BOOK REVIEW: Ex-diplomat warns Bosnia risks sliding back into conflict

BOOK REVIEW: Ex-diplomat warns Bosnia risks sliding back into conflict
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman sign the 2014 Peace Agreement.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest September 12, 2016

As Bosnia & Herzegovina descends into yet another political crisis with the approach of the September 25 referendum in the ethnic Serb half of the country, embroiling its neighbours and the wider international community, Christopher Bennett’s book “Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace” explores the risk of a new outbreak of war in the troubled country.

Bennett, a former journalist who served as deputy high representative in Bosnia before moving to academia, details the failures of the peace process, resulting in a country that has never moved on from the war that ended two decades ago, and where a flawed institutional system and ethno-nationalist politicians bent on self-interest have raised the possibility of a return to hostilities. The picture he paints is at odds with alternative and more optimistic presentations of a country finally progressing towards EU accession.

“[T]he situation is deteriorating at an ever-accelerating pace; a fatalistic cynicism appears to have taken root; and much of what may have been achieved earlier in the peace process today seems to be at risk,” Bennett writes. “The possibility of a return to hostilities, albeit very different to the Bosnian War, cannot be ruled out.”

He also outlines some on the ground indications that war could be a possibility, pointing out that Bosnian and Serb leaders have accused each other of rearming surreptitiously, using unregulated hunting clubs, veterans’ associations and private security companies as a front.

Events that could trigger a new conflict, according to Bennett, include the premature conclusion of the Dayton peace process (the Dayton Agreement, which brought an end to the conflict in 1995, has already been tested many times by local politicians) or the secession of Republika Srpska. That being said, the current crisis over the referendum in Republika Srpska does not seem likely to be the trigger for a resumption of hostilities.

The referendum concerns a proposal from the entity’s government to make Republic Day on January 9 an official public holiday. This is strongly opposed by Bosniaks and Croats, since January 9 is the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1992, when Bosnian Serbs claimed their republic was part of Yugoslavia rather than the newly independent Bosnia.

In 2015, Bosnia’s state-level constitutional court ruled that the celebration of Republic Day was discriminatory. However, in August, Republika Srpska’s own constitutional court ruled in favour of the referendum, striking down an appeal from Bosniaks in the entity. There has also been strong resistance from the Office of the High Representative, though on the whole the international community has declined to weigh in on either side – possibly a symptom of what Bennett calls “Bosnia fatigue”.

The book came out shortly before the current crisis, but if Bennett is correct, it will not be the Republika Srpska that pushes Bosnia towards war, despite the secessionist rhetoric and brinkmanship of its president, Milorad Dodik. Bennett argues that it would not be in Dodik’s interests for Republic Srpska to secede from Bosnia, which would either create a tiny unrecognised republic (along the lines of the breakaway Georgian republic of Abkhazia) or be absorbed into Serbia. Either way, Dodik is likely to be in a better position as the head of the largely autonomous entity within Bosnia. This seems to be borne out by the latest developments; on September 9, Dodik said that while the referendum would still go ahead, the law on public holidays would be changed so that no one would be obliged to celebrate. It’s not yet clear whether that will be sufficient to defuse the crisis.

In fact, it is the Bosniaks, who now make up an absolute majority of the population according to the newly-released 2013 census, or the Croats, who are the most disenchanted with the current situation, that are more likely than the Serbs to want to redraw the lines of how Bosnia is ruled.

If it’s broke, fix it

At the root of the problem is a system that is simply not working. This is partly, as Bennett points out, because the tools being used are the wrong ones. The Dayton agreement “was a means to end a war, not the basis of a permanent solution to the Bosnian Question”, while the carrot of the EU accession process being held out to Bosnian politicians “is a mechanism aimed at preparing countries for membership of the European Union, not a tool for managing ethno-nationalist conflict”.

“The key question was whether, as successive high representatives had hoped, the ‘pull of Brussels’ would be sufficiently strong to replace the ‘push of Dayton’, as both the driver of reform and the glue holding Bosnia together,” writes Bennett. The answer to that question seems to be an emphatic ‘no’. Bosnia “has not moved on from its experience of conflict… [and] the country is in a state of political, social and economic paralysis.” All decisions that need to be made by the authorities are “seemingly hostage to the wider question of what kind of country Bosnia should be”.

Bennett’s detailed analysis of the situation in Bosnia is not entirely negative, as he points to successes such as defence reform and the establishment of the central bank. However, these are few and far between, with most institutions highly dysfunctional and divided along ethno-nationalist lines into three separate hierarchies. During the 20 years since the war ended, a multi-ethnic state has not been reconstructed, with Bosnians continuing to either emigrate or move into areas where they are in the majority. Segregated schools have created a generation with more extreme opinions than their parents.

This failure is, however, most apparent in the electoral system, which has contributed to the country’s divisions by creating incentives to vote for ethno-nationalist politicians – a pattern that has been apparent from independent Bosnia’s first elections in 1990 to the latest general elections in 2014 when, Bennett says, “the sense of despair was palpable” as Bosnians went to the polls.

Zero-sum politics

The latter part of the book looks at potential solutions to the Bosnian question, which has vexed a generation of diplomats. The country faces the paradox of being unable to make genuine progress with the current constitution and governing structures, but at the same time fears of the Pandora’s box change could stir up keep the international community insisting that the Dayton Agreement must be respected.

In the absence of a coherent reform plan, local leaders are gradually taking back control but without any of Bosnia’s underlying problems being resolved, thus creating a dangerous situation. “The Dayton process has appeared to be coming to an end with decision-making increasingly in the hands of domestic authorities even if the issues that had led to war have not been resolved… Bosnian leaders behave as if they are approaching the endgame, jockeying for position for the day when the Dayton settlement is opened up.”

Electoral reform, for example, could help to break the cycle of ‘zero-sum politics’. “[The] logical outcome of the existing [electoral] system is conflict because incentives reward extremist politicians,” writes Bennett. The system has therefore encouraged moderates to transform themselves into extremists. “The most important element is the electoral system, which has the potential to change the logic of Bosnian politics. For this reason, it will also be resisted by the existing political elite, which benefits from the current system.”

The international community has been hoping for a decade to leave Bosnia but, as shown with the attempts to take a step back in 2006 and 2007, the country’s institutions can’t function without their involvement. Despite the reluctance of international actors to remain involved in Bosnia, Bennett believes that only if they take the lead in reforming Bosnia’s political system will the country avoid a drift back to conflict. For this to happen, he argues, the international community will have to stop their ostrich-like ignoring of Bosnia’s problems, from political provocations to corruption, and accept the failure of the peace process so far.

Bosnia’s Paralysed Peace” by Christopher Bennett, published by Hurst Publishers, 2016