Here’s the short version. Bosnia has this thing called a “High Representative”. The High Rep is not a Bosnian. He’s a European charged with overseeing implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement (the 1995 treaty that has kept the various Bosnian groups from each others’ throats), and also with “representing the international community” in Bosnia.
The High Rep is much more than a diplomat. He’s really more like a colonial governor. He can pass laws and fire Bosnian politicians. If he flexes his muscles, he’s really the final authority in the country. You might think this is strange in what’s nominally a sovereign European state, but Bosnia is a strange place.
For four years, 2002-6, the High Rep was a British fellow named Paddy Ashdown. Paddy took his job seriously and did not hesitate to use his powers. He didn’t like nationalist politicians and he wanted Bosnia to act like a real country. So he banged some heads and stepped on a lot of toes.
Many, both in Bosnia and in the international community, did not like this. Paddy was accused of being an old-fashioned imperialist, high-handed, divisive. Furthermore, said many, he was stunting the political growth of the Bosnian state. As long as Paddy was there to twist arms, the Bosnians would never learn to solve their own problems.
So when Paddy left, the job was given to an elderly, mild-mannered German politician, Dr. Christian Schwarz-Schilling. Dr. Schwarz-Schilling made it clear in advance that he did not plan to use the powers of the High Rep’s office. In fact, he saw his job as overseeing the position’s liquidation. He “didn’t believe in colonialism for Bosnia,” said the good Doctor. The High Rep’s office would gradually ramp down, aiming for a complete shutdown within a year or two. The Bosnians would assume responsibility for their own destiny. Polite clapping all around.
That was a year ago.
Schwarz-Schilling is now packing his bags; the date is not confirmed yet, but he’ll be leaving in the next few months. His tenure as High Rep has been brief and… well, disastrous may be too strong a word. But clearly not a success.
Bosnia was supposed to have constitutional reform, modifying the heavily decentralized system set up under Dayton and creating a more unitary national government. Hasn’t happened. The country was supposed to have a unified police force by now, instead of ethnically based cops. That hasn’t happened either.
Cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague has completely stalled. So have talks with the EU on a Stabilization and Association Pact, which is the precursor to EU candidacy. By way of comparison, Albania signed its S&A Pact six months ago. This leaves Bosnia along with Serbia and Montenegro as the only “slow students” left in the region. Montenegro will probably get its pact next year. That’ll leave Bosnia and Serbia as the two countries that are not even making progress towards candidacy, never mind membership.
Meanwhile, Schwarz-Schilling has been repeatedly dissed and ignored by nationalist leaders. Milorad Dodik, the premier of the Republika Srpska (RS) hardly bothers to hide his contempt. Dodik has started making loud noises about a referendum to take the RS out of Bosnia. Meanwhile the Bosniak leader Haris Silajdzic has publicly called for the abolition of the RS, even though this is completely illegal. As usual in the Balkans, the various nationalists are feeding each other. Schwarz-Schilling seems to be completely unable to stop this.
There are a few things Bosnian politicians seem to be able to agree on. One is that the judiciary should be weak and subject to political control. Another is that they should be able to spend money on crowd-pleasing populist legislation without worrying much about who’s going to pay for it. (Come on. Like Europe will let us go bankrupt.)
— I’ve known a lot of Bosnians. They’re lovely people. But their politicians are, by and large, the scum of the earth. Nowhere, not even in Serbia — not even in Texas — is there such a baffling contrast between likable, easy-going ordinary people and the venal, mean-spirited asstards they choose to lead them. It’s a disturbing mystery.
It’s possible to feel sorry for Schwarz-Schilling. He seems like a good and decent man who wants to help the Bosnians. It’s just that (1) he’s terribly miscast for the part, and (2) he’s operating under wrong assumptions.
Schwarz-Schilling represents that part of the international community that is very tired of Bosnia. And certainly, after nearly twelve years of petty disputes and idiotic nationalism, it’s easy to be tired of Bosnia. But Bosnia fatigue has led to profoundly wishful thinking.
Surely by now the Bosnians are willing to set aside their silly disputes? Surely they can put the war behind them? They must be ready to be a real nation by now! After twelve years, isn’t it time for the Bosnians to govern themselves? The prospect of EU membership must be enough to lure them towards reasonable behavior and responsible self-government.
Well, no they aren’t, no the can’t, and no it isn’t. Bosnian political culture remains stunted, immature, and poisoned by hardline nationalist rhetoric. The three communities don’t like or trust each other and are raising their children with drastically different views of history. Bosnia may be a real nation some day, but that day is still many years away.
(I note in passing that the “wishful thinking” school was dominated by Germany. This should not be surprising. German policy towards the Balkans has been dominated by wishful thinking for a while now. It doesn’t get much noticed outside of diplomatic circles, but something about this region causes even the most hardheaded German government to start babbling about unicorns and rainbows.)
So Dr. Schwarz-Schilling is out. Paddy Ashdown’s departure last year was attended by pious hopes; Scwharz-Schilling’s will be rather more glum.
High Reps are nominated by a group called the Steering Committee of the Peace Implementation Council. (Don’t ask.) These guys will meet at the end of February. Their first order of business will be to swallow hard and say, okay, we wanted to shut down the High Rep’s office this year but that’s not going to happen. Their second will be to pick a new High Rep.
Another Paddy? I doubt it. Picking another head-banger would be a public admission of error, and nobody likes that.
Still, I’d be happy to be wrong. Watch this space.