Bosnia on the Road to European Integration: A Status Report

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.

May 16, 2005

In November 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) lay in ruins. Nearly 200,000 of its pre-war population of 4 million were dead, nearly half became refugees and destruction and hopelessness were everywhere. Bosnia has come a long way since those dark days. Today, nearly ten years after the Dayton Accords ended the fighting in Bosnia, the local and international communities in Sarajevo seem determined to move the country out of the peace-keeping stage and transition to a path toward European integration. Underlying this is the fact that violence has been largely avoided these past 10 years, due in large part to the presence of thousands of international peacekeepers on the ground. Representatives of all ethnic groups in Bosnia underscore the need to keep these troops stationed in BiH as a way of instilling confidence on all sides. Last year's handover of military authority from NATO's SFOR to the EU-led EUFOR reflects both the continuing necessity of peacekeeping troops and the direction of the transition process toward the EU.

The last two years have been marked by positive developments toward deeper integration between the two entities (the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serb Republic), most recently by the EU-led initiative to create a unified police force. More than a million refugees have returned to their homes—far more than had been expected—and the pace of reconstruction and development is impressive. Moreover, suspected war criminals have been turned over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which is an important condition for European integration. Thus, with varying degrees of optimism, representatives of the international community see the Office of the High Representative (OHR), established in 1995 as the ultimate authority in BiH, loosening its hold on the federal government in Sarajevo, with some experts (including those in the US Embassy) noting that the OHR should no longer be needed by 2007. Yet, there is much evidence that suggests that, as far as BiH has come, there are still many difficult obstacles in its path.

Phasing out the Office of the High Representative

Since the leaders of the three main groups in BiH (Muslims, Serbs and Croats) still have difficulty agreeing on key political and economic issues, the OHR under Paddy Ashdown has ruled like a colonial government with a lot of direction and tough love, and has encouraged greater cooperation between the entities. His style has caused the ministers of the entities, canton leaders and mayors to be passive and wait for the OHR to make tough decisions. But some experts say that his tactics leave local politicians feeling frustrated, because they feel that they could have written the legislation as well as or better than the OHR. This frustration is seen by the international community as a good thing: it is seen as evidence that BiH is ready to be in control of its own destiny, without the training wheels provided by the OHR. This optimistic prognosis has led to at least two distinct prescriptions. The OHR believes that when Ashdown steps down from his post in November 2005, a less forceful individual will be put in his place, someone whose character would leave the hard bargaining to the local elites. Meanwhile, representatives from the US Embassy expressed far greater optimism, stating that within two years, the OHR will have outlived its usefulness. They concede that the removal of the High Representative will likely bring short-term instability, as the two entities struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the OHR. But they believe that the cost of the short-term slowdown in progress will be outweighed by the benefit of the accountability and legitimacy gained by removing the OHR.

It is certainly true that the OHR makes democratic accountability problematic in Bosnia. Local leaders can always blame the OHR for forcing them to implement reforms or adopt unpopular measures, such as recent moves to force the resignation of more than 20 high-ranking Bosnian Serbs for not cooperating with efforts to arrest war criminals and the forced resignation of the Croat Member of the Bosnian Presidency on the grounds of corruption. And since local and entity leaders shirk accountability and are not forced to come up with legislative solutions themselves, voting is not based on rational calculation. Instead voting is based on the personal popularity of individual leaders, which has resulted in the election of the populist/nationalists responsible for the violence in the first place. They are able to promise anything, and when they do not deliver on those promises, they can blame the OHR.

Thus, taking the OHR out of the equation may help to make elections more meaningful. But the timing is important: with parliamentary and presidential elections due to be held in 2006, the removal of the OHR would have to occur more or less immediately for it to have a chance of positively affecting the next round of elections. Yet, no one seems ready to withdraw the OHR's strong hold on politics before certain fundamental reforms are adopted, such as the unification of the entities' police forces or, most importantly, the adoption of a new constitution, neither of which will happen quickly, if at all.

The Chances for Constitutional Reform

The impetus for drafting a new constitution is coming primarily from the Bosnian Muslims, who view the two-entity Bosnian Federation enshrined in the Dayton Accords as outdated. The Bosnian Muslim member of the BiH Presidency, Sulejman Tihic, has recently introduced a new draft constitution underscoring the unity of the Bosnian state and creating five regions within the country. This initiative is sure to be opposed by the Serbs, who continue to support the two-entity concept. The OHR as well as some local academics and journalists agree that constitution drafting by the nationalist leaders currently in power will be impossible without OHR arm twisting. Furthermore, the academics (who clearly do not support the incumbent government) do not see these parties as legitimate because they were responsible for the violence. They cannot be trusted, therefore, to create the constitutional foundation of the country. One prominent journalist took this one step further, saying that he could not understand why the international community continues to allow the nationalist parties to participate in the democratic process. After all, he argued, these were the parties responsible, not only for the violence, but for the vitriolic ethnic politics that has made the OHR indispensable. The international community, he contended, should have banned these parties but did not, a fact that has become fodder for conspiracy theories.

The international community has no plans to ban the nationalist parties and continues working with them-—after all, they were legitimately elected by the people. This situation may even be seen by some in the international community as a very good outcome, since the least democratic political groups (the nationalists) are forced to adopt democratic reforms and create the new constitutional foundation for the state. In theory, this process would create democrats out of the staunchest nationalists. In practice, however, the nationalist parties have simply hardened their positions, and cooperate with other nationalist parties only under external pressure. Thus, if external pressure has been necessary to make progress in unifying police forces, it will take a Herculean external effort to bring the parties together on constitutional reform.

However, some US officials and international experts oppose international pressure for constitutional reform, arguing that interference in the constitution-making process will impede the constitution's legitimacy: it will not be seen as a home-grown document, and therefore will not be followed or implemented. Moreover, the US continues to be extremely critical of the burgeoning governmental structure in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The running joke among the internationals is that Bosnia has achieved "full employment" within the public sector, due to the inefficient system in which each ethnic entity has its own government institutions and public services. The annoyance among the international community is heightened by the fact that they are bankrolling this "full employment," which leads them to conclude that the system is unsustainable.

Resolving the "full employment" problem will mean that new institutions will need to be put in place, presumably through the adoption of a new constitution. Given the fact that the nationalist parties have gained support by creating jobs in the government for their constituents, the likelihood that those same parties will be the catalysts for change is quite low. The likelihood that this would happen before the 2006 elections is close to nil. And believing that this will occur without outside pressure is clearly wishful thinking.

EU Integration

The international community in BiH assesses that the US will soon begin to reduce its high-level involvement in the country (the US Embassy in Sarajevo currently has a staff of about 600). With the diminution of the US presence imminent, the integration of BiH into European structures-—the EU and NATO-—is a high priority for both the OHR and the federal government of BiH. There is already an institutional provision for having the High Representative wear "two hats" by simultaneously representing the United Nations and the EU, and eventually letting go of his power in government in order to be able to lead accession negotiations with the BiH government. This precludes the possibility of having BiH become an EU protectorate: due to the structure of the enlargement process, negotiations must be conducted by the EU and the government of the acceding country, not by the EU representative in the acceding country (which would result in the EU negotiating with itself).

The Bosnian government seems geared toward meeting the demands set by the EU. A special office has been created within the prime minister's office, the Directorate for European Integration, which plays a coordinating and advisory role to the Council of Ministers. The head of the Directorate commented that Bosnia is certainly making progress, but there are still huge obstacles to European integration. One of the biggest is the fact that a large proportion of the acquis communautaire deals with agricultural policy, yet the BiH government does not have a Ministry of Agriculture that could work to adopt those acquis. A new constitution would certainly resolve similar obstacles, and although the EU cannot require the government to adopt a constitution or advise it on what kind of constitution to adopt, it is hoped that EU accession is a sufficient carrot to coax agreement by all three entities on adopting a new constitutional foundation for the country.

The director for EU Integration and a foreign affairs advisor to Prime Minister Adnan Terzic both echoed the US Embassy's and OHR's claims that the BiH government has grown frustrated with the heavy-handed presence of the OHR. Yet, the frustration does not stem from the fact that government officials feel hemmed in by the international structures. Instead, the frustration comes from conflicting prescriptions from the various players within the international community. This seems to indicate that the government still relies heavily on advice from the internationals, and that calls for self-governance are premature.

Where does this leave Bosnia in Spring 2005? Certainly, it has come a long way from the death and destruction of the early 1990s, but there is still a long way to go before it can become a stable, self-sustaining state. With the continued help from the international community, Bosnia can make further progress in its transition to lasting peace and stability. For this to happen the international community will have to remain far-sighted and patient. Building a nation out of the ashes of the former Yugoslavia will take time—a lot longer than ten years. And, it will require the continued presence of international peacekeepers, though in diminishing numbers. Finally, the future of Bosnia rests firmly within the EU, and it is imperative that EU conditionality continues to spur progress toward reform and reconciliation in the country.

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