NATO AND BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA: A
TEST OF MULTILATERAL DIPLOMACY
By Edina Becirevic
NATO's rejection of Bosnia-Herzegovina's application for the MAP
(Membership Action Plan) was the last in a series of disappointments for the citizens of
Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2009. The Alliance's decision, along with the European Union's
refusal to approve visa-free travel for Bosnians, best illustrates how international
community decision-makers have misunderstood the process of disintegration in the country
and misjudge the correct way to cope with them.
The European Commission's decision of July 2009 to leave out
Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Albania from the list of the countries eligible for visa
liberalization, while allowing in Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro, played into the hands
of those who feed their rhetoric with allegations of an anti-Islamic climate in Europe.
An analysis by the Oxford Analytica magazine notes that the no-visa
regime for Serbia was a reward to voters who cast their ballot for pro-Western President
Boris Tadic. While the standards for Bosnia-Herzegovina remained high, Europe turned a
blind eye to the long list of requirements Serbia has not met, including the fact that top
war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic is still evading capture and extradition to the Hague
tribunal with the help of Serbia's persistently nationalist intelligence structures.
Faced with the paradox that Mladic no longer needs a visa for the EU,
whereas the survivors of his killing campaign are still condemned to a ghettoized
existence outside the door of Europe, citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot help but
interpret the motion as "double standards".
European circles dismiss the argument and charge Bosniak political
elites with fueling ungrounded feelings of victimization. Reacting to a sarcastic question
by a reporter on the 'visa liberalization for Mladic', EU Commissioner for Enlargement
Olli Rehn coolly answered that "Bosnia-Herzegovina wasted too much time on
nationalistic discourse instead of remaining focused on how to meet the preconditions for
joining European integrations."
It was actually the predominant nationalist discourse that triumphed
over the decision, but Olli Rehn and other European officials did not recognize it. The
conventional "carrot and stick" diplomacy failed to meet its purpose this time:
the principle of reward and punishment was pointless because it was applied on generalized
"nationalist rhetoric" and the condemnation of "nationalistic leaders"
rather than on naming those who were to blame. The acknowledgment came only later in a
report of the European Commission that noted it was the misuse of "entity
voting" by the majority of parliamentarians from Republika Srpska that blocked the
reforms laws needed for the liberalization of the visa regime. It is bitter irony that
these politicians and many of their voters already have or can acquire Serbian passports,
and travel freely to Brussels.
The decision to deny Bosnia-Herzegovina MAP status in December 2009 was
influenced by the same misunderstanding of the purpose of "carrot and stick" in
the Bosnian context, but it came as even more of a surprise since Sarajevo decided to
apply only once after getting encouraging signals from Brussels. Specifically, although
Bosnia-Herzegovina has been moving towards MAP for two years already, definite
encouragements from Brussels, and in particular from American diplomats, came only in
mid-2009, leading Zeljko Komsic, chairman of B-H Presidency, to submit an official
application on October 2, 2009.
The first serious test of new US President Barrack Obama's doctrine of
multilateral diplomacy appeared in parallel with Bosnia's application for MAP, a test that
appeared in the form of a American-European initiative for talks on constitutional
changes: the initiative was also planned as an attempt to implement the rhetoric of US
Vice-President Joseph Biden who in his visit in mid-May 2009 proclaimed loud and clear
America's support to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans.
It is undoubtedly very hard to reconcile the interests of political
elites in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Nevertheless, even without this complicating factor, the
negotiations at the Butmir base were the professional and personal failure of the two main
negotiators, US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg and Swedish Foreign Minister
Karl Bildt , because they were poorly prepared in the first place. The two failed rounds
of talks only further alienated Bosnia's already divided political leaders and highlighted
the need for a much more serious approach to multilateral endeavors by international
Once negotiations were announced, public expectations were so high that
diplomatic circles were soon comparing Steinberg with Richard Holbrooke, and Butmir with
Dayton. The course of negotiations proved however that such comparisons were unfounded.
Looking back, Richard Holbrooke can be blamed for many things, but at least he did his
homework, thoroughly preparing the Dayton negotiations himself, and not counting on Karl
The fiasco in Butmir was mirrored in the change of America's attitude
towards Bosnia-Herzegovina's application for MAP, and diplomatic sources refer to the
failed MAP application as a story "about James Steinberg's hurt pride".
The Brussels meeting on December 3-4, which discussed the future of
Bosnia-Herzegovina more vehemently than anyone expected, was in itself controversial in
many aspects. Americans, advocating NATO enlargement till then, argued against it along
with the Netherlands, France, Germany and Belgium. The so-called friendly countries,
Norway, Spain, Albania, Italy, Rumania, Slovenia, Croatia, Greece, Luxembourg, Hungary,
Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Turkey, argued that Bosnia-Herzegovina should be accorded MAP
unconditionally and regardless of constitutional changes, on the grounds that MAP does not
imply NATO membership, but more "time in the NATO lobby", time that a state is
given to get finally prepared. America's stubborn insistence on constitutional reforms was
especially baffling, given that up to now not a single state in the history of NATO has
been faced with such a long list of requirement. It is interesting to note that part of
Serbia's pro-NATO military diplomacy was lobbying for Bosnia-Herzegovina's speedier
Euro-Atlantic course, because, as they explained to an American delegation,
Bosnia-Herzegovina's faster movement towards the Alliance would also make things easier
for Serbia's pro-NATO faction.
Continued instability in the Western Balkans is only one of the
consequences of Bosnia-Herzegovina being denied the MAP. In addition to other negative
effects, the speculation that NATO would close its door altogether on Bosnia-Herzegovina
provided Milorad Dodik, premier of Republika Srpska, the opportunity to introduce the
topic of a referendum on NATO membership in his election campaign.
The reform of Bosnia-Herzegovina's army has been assessed as a major
contribution to the country's integration. "All the major elements of the defense
reform were actually rounded off by the end of the last year. And that completion was
successful judging by all relevant assessments. That's NATO's official assessment,"
says Dr. Selmo Cikotic, B-H defense minister.
It is common knowledge that the states lacking extensive foreign
policies try to compensate it through their activism in international organizations, and
that is what Bosnia-Herzegovina appears to have been doing as well. The defense reform
carried out through NATO proved that foreign policy could be a crucial factor in
state-building, and although faced with turbulences at domestic political scene, the
country's military diplomacy managed to attain praiseworthy results. Bosnia-Herzegovina
regularly participates in international peace operations and the experiences of soldiers
coming from different ethnic groups - who were shooting at each other only fourteen years
ago - testify that group solidarity is growing. Such solidarity, exceeding ethnic borders,
is crucial for the development of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
It's a pity that American decision-makers did not realize that according
Bosnia-Herzegovina MAP would symbolically blow wind into the sails of the armed forces and
everybody else working towards the country's integration, while disappointing those
gloating over the opportunities for disintegration.
The decision can be reversed at the next meeting of NATO foreign
ministers in April 2010 in Talin. But judging by the signals coming from American
diplomatic circles, it will take time and a "face-saving" solution to overcome
America's hurt pride, and allow it avoid acknowledging that the Brussels decision of
December 2009 was wrong.
(Author is Assistant Professor at University of Sarajevo and the
President of the NGO Atlantic Initiative)