Spreading protests mean that the EU and US must urgently produce a completely new yet practical plan to resolve Bosnia’s longstanding deadlock.


Published February 7, 2014

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As angry protests against hardship and hopelessness spread across whole swathes of Bosnia-Herzegovina, it appears as if the day of reckoning for the dispirited, divided country may have finally come.  As one protester declared while urging his fellow citizens to wake up and join the struggle, “We have been sleeping for two decades!”

Unfortunately, so has much of the international community which, against a mounting stack of evidence, has pretended for years that the distant offer of European Union membership is sufficient to spur Bosnia to make critical reforms.

While US officials have repeatedly urged Bosnia’s leaders to get serious about changing the paralyzing features of the country’s war-era Constitution, the EU has stood by complacently.  And no one has put forward a concrete proposal to overcome the abject inability of Bosnia’s elected leaders – or voters, for that matter – to break the country’s longstanding impasse and get its institutions to function.

Before the crisis spreads, Brussels and Washington must step forward with a bold, customized approach that finally addresses Bosnia’s unique problems – not those of other EU aspirants that are not saddled with structures that only reinforce deep ethnic divisions, mistrust and abuse.

More than anything, such a plan requires imagination and determination, not endless international oversight or sudden injections of cash.

Simply put, Brussels must chuck the ineffective, off-the-shelf ‘Stabilization and Association Process’ in favor of a bespoke, “special candidate status” for Bosnia that requires “dual integration.”

What this means is that Bosnia will gain an immediate boost to its external, EU prospects – but will only advance towards membership if it simultaneously tackles the internal obstacles to making the country functional.

With dual integration, Bosnians of all stripes, including those now protesting in the streets, will finally have a reason to demand that their leaders cooperate, not just squabble publicly across ethnic lines while cutting lucrative private deals.

Washington, meanwhile, must lead the effort to produce urgent Constitutional reforms this year, seizing the opportunity of two, well-timed summits in Europe to galvanize agreement.

Getting the EU and US to take these steps will require more than a few protests.  Diplomats must grasp that the current approach, which treats Bosnia as if it were a “typical” EU aspirant, simply cannot work.

With its dual entity structure and unwieldy Constitution (devised in extremis as war-ending vehicles), Bosnia-Herzegovina lacks the minimal level of internal administrative and political integration to implement even pre-accession EU criteria, let alone the advanced level of functionality required to meet the EU’s advanced membership requirements.

The country’s asymmetric entity structure has left one entity, Republika Srpska, with a unitary structure and a strong notion of statehood, while Bosniaks and Croats are shoehorned together into the other entity, the Federation – an unwieldy improvisation governed by hundreds of ministers and layered with waste.

The systemic gap between the two entities renders the country disintegrated and administratively dysfunctional, denying Bosnia the ability to make use of the EU Stabilization and Association Process instruments that have been vital to the transition of other Western Balkan countries.

Indeed, because these instruments are successfully implemented only in the Republika Srpska, their further implementation only exacerbates the centrifugal forces that brought Bosnia into three and a half years of war.

Prompted by their leaders, many Serbs ask, “Why should we remain in Bosnia-Herzegovina, hostage to the other entity’s inability to function?” Last November, RS President Milorad Dodik broke what had been a post-war taboo, openly advocating statehood for his entity, a step that would reopen the Pandora’s box of violent nationalist excess.

Protracted dysfunction has left Bosnia with congenitally weak institutions fostering a climate attractive to unlawful activities, cronyism and corruption.

The country’s political elites have no incentive to change a system from which they benefit enormously, controlling political patronage through state-owned or influenced companies and manipulating the public through populist appeals to the narrow ethnic interest.

Election after election has seen the same political parties – even the same political figures – generally prevail.  Except for a few bursts of activism, civil society has largely remained enervated, unimaginative and most disappointingly almost two decades after the war, ethnically divided.

EU headquarters in Sarajevo has wrested turf from the once vigorous Office of the High Representative, but then, in the name of ‘local ownership’, has watched passively as years of intensive state-building efforts have unraveled under assault from the RS.

Prompted by the European Court on Human Rights, senior European officials have belatedly tried to get Bosnians to revise the country’s ethnic quota, but failed to seize on the opportunity for far-reaching change.  For its part, the US has made a few attempts at getting Bosnia’s leaders to reform state and Federation structures which have died on the vine.  One might have hoped that European diplomats in particular would have faced up to the grim reality, but until now there has been no serious crisis to concentrate minds.

What is needed, finally, is a concerted EU-US effort to launch a new concept designed to specifically address Bosnia’s unique challenges.  The approach must strengthen the role of the EU yet, by capitalizing on the desire of Bosnians from all ethnic stripes to live in a functioning state and advance towards EU membership, avoid the need for continuous outside enforcement.

Most of all, the new EU plan must confront head-on the issue that has left so many Bosnians feeling hopeless: the country’s dysfunctionality.

“Dual integration” meets all of these criteria.  Effectively, Bosnians – both the elites and the public – will be offered a new deal which simultaneously advances their EU status while obligating them to attain and sustain internal functionality consistent with the soon-to-be-revised Dayton Agreement protections for group rights.

With the country’s EU prospects more certain, and the conditions for membership more clear and relevant, Bosnia’s citizens will finally be empowered to hold their leaders accountable for progress, escaping the trap of zero-sum, ethnic-only politics and obviating the need for constant goading from outside.

As in Kosovo and Serbia, political competition will begin to emerge over who gets the credit for achieving new EU milestones – not who has succeeded in ignoring them.

The primary vehicle for introducing these reforms to administrative and political structures — all designed to ready Bosnia-Herzegovina as a future EU member state — is the EU’s Negotiating Framework.  EU-required changes will be attached to the Negotiating Framework as the so-called harmonization clauses, i.e. the stipulated conditions for progress in the overall accession negotiations.

It is imperative that these conditions be precisely defined and clearly communicated to the citizens of Bosnia.

Of course, given the political culture and the complexity of the required systemic reforms, Bosnia’s leaders are going to need a push at the outset. So, too, are European leaders, particularly in Berlin.

Brussels is also certain to shrink from assuming sole responsibility for getting the fractious Bosnia parties to change their Constitution, a document seen as made-in-America and therefore an American burden. As has been the case since the dramatic finish to the war in 1995, Washington will have to be the catalyst for action on Bosnia.

Fortunately, there are indications that the State Department is prepared to thoroughly reevaluate its Bosnia policy. Washington can engage European interests by reminding diplomats that Brussels was similarly sleepwalking over Kosovo policy when a security crisis erupted there in 2011, shaking the EU out of its torpor. The current outpouring of protests, starting in Tuzla, represents the handwriting on the wall.

But even if they fear a brewing crisis, neither Washington nor Brussels is likely to invest the energy to drag intransigent Bosnian leaders to agreement unless they can envision a plausible diplomatic avenue to success.

The way to generate momentum and interest in Bosnia is to build on the two major trans-Atlantic events already scheduled for 2014 – the US-EU Summit in March and the NATO Summit in September.

Using both parleys as targets, the US and EU can, first, achieve trans-Atlantic agreement on the overall new approach for Bosnia by the March summit in Brussels. Washington can affirm its willingness to press Bosnia’s leaders both at the state and Federation levels to accept, in the context of dual integration, a set of initial bold reforms to the respective Constitutions and related structures.

This is not as daunting an assignment as it sounds; thanks to prior, US-led reform efforts, there are a number of Constitutional reform packages sitting on the shelf that have already been thoroughly vetted with the parties.

Second, by the September alliance summit in Cardiff, Wales, the US and EU will have had ample time to forge agreement with the Bosnian parties. NATO is also seized of the Bosnia issue, having seen its efforts to help the country obtain a Membership Action Plan stall over a petty, inter-entity dispute regarding defense property.

Concluding the trans-Atlantic effort on the margins of a NATO summit will provide symbolic reassurance of continuing American commitment to Bosnia – a message important both to Brussels and to each of the Bosnian parties, but especially the country’s Bosniaks.

Given the wide overlap in NATO and EU membership, diplomats can easily configure a suitable method of bringing Alliance and Union leaders together with Bosnia’s leaders either prior to, during, or just after Cardiff.

With dual integration and core reforms in place, Washington can again cede the lead role on Bosnia to the EU, which will exploit the Negotiating Framework and gradual Bosnian public engagement to continue the process of helping Bosnia become a functional state and viable candidate country.

The EU’s Special Representative in Sarajevo will benefit from newly-granted powers, particularly in the sphere of privatization, crimping the ability of party leaders to use public enterprises like utilities for patronage and party exploitation.

But how to gain buy-in from Bosnia’s leaders during an election year, in particular when RS President Dodik has again made open appeals for a form of RS secession from Bosnia? As tough as Dodik and his colleagues sound when pandering to their publics, the truth is that he and they very much see both EU and NATO membership in their interests.

Besides, Balkan politicians are no match for a concerted trans-Atlantic push built around US/EU/NATO summits. Any Bosnian leader will have to carefully calculate before facing down President Obama or senior EU leaders.

The RS would clearly lack the support of Serbia for such defiance, as Belgrade is now a full-fledged EU candidate country and therefore is pledged to back the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.

Moreover, Belgrade’s nationalist government (which is likely to prevail in March elections) is neither vulnerable on the Bosnia issue nor beholden to RS leaders personally. For its part, Croatia is now a full-fledged, loyal EU member and its government, likewise, is in no sense beholden to Croat hardliners in Herzegovina.

For too long now, the absence of crisis and the lack of a vision to address Bosnia’s nettlesome problems have combined to foster an international climate of neglect and negligence.  The absence of fighting has been mistaken for stability.

Now, with the whiff of crisis in the air, is the time for Americans and Europeans to throw their energies into Bosnia.  The EU magnet, properly configured, can at last liberate Bosnians to fulfill their potential without endless international oversight.

Europe, too, can finally demonstrate its ability to lead the nation-building effort in the Balkans, while the US can put a capstone on its unfinished effort to bring a full conclusion to hostilities in Bosnia.  Let the cry of desperation from Bosnia’s streets become the catalyst for change in the corridors of power.


Edward P. Joseph, a senior fellow and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, has worked for over a dozen years in the Balkans.  Most recently, he was Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.