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

Bosnia: Ashdown Raises Expectations

Much is expected of the new high representative, but he warns that he is no miracle-worker.
By Sead Numanovic

Within days of arriving in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown - the country's new top international official - showed the people that he means business.

Surveying his Office of the High Representative headquarters, he ordered its oppressive iron security gates be taken down and asked that the Bosnian flag fly proudly from the roof of the building.

These decisions filled the people of Sarajevo with fresh hope - but they also gave the former leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats an immediate example of the problems he will face here. For four days later, the gates had still not been removed. "It turns out that all the Sarajevo electricians are busy with preparations for the big fair( a reference to a business exhibition in the city)," Ashdown told IWPR.

The new high representative will have to work within a sluggish infrastructure and will meet resistance at both local and international level - but he has been received with such high expectation, nonetheless.

Hard work and international aid have helped Bosnia to recover from the war and move on. The country is almost back to where it was at before the conflict erupted. However, economic and social reforms were slow in coming, as was a much-needed change in the national mindset.

Aid is decreasing every year and Bosnia is struggling to compensate for this. Meanwhile, the international community is trying to find new ways to speed up further reform and push the nation along the road to self-sufficiency.

Ashdown's appointment reflects this new hope. He took over the role of High Representative from Wolfgang Petritsch, and is the fourth statesman to occupy the post since 1996.

This experienced politician and mediator is under no illusion as to the difficulty of the post. "I would say that expectations are too high. I am not a miracle-maker with sacks of golden coins to throw around," he said. "The main burden lies with you, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina, not me. It is not a question of whether I will succeed, but whether you will succeed."

Ashdown will have to lower expectations to a reasonable level. Otherwise, the brilliant speeches he has made could soon rebound on him.

His predecessor Petritsch cleared the way by making numerous decisions and imposing laws which changed the very constitutional structure of Bosnian society, and many local and western experts believe that he has been the most efficient high representative to date.

He sacked 64 local politicians and officials and imposed 246 laws and other decisions. Yet with his low profile and reputation as a patient and persevering man, Petritsch never raised expectations significantly.

A relatively unknown diplomat when he arrived, he pushed through a number of important initiatives, but some failures in the field of economy, rule of law and human rights weighed heavily on him, and in his farewell interviews he confessed to being bitter at leaving.

His biggest achievement, an agreement on constitutional changes, passed virtually unnoticed in the world, despite it being extremely significant development for Bosnia. The deal should guarantee constituent status and equality to all ethnic groups in the country.

Ashdown, however, has arrived with an aura of celebrity. This is a man with a proven track record in the region.

He advocated military intervention against the rebel Bosnian Serbs, famously obtained a hand-drawn map of the proposed forceful division of the country from the late Croat president Franjo Tudjman, and used it in his testimony against former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Some factions in the country may have seen his past roles as a sign that Ashdown favours Bosniaks, but reactions to his arrival and his first few public addresses have been extremely positive from almost all sides of this very complicated local political scene.

His research and groundwork has also contributed to the sense of anticipation. Months before his official inauguration, Ashdown visited the country several times and travelled to many world political centres, receiving firm support from all he met.

Ashdown also participated in so-called "streamlining" of the international community in Bosnia - a process started by Petritsch a year ago - which is supposed to ensure better strategic cooperation of all key international organisations and agencies working in the country.

In his first few days in the office, Ashdown has made it clear that he will focus on tackling crime and corruption in the country, and on bringing Bosnia closer to its goal of joining the European Union

Sead Numanovic is a journalist with the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz