Time for Ashdown to leave Bosnians alone

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Series Details Vol.11, No.35, 6.10.05
Publication Date 06/10/2005
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Date: 06/10/05

It would all have been so perfect. In November 2005, the international community would commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Dayton Accords that brought peace to Bosnia.

The Bosnian government would have begun a Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Union, a key step on the way to eventual membership. And the High Representative overseeing peace implementation, Paddy Ashdown, would declare his mission accomplished and go home in January 2006, handing his office over to an EU envoy. But it was not to be.

In mid-September, the parliament of Bosnia's largely Serbian entity, Republika Srpska, rejected a deal on police reform, one of 16 points that the EU said Bosnia must meet before talks on an SAA could begin.

It was the third time that Bosnia had failed to meet a deadline for the SAA talks. But the setback was also a significant first: for the first time in ten years a key piece of the international master-plan had been blocked outright by local politicians. That was a blow to the international community in general and a bitter disappointment to Ashdown in particular.

Now, his legacy is unravelling before his eyes.

Indeed, never before have Ashdown and his staff miscalculated so badly on such a major issue. Rather than easing ethnic tension, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) has inflamed it. Instead of strengthening the non-nationalist opposition in Republika Srpska, it has created an incentive for it to play up its nationalist credentials ahead of the elections. And instead of securing an EU Stabilisation and Association Agreement for Bosnia, the OHR has created a situation that may allow local politicians to block any major progress until general elections next year.

There are rumblings from the OHR that Ashdown may yet stay on for a few more months. His successor was expected to be named on 6-7 October, but that now looks unlikely.

If these noises reflect the thinking inside Ashdown's cabinet, they would be proof that a delusional mind set has taken hold there. If Ashdown is a lame duck now, he will be the lamest of ducks next year. And the approaching elections will not entice incumbents to become more co-operative. Ashdown surely knows that.

The OHR's bad miscalculation is in part understandable. A slew of reform measures have been passed in the past couple of years, notably the recent defence reform, which put Bosnia's segregated armies under joint command for the first time since war broke out in 1992.

But such successes may have blinded the OHR's analysts to a simple fact. Unlike defence reform and similar measures, the police deal would have removed a key tool of power from the hands of local political bosses, by removing the police from the control of Bosnia's two ethnically defined entities and putting them at the disposal of the central authorities in Sarajevo. It would have threatened not just powerful crime syndicates, but also Bosnia's corrupt power-wielders.

So what to do now? The best way for Ashdown to hand over to an EU envoy with fewer powers would be to acknowledge that international overseers can only achieve so much if local politicians are unwilling to compromise. This would be honourable and has the advantage being realistic.

It would also finally push the issue back where it belongs, and where the only solution may lie: into Bosnia's political arena, into the hands of Bosnian voters. Removing the police from political influence would have benefited all citizens. Perhaps spending a year in the doldrums would convince Bosnia's voters of the need for change better than anything Ashdown could ever come up with.

  • Tihomir Loza and and Toby Vogel are Transitions Online correspondents. A longer version of this article can be found at www.tol.cz

Authors report on a setback for the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina and for the peace process overall when in mid-September 2005 the Parliament of Bosnia's largely Serbian entity, Republika Srpska, rejected a deal on police reform, one of 16 points that the EU said Bosnia must meet before talks on an Stabilisation and Association Agreement could begin. This was the third time had failed to meet a deadline for the SAA talks.

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