel to the assorted bodies of international governorship, there is one central government; two confederal units (one of which is a federation itself made up of ten cantons); one special district; two special city administrations; and around 150 municipalities. Such wasteful administrative overlaps are defensible on the grounds of consociational theory and practice, which sees shared and cascading sovereignty as a means for providing unity, equality and parity representation in divided societies. However, the total numbers of government suits, sofas and sedans are staggering. As Inzko observed, there might be more parliamentarians in Bosnia than in the EU parliament (not quite correct, yet disturbingly close). For ordinary citizens, Dayton Bosnia is an administrative hell, but for some fat cats it is the closest thing to heaven.

The country’s misfortunes are bound to continue even if Bosnia joins the EU, as Inzko predicted, “sometime after 2018”. It was indeed refreshing to hear someone speak about the EU in the future tense. Even if the euro were to collapse next week, the EU would remain a byword for peace, order and good government when viewed from Bosnia. Herein lies the international policy option number two: sit back and let the promise of free movement and other benefits associated with EU membership work its political magic. There are no precedents for it (no, not Cyprus)—only the hope that membership conditionalities might prove to be more effective in reforming the country than any attempt to arm-twist the Bosnian ethnocrats into accepting a new constitution.


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