Stagnation in Bosnia and Herzegovina – why the ball is in Bosnia's court

How to get Bosnia to move forward instead of stagnating further remains a puzzling question.

A few days ago Ed Joseph and Bruce Hitchner published an article with suggestions. It appeared here.

Last week I also had the pleasure of discussing the state of the Western Balkans in general and of Bosnia in particular at an international conference in Ditchley new Oxford. I was struck there how strong the international consensus had become that 1. Bosnia no longer poses any serious security threat, and that 2. the time of thinking about the next big internationally-led reform push is over, the ball really is in the Bosnians’ court. The third consensus was about the importance of the EU accession  perspective: not as a panacea, but as an offer Bosnian leaders and society are free to reject, one which remains on the table, and which offers – should there ever be a genuine will in Bosnia – the best way out of its current stagnation.

Ed and Bruce, both of whom know Bosnia well, and for whom I have the highest respect, have a very different perspective from the other side of the Atlantic.  I discussed the article with Ed, and we agreed I would put a few comments online to explain my concern.

I leave aside for now issues of history (what actually happened in Bosnia before 2006, how the Bonn powers were used, and what they achieved), all of which I discussed in my book Can Intervention Work. ( – and in previous posts here ( Let me just focus on the analysis of the current state of Bosnia, and the policy implications that flow from it.

I see a few problems with the argument in the article:

– concepts:

My concerns start with the title and subtitle: “How to Finally End the War in Bosnia Without a renewed push for Constitutional Reform, Bosnia will remain dangerously adrift – its politics a continuation of war by corrupt means.”

All the buzzwords are included: “war” (twice), danger, adrift, corrupt. But this is deeply misleading.

The real war in Bosnia ended in 1995. It killed almost 100,000 people. Local violence continued for another few years. Since 2001, however, Bosnia has been as peaceful as Croatia or Slovenia. If nobody shoots, nobody gets shot, and nobody prepares to shoot, then the better concept to describe the situation is “peace”. Peace with problems, political tensions, economic difficulties: all true, but this is no war. If such distinctions are lost, it is hard to make policy or debate it.

– the nature of the crisis:

What exactly are the symptoms of the Bosnian crisis described in this article? Here precision is needed. The article describes the crisis through metaphors: the country is “a stagnant pool of special interests that continue to cleave along ethnic lines.” “cleave”? There are different ethnic groups in Bosnia. There was a war between 1992-1995. Is the fact that these identities “along ethnic lines” continue to exist the problem? Otherwise what exactly is wrong with what exact interests, special or otherwise? “stagnant” indeed: a weak economy, low living standards (though higher than in Moldova or Georgia), little structural change (like in many of its Balkan neighbours): but this is not a unique problem of Bosnia.

Nor is the fact that Bosnia’s “overall democratic benchmarks are slipping”. This is the evidence the article offers of what is happening in Bosnia: “Parents can move freely about the country, but educate their children in segregated schools. The economy remains in parlous condition, and faces new challenges and barriers when Croatia joins the EU later this year.  Islamist influence among Bosniaks, traditionally exaggerated by Croats and Serbs, is, in fact, a concern.”

“Segregation” is another strong concept: Alabama in the 1950s, South Africa in the 1980s. It involved state coercion. In Bosnia today in some parts of the country some parents chose to put their children in schools according to the main language of instruction – especially Croatian, as the schools most often discussed in the media (one Croatian and one Bosnian language school in the same building or nearby) are in Croat-Bosniac mixed areas. One can deplore this, but it is no different from different language schools in South Tyrol or different confessional schools in North Ireland. It is not a human rights violation.

Let me add here that this does not mean that separate schooling as one finds it in parts of Bosnia is a good thing: having studied in many different countries myself, and having seen my own children educated in a Turkish public school in Istanbul, a state school in Cambridge, Massachussetts, and now a public French (though very international school) in Paris I strongly believe in the value of diversity in education; I also do not think that schools are the primary shaper of identities of pupils, and that the influence of the official curriculum is usually exaggerated. Of course the key for a good education is education for tolerance and mutual respect, as well as quality. Of course Bosnia would be a much better place if the primary focus of policy makers (and parents) would be on quality, not ethnicity.  But this is a matter of persuading parents, and voters, not imposing solutions, as long as there are choices.

(As for the situation in South Tyrol read this article: “With regard to linguistic rights there is hardly any area of public and to a considerable extent also private life that is not covered by a complex network of norms, guarantees and remedies. The educational system in South Tyrol is based on separation and the principle of mother tongue instruction.”)

As for “Islamism” (not defined in the article: one assumes violent?) in Bosnia … this has indeed often been exaggerated, as the authors noted, and it is certainy “a concern”: but what exactly is the policy issue, the trend, the problem?

The problem with sloppy language in the Bosnian context – “war”, “segregation”, “special interests cleaving”, “Islamism as a concern” – is that it makes it hard to understand the nature of various challenges. Then the solution is one silver bullet – change the constitution; impose better laws; replace leader X with Y. But all of this has been tried out, and with predictably disappointing results.

The article points out that in the Bosnian context the attraction of possible EU accession is no silver bullet solving the country’s problems either. This is of course true, but not surprising: it has been thus in very many countries.

The “seriousness” of the EU commitment among most of today’s Bosnian leaders resembles that of leaders in Bulgaria in the early 1990s, or in Serbia under Kostunica, or in Slovakia before 1998: it is rhetorical, generally not serious at all, with little sense of what it would take for Bosnia to actually implement the common law of the EU. There are individual exceptions, but compared to the political elite elsewhere the basic illiteracy among Bosnian politicians about the EU is remarkable.

The first reward of making EU accession a national strategic objective is that it provides a direction for national reforms: not to one big reform, but to thousands of specific sectoral reforms, that take years to negotiate with national interests and then implement. This requires leaders who want to see their countries thus transformed: their laws, their institutions, their policies, not just as means for a possible accession in 10 or more years but as ends in themselves. Yes, Croatia’s accession will cause problems for Bosnian’s trying to export milk or other agricultural products, but no, this is not the “fault of Dayton”, as even highly decentralised systems like Belgium are capable of implementing EU food safety and phytosanitary standards. This is the fault of a political process where leaders, civil society and even many internationals much rather discuss identit and constitutional issues rather than specific concrete reforms that might have a major economic impact. So perhaps it really needs a crisis with new hard borders to reform the Bosnian food safety system now? The sense of physical exclusion also pushed much needed (and delayed) reforms needed for visa liberalistion in 2010.

In fact, too few leaders in Bosnia actually appear to want this wholesale transformation of their country and society; too few leaders across all political parties, interests and ethnic groups. This is a problem no constitutional reform can solve. It can only be solved by changes in the thinking of those leaders – or by changes of those leaders at elections. The alternative is not war, but stagnation.

All of the above is more or less consensus today in Brussels and among EU leaders. It was also the consensus at a recent conference in Ditchley on the Balkans. The ball really is in the court of Bosnian leaders, and unfortunately, if they refuse to play, this is where it will remain.

Does this mean things are hopeless? No.

Bosnians have surprised outsiders and themselves before (for just one encouraging recent story look at this ESI portrait of a Bosnian prime minister). So have Bulgarians after 1997 (more on that turning point here) So have Slovaks, Montenegrin, Croats. But it does mean that the key change must be a change in the debate in Bosnia itself … (while having a more focused and specific debate, ethat does not produce excuses for inaction, among outside observers, might also help).


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