about icg 
  Latin America 
  Middle East 
  by region 
  by date 
  by keyword 
  media releases 
  articles/op. eds 
  media contacts 
contact us 
donate to icg 

 home  programs  europe  balkans  bosnia and herzegovina
Click here to view the full report as a PDF file in A4 format.
For more information about viewing PDF documents, please click here.

Bosnia's Nationalist Governments:
Paddy Ashdown and the Paradoxes of State Building

To access this briefing in Bosnian, please click here


The return of the nationalist parties to power after the October 2002 general elections in Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) was widely assessed as a calamity. Some observers went so far as to claim that it signified the failure of the international peace-building mission over the previous seven years. But the new High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, refused to be downcast. Not only was the nationalists’ victory narrow, but he was confident he could work with them if they proved faithful to their pre-election pledges to embrace the reform agenda he had been charting since taking office in May 2002. This agenda seeks to make up for lost time: implementing the economic, legal and governance reforms required both to make BiH a prosperous, lawful and peaceable state and to set the country on track for European integration. Lord Ashdown aims to put himself out of a job by putting BiH on the road to the EU.

Nine months on, but only six months into the terms of the belatedly established state and entity governments, it remains too early to say whether the compact Ashdown believes he has established with the nationalists will produce results. It is certainly a new approach. Ashdown’s predecessor, Wolfgang Petritsch, had tried something new as well: “partnership” between the international community and the non-nationalist Alliance for Change coalition cobbled together with foreign assistance after the November 2000 elections. This had some modest success, but not enough to satisfy either the would-be partners or the electorate.

Ashdown has sought partnership not so much with the governments as with the people. Claiming, as any good Western politician would, to have listened to their voices and intuited their hearts, he insists that Bosnia’s politicians should do likewise. He has skilfully manoeuvred the nationalists into signing up for the reforms that he and his colleagues in other international organisations propose. The invocation of requirements set by NATO, the EU, the Council of Europe, the U.S. and others has provided Lord Ashdown with leverage as potent as that he enjoys by virtue of the so-called Bonn powers, which allow him to sack officeholders, impose laws and make administrative edicts. In their hunger for votes and office – and maybe even because they agree – the new governments have endorsed his aims.

There may, in any case, be some advantage in a reform process driven by the international community but carried out by nationalist-dominated governments. The elections confirmed that the national parties retain the confidence of the largest part of a divided electorate, whose separate nations still resonate to assertions either that they were the war’s main victims or that they are most at threat from the others. This means that the nationalists could be best placed to reassure their constituents that the reforms under way will not endanger their respective national interests. The new governments may thus find it easier to muster support for reform than did the Alliance.

So far they have accepted or tolerated the reforms insisted upon by Lord Ashdown – either because they are necessary for the Euro-Atlantic integration all parties claim to want or because of the retribution that would otherwise follow. Compelling the nationalists who made and fought the war to take responsibility for reform may thus be the only option and the best revenge. But it is also a high-risk strategy. The High Representative can command, but he cannot actually implement reforms. For this he needs the genuine engagement of the domestic authorities.

Yet if the governments do no more than pay lip service to reform and the numerous bureaucracies do nothing at all, the game will be up. The performance of the Council of Ministers (CoM) to date does not inspire much confidence. It has adopted several strategic documents prepared for it by the international community, but has failed to translate these into a legislative program. Initially hailed as signal contributions to BiH’s burgeoning statehood, the new justice and security ministries created by Lord Ashdown remain empty shells, without staffs or budgets of their own. Meantime, national parallelism appears to be emerging once again in other ministries, many of which are also rudderless because they still lack organisational rulebooks, work plans or both.

The now non-rotating chairman of the CoM, Adnan Terzic, whom Ashdown prefers to refer to as Bosnia’s prime minister, has thus far failed to exert the leadership necessary to break such impasses or to move from declarative endorsement of reform to its realisation. The CoM reacts, but does not yet act. The entity governments are no more coherent or competent. The initiative remains almost entirely with the High Representative, and there it is likely to stay for some time yet.

Nearly eight years after Dayton, this state of affairs worries many. It certainly worries Lord Ashdown. He hoped to be the last High Representative. The dilemma over when and how to disengage is real. The longer the people and politicians of BiH rely on foreigners to make their tough decisions and to pay their bills, the more difficult will be the reckoning. But it is too soon either for despair or for neo-colonial guilt. In the first case, the consistency with which Ashdown has pushed and preached reform is beginning to dissipate popular gloom in BiH if not abroad. As for the second, the international community needs still to expiate a different sort of guilt: for a war that need not have happened or lasted so long, a peace that established only the possibility of creating a viable state, and for several years that followed when it was not even feasible to try.

Lord Ashdown is in a hurry to accomplish what might, in better circumstances, have been attempted at the outset: to establish the rule of law; to regenerate a non-productive, aid-addicted, post-communist economy; to streamline and enhance the competence of public services; and to equip the virtual state inherited from Dayton with the attributes necessary for BiH to aspire to EU membership. He must do these things before international patience and resources run out and while there are still citizens inclined to hope rather than despair.

The terminal phase of the international community’s belated effort to build a self-sustaining state in BiH will be replete with paradox. In order to get out, the country’s foreign guardians will have to get in more deeply. In order to abjure use of the Bonn powers, Ashdown will need in the short run to use them more intensively. In order to realise the promise of Dayton, the High Representative will have to lift the ceiling of what is meant to be permissible under the Dayton constitution. He is doing all these things, most importantly through special, internationally-chaired commissions which are seeking to find the constitutional justifications and political consensus necessary to redress the balance of power between the state and the entities in the spheres of defence, intelligence and indirect taxation.

If these commissions realise their potential to undo the worst effects of BiH’s partition at Dayton, the High Representative could have recourse to more such issue-specific bodies. The hope then would be that the cumulative effect of ad hoc reassessments of what the constitution allows will create the consensus required for a fully-fledged domestic revision of BiH’s constitutional architecture. But if the commissions fail to adopt state-boosting options, there may be no alternative but for the international community to address constitutional obstacles directly. The fact that it is doing so already in promoting amendments that would permit the Constitutional Court to take over the mandate of the Human Rights Chamber could set a potent precedent.


To the International Community:

  1. Continue to leverage essential reforms in BiH by invoking the requirements of the EU Stabilisation and Association process (SAp), membership in the NATO Partnership for Peace and the post-accession conditions of the Council of Europe.
  1. Reconsider demands for the creation of new institutions or bodies that BiH cannot afford and for which foreign donors will no longer pay.
  1. Accept that the nationalist parties are a natural and legitimate phenomenon in BiH, but that there is no need to fear pushing them to the limit, especially by attacking their illicit sources of financial power and powers of patronage.
  1. Support the High Representative in his efforts to mobilise a popular constituency for reform.

To the Peace Implementation Council and High Representative:

  1. Seek to ensure that the special commissions at work on reforming BiH's defence, intelligence and indirect taxation systems do not settle for the lowest common denominator of agreement, but embrace state-building solutions. For if the confines of the Dayton constitutional edifice cannot be expanded from within through ad hoc commissions and administrative changes, it will be impossible to avoid reconstructing them from without.
  1. Elaborate and publish criteria for the future use of the Bonn powers that will either limit their deployment to essential spheres over a defined period or associate the Presidency and/or CoM in their use.
  1. Maintain pressure on the entity and cantonal governments to implement the provisions of the 2002 constitutional amendments relating to the proportional representation of the constituent peoples in all public institutions.

To the BiH authorities:

  1. Open a debate on amendments to the electoral law that would apply the 3 per cent threshold for parliamentary representation to the allocation of compensatory seats, thereby lessening the fragmentation of legislative bodies in BiH.
  1. Seek to enhance the policy planning capacity of the CoM and entity governments while international assistance is available through the SAp and bilateral donors.

Sarajevo/Brussels, 22 July 2003


copyright privacy sitemap