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Bosnia adrift?

November 19, 2009

The UN's move to extend the mandate was uncontroversial - foreign troops have been in the country ever since the Dayton accords in 1995. But the EU's wider strategy toward fostering Bosnian democracy may be stalling.

EUFOR tank in Bosnia
More than a decade after the war, foreign troops still keep the peaceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The European Union's EUFOR mission, a peacekeeping contingent of about 1,600 troops from 20 different members of the 27-nation bloc, will be staying in Bosnia-Herzegovina for another year.

Someone has to. The Dayton Peace Accords, signed 14 years ago, call for an international military force to act as a guarantor of peace and stability.

When EUFOR took over from the UN peacekeeping force in 2004, some thought the widened military presence would be paired with a greater push for civil society measures and democratic development - primarily in the shape of constitutional reform.

But results have been disappointing.

“I think the EU did not play a constructive role the last couple of years,” Erich Rathfelder told Deutsche Welle from Sarajevo.

A journalist and author who has reported on the former Yugoslavia since 1992, Rathfelder said that the EU's failings were mostly because they didn't push more effectively for reform of the country's outmoded constitution.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot survive with this constitution. It's a peace accord and the constitution. And as a constitution, it is not compatible with democratic institutions.”

President of Bosnia Alija Izetbegovic, left, shakes hands with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, right, as Franjo Tudjman, president of Croatia, looks on
Leaders sealed peace in Dayton, but left an uncertain futureImage: AP

Odd circumstances

The peace accord which has become the de facto Bosnian constitution gives few significant powers to the central government, and gives veto power over most measures to the two semi-autonomous ethnic entities which make up the country: The Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (in which Bosniak Muslims and Croats make up the majority), and The Republika Srpska (a majority Serb enclave).

The Bosnian Serbs, who are only about half as numerous as the Croats and Bosniaks combined, are keen to keep the distribution of power that way. They use their veto rights to protect their autonomy, and many there would prefer to secede if the central state tried to take on a greater role.

It's an unusual system which requires frequent mediation from the UN High Representative, who has the power to hire and fire government appointees and even elected officials.

Unsteady engagement

European Union foreign policy chief Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister who himself was the UN High Representative in Bosnia in the 1990s, recognized the system wasn't working and called a set of constitutional reform talks this October.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt
Bildt has not made the progress on Bosnia that he'd hoped forImage: AP

It was a good sign, but according to Franz-Lothar Altmann, who studies the Wesrtern Balkans region at the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich, Bildt made some big mistakes.

“Important people from parties in Bosnia had not been invited, others who were invited were amazed that they were on the list of invitees,” Altmann told Deutsche Welle.

The worst part, though, was that Bildt set up the talks without first bringing the present UN High Representative Valentin Inzko on board.

“It was certainly disgusting, I must say, because he's the one who had to bear the consequences and is on the forefront of this process,” Altmann said.

Bildt's diplomatic fauxs pas, and lack of a clear set of proposals before the meeting meant they ended in deadlock. Bosniaks and Croats are still after a stronger central government, and Serbs are still threatening to secede if anyone tries to force one on them.

A visa for Germany
Bosnians feel left out in the process of realxing visa rulesImage: picture-alliance/chromorange

Visa spat

The EU might have made another misstep, said Altmann, in its recent decision to loosen visa requirements for Serbia and Montenegro, but not Bosnia-Hezegovina. Some Bosniaks took that as a symbol that they, as Muslims, were not wanted in Europe.

And there is a practical reason for Bosniaks to be upset too.

“The Muslims say ‘we are the only ones in Bosnia who are without any visa-free possibilities!' If the Croats have second passports from Croatia, they can travel visa-free. And Serbs in the Republika Srpska also try to receive passports from Serbia proper. ‘We are the only ones left out,' they say. This is certainly true.”

Altmann believes the EU will probably change its mind about Bosnia next year as long as the country stays on the course of anti-corruption reform measures that it just didn't complete in time.

But until the constitution is rewritten, any changes will be mostly cosmetic, says author Erich Rathfelder.

“This is all due to the constitution,” he says.

“The rule of law cannot exist, cannot be developed. This is the problem.”

Author: Matt Hermann
Editor: Trinity Hartman