TCS Daily

Farewell to Sarajevo

By T.K. Vogel - July 6, 2006 12:00 AM

After more than a decade in business, the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR) is planning to close shop in June 2007. The June 23 announcement by High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling met with Brussels' approval: the EU thinks the prospect of eventual EU membership will be sufficient to keep the country on a reform course. In Sarajevo, the reaction was rather different. Even though the OHR is an unloved institution, many Bosnians recognize the need for its continued presence.

The OHR was set up under the Dayton peace accords, which ended the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, to oversee the implementation of the agreement's civilian provisions and end the country's ethnic divisions. Some of these measures have been quite successful. Hundreds of thousands of Bosnians of all ethnic backgrounds who fled their homes during the war have returned, reversing to some degree the results of "ethnic cleansing." The central government in Sarajevo has taken over responsibilities in areas like taxation and defense from Bosnia's two para-states, or "entities," the Republika Srpska (RS) and the confusingly named Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which comprises mainly Bosnian Muslim and Croat territories. Macro-economic stability was achieved early on, and even the business climate -- though still far from satisfactory -- is now slowly improving. No organized ethnic violence has occurred since 1996, allowing the peacekeepers to draw down from around 60,000 NATO troops in the early years to around 7,000 (largely invisible) EU personnel today.

But while the massive international engagement in Bosnia has succeeded in bringing peace, it has largely failed in its mission of building a modern state that provides effective services -- including security -- to its citizens. Bosnia has got the worst of both worlds: an overbearing government that manages to be ineffectual at the same time. All too often, new laws and regulations suggested or imposed by the OHR remained dead letter, while entire areas -- for example, education -- essentially evaded its reach. Even with the extraordinary powers given to the proconsul in 1997 (the controversial "Bonn powers"), there was only so much he could do to breathe life into the institutions set up under Dayton. Real power was still concentrated in the entities, and the RS in particular tended to obstruct any further centralization. But since the entity structure was cemented by the Dayton accords, nationalist politicians -- especially in the RS -- have been able to effect an amazing U-turn from opposing the deal (because it locked them into a common state with Bosnia's Muslims and Croats) to supporting it wholeheartedly(since it guarantees the continued existence of their para-state). Dayton has now become the Bosnian Serbs' Holy Writ.

The OHR has always been caught between those outside observers who accused it of neo-colonialism and asked for it to be shut down, and those who called on it to be even more heavy-handed in dealing with Bosnia's corrupt political class. The truth is that its middling course and resolute gradualism has yielded some results that would have been unlikely with a firmer approach, and impossible without international pressure. But the OHR's gradualism may now have hit its limits. Police reform, which goes to the heart of Bosnia's ethnic power structures, is stalled and no way out presents itself.

As long ago as March 2004, then-High Representative Paddy Ashdown -- a man harshly, and unfairly, criticized for using his powers too aggressively -- argued that the OHR should be closed down by mid-2006. This has now been postponed for an entire year by Ashdown's successor Schwarz-Schilling, a man who entered his office with the declared goal of closing the OHR and only using the Bonn powers as a very last resort. It is quite possible that Schwarz-Schilling's change of heart came in recognition of the fact that police reform, and a few other problems, still need the international community's full attention -- and the threat of sanctions that is most effectively delivered by the High Representative.

In Brussels last week, Bosnian Prime Minister Adnan Terzic publicly disagreed with Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn's view on the timing of the OHR's shutdown. Terzic said that the OHR should stay until his country had signed a stabilization agreement with the EU. (The so-called SAA is viewed as a first step on the way to membership.) This is a curious statement in light of Terzic's continued optimism, supported by Commissioner Rehn, that an SAA could be signed by the end of this year -- well before the date that has now been set for OHR's closure. Is Terzic perhaps preparing public opinion for a delay? He would certainly have solid reasons for doing so, since police reform is one of the requirements of the SAA. And without the Bonn powers, it may prove all but impossible to reform one of the last key areas of public life that is fully controlled by the nationalist power-brokers. The EU is a nice idea, and Bosnia should certainly try to become a member (though few expect that to happen before 2015 or thereabouts). But it would be fatal for the country to pin its hopes on the soft lure of Brussels when it still needs the big stick of Bonn.

The author is a South-East Europe editor with Transitions Online (, a newsweekly covering the post-Communist world. He has written for the Wall Street Journal Europe, the International Herald Tribune, and the Neue Z├╝rcher Zeitung.


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