Bosnia - a three-state solution?

By bne IntelliNews April 19, 2011

Alex Young in Sarajevo -

Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia-Herzegovina's (BiH) two entities, has intensified its attack on state-level institutions, leading many to speculate about the country's potential dissolution not just into two states, but three, and the likelihood of renewed conflict that would entail.

Republika Srpska's president, Milorad Dodik, has regularly flirted with the idea of secession, though many interpreted his threats purely as a means of strengthening his hand in upcoming constitutional reform negotiations. Increasingly, however, Dodik's rhetoric has been followed up with action. On April 13, the Republika Srpska National Assembly voted in favour of holding a referendum on whether its citizens "support the decisions imposed by the High Representative, particularly the laws on the BiH Court and Prosecutor's Office and its unconstitutional verification by the BiH Parliamentary Assembly." Basically, this referendum questions the legitimacy of the only domestic court that has jurisdiction across the entire country and reignites fears about a future plebiscite on independence.

In response, the country's high representative, Valentin Inzko, who as the western envoy has the power to strike down the Republika Srpska National Assembly's conclusions, expressed his "grave concern" about the referndum, whilst the US Embassy in Sarajevo issued a statement saying that "only terrorists, criminals and the corrupt have anything to fear from the state court and the state prosecutor's office." One former high representative, Lord Ashdown, even went as far as to propose the use of military force.

In truth, however, the international community is rudderless. Beset by its own internal problems, transfixed by interventions elsewhere and hamstrung by its policies towards Kosovo, international bodies languish without effective political leadership or backing. And lacking the previous carrot of EU accession because of enlargement fatigue and financial constraints, the EU's leverage in the reform process in Bosnia has dwindled to almost nothing.

Perpetual crisis

Republika Srpska's challenge comes at a time when BiH is gripped by a political crisis, some six months on from general elections. The formation of the government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), the country's other entity, has been heavily disputed by the two leading Croat parties - the HDZ BiH and the HDZ 1990 (the Croatian Democratic Union) - which were sidelined from power by a platform of political parties mobilized around the Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by Zlatko Lagumdzija. The SDP - which has long been keen to portray itself as a truly multi-ethnic party, despite being largely dependent upon the votes of the Muslim Bosniaks for its top-spot in October's elections - has rejected what it perceive as HDZ attempts to monopolise representation of Bosnia's Croats.

BiH's Central Election Committee ultimately sided with the HDZ and annulled the appointment of the entity's president and two vice-presidents, because of a failure to fulfill the necessary requirements for forming the House of Peoples. Inzko, however, took the highly-controversial and counter-productive step of suspending the decision. In response, the Federation's outgoing president, Borjana Kristo, withdrew a complaint previously filed at the Constitutional Court against the government formation, instead handing over her mandate to Inzko, whose intervention has further undermined the BiH's domestic institutions.

The disputed legitimacy of the Federation government has further impacted the formation of a government at the state-level - a now increasingly distant prospect. Sidelining the leading Croat parties has fuelled the establishment of an opportunistic alliance between Dodik's SNSD (Alliance of Independent Social Democrats) and Dragan Covic's HDZ BiH, thereby further complicating future coalition negotiations.

Bosnia's Croats - who harbour their own ambitions for greater autonomy, possibly through the creation of a third-entity - have also announced the establishment a "Croat National Assembly" - comprised of municipalities and cantons with a Croat majority - as a means of upholding Croat national interests in the face of what they deem to be "illegal" moves by the SDP and others.

Whilst Dodik and his Republika Srpska have long been identified as the prime source of the state's dysfunctional nature, the growing fragmentation of the Federation - which continues to hover on the verge of bankruptcy and faces further internal division over the distribution of indirect taxation revenues - suggests that the sources of BiH's potential demise lie elsewhere as well.

Matthew Parish, a long-time commentator on the country, writes in a comment piece for Balkan Insight that BiH's structural and political dysfunction has entered a terminal phase due to "irreversible" international inattention, among other contributing factors. His advice is that, "the Serbs and Croats should be left to go their own ways," leaving an "autonomous Bosniak territory" as a rump state. He argues that those who maintain the country can fall apart without serious inter-ethnic conflict are peddling dangerous ideas.

The shortcomings of the current international presence, meanwhile, makes the deployment of a reinforced EU special representative ever more urgent. With constitutional reform and European accession looking an evermore distant prospect, however, the EU must instead seek to depoliticise the international community's presence, promote economic development and tackle the Federation's deficiencies as a prerequisite for future reform.

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