What is really wrong with Bosnia?

A few weeks ago I wrote on this website that “recently, some people have argued that there is a possibility of a new violent conflict in the Western Balkans”. Let me be more specific here.

Today I was sent an article by Bodo Weber and Kurt Bassuener. There they argue that “Bosnia is backsliding into political chaos and possibly even renewed ethnic violence.” The tone of the whole article is deeply alarmist: “international disarray”, “debacle”, “potential break-up of the country”, “resounding failure.” It is an argument they have made many more times elsewhere in recent months, as can be seen on the website of their think tank.

Travnik is peaceful today, but according to some Bosnia remains a powderkeg

What do the authors suggest should be done about this state of affairs? They make the following concrete proposals:

  • keep the Office of the High Representative (OHR) intact and preserve its powers until there is a “new and functional constitutional order” (this is not defined); separate it from the EUSR
  • the EU should help “reshuffle the deck through the October 2010 elections” (they do not specify in whose favor)
  • the EU should “facilitate substantial constitutional reform”
  • there should be a shift in US policy, which “would have to occur at the cabinet level, even undertaken by President Obama himself”
  • and the US should send a special envoy for the Balkans

This raises many questions. How exactly is the EU to “reshuffle the deck”? Is OHR needed to keep Bosnia from falling apart, to push for a new constitution or both? What does substantial constitutional reform look like? And what would a US envoy do that a US ambassador cannot?

There is also a question of realpolitik: why – given current challenges in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in Iraq and Iran, in Yemen, Columbia, Israel or Haiti – should President Obama himself become interested in a country that has largely demilitarised, has seen no serious incidents of interethnic violence for a decade, has a population one fourth the size of Karachi, and is today surrounded by two neighbours, Serbia and Croatia, which – instead of planning its partition, as they did in 1991 – are committed to their own Western integration?

Vice-president Biden recently visited Bosnia and reaffirmed a US commitment to Bosnian statehood. This was a useful signal. Should Biden visit again? Is any international strategy which relies on an increase in US interest, a willingness to take on Russia and to push aside the EU in Bosnia, realistic? To put this in perspective, it is perhaps useful to look across the US’ southern Border to Mexico. As a recent NYT article noted:

“Although Mexico has been a producer and transit route for illegal drugs for generations, the country now finds itself in a pitched battle with powerful and well-financed drug cartels. In 2008, there were more than 6,200 drug-related murders, more than double the figure from the year before. Top police commanders have been assassinated and grenades thrown, in one case into the crowd at an Independence Day celebration … While Mr. Calderon dismisses suggestions that Mexico is a failed state, he and his aides have spoken frankly of the cartels’ attempts to set up a state within a state, levying taxes, throwing up roadblocks and enforcing their own perverse codes of behavior. The Mexican government has identified 233 “zones of impunity” across the country, where crime is largely uncontrolled, a figure that is down from 2,204 zones a year ago.” (NYT October 2009)

Mexico’s current problems concern the US directly. By comparison, the problems of Bosnia are both manageable and distant. Observers sometimes losely talk about Bosnia today as a failed state, but there are few facts to back this up. Crime rates, as I have shown on this site before, are low even by European standards. Life expectancy is relatively high. Child mortality rates are too high by comparison to Austria or even Croatia, but lower than in Romania or Turkey (see below).

Slavko Lovric
Slavko Lovric, a Bosnian Croat who returned after the war, later became chief of police in Travnik

Bosnia has regular elections. There have been alternations in power at every level of government. The police does not torture, people feel save going out at night, the military does not intervene in politics, and there is full freedom of movement throughout the country. By comparison with Turkey (where thousands of minors are in prison based on draconian anti-terror legislation and where journalists all too often find themselves in court) Bosnia is doing well when it comes to meeting the Copenhagen human rights criteria. This is not to say that Bosnia does not have problems, but it is an argument to put these problems in perspective.






































Deaths / 1,000 life births

































Bosnia is failing today most conspicuously by comparison to its (West) European EU neighbours. It has unacceptably high unemployment rates. There are a lot of political tensions (more on those in a later entry). There is widespread pessimism and deep frustration among the population. Bosnia’s leaders are not doing enough to close the prosperity gap even with Croatia and the current pace of reform means that Bosnia will not catch up (or join the EU) for another generation.

All this should concern Europeans, as – and here I fully agree with Kurt and Bodo – the EU’s credibility is at stake in the Balkans. The EU can ill afford a ghetto of backwardness. I would even argue that it owes Bosnians, given its disastrous failures in the 1990s. The Balkans should become as stable as Central Europe, and the road to get there is still long. But does this make Bosnia a priority issue for the US?

Imam in Sevarlije
A Bosnian imam in Republika Srpska –
the village and the mosque had been destroyed during the war

This is where the rhetoric of a looming threat, abstract warnings about possible large-scale violence in Bosnia, becomes important and the temptation arises to play up such threats, whatever the potential costs to Bosnia’s image, investor confidence, or its EU aspirations. Perhaps, some might argue, fear of a new war – and memories of the slaughterhouse Bosnia had become from 1992 to 1995 – will make a busy US president focus on Bosnia again after all?

But what if this threat does not actually exist? What if the real worst case scenario is the one Daniel Korski recently described as Bosnia stagnating, with all its current problems, to the general indifference of the outside world, both the US and the EU? This would be bad for Bosnians, bad for the Balkan region and bad for the EU. It might even lead to new tensions one day which are not yet visible. But it is hardly a matter over which a US president would lose much sleep today.

(Skeptics might also point out that even the personal involvement of US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in 2006 did not prevent the April Constitutional Reform Package, a US inspired draft, from being rejected … and that it was brought down as a result of the votes in parliament of the party led by a man, Haris Silajdzic, who had long put his trust in a stronger US role. Why would this be different the next time around?)

The structure of the Bosnian stateEveryone agrees that there needs to be constitutional reform to join the EU –
the question is how

The notion that Bosnia needs constitutional reform to catch up with its more advanced neighbours is, on the other hand, compelling and largely beyond doubt. The hard question is how to get there. Essentially there are two ways forward. One is to impose it. The other is for Bosnia’s leaders to agree to it.

Do Kurt and Bodo propose to impose constitutional change? For if they do not (and I am not sure) we might not be so far apart in our proposals. ESI has, some years ago, written two papers on what is wrong about the current constitutional debate in Bosnia:

We never believed that what we proposed here is a master plan for solving Bosnia’s constitutional problems, only that the question – how do you get Bosnian leaders to agree to serious changes that actually make a difference – must be the starting point for any serious reflection.

This is where Kurt, Bodo and many US analysts on the one hand and most of the leaders in today’s European Union on the other part company. While everyone agrees on the need for constitutional change in Bosnia, leaders like Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt argue that this is much easier to achieve in the context of a serious EU accession process than outside of it. It is not going to be achieved by inventing criteria for Bosnia which no other candidate had to meet. This did not work with police reform in 2007, when the EU risked its credibility by inventing specific “European standards of policing” which simply did not exist (and its Bosnian counterparts knew it as well as the European Commission).

This does not mean that any progress is guaranteed, even if there is a credible offer of EU candidate status or of opening accession negotiations. The door can be wide open: it is still Bosnian politicians who must agree among each other to walk through it. But there are powerful incentives and one could see them at work even recently.

Sometimes – as in the surprising story of Bosnia’s visa reform effort – these incentives are the result of concrete and immediate benefits the EU can offer. But they are also related to wider regional dynamics.

Most Bosniaks (or Bosnian citizens identifying with their multinational state) would (rightly) hate to see Bosnia fall behind its Serbian neighbour on the road to the EU. But so would most Bosnian Serbs. There is thus a lot of benefit in a healthy regional competition when it comes to EU accession. What this requires is that this competition is organised in a manner that is fair and transparent. Above all it requires that all countries take part in the race for the race to begin. But more on this later.

In the meantime, if you are interested in following a debate on Bosnia between Daniel Korski (from ECFR), Kurt and myself – and see how Kurt answers some questions which I posed to him on these issues – go here, to the ECFR website.

Further reading: my contribution to the ECFR Bosnia debate today

Dear Daniel,

I do not know where to start: Bosnia’s problems do not lend themselves to solutions that can be formulated in four paragraphs. But let me try and use this opportunity to get Kurt, and others who share his vision of Bosnia’s problems, to explain in more detail what it is that the rest of us are missing.

Central to Kurt’s argument is the claim that “Bosnia is backsliding into political chaos and possibly even renewed ethnic conflict” (as he writes in an essay I read today) and that the risk of a return to armed conflict can “no longer be excluded”.

Who does he expect to pick up arms? Which Bosnian leader would contemplate this today? What is the scenario for such an escalation? Does Kurt know things that EU military observers, who have reduced EUFOR to an almost negligable size and do not feel guilty of irresponsibility, miss?

Please be concrete: which leader in Bosnia do you suspect is contemplating the use of armed force and a “renewed ethnic conflict”? Which group do you believe is ready to return to war? Without answering the question of what the real threat is, it is hard to confront it.

After all, to say that Bosnia is a country on the verge of disintegration is not a minor thing. If foreign or domestic investors would believe Kurt, they should rethink any future investment. Failing states also do not make credible candidates for EU accession. Most importantly, if the EU would believe Kurt, the debate about OHR would be a sideshow, a dangerous diversion even, from the real burning issues. No OHR-type mandate would have stopped Bosnia sliding into war in 1992 by “dismissing” Radovan Karadzic from his position as Serb leader. For this force was needed. So if there is a real threat of armed conflict then the urgent priority would be to send substantially more foreign soldiers to prevent another tragedy from happening.

I do not believe that there is any such threat, and as a result I believe it is deeply irresponsible to keep on talking in vague terms about it. This damages Bosnia on so many levels. But I hope Kurt will go beyond referring to “popular fears” to tell us why he thinks this risk, which he argues did not exist in 2006, when Kostuncia was leader in Belgrade, exists today.

Perhaps the EU could do a better job spelling out that Bosnia will never be allowed to fall apart, even if this is obvious to any European policy maker. There are then two obvious points to make: first, any Bosnian politician calling on people to pick up weapons again would be treated as a criminal, not as a political interlocutor. The first one who orders somebody to shot would end up in a European jail, with no place to hide. Second, an independent RS would be as miserable a place as Transdnistria, or Abchazia without Russian help. The EU has not recognized Northern Cyprus in decades, and it never will. It will never recognize any alternative to the current Bosnian state. As I said, this may be obvious but sometimes the obvious benefits from being restated.

My second question to Kurt concerns his vision of a “new and functional constitutional order”: what is this exactly? This is not, after all, a debate that started today. Is it the implementation of the April 2006 package of constitutional changes? Is it going further than the April package, towards abolishing the entities and the cantons? Or is it about turning the entities into mere administrative units, with no real autonomy?

Is a functioning Bosnia similar to today’s Belgium (a highly decentralized federal state)? Or to the Cyprus of the Annan plan (an even more decentralized state), which would have entered the EU in 2004, if the Annan plan would have been accepted? Is there a future for a complicated Federation inside the Bosnian federation in Kurt’s “functional constitutional order”? Is there room in it for a semi-autonomous Brcko district? Would this Bosnia still be a federal state?

These are not rhetorical questions. I accept Kurt’s argument that there is a lot that is dysfunctional about Bosnia’s current constitutional set up. Things have to change profoundly, in the interests of Bosnian citizens and in light of Bosnia’s EU aspirations. But how does he see this being helped by a continued OHR presence? To do what: Impose constitutional change by decree? Threaten politicians who do not accept certain reforms (with sanctions or dismissal)?

I could now sum up the conclusions I draw from my answers to these questions. But let me first get Kurt to try to change my mind (and, more importantly, that of most EU policy makers who do not share his threat assessment) about the concrete threats which he sees; realistic scenarios for a return to armed conflict; about the core features of a “functional constitutional order” and about the role of a strong OHR to promote constitutional changes.

Is the EU visa proposal anti-Muslim?

Let me first say that ESI welcomes the recent Commission proposal on visa free travel to the Balkans. Considering what expectations of progress were only 12 months ago – looking forward to a year with EU Parliamentary and German parliamentary elections, against a background of enlargement fatigue and a deepening economic crisis – this proposal is a very positive signal for the whole Balkan region.

We wrote an article on this, which you find here. The article also appeared as a commentary on BIRN.

We have a serious concern about the implications of this proposal for Kosovo. But this is not due to shortcomings in the Commission-led effort: it is rather that Kosovo is excluded from the meritocratic roadmap process. We also have one suggestion to improve the proposal for Bosnia and Albania. But much of the criticism made of the Commission proposal in the past week does not appear fair to us.

Ok, you might say, but what about the most important criticism one could hear in institutions such as the European Parliament: that the European Commission proposal on visa free travel, which was announced this week, is anti-Muslim?

A good friend and expert on the Balkans sent me the following email and question:

“I have been approached by Muslim friends from Britain, Germany and Turkey asking me whether the Commission has understood that the exclusion of BiH and Albania is sending out a negative signal to Muslim communities around Europe and beyond. Furthermore in the case of BiH where Orthodox and Catholic inhabitants have an option of joint citizenship with Serbia and Croatia, Serbs and Croats from BiH will be able to travel freely using their Serb and Croat passports while Bosniak Muslims will not. Has this rather urgent political issue been considered either by you or by the Commission?”

It is a serious question, and we have discussed it a lot inside ESI. So let me share with you the email I sent him in response:

” Yes, this issue has been considered. Anticipating these debates, we looked in great detail at every one of the five countries, producing a one page score card and a very much longer analysis of each of the conditions that still have to be met based on studying all Commission documents and expert reports.

All of these can be found here: http://www.esiweb.org/index.php?lang=en&id=353

Concerning Bosnia, look in particular at:

Now compare these to the one page report and detailed analysis of Macedonia, and it is obvious that there is a difference.

In addition, the Commission has recently outlined itself the precise conditions that Bosnia and Albania still have to meet, sending a detailed letter to the Bosnian Ministry of Security.

In short, considering that meeting the benchmark conditions is the only criteria for visa free travel, the Commission has made the right decisions so far. Bosnia was the last (!) country to introduce biometric passports, for instance, something that was due to sheer incompetence and lack of focus. You could argue that this should not be a criteria (and Bulgaria was given visa free travel in 2001 without having biometric passports), but this is changing the rules of the game while the game is being played. This never works in the EU.

Thus, what critics of the Commission proposal for Bosnia are doing is not in fact arguing with these facts. They want to change the terms of the debate.

Critics argue that that there is a strong moral case for Bosnia to be granted visa free travel. The gist of this argument is a rhetorical question: “How can Mladic travel to the EU with his Serbian passport, but the relatives of his Srebrenica victims cannot?”

Critics also argue that this decision is inherently anti-Bosniak, as Croats and Serbs in Bosnia can circumvent the problems with the Bosnian passport by applying for Croat and Serb passports. This is of course not a new problem at all (in the case of Croatia it was always true).

I personally have a lot of sympathy for this argument (although I hope that Mladic tries out his new Serbian passport soon and ends up in The Hague as a result).

But this is an argument to give Bosnians visa free travel already in 1995! The fact that we are now talking about 2010 shows that it has not worked too well until now.

In fact, purely moral arguments for visa free travel have never impressed sceptical Europeans, only already convinced friends of the Balkans. This is, after all, not a new debate. Moral arguments have been made many times in recent years. They have been made for Serbia (after courageous young people toppled Milosevic, did they not deserve visa free travel?), for Kosovo (there was a decade of apartheid, followed by mass murder and massive expulsions in 1999: how does Kosovo deserve to be the most isolated country in the world today?), for Macedonia (having implemented the Ohrid Peace Agreement and been granted EU candidate status in 2005, did the Macedonians not deserve visa free travel at least as much as Romanians did in 2001), etc …

Moral arguments are important, but they are not sufficient. This we have learned in the past 15 years.

What brought about this week’s breakthrough, however, was the fact that the terms of debate changed recently: that the logic of the process became the slogan of our campaign “strict but fair”. Conditionality turned out to be the best friend of the region!

The argument for the roadmap process is not one of political morality. It was from the outset based on a very rational argument: that it actually IS in the EU’s security interest not to have to rely on visa, but to be able to cooperate with Balkan countries that have implemented the very demanding set of reforms described in the roadmaps. This makes everyone safer. Granting visa free travel is not a gift to a long-suffering region, but a win-win situation for all Europeans.


“How visa-free travel makes Europe safer” … meeting with former interior ministers Giuliano Amato (Italy) and Otto Schily (Germany) this week in Istanbul to discuss the ESI White List Project

We strongly supported this logic, because we felt that it would work. We were also convinced that leaders in these countries were capable of surprising the EU and actually implementing these demands faster than anticipated. And this is indeed what has happened.

Even Bosnia is today much closer to visa free travel than it has ever been in the years since 1995.

Of course, there is always a danger that despite a process of objective assessment (with numerous expert missions visiting the region in recent months) political considerations would enter at the end; that prejudices could cloud the process.

Contrary to what most friends of Bosnia in Europe believe, however, allowing a bigger role for purely political considerations would likely be harmful not beneficial for Bosnia, given its terrible image in some EU countries and the regular recurrence of articles on dangerous islamists in Sarajevo (again earlier this year in Der Spiegel, an article on “the fifth column of the prophet”). We have long warned that this image, which is not deserved, as well as regular alarmist articles that Bosnia might be about to go to war again are doing terrible damage to the European future of the country. But one effect of this bad press is that the less European decisions are based on perceptions, and the more on facts, the better for Bosnia.

Thus, I believe that the principle of “strict but fair” is also in Bosnia’s (and Albania’s) interest. Both countries have an image problem in Europe that can best be overcome by focusing on concrete deliverables.

At the same time, Bosnian leaders need to be told by their friends that if Macedonian Albanians and Macedonians could implement these changes following their fighting in 2001, so must they. Until now at least there is no evidence that this is not actually in their hands.

There are two potential challenges to “strict but fair”:

  1. Some claim that EU leaders do indeed have prejudices about Balkan Muslims, and that even once Bosnia fulfills all conditions it will be judged more harshly than Serbia or Montenegro are now.Until now, at least, we have found no evidence that this is the case.It is a strong argument, however, for making the assessment process as transparent as possible, which is the main motivation behind our dedicated website. We believe that full transparency is in the interest of everyone, which is why you can find all relevant documents there.
  2. Some people in Sarajevo claim that Bosnian Serb politicians might sabotage the reforms needed for Bosnian passport holder, to undermine the Bosnian state, since Bosnian Serbs might in any case gain access to the EU through their Serbian citizenship.This is definitely something that needs to be monitored. Until now we have found little evidence for this. In fact, once we published the visa score card showing Bosnia in last position a few weeks ago a series of laws were passed that suggested that Bosnian politicians were sensitive to the charge of letting their people down.It is also the case that the EU would not look kindly at a sudden increase in Serbian biometric passports being handed out to Bosnian Serbs.

In short, for now the best message to give to Bosnian leaders is not to lean back and hope that Europe’s bad conscience about Srebrenica will do their work, but to sit down and focus on the roadmap. The EU should help, monitor the process closely, and respond fairly.

This has also been our answer to questions by Bosnian media in recent days:

“Yes, you have a moral case, but this is unlikely to convince sceptical interior ministers in sceptical EU member states. Dont’ rely on it. In fact, the example of Macedonia and Montenegro shows you that implementing these reforms will lead to the desired goal much faster than any campaign based on the history of a war that ended in 1995. As for anti-Bosniak prejudice, so far we have not found evidence of it in the Commission evaluations. Lets be vigilant, but lets admit also that so far the Commission has been fair according to the standards of the roadmap process.”

In fact, we feel, looking in detail at all the still outstanding conditions, that if a real effort is made, Bosnia and Albania might be able to meet these conditions within the next 12 months. That would obviously be best for everyone. All our efforts should now go towards making this possible.

This is why our protest focuses on the specific commission recommendations concerning Kosovo: Kosovo is not even being offered the chance that Bosnia and Albania have to prove that it can or cannot implement the roadmap requirements. This is the opposite of “strict but fair” … a lose-lose situation for the whole region and the EU.”

Further reading: