In-depth | BiH

The demise of the Bosnian semi-protectorate

By - 23.05.2019

High Representative holds unlimited power, without using it.

On November 12, 2002, a bulldozer was parked in front of a white building surrounded by high walls in central Sarajevo.

Soon, the large white iron gates of the compound were opened and the bulldozer slowly rolled in. Following the bulldozer, journalists and officials started flowing into the enclosed yard — mostly local politicians and businessmen, as well as representatives of international organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH).

It was in this manner that the then high representative, the now deceased British politician and former soldier Paddy Ashdown, announced the start of the Bulldozer Initiative, which was supposed to mark the start of big changes in BiH.

The minds behind the Initiative, the international community in BiH, explained it as a way of creating better conditions for economic development, which — eventually — should affect the general conditions for the development of the country.

A few days later, the gate was once again closed and has remained so until this day.

They sought to achieve this by building a partnership between BiH politicians and businesspeople who would identify legal impediments to economic expansion and the creation of new jobs, and together strive for legislative reform. A committee was established in order to connect all those who were invited to this political show, where “50 reforms in 150 days” were promised.

It was said that the new process would be fully transparent, as would the work of the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the institution created through the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement in order to insure and monitor civilian implementation of the deal. Furthermore, it was said that the gate to the OHR compound would remain open for all those who wished to find out more about what was going on behind the walls.

A few days later, the gate was once again closed and has remained so until this day — citizens are no longer sure whether anybody, except for the security and maintenance staff, is using the white building on the river bank at all.

A shop owner from a market located just across the street from the OHR, says that she rarely sees anybody. “There is no longer fuss as there used to be, when dozens of jeeps in rotation roamed through the street,” she says while looking at the closed gates. “Now they pass once a week or not even.”

The high representative goes quiet

The fact that little is going on in the compound is showcased by the OHR’s archive of decisions, which shows that the last decision that influenced the lives of BiH citizens was made precisely five years ago.

Through that decision, the OHR abolished a series of bans introduced by previous high representatives against elected and appointed officials.

Today, the OHR only has two departments — the Political & Economics Department and the Legal Department — as well as a Regional Office based in Banja Luka. Regional Offices in Tuzla and Mostar have been shut down, as have the Human Rights and the Rule of Law Departments, the Department for Media Development and the Working Group for Reconstruction and Return. There is no military advisor, nor a legal reform unit.

Wolfgang Petritsch, former high representative in BiH, believes that the office he once headed has been losing its reputation. Photo: Creative Commons License.

“It is sad to look at how the OHR has been losing its reputation for longer than a decade,” says Wolfgang Petritsch, former EU special representative to Kosovo (1998-99) and high representative in BiH (1999-02).

Gerald Knaus, who used to work with the OHR in Sarajevo and is the founder of the European Stability Initiative (ESI), a think tank focusing on southeast Europe and EU enlargement, believes that the OHR has become “increasingly irrelevant.”

The role and location of the high representative is a question that has also been repeatedly brought up by numerous analysts and media in BiH.

"The high representative is — plainly speaking — a diplomat who lives like a king in Sarajevo and does not interfere with his own job."

Gojko Berić, columnist and journalist

Bodo Weber, a Senior Associate at the Berlin-based Democratization Policy Council, an initiative for responsible policy democratization — the work of which is mostly related to the Balkans — argues that domestic political actors in BiH are currently polarized over the OHR issue.

“In BiH, those political forces among ruling Serb and Croat parties that long for undermining the constitutional order of BiH, and probably its territorial integrity, would rather see OHR gone yesterday, while civic or multiethnic oriented Bosnians and Hezegovinians and Bosniaks see the OHR as a security net against the destruction of the Bosnian state,” Weber claims.

Gojko Berić, columnist and perennial journalist of the Oslobođenje daily, writes in one of his most recent columns that “from the perspective of the domestic public, the high representative is — plainly speaking — a diplomat who lives like a king in Sarajevo and does not interfere with his own job.”

Berić writes this column without seeking any reaction or action from the OHR, but does so in order to remind the high representative that he is in charge of interpreting and implementing the civilian segment of the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995), including the Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is part of it.

“Besides the complex institutional shell that ethno-nationalist governments became trapped in by their own doing, there are many things in this constitution that have been designed in favor of the ordinary person,” Berić writes.

“However, the BiH state has been practically emptied of all these civilizational achievements, they have been erased and run over. Nobody was held responsible for this, even though this constitutes a flagrant violation of the most important segments of the peace agreement. The high representative is silent!”

Unlimited powers

The Office of the High Representative was established over the course of 20 days of peace talks held in the late autumn of 1995 in the city of Dayton, Ohio, at a U.S. military base. The agreement was finally reached under strong pressure from different countries, especially the U.S., and the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement was held in Paris in December that same year, while the war was still raging in Bosnia.

Politicians from the region, western Europe and the U.S., as well as representatives of different international organizations, agreed that BiH would remain an independent state. External borders were not in question, but new lines were drawn inside of the country, mostly based on what the sides in the conflict had achieved in the field during the shooting.

Suddenly, BiH became a country divided into two entities — the Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska — and in 1999 Brčko District was added as a multi-ethnic self-governing administrative unit. Members of three constituent groups, Bosniak, Serbs and Croats, were recognized as the “constituent people” of the country and were given political rights that other groups living in BiH — including people who declare themselves simply as citizens of BiH — were denied.

The numerous issues this created led to the much publicized Sejdić and Finci v. Bosnia and Herzegovina case at the European Court of Human Rights, which concluded that the constitution of BiH violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the similar — but less publicized — Zornić v. Bosnia and Herzegovina case, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Azra Zornić, who had been prohibited from high office because she refused to identify as one of the three specific ethnic groups, insisting that the same rights should be given to all citizens of BiH. Despite these decisions, however, the situation remains unchanged to this day.

The Peace and Implementation Council (PIC) gives legitimacy to the Office of the High Representative in BiH. Photo courtesy of OHR.

The whole setup of the OHR is no less complex.

Its legitimacy is provided by the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), which is comprised of representatives from 55 countries that have embassies in BiH, as well as international organizations that variously influence the implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement. This body gives political directions to the high representative, and has a steering committee comprising representatives of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the UK, the U.S., the EU and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation represented by Turkey.

For any move that the OHR makes, they have to agree, which has represented a challenge throughout the years. Disagreements sometimes have nothing to do with BiH itself, but rather with the focus of the governments in these countries at any given moment.

In the aftermath of the war, the Council regularly met outside BiH’s borders, making decisions about the lives of the country’s citizens. It was in this way that in 1997 they held a conference in Bonn, the conclusion of which provided the high representative with extensive so-called Bonn Powers.

Decisions by the high representative are final and don’t include the right to appeal; additionally, they don’t have to be justified.

These authorizations enabled the person sitting in the high representative’s chair to remove elected officials, adopt and abolish laws and shut down or influence media, as well as to penetrate each segment of life in BiH.

In total, from 1997 to 2012, high representatives in BiH imposed a total of 899 decisions on the country. Among other things, decisions related to the state flag, citizenship, joint vehicle registration plates, the state currency, the establishment of judicial institutions, and the appointment of judges and prosecutors.

To add even further to their significant powers, decisions by the high representative are final and don’t include the right to appeal; additionally, they don’t have to be justified.

As the second high representative Carlos Westerndorp himself expressed in a 1997 interview, even prior to the Bonn conference, “if you read Dayton carefully… [it] gives me the possibility to interpret my own authorities and powers.”

In previous years, the OHR has removed prime ministers from public office, as well as members of the Presidency, ministers, heads of intelligence agencies, police officers and other functionaries.

Analysts like political scientist Dražen Pehar argue that in an attempt to reconstruct democracy in BiH over the course of the first 10 years after the war, high representatives themselves used undemocratic methods such as the imposition of decisions or the dismissal of officials.

In a 2014 paper, Pehar, who has worked for the OHR in the past, characterizes the behavior of the OHR as having aggravated tensions within the country.

With virtually unlimited power vested in one institution run by foreigners, and with no accountability or transparency, BiH is today the only semi-protectorate in Europe, if not in the world.

Passing the buck

But in the past decade and a half, the appetite to wield that power appears to have diminished.

The change of direction was most explicitly characterized by the tenure of the fifth high representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, from 2006 to 2007.

Critics say that Schwarz-Schilling slept through most of his term; but in a 2005 interview given to a local media outlet right after being appointed, Schwarz-Schilling’s words explicitly predicted this policy of passivity.

“I will work on restoring the faith of BiH people in elected government,” the high representative announced. “This means that it has to take full responsibility, and the OHR will increasingly perform as an advisor, animator, helper, and the friend of the people and government of BiH. As BiH is advancing in the process of negotiations with the EU regarding the Stabilization and Association Agreement, OHR will assist in this process and accompany it.”

In practice, this meant reducing the OHR’s authorizations to a minimum.

Indeed, Schwarz-Schilling’s tenure and hands off approach coincided with wider changes in the international arena that have been felt in both BiH and the region in general. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the U.S., the attention of the great world powers shifted toward eastern countries and newly instigated wars.

Since the first appointment in 2011, the EU Special Representative has been much more present in the public than the OHR.

In this period, the European Union became more involved in BiH compared to the U.S. — which had oftentimes held the primary role in decision-making after the war.

Schwarz-Schilling explained the new approach at the very beginning of his term, saying that his goal was to prepare the field for “a transfer of competencies from the OHR to the Office of the EU Special Representative,” a body that reports to the EU Council where all EU member states are present.

Since the first appointment in 2011, the EU Special Representative — who is tasked to “work on strengthening political support to goals of EU policy in BiH” and to provide “advice and support to institutions at all levels of this political process” — has been much more present in the public than the OHR.

But the Democratization Policy Council’s Bodo Weber says that the Europeans took on their enhanced role in the region reluctantly.

He believes that the EU supported the idea that local political elites were mature enough to take over increased responsibilities in 2006, mostly because it wanted to step away from the costly engagement of state-building in the Balkans.

“The EU had not previously fulfilled the basic precondition, which is a modification of the Peace Agreement, which was designed as a short-term interim solution to stop the war, and not a lasting framework for a political structure,” Weber says.

Former High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch agrees that the Peace Agreement itself “has been inadequate footwear for the European path of BiH for a long time,” and says that it is necessary to develop a system that is compatible with European standards and values.

“But neither the OHR nor the PIC can do that,” he concludes, adding that the local and international community’s policy, “and especially Brussels,” have failed to take the necessary steps toward the reformation of BiH.

Petritsch believes that the work of the OHR, from its establishment to the present day, can be divided into two parts: the successful part, which lasted until 2006 and during which there was progress with the return of refugees, building state institutions and strengthening security, and the second period from 2006 onward, which he describes as a time of stagnation.

Members have misused the PIC Steering Council “as a battlefield in the new Cold War.” Wolfgang Petritsch

During this latter period, he believes the relative previous successes were undermined due to the reduced engagement of the U.S. and EU as well as the deterioration of relations within the PIC and its Steering Committee members — especially the polarization between Russia and Western countries.

“The PIC Steering Committee is dysfunctional and blocked,” Petritsch says, explaining that members have misused this international body “as a battlefield in the new Cold War.”

A lack of engagement from both sides has turned BiH into “a swamp due to lack of political will within the EU and a decrease of resources, as well as the strengthening of ethnic and nationalist policies of division within BiH,” he says. “While Kosovo can be resolved as an issue since there is political will on both sides, BiH looks as though it has been stuck in an unpleasant position, for which I don’t see a quick solution.”

The former high representative hopes that a solution to the Kosovo problem will be found quickly, which could then be used to propel forces in Washington, Brussels and BiH itself to find a solution to “the remaining problem from Yugoslavia.”

However, when it comes to the role of the OHR, he concludes that it should have been closed down a long time ago.

Analysis by the Democratization Policy Council also concludes that today’s dysfunctional system in BiH is a consequence of mistakes made in the past, and highlights that this has created fertile ground for ruling political elites who are comfortable with the status quo, based on perpetuating inter-ethnic tensions.

But Weber does not see the OHR role being scrapped any time soon, pointing out that it is seen as a safety net in case something goes wrong in BiH. “The West would be crazy to renounce such executive authority before full implementation of the [Dayton Peace Agreement] or comprehensive institutional reform in BiH,” he says.

However, with neither in sight, the OHR looks set to stay — at least in a technical sense.

Directions for progress

Current High Representative Valentin Inzko came to BiH 10 years ago. Recently, his cabinet announced that he would remain for another two years.

K2.0 attempted to get an interview with Inzko, but over a one-month period, he did not find the time to respond to questions regarding his current role in political events.

After one month however, via his press office office, he did provide nine responses to the 17 questions posed; he refused to talk about his salary or how much time he spends annually between BiH and his native Austria.

Among other things, Inzko wrote that the PIC had given clear directions to authorities in 2008 about what they needed to achieve in order to enable the closure of the OHR. These can be found in the so-called “Program 5+2,” outlining the conditions that should be met in order to fulfill the implementation of the Dayton Agreement, and by extension the mandate of the OHR.

Current High Representative Valentin Inzko is often criticized by journalists and commentators, but he rarely responds to the criticism. Photo: Courtesy of OHR.

The high representative pointed out that these issues refer to the division of property (including military property) between the state and lower instances of power, the implementation of the Brčko District decision, fiscal sustainability, introduction of rule of law, signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, and a positive assessment by the PIC Steering Committee.

Beside this, in an interview given to local media, Inzko has previously said that if they want to close down the OHR BiH authorities must stop contesting the Peace Agreement; he particularly pointed the finger at Serb BiH Presidency member Milorad Dodik and former Bosniak Presidency member Bakir Izetbegović.

“Many political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina are more interested in extracting gain from the divisions of the past than in implementing genuine reforms,” Inzko wrote in his response to K2.0.

Until this changes, the high representative’s activities are mostly reduced to protocolary ones, which means that he can sometimes be seen at concerts and other cultural events in BiH.

“We are convinced that the time of the external protectorate of Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the past.”

Dmitry A. Polynsky, Russian UNSC delegate

Twice a year he also attends the UN Security Council — which appoints him — where he presents his report on the circumstances in BiH.

On May 8, he presented the most recent and 55th report, painting a very dark picture of Bosnia and Herzegovina today.

Reactions in the UN Security Council were divided. While the UK and U.S. ambassadors voiced their support for beginning to use the Bonn Powers again, the Russian representative dismissed Inzko’s reports as “far from objective” and argued that it is time for the OHR mandate to end.

“We are convinced that the time of the external protectorate of Bosnia and Herzegovina is in the past,” Russian representative Dmitry A. Polynsky said, stressing that the office should be closed and its budget cut.

Talking about the results of his office, Inzko said that since the beginning of his mandate in 2009, the OHR’s budget has been reduced by 53 percent, while the staff budget has been reduced by over 58 percent, with further cuts looming. “Without the appropriate level of resources, the capacity to fulfill my mandated responsibilities, implement the Dayton Peace Agreement and fulfill the conditions for closure is restricted,” Intzko told the Security Council.

However, the increasingly unstable situation in the country has led many public figures and media to publicly demand a reaction from his office. The response usually comes through media appearances or press releases, if a response is given.

The last time the OHR publicly commented was after Dodik announced the establishment of a reserve police unit in Republika Srpska, while Izetbegović responded that the Federation might follow suit.

On this occasion, the office commented that there are no reasons for the creation of such units.

“However, bearing in mind that the parliamentary procedure is still ongoing, we invite officials of RS to timely direct all amendments for discussion among domestic and international actors, and we remind you that the establishment of reserve units must be in accordance with the needs under the competencies of RS,” the office’s response states.

“Your attitude is a variation of the famous Socrates’ thought: ‘I know that I know nothing,’ which is carved into the foundations and roof of European philosophy.” Andrej Nikolaidis, author

Andrej Nikolaidis, author

Noted author Andrej Nikolaidis responded to this press release by publishing an open letter to the high representative in which he sarcastically said that he views the stance expressed by the OHR as “weighed out, rational, and deeply European.”

“Let me clear it up for those who don’t understand it: Your attitude is a variation of the famous Socrates’ thought: ‘I know that I know nothing,’ which is carved into the foundations and roof of European philosophy,” Nikolaidis wrote.

“To mock your attitude, that you don’t know what Milorad Dodik does and why, while you know that you don’t know, essentially means mocking not only Western foreign policy, which you are an exponent of, but also mocking Western philosophy, of which you are a follower,” he continued.

“Finally, isn’t it the essence of Daytonian Bosnia and Herzegovina that it never becomes clear to anybody what kind of fool ever came up with such a country, nor how such a country even functions? Is it not, then, the truth that mocking your ‘I don’t understand’ attitude is essentially an anti-Daytonian stance? Just as every clarity is deeply anti-Daytonian, if you allow me to notice.”

At the beginning of the year, the high representative also received an open letter from a group of “citizens of BiH living in the U.S.,” as they refer to themselves. In it, they invited him to “stop insulting our intelligence, together with politicians who you allow to do the same, and to start doing your job, fairly, or to stand down out of weakness or moral reasons,” while calling on the EU special representative in BiH to do the same.

Neither letter received a response. At least, not publicly.

In the meantime, the gates at the entrance to the building where the Office of the High Representative is located remains firmly closed, with an armed police officer standing in front of it and security personnel behind the impenetrable glass.

And what is going on inside remains a secret to the vast majority of people living in BiH.K

High Representatives & Bonn Powers decisions

  • Carl Bild, Sweden (December 1995 - June 1997) - mandate prior to Bonn Powers introduction

  • Carlos Westendorp, Spain (June 1997 - July 1999) - 80 decisions

  • Wolfgang Petritsch, Austria (August 1999 - May 2002) - 242 decisions

  • Paddy Ashdown, UK (May 2002 - January 2006) - 430 decisions

  • Christian Schwarz-Schilling, Germany (January 2006 - July 2007) - 66 decisions

  • Miroslav Lajčak, Slovakia (July 2007 - March 2009) - 30 decisions

  • Valentin Inzko, Austria (March 2009 - ongoing) - 50 decisions

Feature image: Nidžara Ahmetašević / K2.0.