Europe, Headlines

BOSNIA: Get to be a Country First…

Zoltán Dujisin

SARAJEVO, Jul 23 2009 (IPS) - Sooner or later Bosnians will have to abandon their status of quasi-protectorate, and take control of their own state if they ever want to join the European Union.

Bosnia is today a federation divided into an overwhelmingly Serbian Republika Srpska and a Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose ten cantons are mostly divided along ethnic lines between Croats and Bosniaks.

Its supreme authority remains the Office of the High Representative (OHR), created by the international community following a deadly civil war which from 1992 to 1995 claimed the lives of 100,000 Serbs, Croats, and above all Bosniaks.

“Fourteen years of the OHR is enough. After so much discussion about its closure it has become a toothless tiger, and from internal discussion at the OHR it is my impression that actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina are ‘playing’ with this institution,” Helmut Kurth, director of the Bosnian branch of the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation, a German institution dealing with development cooperation and political education told IPS.

“There remains an important question on the military presence in the country. Probably it is needed, but with a mandate to intervene if necessary,” added Kurth.

While the OHR has been decisive in prompting reforms since 1995 with its power to legislate and to dismiss officials, its mandate has been extended indefinitely, keeping Bosnia in a quasi-protectorate status that prevents it from knocking at the EU’s door.

Bosnia’s chances of joining the EU any time soon are minimal, and worse than those of most countries in the Western Balkans.

Aspects of the political system in Bosnia violate European human rights standards, such as the quota system which requires the president of the RS to be an ethnic Serb, or that of the Federation to be Croat and Bosniak.

Local authorities tend to appoint officials along party and ethnic lines, a problem which may worsen with international withdrawal.

But European integration has a powerful appeal among Euro-enthusiastic Bosnians, with the OHR often citing “European standards” in justifying decisions that may run against the ambitions of ethnically divided local elites.

With talk of closing down the OHR continuing, its centrality is decreasing, and the local political elite is assuming greater responsibility: the 2006 elections were the first organised solely by local authorities.

But there is a long way to go in getting Bosnia’s leaders to agree on the future direction of the country, and little outsiders can do.

“I see very small chances for an international organisation, with its own special internal dynamics, to solve ethnic conflicts. At most it can be a mediator,” Kurth told IPS. “We will probably need some form of EU representation with increased powers, so that it can also mediate between actors in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

In spite of consensus regarding the need to reform the outdated 1995 constitution, the 2006 attempt to bring it closer to EU standards again failed due to diametrically opposed positions among the Serb and Bosniak political leaderships.

Whereas Bosniaks would prefer a unitary state with a strong central government, Serbs tend to push for further self-governance, and are distrustful of any attempts to be governed centrally.

Many Bosniaks consider the institutions of the RS to be illegitimate results of the conflict. Haris Silajdzic, a Bosniak member of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, has repeatedly called for abolition of RS.

Croats, in their turn, have abandoned earlier goals of creating a third Croat entity in Bosnia, and are now more worried about preserving their declining community, which represents only 14 percent of the population in the country of four million.

The remainder of the population is mostly composed of Bosniaks (48 percent) and Serbs (37 percent).

The idea of Bosnia as a unitary state, at the expense of the current federal model enshrined in the Constitution, has even garnered support from some U.S. and German officials.

Advocates of further centralisation note the vast amounts of state and local administration budget spent on public administration, and note it is impossible to carry out a coherent fiscal policy in the country.

But Serbs point to decision-making and implementation having been more effective in the RS while they hardly identify with the Bosnian state: according to a 2006 survey, only a fifth of Serbs felt proud of their Bosnian citizenship, as opposed to 80 percent of Bosniaks.

Ethnic fragmentation is present at every level of governance, from the army to the education system, resulting in poor coordination, lack of cooperation and conflict of competences in a country with 140 often tiny and poorly trained ministries.

Bosnia is home to a large informal sector, which could amount to up to 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and there are ethnic barriers to creating a single market.

In spite of arrests and trials against corruption, businesses are still strongly and informally connected to political parties, whom they support and from whom they expect favours once these parties are elected.

The country also relies on remittances from abroad and international assistance, which will diminish in the years to come.

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