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Bosnia’s way forward

Daniel Serwer

November 16, 2015



Here are the remarks I prepared for the conference at SAIS today and tomorrow on Twenty Years after Dayton: Prospects for Progress in Reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina:


1. I want first to thank my colleagues at the Center for Transatlantic Relations here at SAIS—Sasha Toperich and Dan Hamilton—for entrusting me with a privileged place on the program and the most difficult question to answer.

2. This I suspect is my “reward” for twenty years of thinking I really did know the way forward but then proving beyond any doubt that I was unable to find it.

3. Before and at Dayton, I thought the way forward involved ensuring that the Federation, which Dick Holbrooke had entrusted to my care in October 1994, could govern effectively.

4. At the fifth anniversary in 2000, I thought it lay in applying the European Convention on Human Rights, which had been incorporated into the Dayton constitution.

5. By the time of the 10th anniversary in 2005, I was sure it lay in revising that constitution, an effort pursued by Don Hays, Paul Williams and Bruce Hitchner under my aegis at the US Institute of Peace.

6. They helped the Bosnians produce what became known as the “April package” of constitutional amendments that failed in parliament by two votes in 2006.

7. I don’t remember what I was thinking in 2010 at the 15th anniversary, when I was busy moving from USIP to SAIS.

8. None of my previous impulses have succeeded, so this time around I’m going to offer you three different directions for a way forward in Bosnia. I do hope one of them pans out, but hope is not a policy. I’ll try also, at the end, to enunciate a policy, after considering three additional propositions that are not ways forward.

9. The first way forward is that old standby: constitutional change. A constitution distributes power. In Bosnia it distributes power in ways that enable ethnic nationalists to control the country and exploit their position for personal rather than societal gain.

10. We imposed the Dayton accords, but we imposed what the ethnic nationalist warring parties told us they could live with.

11. It is therefore unsurprising that one way or another, ethnic nationalists have dominated Bosnia almost continuously, making it ungovernable, since 1995.

12. Kresimir Zubak, then President of the Federation, gave me my first lesson in ethnic nationalism during the war. Serwer, he said, one man one vote will never work in Bosnia.

13. Though by far not the most extreme of ethnic nationalists, Zubak was still determined to prevent Croats from being “outvoted,” something he regarded as anti-democratic.

14. There is nothing I might wish for more than recognition and protection of equal individual rights in Bosnia today so that people could be outvoted without feeling bereft of their identity, but even the application of equal individual rights to the Sejdic Finci case has been a bridge too far for Zubak’s successors.

15. I have to conclude that constitutional change is not looking promising, even though it is the most direct and compelling route forward. The failure in 2006 and the more dismal failure at Butmir in 2010 have poisoned the well.

16. The second way forward is what the Europeans are calling reform. There is a nice thick document written by non-Bosnians that you can read to see what that means: reducing the public sector, improving the investment climate and making the labor market more flexible would be my summary.

17. The Bosnian political leadership has pledged the political will to get on with it. Combined with conditionality from the EU, the World Bank and IMF, I hope it works, though I hasten to add that it is likely to make things worse for many Bosnians before it makes them better.

18. Moreover, politicians have been relentlessly clever in blunting European pressure for reform and converting it into new opportunities for expropriation of state assets and opportunities for individual and party enrichment, as carefully documented in a paper written by Srdjan Blagovcanin and Boris Divjak published earlier this year by CTR.

19. I therefore regrettably doubt the European reform program as much as I doubt the prospects for constitutional change.

20. The third possible way forward is for the Bosnian people to demand change, along the lines of what has happened recently in Romania.

21. That is what appeared to be happening in the aftermath of the 2014 floods, but the plenums produced little in the way of serious political pressure for change and generated significant nostalgia for a more state-administered economy. I wouldn’t count that as the way forward.

22. If my three ways forward won’t work, that doesn’t mean someone else’s ideas won’t.

23. Some Croats want a third entity, claiming that would re-establish equality and enable them to participate more fully in the Bosnian state.

24. I don’t buy that. At Dayton the Croats got a very good deal: one-third of the state and one-half of the Federation.

25. That was when they were in the driver’s seat, providing the military force that enabled the Federation offensive to succeed in the summer of 1995 and controlling the flow of weapons and everything else from the Adriatic into central Bosnia.

26. Croats are now a smaller percentage of the population than they were before the war, they have lost their wartime stranglehold and military prowess counts for little within the region.

27. The third entity idea is hard to kill, but it is going nowhere.

28. Milorad Dodik also has a proposition: detaching his Republika Srpska from the judicial system of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the clear intention of preventing any prosecution of himself or his sidekicks and laying the basis for eventual secession, or if that is not possible a kind of complete autonomy like that of Taiwan.

29. He clearly would like Republika Srpska to negotiate and implement the requirements of EU membership separately from the Federation.

30. Should we take this proposition seriously?

31. Yes, is my answer, despite RS’s vigorous efforts to convince me that everything will be copacetic the day after a referendum.

32. Secession, or even just holding the referendum, has to be taken seriously not because it is a serious proposition.

33. I doubt even Serbia would recognize the RS if Dodik were to declare it, because of the implications for its EU aspirations. Prime Minister Vucic has been reasonably clear that the Bosnian Serbs need to look to Sarajevo, not Banja Luka or Belgrade, for their state.

34. The question proposed in the referendum can only be described as ludicrous. It is clearly intended to gain negotiating leverage with the EU, which seems tempted by the gambit.

35. That would be a serious a mistake, but even if the Europeans ignore it Dodik’s referendum still has to be taken seriously because it could destabilize the Balkans, radicalize Muslims in Bosnia and raise serious questions about European, NATO and American credibility.

36. There has to be a vigorous response if Dodik proceeds with the referendum, one that will demonstrate clearly that the international community is committed to Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

37. Anything less risks making the 20th anniversary of Dayton remembered for a serious failure rather than a modest success.

38. A third proposition, which many Bosniaks and some of my American colleagues favor, is a revival of the High Representative’s powers so that he can compel the Croats and Serbs to accept a stronger central government.

39. Wolfgang Petritsch and Paddy Ashdown were reasonably successful at that enterprise at the height of the “Bonn powers.”

40. But that too would not be a way forward. Even authoritarian rule depends on the consent of the governed. Dodik has withdrawn the consent of the Serb nationalists.

41. If you’ve been counting, I’ve now listed three good but unpromising ways forward and three bad but impractical ways backward. What should we do, beyond making sure the referendum triggers a vigorous response?

42. Let’s recall what has produced good results in the past. The Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina is today one of the most integrated institutions in the society.

43. The integrated army was born not much more than 10 years ago from the unification of the three warring parties, when the Americans and Europeans held tough and mounted a credible threat to dissolve the entity-based armed forces.

44. That is the kind of clarity and forcefulness needed to face down the referendum, ensure that the Bosnian judiciary is strengthened rather than weakened and end talk of a third entity.

45. Beyond that, I think we need to focus on building the kind of state Bosnia and Herzegovina needs in order to become a European Union member, a goal everyone agrees on.

46. There is no mystery about what EU membership means. The formula was already enunciated in the April package: the central state in Sarajevo needs to have the authority required to negotiate as well as implement the acquis communitaire.

47. The entities might be consulted on EU membership issues, but they should be excluded from the EU negotiations. They should have primary responsibility for governing only in areas not germane to meeting the requirements for EU membership.

48. If I had my way, even many of those entity competences would be devolved to the municipalities.

49. A state that can meet EU membership requirements will be a stronger state than exists today, which means it will also require the checks on its behavior that come from an independent judiciary and a strong civil society as well as parliamentary oversight, vigorous entities and well-functioning municipalities.

50. Bosnia’s citizens and civil society need to demand more accountability and transparency, whether they do it the Romanian way or less dramatically.

51. Bosnia’s entities and municipalities, like America’s states, need to insist on their own prerogatives, which should be ample.

52. The Brcko district is a good example: it is a common, more or less integrated, enterprise that in its best moments has functioned well and produced a modicum of prosperity for all its inhabitants.

53. The way forward for Bosnia should be comparable: a set of common, integrated institutions that function effectively in limited areas and establish an EU-compatible legal and regulatory framework in which private enterprise and public/private partnerships deliver services and prosperity to its citizens.

54. Let me conclude: I am not the most vigorous defender of the Dayton accords, which in my view then and now compromised more than necessary with territorial ethnic nationalism.

55. But Dayton at its best preserved Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It also provided the basis for a state that could make Bosnia a truly European country. That is something that still merits doing.



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