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

Bosnia: Calls for End to Days of the Consuls?

Sarajevo leaders seize on a series of international scandals to press the West into giving them more control over the country.
By Amra Kebo

For the first time since the end of the Balkan wars, Bosnia is stirring with a desire to stand on its own feet without international supervision. Triggering the new attitude has been a crop of scandals showing the country's Western overlords, who have guided its post-war fortunes, are themselves by no means free of incompetence - or worse.


"We need expert assistance from the international community but we don't need other people to make decisions for us any more," Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnia's premier said during a visit to Brussels last week. And in what could signal a new era in the attitude of Bosnia's leadership, Lagumdzija went on, "The role of the international community is to help us, but not to work, think and decide for us."


The statement surprised Bosnian and international officials alike. Often during the past decade Western leaders appeared more concerned than Bosnia's own leaders about the country's well-being. This was especially so during and immediately after the war when nationalist-oriented, corrupt and incapable authorities appeared keener to acquire money and political status than to further state interests.


As a result, it was the West which had to run most everyday affairs, including legislation and the appointment (and occasional sacking) of local officials. An international authority was essential to override petty political squabbling and impose a common currency, license plate and numerous other practical steps to make the country work. However, this situation started to change after the election of November 2000, when moderate parties took over the leadership of the Bosniak - Croat Federation and won considerable influence in the other Bosnian entity, Republika Srpska.


Since then, international organisations working in Bosnia have come under public pressure to improve their performance. This attention was heightened by the outcry over a tender for the franchise to provide the third mobile telephone service in Bosnia. Some accused Western officials of letting the tender go for a giveaway price.


It turned out that the Communications Regulatory Agency, CRA - a body set up by the main international authority here, the Office of the High Representative, OHR, in 1998, to issue communications licences - had set the tender at a price equivalent to two million German marks. Critics said this represented around a tenth of its real value.


Local media denounced it as robbery. They suggested that some foreign officials in Bosnia had sought to fix the tender price to favour a specific Western company. "National resources cannot be sold for two million marks," Lagumdzija said. He insisted the tender be reopened and the price increased.


The former US ambassador to Bosnia, Thomas Miller, also asked the agency to reopen the tender. He explained that the American Western Wireless Company wanted to compete for the business but had not had enough time to assess it.


For weeks the CRA refused to back down, despite government pressure. The agency continued to receive backing from Bosnia's top Western official, High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch. The affair soured relations to the point where Lagumdzija refused to meet Petritsch and the CRA head, Jerker Torngren, citing "other important obligations".


Eventually the CRA cancelled the tender but Torngren denied this was due to government pressure. He said it was because one company had withdrawn completely from the tender and another had pulled out partially.


While the mobile phone dispute was still raging, the Bosnian leadership clashed with the OHR on yet another issue. This was a report that the OHR was ready to hand out the job of printing new Bosnian identity cards to the giant Siemens company.


The project, which would establish the first proper register of all Bosnian citizens, was said to be worth about 50 million German marks. But Sarajevo leaders claimed the price was too high and the deal too cloaked in secrecy.


"The deal was too unclear although OHR claims it has acted properly," said Svetozar Mihajlovic, Bosnian state minister for civil affairs and communications. A commission formed by the state government reported it had found a number of irregularities in the process, including the way in which Siemens was chosen and the price that was accepted by OHR's political team.


OHR denied the charges and warned that affairs like this could jeopardise future foreign investment. Later, however, OHR said the deal with Siemens was never finalised and agreed that the Bosnian leadership should take a prominent role in such matters.


But scandals kept popping up. OHR again came under fire over the conduct of an independent audit of one of the biggest companies in Herzegovina, Aluminium Mostar. Bosnian leaders and local media challenged the audit's finding that the privatisation of the company, which had taken place during and after the war, was legal.


They claimed that several Bosnian Croat political leaders, war-lords, shady businessmen and criminals participated in the transaction which was made possible by a sudden decrease in the company's value, from a pre-war figure of 1.4 billion marks to 190 million marks.


Aluminium Mostar currently employs 30,000 workers, most of whom are Bosnian Croats, and registers annual export worth more then 350 million marks. The British Ambassador to Bosnia, Graham Hand, said the privatisation of Aluminium was criminal because it was carried out after its real value was artificially reduced.


While these disputes were still raging, the independent watchdog Transparency International issued a report entitled: "Even the International Community Is Not Immune to the Plague of Corruption". Although the report proved to be nothing much more than a compilation of media articles, it struck near panic into much of the international community in Bosnia. Later Boris Divjak, president of the Transparency International office in the country, claimed the West had tried to stifle the report.


All these events indicate that, for a change, the pressure for improved performance is being directed at the international community rather than local leaders. At the same time, at least some Bosnian authorities appear ready to shoulder responsibility free from international supervision.


Ironically, this should please the OHR. Wolfgang Petritsch has long supported a model of "partnership and local ownership". But other Western officials still believe Bosnia is not yet ready to control its own fate.


Amra Kebo is IWPR's assistant editor in Bosnia, and editor with the Sarajevo daily, Oslobodjenje.


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