Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ashdown Celebrates Lonely Anniversary

Two years into office, the High Representative appears an increasingly isolated figure.
By Mirsad Bajtarevic

As the second anniversary of his arrival as High Representative, HR, in Bosnia-Herzegovina draws near, Paddy Ashdown is finding it harder than ever to find reliable local partners to carry out the reforms he feels are urgently needed.


Ashdown's warnings about the slow progress of reforms have become increasingly frequent and recently he has taken to pointing the finger of blame at Bosnia's ruling nationalist parties. But while the rift between the Office of High Representative, OHR, and the nationalist parties and their media allies widens, he can expect little help from the country's weakened opposition parties, or from their allies in the media.


The air of gloom now surrounding his period in office is in stark contrast with the atmosphere earlier on. When Ashdown took over from Austria's Wolfgang Petrisch on May 27, 2002, his public statements radiated optimism.


During the general election in October that year, Ashdown without hesitation said he would work with all the political parties, regardless of who won.


In the event, the victors were the same old nationalist parties that have dominated the scene since the early 1990s - the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, and Party of Democratic Action, SDA.


The fact that these same parties were in power at the start of the Bosnian conflict worried many observers inside and outside the country. But Ashdown took a different stance. Critical headlines in the liberal press such as "Back to the Future" and "Forward to the Past" were "inaccurate", he said.


"I do not believe Saturday's vote was a vote for nationalism. It was instead a vote for faster reform, for real change, for more progress," he wrote in the Financial Times on October 11 2002.


"Ask any Bosnian the question: was the last [non-nationalist] government punished for changing too much, or for changing too little? - and the answer you get could not be clearer."


Such words instantly angered the liberal press, who from then on formed a conviction that Ashdown was naïve at best - if not a supporter of the nationalist parties.


Unsurprisingly, Ashdown rejects these negative assessments of his work. He also reminds his critics that he has had little alternative but to work with the country's largest elected parties, which in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina are the three main nationalist parties.


In an interview with IWPR, the HR pointed out that he could not ride roughshod over the will of the people as it had been expressed in the ballot box in 2002.


"What could you do - reject the election results?" he asked. "I think not. My duty is to work with whatever government comes in. If there is reservation over the speed Bosnia-Herzegovina is advancing at, let me tell you that last year under this government and the people chosen by the people, things were achieved which no one believed could be done."


However, Ashdown's critics say his earlier, positive references to the nationalists have come back to haunt him since the complex reform process - designed to bring post-war Bosnia into the "country-in-transition" stage - began to hit numerous obstacles.


They point out that it is the nationalist parties that have placed most of these obstacles in Ashdown's path, especially as they warm up for the upcoming elections in October.


In March, the HR changed his attitude towards the nationalists. In a speech to the UN Security Council in New York on March 3, he warned that nationalist parties were obstructing reform and that their interests were not compatible with Bosnia's progress towards European integration or membership of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme.


He also spoke of "depressing evidence that this [election] period will not be characterised by a renewed focus on reforms but by a return to the old practices of competitive victimisation which offer, especially the nationalist parties, the best opportunity of filling their ballot boxes".


The attack irritated the nationalists. The OHR was "just casually passing the buck", fumed Josip Merdzo, HDZ member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina presidency on March 10.


Many observers concluded that the spat showed Ashdown's two years of support for the nationalists had backfired, leaving nationalists alienated and moderate opposition parties too weakened to act as a counterweight.


Rasim Kadic, leader of the opposition Liberals, said Ashdown and the European Union had erred in thinking they could bend the nationalists to their own purposes.


The HR’s statement that all parties were much the same to him had disappointed Kadic, as, he said, it appeared to favour ethnically-based parties, "Now his former favourites are coming back to haunt him."


Kadic added that the nationalists' return to office had immediately ushered in a period of economic decline. Foreign investors put 630 million KM (Convertible Marks) in Bosnia in 2001 when the non-nationalist parties were in power, compared to just 230 million KM last year.


Critics of Ashdown's strategy among the opposition are numerous. They feel Ashdown has only belatedly realised that Bosnia cannot be brought closer to Europe with the three ruling oligarchies in place.


"Unfortunately, the speed of approach to Euro-Atlantic integration and the comprehensiveness of reforms has slowed down," Zlatko Lagumdzija, the Social Democrat Party leader, told IWPR.


"Ashdown should admit in public that he has realized his mistake. Nationalism and reforms are a thing that people here call 'a wooden stove'."


Kresimir Zubak, leader of a small reformist Croatian party, the New Croatian Initiative, said Ashdown had arrived in Bosnia with too many preconceived ideas.


"His reserved stand towards the then ruling [non-nationalist] alliance surprised me," he said. "He affected the outcome of the elections with some of his decisions. It has taken time but it's not too late to realise that it is impossible to implement reforms with the national parties."


Zubak added, "I hope he has learned his lesson."


The perception that the High representative was over-indulgent towards Bosnia's nationalists also lost Ashdown the support of many NGOs.


Sabira Hadzovic, of the Congress of Bosniak Intellectuals, said sympathy was in short supply for the HR’s current political predicament. He wanted "to pass his failures on to others", she said.


"His responsibility for the situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina cannot be excluded, because he has conducted this orchestra, called the government."


Ashdown's relations with the Bosnian media have undergone a series of twists and turns.


At the start, he enjoyed - and courted - the support of Dnevni Avaz, a popular daily newspaper close to the Bosniak nationalist SDA.


Until only two months ago, it was widely perceived that the title enjoyed privileged access to the OHR.


The paper named Ashdown "Personality of the Year" in January 2003, while in his acceptance message Ashdown crowned Avaz "newspaper of the year" and "the clearest example of professional and business success".


The High representative’s apparent alliance with Avaz further angered the opposition parties and Avaz's media rivals. The magazine Dani showed its resentment by printing a front page in black as a sign of mourning for what it said was a dark day for journalism.


To make matters worse, Ashdown's smooth relationship with Avaz deteriorated in February, after he criticised its claim that Bosniaks were under-represented in the Bosnian judiciary.


He also refused to support the paper's assertion that Sarajevo's cantonal court was guilty of imposing censorship, when it punished Avaz for writing untruths about the opposition leader Zlatko Lagumdzija.


The daily promptly expressed its dissatisfaction with a front-page headline demanding Ashdown's resignation - beside a months-old photograph of Ashdown standing besides local Serbs from the town of Bileca under a portrait of Radovan Karadzic, the indicted war criminal and former Bosnian Serb leader.


The loss of Avaz's support could cost the HR. As the highest-circulation paper, its positive profiling of Ashdown boosted his image among the population at large.


Julian Braithwaite, Ashdown's director of communications, told a recent IWPR conference in Sarajevo that the OHR had no permanent friends in the media.


The OHR was entitled to use the top-selling organ to get its message across to the widest possible audience, he added, and this should not be taken as an expression of the OHR's approval of the paper's editorial policy.


Ashdown has now changed tack with the media, granting increasingly frequent exclusive interviews to the Federation's second highest-circulation paper, Oslobodjenje, with whom past relations were not so good. But this title has a much lower circulation than Dnevni Avaz, so its articles inevitably have less effect.


Dani editor Senad Pecanin, a trenchant critic of Ashdown's strategy, says the OHR is "in a situation of his own making". He added, "He was warned for years that his decision to find allies in the ruling nationalist structures was wrong and would cost Bosnia-Herzegovina dearly."


Instead, Pecanin says, Ashdown "acted with arrogance, mocking well-intentioned warnings. Now he has finally seen that the people who warned him were right".


Bakhatyar Aljaf, director of the Ljubljana-based International Institute for Middle Eastern and Balkan studies, IFIMES, agrees that Ashdown made a fundamental error when he imagined former warriors could be made into reliable partners.


"Ashdown has paid a price for his delusion that the greatest and most responsible protagonists of war can be reformers in peace," he said.


Slavo Kukic, a sociology professor in Sarajevo, suggests the OHR may find it hard to pursue an alternative strategy.


"After the break with Dnevni Avaz and the incompetence of the three ruling oligarchies in implementing reforms, Ashdown will have to think of alternatives, which are uncertain at present," he said.


As the country gears up for the October local elections, media pundits wonder what approach Ashdown will take now to bring new life to the reform process.


According to Kukic, the HR has a couple of possibilities. One is to push through reforms on his own. A second is to draw closer to the opposition and to civic - as opposed to nationalist - groups and parties. A final option is to call early parliamentary elections in the hope that a fresh line-up of political actors will appear.


But none looks especially promising. If Ashdown takes matters into his own hands to implement key reforms, he will be admitting his failure to create a mature political environment. Moreover, the European Commission has said the Bosnia-Herzegovina authorities must demonstrate they have the maturity to push through reforms by themselves. As for the opposition parties, they no longer look strong enough to benefit much from extraordinary elections.


The HR himself, however, remains bullish about his record and prospects. Recalling several areas where unexpected progress has been made under the nationalist-led government, Ashdown said that no one had believed either of the two entities in Bosnia-Herzegovina would surrender control over their armed forces to the state.


"No one [also] believed that we would make a national system of indirect taxation or a state security service," he said.


"Bosnia will not become Switzerland overnight," he predicted. "That is a long road and process. [But] The local authorities have taken the first steps on that road and it's good for others to see what has been done."


And he concluded, "You would have to be blind and mistaken to say that reforms were not done. This country has opened the way to Europe and NATO with this government."


Mirsad Bajtarevic is a reporter for BH Radio One and Nerma Jelacic IWPR’s country director in Sarajevo.