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Alexander Pivovarenko

Ph.D. in History, Senior Research Associate, RAS Institute of Slavonic Studies, RIAC Expert

The beginning of 2021 is marked by the growing debate around the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereinafter referred to as the High Representative or the OHR). A rather frank exchange of views between the parties to and the guarantors of the Dayton Accords and members of the Peace Implementation Council exposed fundamental disagreements between Moscow and Brussels, which only complements the uneasy relationship between Russia and the EU.

Unfortunately, the most important question remains outside the framework of the discussion—that of the benefits the institution of the High Representative offers to the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that of the prospects given its continuing status as international protectorate. In this article, we will consider some aspects of this issue and articulate some reform proposals of the OHR for a better future and for rapprochement between the parties.

It is necessary to renounce viewing B&H as a “mandated territory” of the European Union. Appointing the OHR as a figure representing exclusively one of the “traditional” international powerhouses (a Germany-nominated EU representative in this case) is hardly satisfactory, given the low level of ideological competition, which restricts the choice of priorities for national development.

Strategically seen, the activities of a reformed OHR should witness material transformation of B&H, increase its sovereignty and boost economic viability.

Therefore, conducting an open international competition for filling the vacant position of the High Representative should be the next step, where several candidates—representing the guarantor states of the Dayton Accords or those experienced in alleviating similar concerns and challenges in other regions—take part. The election procedure should be as open as possible, with active coverage in the local media and direct communication between candidates and voters.

The beginning of 2021 is marked by the growing debate around the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (hereinafter referred to as the High Representative or the OHR). A rather frank exchange of views between the parties to and the guarantors of the Dayton Accords and members of the Peace Implementation Council exposed fundamental disagreements between Moscow and Brussels, which only complements the uneasy relationship between Russia and the EU.

Unfortunately, the most important question remains outside the framework of the discussion—that of the benefits the institution of the High Representative offers to the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that of the prospects given its continuing status as international protectorate. In this article, we will consider some aspects of this issue and articulate some reform proposals of the OHR for a better future and for rapprochement between the parties.

A Case for Recalibrating the Positions

The fall of 2020 saw an active exchange of views on the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) at scientific and diplomatic platforms in Austria, Croatia, Italy, the EU, and the United States.

While the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Accords triggered the discussions, it is symptomatic that the narratives of the 1990s about Great Serbian aggression and ethnic cleansing were revived during the discussions, which has led to another thesis concerning the moral unacceptability of the Republika of Srpska within B&H as a “genocidal polity”. Of course, Western diplomats refrain from voicing this formula; instead, the direct participants in the events of the 1990s are vocal about it—in particular, Haris Silajdžić, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the right-hand man of Alija Izetbegović, shares this perspective.

The position of Western diplomats and experts increasingly revolves around the need to strengthen the institution of the OHR to the interests of centralizing Bosnia and Herzegovina, which remains a two-entity state consisting of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, as well as the Brčko District, which is jointly administered by both. Centralization of Bosnia is crucial for enhancing the efficiency of the state apparatus, eradicating corruption and renouncing the label of a “failed state”. There are growing calls for a display of determination in Bosnia, which is necessary to demonstrate transatlantic solidarity and expand the Euro-Atlantic sphere of influence as well as diminish the role of Russia.

Milorad Dodik, the President of Republika Srpska, harshly criticized Valentin Inzko, currently serving as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, at a conference organized on the venues of the Security Council by the permanent mission of the Russian Federation to the UN.

Moscow believes there is no added value in preserving the authority of the OHR in view of the fact that this has become a restraining factor for the development of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the same time, there is no reason for revising the Dayton Accords, since the treaty guarantees the principle of equality of peoples. Besides, Moscow tends to be more energetic and open in reiterating its position, as proved during Sergey Lavrov’s visit to B&H.

Degradation of the Office of the High Representative

The OHR was initially conceived as a moderator to provide its assessment and recommendations to the Peace Implementation Council and the UN Security Council. In 1997-1998, the OHR received the so-called Bonn Powers legitimizing the intervention of the OHR in domestic politics and entitling it to make decisions at its sole discretion.

Bonn powers were in active use until 2006, when the powers of the entities (mainly of the Republika of Srpska) were actively revised, with the leaders of national communities eliminated from politics, transmitters and party banking premises seized as well as military actions carried out (performed by the peacekeeping forces)—all that in order to overcome “national extremism”. This mainly involved Serbian and Croatian politicians and institutions willing to increase their own autonomy.

One can agree that the introduction of Bonn powers was justified at the stage of post-conflict settlement. This, however, cannot last forever, while in the 2000s the Bonn powers have arguably become an aggravating factor for the situation to be normalized and democracy to be promoted. Ethnicity-based voting system has not been surmounted. Despite all the tricks to bar parties from elections, the requirements to introduce provisions informed by the ideology of multiculturalism and the return of residential mixing, the High Representative failed to break the ethnocratic regime, as 65–80% of all votes in elections have been ethnicity-based since the late 1990s [1].

The institute of the High Representative started facing noticeable stagnation under the Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko, who has been in office for 16 years now (since 2009). The second half of his mandate was marked by a sharp deterioration in the socio-economic situation in the spring of 2014, when mass public protests—the “Bosnian Spring”— engulfed in the Republic. When the main part of the Balkan Route was closed, refugees from the Middle East flocked to Bosnia, whose entry into the European Union is blocked by Croatia, a country that attracted significant police forces to guard the border.

What did the most influential person in the Republic do to alleviate the situation in the territory under his mandate? The only thing he did was submit a report on the crisis in B&H, criticizing local leaders for being increasingly antagonistic and unwilling to negotiate. No significant practical steps, possibly associated with an ultimatum demand from Brussels to provide additional resources, were taken by the OHR. Russia, as the guarantor of the Dayton Accords that maintains an EMERCOM base in Nish, could have provided assistance. Its resources would undoubtedly be sufficient to ease the burden of 70,000 refugees who arrived in Bosnia. Moreover, Russia already provided assistance to the Republic when mitigating the consequences of floods in 2014. No request from the OHR was received, though.

During the same period, critical infrastructure began to degrade: the central railway Sarajevo — Banja Luka — Zagreb—the author of the article was lucky to travel by it in 2009—has not been in operation for more than five years. Besides, there is no way to get to the sea by train. The deplorable situation with the railway infrastructure is limiting the tourist potential of B&H, while far from hindering intra-regional economic migration with the outflow of young and educated population to stronger economic centers. Finally, the demining of the territory has not yet been completed. As of 2019, about 1000 square kilometers have not been cleared of landmines. In total, from 1996 to 2019, 673 people were killed and 1,769 people were injured.

Reactionary Style of External Management

Christian Schmidt, Minister of Agriculture in 2014–2018 and Minister of Transport in 2017–2018 of the Federal Republic of Germany, is to become the new head of the OHR. It is remarkable that his background is that of a business executive rather than of a diplomat, which renders his professional experience relevant to local economic patterns and the priorities of developing the local economy. There is a certain evolution in the functional responsibilities of the High Representative, who used to be mainly engaged in political issues.

In this regard, it is extremely interesting to see items on the agenda of the German representative taking office. As of yet, however, constructive solutions are nowhere to be found.

Analytical support for the upcoming appointment revolves around the notion of negative motivation. As noted by the authors of the analytical report from the Democratization Policy Council thinktank, the reset of the state system of B&H should be built on the principle of the hammer and the anvil (see Fig. 1), and progress in reforms should be driven by the concepts of fear, pressure as well as the ‘no reforms – no money’ principle.

Figure 1. Prospective concept of OHR activity. See: But Is There a Strategy? Defining a Transatlantic Consensus to Catalyze Progress in B&H. DPC Policy Brief. January 2021. p. 4.

Majda Ruge, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, argues, “... the OHR was never meant to be democratic. It was designed as—and remains—a necessary check on those obstructing Dayton and B&H’s statehood”, namely, “local kleptocrats” and the “nationalist hydra, suffocating the state”, as M. Ruge defines them.

Leaving aside the disdainful attitude towards local management practices which have developed, among other things, as a response to attempts to establish external control, it should be noted that this reactionary language is a blatant return to the imperialist rhetoric of the times when “mandated territories” were the norm, which degrades the nation’s statehood that saw evolutionary development since 1918. The specific context implies distancing from the experience of B&H as an independent state, as was established in 1945—as opposed to the Dayton Accords which serve to preserve it. When analyzed critically, the EU Balkans policy, being progressive on the outside, turns out to be isolationist on the inside, as geopolitics is a major concern overshadowing the socio-economic problems of the European periphery.

The Failure of Local Elites?

Opinion polls show that 47% of the country’s population is still convinced that joining the EU will benefit the economy. From a regional perspective, however, expectations of the B&H population are extremely low, lower only to Serbia (32%). At the same time, 42% expect an increase in economic well-being, while 25% associate it with an increase in the level of social protection [2].

As of today, Berlin and Brussels only offer ‘the stick’ to the peoples of B&H. The main argument of those advocating an enhanced OHR mandate is that it will otherwise be impossible to overcome the “paralysis” and “failure” of state institutions. In fact, this line of reasoning is not entirely correct. Before the 2020 lockdown, the country’s GDP enjoyed growth for 22 out of 24 years. Public debt stands at 32% of GDP, which might be a significant indicator. In 2016, the country reached a surplus state budget. These figures indicate that B&H has mostly produced a model of survival in the European system, following the logic that “the standard of living is significantly lower than the European average, but no worse than the world average”. This can be attributed to one of the few achievements of the international presence in B&H, which resulted in a number of legislative reforms and the local currency pegged at a fixed rate to the euro.

One could debate the point that any investment climate is absent in the Republic. Significant Chinese investments attracted within the framework of Tuzla CHP project (EUR 700 million) as well as Turkish and Arab investments, shows that the local elites have learned to act independently to provide solutions to development problems.

Ekaterina Entina, Dejan Novakovic:
Russia in the Balkanse

In this regard, the Belgrade-Sarajevo Highway Project—whose cost, according to various sources, estimated to be EUR 1–3 billion and which is implemented under Turkish patronage —is worthy of particular notice. It remarkably unites the Balkan communities at multiple levels at once: that of ethnic communities (Serbs and Bosnians in B&H), that of entities (Federation of B&H and the Republika of Srpska) and that of states (Bosnia and Herzegovina – Serbia). Although the project faced controversies regarding the roadmap and funding, they were successfully resolved. Furthermore, all the three members of the tripartite Bosnian presidency arrived in Ankara to sign another agreement with Recep Tayyip Erdogan—despite the fact that two of them boycotted the meeting with Sergey Lavrov, explaining this position by irreconcilable differences.

It may therefore be assumed that local elites turn out to be quite open to dialog when it comes real rather than mythical transformations. This leads to questioning the necessity of an international superstructure, since the ideology of human rights (implemented in Bosnia in a very specific way) is not supported by the assertion of more important socio-economic rights. The occasionally flashing demand to close off economic ties with the neighboring states, Serbia and Croatia, seems absurd, as Serbia and B&H are part of the Western Balkan Six, a project to strengthen regional integration implemented within the framework of the Berlin process.

OHR Reform Options

The geopolitical nature of the discussion leaves no room for what should ultimately become a central concern in the discussion: that is, the development prospects for Bosnia and Herzegovina whose problems are consonant with the problems of other post-conflict states (for example, Lebanon or Moldova).

Russia is against extending the powers of the OHR. Although this position looks confrontational, Russia raises an essential question: what should be done next? Is there any point in upholding the system that has been stagnant for 26 years if it fails to bring happiness to the peoples living in one of the most picturesque and fertile corners of the world?

First of all, it should be remembered that Bosnia and Herzegovina made tangible progress when the mechanisms of external administration in the Balkans were done away with. Being part of Yugoslavia, a sovereign socialist state, B&H received republican powers, effectively tackled the problem of illiteracy, carried out religious secularization and guaranteed rights of women. With the production of airplanes, electronic components, communication gear and optical components, industry underwent rapid expansion. The industry of the republic was export-oriented [3], as opposed to the late Ottoman Empire and the period of Austrian occupation, when transformations were carried out, however as a residual [4]. Thus, socio-economic rights, as well as human rights, were best exercised in the Republic before the advent of the EU era.

Exhibition showcasing the achievements of the Yugoslav industry at Skenderija cultural, sports and trade center. Sarajevo, mid-1960s.

Yet, it would be wrong to contend that restoring sovereignty would automatically lead the country to a development trajectory—however, there ought to be some point of departure. On the outset, it may have to do with a reassessment of the functional responsibilities of the High Representative which would entail a gradual decline of political supervising and taking up more obligations on socio-economic matters.

Embarking on a high-complexity economic project sponsored by the OHR could be a logical step. Such a program should bring about modern infrastructure and social security. Reasonable claims for the entities to ensure the return of displaced persons as national minorities to the respective regions—the Bosniaks to the Republika of Srpska, the Serbs to the Muslim-Croatian Federation of B&H, the Croats to Muslim Central Bosnia and Muslims to Croatian Herzegovina—are hardly feasible without a solid economic base. Therefore, it is necessary to create at least 200,000–300,000 jobs in the real sector of the economy and in both entities, which would facilitate not only internal migration, but also the return of B&H citizens from abroad.

This program should be set out in greater detail and thoroughly reviewed at the initial stage, before a new High Representative is appointed. The program should be discussed on national television as well as be subject to parliamentary review or to a national referendum.

The OHR places a number of serious demands on the local bureaucracy. Therefore, local communities should put forward their own demands in relation to the OHR, whether through an appeal to their own elites or through exercising direct democracy. For instance, this could be about bringing the standard of living in Bosnia and Herzegovina at least to the level of the EU outsider countries (Bulgaria, Croatia) within 5¬–7 years. If the High Representative is unable to fulfill the assigned tasks, the possibility of his resignation should be considered. The work ethic in this case should be similar to the relationship that exists between the board of directors of a soccer club and the head coach, an employee who is forced to retire due to poor performance or under pressure from fans.

How to Develop Bosnia

Local communities, who have a number of everyday concerns, still question the credibility of the OHR. Differences in pay levels and status, expensive suits of international diplomats against the background of sportswear of the local population are as symbolic as the colonial-era “pith helmet”. After 26 years of living in this reality, the institution of the High Representative should prove that its presence is not limited solely to receiving high remuneration.

It is necessary to renounce viewing B&H as a “mandated territory” of the European Union. Appointing the OHR as a figure representing exclusively one of the “traditional” international powerhouses (a Germany-nominated EU representative in this case) is hardly satisfactory, given the low level of ideological competition, which restricts the choice of priorities for national development.

Strategically seen, the activities of a reformed OHR should witness material transformation of B&H, increase its sovereignty and boost economic viability.

Therefore, conducting an open international competition for filling the vacant position of the High Representative should be the next step, where several candidates—representing the guarantor states of the Dayton Accords or those experienced in alleviating similar concerns and challenges in other regions—take part. The election procedure should be as open as possible, with active coverage in the local media and direct communication between candidates and voters.

That candidates submit a preliminary transformation program, sort of a list of “services” on offer, should be a prerequisite. For example, if Russia were to nominate its candidate, the program could include making the Russian Railways part of reconstructing infrastructure in B&H on preferential economic terms, including works in the Muslim-Croatian entity. Compliance with budgetary discipline could be guaranteed by the relevant authorities of the European Union and Turkey.

Competitiveness is a prerequisite for curbing the “wage race” as well as for maintaining the proper level of motivation and responsibility among the officials of the newly reformed OHR who are to be assigned to Bosnia.

1. G.N. Engelhardt Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Emergence and evolution (1990-2006). Ph.D. Thesis in Historical Science. Moscow, 2015. p. 220.

2. Balkan Barometer 2019, pp. 37-38.

3. Kovačev S., Matijaščić Z., Petrović J. Vojnoindustriijski kompleks SFRJ // Polemos, 2006, № 9. S. 127-203.

4. K. V. Melchakova Osman Pasha in the Pursuit of Progress: Towards the Problem of the Constitution of the Bosnian Nation in the Ottoman Empire (1861-1869) // Forced Neighborhood - Voluntary Adaptation in Diplomatic and Interethnic Relations in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe in the 18th-21st Centuries. Moscow: Institute of Slavic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2017, pp. 273-281.

5. L.Y. Pakhomova. On the question of Austro-Hungarian administration in Bosnia and Herzegovina. // Forced Neighborhood - Voluntary Adaptation in Diplomatic and Interethnic Relations in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe in the 18th-21st Centuries.. Moscow, Institute of Slavic Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, 2017. pp. 289-291.


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