Only US Engagement Can Pull

Bosnia Back from the Brink

By: Kurt Bassuener

The US has been frustrated by the current situation in Bosnia, but has also remained aloof, engaging episodically and then retreating. A shift seemed to be at hand with the visit of Vice President Joe Biden in May 2009, but the State Department dropped the ball…

Events are moving in a perilous direction in Bosnia and Herzegovina – and at a dangerous pace. While international eyes trained on the country are transfixed by the ongoing crisis in the Federation, the Republika Srpska has accelerated and intensified its efforts to dismantle or destroy state institutions, with essentially no opposition by the international community that spent well over a decade working to establish these very institutions. The situation is dangerously close to a breaking point, as local political actors increasingly doubt that the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) will uphold its responsibility to prevent state dissolution. This makes the occurrence more likely of not only interethnic violence, but also of the political miscalculations that could generate such events.

While the spotlight is currently on turmoil in the Federation, the government of Republika Srpska continues its preparations for de facto and de jure independence. In this effort, RS President Milorad Dodik is working from much the same script as Montenegro did when it was still a part of the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro – Dodik is ensuring the dysfunction of state institutions while developing those under his control in anticipation of independence. This effort has been ongoing since his arrival in office before the 2006 elections, and he has brandished the threat of a referendum since just after Montenegro’s successful independence vote. In recent weeks, Dodik upped the ante by saying that Bosnia would fall apart just as Yugoslavia did1 and by stating that he intended to hold a referendum on the legitimacy of the Court of BiH and the State Prosecutor’s Office,2 furthering his campaign to disassemble state institutions, particularly in the justice and economic sectors. His government is threatening to cease paying VAT receipts into the Single Account and is preparing to begin selling off state property to fund its growing fiscal deficit. Dodik pointedly and publicly refused the Brčko Supervisor’s requests for written assurances that the RS will fully comply with the Final Award in the future, calling them “inappropriate and offensive” in an open letter. And the RS Assembly’s Security Committee Chair, Nenad Stevandić, called on March 17th for the RS to develop its own intelligence service.3

Government formation in the Federation has been stalled since soon after the October 2010 elections, with the HDZ and its once bitter rival the HDZ 1990 preventing convocation of the Federation House of Peoples (which derives from cantonal assemblies) by blocking formation of four cantonal governments. The two HDZs demanded a monopoly on those ministerial posts in the Federation and state governments reserved for Bosnian Croats, which would allow them to block government activity. This was rejected by the SDP-led platform coalition (with the SDA, the Working for Improvement Party, and the HSP), which holds a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. Following internationally-brokered efforts to reach a compromise, the HDZs rejected an offer and the platform coalition convened the House of Peoples, drawing from the other six cantons to assemble a full Federation Government and adopt a budget. The platform parties argued that without an operational government and passage of a new budget by the end of March, all government payments, except for those on external debts, would cease to be made. SDA leader Sulejman Tihić was quoted as saying that formation of the government without the HDZs was “not the best solution,” but that it would be “far worse to be without a government.”4 The two HDZs have called the move a coup and are in the process of developing their options; the Central Election Commission has launched an investigation into the legality of the coalition’s actions,5 but The Federation Constitutional Court has yet to rule on the matter. The lack of a Federation Government has the cascading effect of delaying state-level government formation as well. The latest step by the SDP-led platform coalition has raised the stakes for all involved, and concern is rising that Croat-majority municipalities may cease to respect Federation authority and assemble their own common institutions – a de facto third entity.6

As Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat nationalist party leaders work in tandem to undercut Bosnia’s territorial integrity, Croatia and Serbia are now more deeply engaged in the country’s internal affairs than at any time since their own democratic transitions just over a decade ago. This is far from a positive development.

Beyond Bosnian Croats having votes in Croatia’s elections, Zagreb’s direct involvement in BiH domestic politics was largely subdued under the leadership of former President Stjepan Mesić – by far the most stabilizing political figure in the Western Balkans in the last decade. Regrettably, this policy has shifted since 2010 under President Ivo Josipović (of the SDP), who has joined Prime Minister (and member of rival HDZ) Jadranka Kosor in pressing the platform coalition to accept the HDZs into government on their terms.7

Serbia’s Government under President Boris Tadić continues to double-deal the BiH – claiming to support the territorial integrity of the state while also supporting its chief antagonist, RS President Milorad Dodik. On March 18th, pursuant to the ever-expanding scope of special parallel relations between Belgrade and Banja Luka, the Serbian Government held a joint session with the Government of Republika Srpska – an unprecedented symbolic step. The session represented a much needed cash infusion for the RS Government, which received loans totaling 21 million KM. These moves are seen by many as linked both to Serbia’s elections next year and to the recently launched dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, brokered by the EU – with RS independence apparently being seen by some in Serbia as potential “compensation” for Kosovo`s independence.8 Zagreb and Belgrade have both returned to destabilizing Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The International Deterrence Failure

The international community’s response to these twin crises has been feeble. In January, High Representative Valentin Inzko extended the 2010 budget by an additional three months, but any further extension would require amendment of the Federation Budget Law, an action for which there seems to be no appetite among the members of the PIC Steering Board (PIC SB). The PIC SB has counseled dialogue and caution, but in actuality this policy has only emboldened the HDZs, which are pressing their case to be the sole legitimate representatives of BiH Croats. This is the approach that former High Representative and Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák, now Director General for Eastern Europe and Central Asia in the EU’s External Action Service, appears to effectively endorse.9 A joint statement on March 15 by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Füle was positively surreal: noting the lack of progress, counseling further talks, and expressing concern not about Bosnia’s continued disintegration, but rather its falling further behind in the European integration process. Discussion at the upcoming session of the Peace Implementation Council with representatives from the national capitals is expected to revolve once again around transition away from an international High Representative and toward a “reinforced EU presence” in Bosnia, whatever that might mean.10 The best the Council, Commission, and the new EEAS have been able to do in defining what a “reinforced EU presence” will do is to say that it will improve EU visibility and credibility.11 This represents a complete disconnect between international policy and the reality on the ground.

This crisis has been long in the making. The functional cessation of enforcement of Dayton rules by the international community since 2006 has brought Bosnian politics to this state. All political actors in Bosnia are operating rationally considering the incentives of the system. At present, the incentive is to pursue any unfulfilled agenda as quickly as possible, since there is ample evidence that there is no international will to ensure compliance with Dayton or to prevent efforts aimed at dismantling the state. While the EU majority sees everything through its institutional framework of enlargement, eschewing other policy instruments, some actors on the PIC Steering Board (Great Britain, the United States, Turkey, Japan and Canada) have misgivings about the current approach, wishing to maintain and employ – as and when needed – the executive instruments of the High Representative and the Chapter 7 EUFOR mission.12 However, this is merely a reactive and defensive posture; no alternative to Brussels’ enlargement-centric approach has been developed. Germany has taken a leading role in subverting these Dayton instruments by withdrawing troops from EUFOR and contemplating the diversion of funding away from the OHR to the EU Delegation.

The only beneficiaries of this Bosnian reality thus far have been Russia, content to promote and exploit Western disunity in Europe; Milorad Dodik in Republika Srpska, who has accurately assessed an unwillingness to resist him and is acting accordingly; and Dragan Čović, leader of the HDZ, who took a page from Dodik’s book on how to exploit the situation to his own political gain. 

This dangerous entropy represents a deterrence failure that leaves all domestic political actors taking advantage of the resulting free-for-all environment. Popular tensions, already stoked by economic pressure, are rising as well. Political tactics to amplify and exploit popular fears of marginalization (“majorization”) and state dissolution can backfire. The potential for miscalculation is very high – and very dangerous. Any confrontation has the capacity to spark events that generate their own momentum. And recent Balkan history illustrates that a failure to deter now incurs vast costs – human and material – later.


Catalyzing Western Unity

The West will succeed together or fail together in Bosnia. No single actor, even a theoretically united EU, can succeed alone. Only a united West – the EU, US, Turkey, Japan and Canada – can restore the necessary stability to allow for progression toward a functioning Bosnia, and the United States is what bonds a united West. Time is of the essence.

The mechanics of assembling a coalition in support of a stronger policy that is tuned to needs on the ground in Bosnia are not complex, but would require at least implicit admission that the currently policy approach has failed. Achieving the necessary policy shift would require a consistent and dedicated initiative by the US Government. Initially, those PIC members skeptical of the current approach – Britain, Turkey, the Netherlands, Japan and Canada – would also need to develop and unite around a new common policy. This could most effectively be instigated by Washington and London, but must extend to the whole group quickly. This coalition then needs to contend jointly with Germany, the center of gravity within the EU and the PIC. The Brussels machinery that has been driving the policy by default, recently relying on collaboration with Berlin, will follow once there is consensus among member states. Since Germany has so recently spent political capital on a clearly failed policy, it will be the toughest nut to crack in the EU. But high-level influence applied by the US would probably make this possible.

The US has been frustrated by the current situation in Bosnia, but has also remained aloof, engaging episodically and then retreating. A shift seemed to be at hand with the visit of Vice President Joe Biden in May 2009, but the State Department dropped the ball and pushback from within Europe and Republika Srpska was immediate. Then-US Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg engaged with Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt during Sweden’s EU Presidency at the October 2009 Butmir Summit debacle – and seemed unwilling to accept that the reform process was dead. The October 2010 post-election visit of Secretary of State Clinton felt like an afterthought, and accompanying policy statements were weak. Even when directly questioned on the idea of RS secession, Clinton said only that she was against it – not that action would be taken to prevent it.13 This was a missed opportunity.

A US special envoy that reports to the Secretary of State, and who is able to call on her and the President himself for occasional support with foreign leaders, remains the most promising avenue to a rally of Western consensus around a common strategy meant to stop the accelerating decay of the political situation in BiH. Delegating to Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg has been unsuccessful; it is time for Secretary Clinton to choose a new designated actor, who can do the job full time.


Western Unity, but Behind what Strategy?

The international community has inverted cause and effect in its Bosnia policies. EU and NATO membership have been presented as goals which will unify the country – as if a unified Bosnia and Herzegovina is nothing more than a vehicle for entry into these clubs. Membership in both the EU and NATO is also frequently presented as providing solutions to BiH’s economic, institutional, and security problems, and should therefore be accelerated as much as possible (often a code for lowering the bar to entry). But even if Bosnia were a NATO member now, the North Atlantic Charter’s Article 5 would not provide guarantees against internal conflict, which is a far greater security threat than external hostility. The EU’s most recent entrants, Romania and Bulgaria, are evidence that admitting countries before they resolve difficulties makes deeply rooted problems less soluble. The EU’s leverage is concentrated at its front door.

All international efforts in Bosnia should be aimed at enabling popular domestic consensus on how to make the country work, reaching far beyond the political elites who are the beneficiaries of the current system – a new constitutional order is essential, and not one that is just a slightly amended Dayton constitution. This is the prerequisite for developing a functioning state that can operate without the buttressing of international executive instruments. Work toward this challenging goal has long been in the “impossible tasks” box on the desks of international officials, hence the preference for short-term interim targets and fictive progress that allow for more swift divestment by PIC countries of their responsibilities. But, this approach has been failing for five years running, and has brought the country to its current condition.

There are no acceptable shortcuts. A new Western policy strategy to support BiH citizens to create a state structure and machinery that is effective for them – in the full panoply of their perceived self-interests – must first eliminate the ability of politicians to leverage fear as a mobilizing tool. This means reassuring citizens that their worst fears will not be realized. Bosnian citizens who strongly identify with a united BiH (and these are not just Bosniaks), need to trust that their country will not be allowed to fall to pieces and that acts of separatism will not be tolerated. Serbs in the RS must trust that any constitutional and structural changes to the state will require their participation and approval; this is the present-day reality, but RS President Milorad Dodik has managed to spin the issue of constitutional reform into an attack on Bosnia’s Serbs. Croats in BiH must also believe that their interests will be taken into account in such a process. All citizens need to be assured that violence will not be tolerated by the international community. A lack of will to maintain post-Dayton ground rules, enforced until 2006, has made international deterrence appear flimsy to many Bosnians – as has the weakening of the mandates of EUFOR and the High Representative. Re-stabilizing BiH means a recommitment to reinforcement and use of these instruments as needed, with clear messaging that a systemic solution is something only Bosnian citizens can achieve, albeit with outside support and facilitation.

In practical terms, this would mean stepping back from a “transition” away from Dayton instruments for the foreseeable future. This does not necessarily mean that the EU would have to hold off on reconfiguring its presence on the ground. This could easily fit within an international division of labor – but one based on a commonly devised strategy, not by stealth or fait accompli, as seems to be the tendency of some EU members and bureaucrats in Brussels. It would also mean moving the goalposts to where they should have been in the first place: eliminating the Dayton enforcement mechanisms only when Dayton has been superseded by a new constitutional order, arrived at through broad popular participation. Meanwhile, the 5+2 objectives and conditions should be maintained as policy goals, but should not be seen as the finish line. They never represented the fundamental preconditions for eliminating the Dayton enforcement tools of the OHR and EUFOR.

The Office of the High Representative may well need an overhaul and some new blood, but not at the cost of its ability to perform its role of Dayton enforcement. And the idea of moving the Office out of Bosnia is foolhardy. EUFOR’s strength, configuration, and force deployment is not suited to deterrence. It should stop engaging in activities that are not commensurate with its role as a Chapter 7-authorized military force. EU members must summon the will to staff the mission properly, and must accept offers of qualified non-EU troops. The US should also make clear a commitment to back the force in extremis with its 173rd Airborne Brigade, based in northern Italy, or with some other unit based in Europe. It should also consider offering a company to augment EUFOR’s maneuver battalion, and base it in Brčko. A credible operational presence in Brčko would take the idea of RS independence off the table, calming the overall political environment considerably. EUFOR ought to have an operational presence in Mostar as well, and regularly deployed reconnaissance missions to patrol the Butmir-Mostar and Butmir-Tuzla communications lines.

Does such a shift amount to an open-ended commitment? Yes. But the West has been fooling only itself (not domestic powerbrokers in BiH) by looking so intently toward its exit since 1995. Eliminating the tool of fear, as well as the conditioned perception that the international community will gladly bow out at the first chance, would dramatically change the incentive structure for BiH’s political elites. Paradoxically, we have to take a step back to allow for progress. Only external actors can reassure BiH citizens on the question of security – this cannot be resolved internally under the current system – and until this is done, forget forward movement of any kind.

But once citizens have been reassured that their politicians will not be allowed to put their personal safety at risk, a great deal more becomes possible. This is an area in which the international community could be far more creative. A more active effort to circumvent political elites and engage directly with citizens on the full host of reform issues that face the country – constitutional, infrastructural, economic, legal, etc. – also has enormous potential to drive progress that has long been constrained to benefit the few despite popular detriment. Citizens are used to being talked at by their politicians and by the international community. They instead need to be encouraged and empowered to believe that the West cares about what they think – not just what their leaders think. The debate must shift from the positions of self-interested politicians to the interests of Bosnia’s people.


What about the Russians?

Russia would surely object to such a radical shift in approach, committed as it is to the closure of the OHR and its non-use of the Bonn Powers so long as it continues to exist. Russia has been able to operate as an opportunistic spoiler in the PIC since 2006, openly backing the RS Government in its efforts to unravel state institutions and vocally opposing the imposition of any sanctions for its transgressions. But Russia depends on fellow PIC members that act as enablers – Germany being the most powerful of these and Italy being the most reliable. But the PIC is not a consensus organization. If it were, there would have been no dissenting Russian footnotes in PIC communiqués in the past, which appeared when there was a unified Western front on given issues.

It would follow that a unified Western strategy would make Russian mischief-making less politically profitable, and therefore less prevalent. Russia certainly enjoys driving wedges between Western powers and exploiting fissures. Remember the “Common European Home” – the idea to create a pan-European security space (excluding the US and Canada) proffered by Gorbachev in the late 1980s? Still, when the chips are down, Russia does not have a major strategic interest in the dissolution of BiH. Though it might see potential benefits, there are also attendant risks. So, while Moscow would not welcome the needed policy shift in Bosnia, there is every reason to believe it would not expend a great deal of political capital to resist it.


Waiting for the Americans…again

Part of the US reluctance to ratchet-up its engagement in Bosnia is certainly the expanse of its engagements elsewhere. But one also senses an unwillingness to engage too deeply in what the EU would like to regard as an internal matter, despite manifest American annoyance at the lack of detailed planning for the long-mooted “reinforced EU presence.” So, instead of taking the initiative, the US has effectively sat on the sidelines and (rightly) questioned the EU’s approach – not offering its own alternative or building support for the development of one. This dynamic is unsettlingly similar to the situation that long prevailed during the Bosnian war.

This must change – and soon. Recent events clearly show that, despite new mechanisms like the External Action Service, EU policy remains the sanctuary of its member states and some have more pull than others, Germany most of all. In the case of Bosnia – and on many other issues – Washington should take advantage of this structural and political reality; in this case, engaging bilaterally and multilaterally to assemble a coalition aimed at achieving Bosnia’s functionality. The US already starts with a strong hand in the PIC, with sympathetic views in London, Ankara, The Hague, Ottawa, and Tokyo. But individual concern and skepticism do not suffice as a strategy.



1  Quoted in: Tanjug, March 20, 2011; “(W)e see that Bosnia and Herzegovina is falling apart and it will fall apart in the same way Yugoslavia did. That will become a political fact. What will remain will be just the part that functions, and what functions is Republika Srpska – unlike Bosnia and Herzegovina, which does not function.”
, March 11, 2011,
Nezavisne Novine, March 17, 2011.
Dnevni List, March 24, 2011.
, March 22, 2011
Večernji List, March 24, pp. 4-5.
7  “Zagreb Backs Croats in Bosnia, CEC to Decide on New Government,” Bosnia Daily, No. 2479, March 21, 2011.
8  DPC discussions in Belgrade, March 2011.
9  Lajčak, Miroslav: “Opasno je kroz politički inženjering izmišljati neke naše Hrvate i Srbe” (Lajcak: It is dangerous political engineering to invent our Croats and Serbs),, March 11, 2011.
10 “Next steps in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Through a stronger EU presence to a reinforced EU policy,” unpublished joint Commission and Council document (July 2010); commonly referred to as the Ashton-Füle paper.
11 “Next steps…”
12 The EU took over NATO’s role as the military enforcer of the Dayton Accords in December 2004, launching EUFOR under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter with authorization from the UN Security Council to maintain a safe and secure environment. See:
13 Bassuener, Kurt, “Clinton’s Balkans Visit: A Missed Opportunity,” Heinrich Boell Stiftung, October 18, 2010.