Bosnia’s future is becoming increasingly uncertain. An ethnic veto has long made the central government ineffective, and, most recently, Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Serb-controlled entity, Republika Srpska, has responded to efforts at reform with a threat to hold a referendum on independence.
Many consider secession unlikely, but Dodik’s threat does heighten fear that today’s fragile status quo could break down. While nobody expects the mass violence of the 1990’s to recur, that does not justify diplomatic indifference and inaction.
The Dayton Accords of 1995 ended Serb-instigated ethnic cleansing and established peace in Bosnia. But that agreement did not create a functional Bosnian central government with the capacity to undertake the reforms needed to meet the terms of accession to the European Union.
To appease Bosnian Serbs led by Slobodan Milosevic (who died while on trial for war crimes), Radovan Karadzic (who remains on trial for war crimes) and Ratko Mladic (who was indicted for war crimes and is still on the run in Serbia), the West accepted the territorial division of Bosnia at the war’s end. This acceptance was manifested in a constitutional structure that gave the Bosnian Serb region quasi-independence and the power to obstruct the emergence of an effective central government in Sarajevo.
The EU, having helped rescue Bosnia from its past by mortgaging its future, seems in no hurry to change the country’s purgatory-like status. European leaders have allowed their most useful tool for preserving the peace and leveraging change – the once-respected office of the High Representative – to be diminished to the point that many Bosnian officials treat the incumbent with disdain. But it should be recognized that, in post-Cold War Europe, it has proven highly dangerous to allow disrespect for European purpose and resolve to take root.
If the Bosnians lack the capability to modify the iron corset bequeathed to them at Dayton, the EU remains indifferent, and the United States is preoccupied with the Middle East, South Asia, and China, what lies ahead? Leaving Bosnians to explore the options that befall a failed state (with a Muslim plurality) – located within Europe but on the margins of its prosperity, unity, and relative social cohesion – is to acknowledge policy bankruptcy and let others roll the dice on ways to end the current stalemate.
Some in Europe assert that over time the parties may eventually see the benefits of greater cooperation, that dissolution will not occur, or that, if it does, it will likely be relatively tranquil. Such assumptions do not inspire confidence. Violence has been the traditional agent of change in the Balkans, and the level of frustration in Bosnia is growing.
Faute de mieux , the Americans have allowed the burden of dealing with these issues and sorting out the unfinished business of Dayton to fall to the EU. Indeed, it is past time for the EU to take the diplomatic lead in fixing what Dayton left undone. While the new EU’s governance structure seems, at least on paper, to lend itself to more robust efforts in the Balkans, diplomatic habits die hard, and the Union will need to overcome its continuing legacy of relying on carrots without sticks to deal with knotty Balkan problems.
Regardless of the EU’s unhappy diplomatic past in the Balkans, the most practical way forward is to seek political reform in Bosnia rather than hoping for the US to resume its leadership role. Any EU effort should be based on the following reinforcing elements:
· A conference of the three Bosnian parties this spring to fix the Dayton agreement by strengthening the central government sufficiently to enable Bosnians to fulfill the requirements of the EU accession process while maintaining the existing entities. This gathering should include both the US and Serbian governments as active observers. European and US leaders would have to convey to the Bosnians and others that failure is not an option and convince them of the EU’s bottom-line unwillingness to accept opposition from those in Bosnia who impede the EU accession process.
· Since Serbia is essential to the continued existence of Republika Srpska, pressure must be brought to bear on its government, which seeks EU membership, to make clear to obstructionist Bosnian Serb leaders that they cannot hold a referendum on independence, and that they must accept enhanced central-government powers.
· Support for civil-society groups and democratic parties prior to elections throughout Bosnia this October. The EU and the US should underscore the need for political change and for candidates who support EU accession as indispensable to Bosnia’s economic and political progress.
The alternative – tinkering with reform while hoping that time, EU money, and a watchful eye will move the three Bosnian communities toward political harmony – is not prudent policy.