Opinion: Bosnia’s tough choices


SOUTH HADLEY, Mass. — Nearly 15 years have passed since the Dayton Peace Accords ended the war in Bosnia. In the aftermath of the war, the international community embarked on one of the most ambitious and expensive statebuilding enterprises in history. It committed thousands of troops and spent more than $15 billion to stabilize, reconstruct and develop the country’s political and economic infrastructure and institutions.

Yet, as Bosnia’s recent trajectory clearly shows, good intentions and even a lot of money only go so far. At some point, the local population must embrace and then embody change. Bosnia’s national elections, set for October, may well decide what will become of this international experiment in peace and statebuilding.

There is no doubt that the international community’s money and engagement produced tangible successes. Organized inter-ethnic violence stopped on a dime with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995; the bulk of the 2 million people displaced by the war were allowed to return home or were compensated; the economy grew on average somewhere above 10 percent per year; and much of the country’s three ethnic communities — Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs — returned to their daily routines.

However, many of these successes masked a more complex situation that is again resurfacing, exposing disturbing realities and the difficult choices that lay ahead.

The peace agreement included a series of compromises to stop the war: It created a weak decentralized state with most of the country’s power delegated to two entities — the Muslim and Croat-dominated Federation and the largely Serb-dominated Republika Srbska (RS). Presently, the Bosnian government has only limited constitutional authority and with so much power devolved to the entities, reconciliation has been slow and leaders of the two entities are increasingly at odds over the future of the country.

The dual-entity structure has led to a complex maze of competing and conflicting regulatory structures, tax codes, property rights and other basic rules of law. Unemployment hovers somewhere around 30 percent, privatization of the former socialist economy has lagged and the public sector continues to gobble up nearly 50 percent of GDP.

This contributes to excessive levels of corruption and ethnically based patronage networks that hinder Bosnia’s economic development. The political impasse has stalled critical constitutional reforms and the development of new laws to strengthen the private sector regulatory structure and expand commercial law.

The global economic recession has further exacerbated political tensions, escalating nationalist rhetoric. Leaders of the two entities have clashed over a host of political and economic reforms needed to bring Bosnia closer to minimum standards for joining the European Union. Recently, Milorad Dodik, prime minister of the RS, announced that only international intervention was holding the country together and that it was now time to consider its dissolution.

Although international involvement was once the bright spot in the Balkan tragedy, its ability to influence outcomes continues to diminish. Recently, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos (who is currently leading the EU’s effort) traveled to Sarajevo to continue pressing Bosnia’s leaders to break the impasse and step up the pace of economic and political reform. The diplomats announced they had made progress in the talks, but produced no agreement or commitment from the various factions on constitutional reform.

The truth of the matter is that this international diplomatic effort has been hamstrung by the increasingly divergent views coming from Washington and Brussels on what to do next in the Bosnia. This is not just disappointing but it could have grave implications for the country’s future.

After a decade of relative success and notable achievements, complacency has become the norm and the united front that was once the hallmark of international involvement has disintegrated. The U.S. began to withdraw its forces at the onset of the George W. Bush administration and has continued to shift its focus away from the country since 9/11. Meanwhile, although the EU pledged to step up and manage Bosnia’s transition, it is confronted with competing global and regional commitments, donor fatigue and resource constraints.

Washington has been more inclined to keep in place the Office of High Representative that was created under the Dayton Accords to guide and manage post-war reconstruction and political and economic development. Brussels however has expressed a desire to close OHR and further reduce EU troop levels down to a handful of monitors.

Sensing both international complacency and the growing chasm between Washington and Brussels, nationalist political parties and leaders have stepped up their attacks on moderates and are once again using nationalist rhetoric to stoke fears among the population. These tactics are almost certain to intensify as Bosnia prepares for national elections in the fall.

The next six months will be crucial for Bosnia and international statebuilding efforts. In October, Bosnians will face an important choice as they vote in national elections. If current trends continue, we are likely to see more economic stagnation, escalating exclusivist political rhetoric and continued stagnation in the Balkans.

The October national elections will not only determine the political leadership for the next four years, but could well decide the fate of economic reform, Bosnia’s aspirations for membership in the EU, and even the long-term viability of Bosnia as a unified state.

Jon Western is Five College Associate Professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College and Patrice McMahon is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.