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

Bosnia & Hercegovina: The Dysfunctional State

The continuing weakness of the Bosnian state appears to be the major obstacle blocking the road to Europe.
By Nerma Jelacic

A rare tourist wandering into Bosnia and Hercegovina's capital city, Sarajevo, might well be forgiven for thinking this Balkan country is on the doorstep of becoming a member of the European Union.


A ride on an EU-sponsored tram downtown would take him or her past billboards advertising the EU's activities and agencies in Bosnia and the prosperity that flows from membership of this select club.


But behind the billboards, there are bombed-out buildings, pensioners can be seen digging through rubbish containers looking for yesterday's newspapers and even food, and homeless and war invalids sit begging for money.


Sights like this make even the thickest-skinned tourist realise that the EU remains a dream for this war-ravaged country. Despite the end of the conflict eight years ago, Bosnia is only starting out along the thorny path to Europe.




Bosnia has made significant progress since the early Nineties, when harrowing images of a country mired in conflict filled western television screens.


The peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995, ended a war that had raged for three-and-a-half years. The settlement divided the former Yugoslav republic into two entities, the Federation and Republika Srpska, each with its own government, institutions and legal system. An internationally appointed High Representative, HR, was brought in to oversee the peace process.


But while Dayton served its purpose well enough - to end the war - it has become blindingly clear that overarching institutions in the country, which are capable of speaking for both entities, need to be strengthened if Bosnia is to realise its ambition of being accepted in the NATO Partnership for Peace programme, PfP, and the EU.


In 2000, an EU "road map" identified eighteen initial steps that Bosnia needed to make before negotiations could even begin on taking the first step towards Brussels in the form of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, SAA.


By September 2002, these initial road map steps had mostly been taken, though many had only been achieved through the direct intervention of the international community in the form of the HR.


In 2003, both the EU and the PfP programme had expressed their willingness to see Bosnia become a member - but not until the country itself had undertaken major reforms that would demonstrate the country was truly unified and able to speak with one voice.


This remains improbable, however, while both entities continue their agenda of protecting their own ethnic majority interests. In reality, the entities' local institutions continue to overshadow and overawe the weak and largely neglected state institutions.


The international community (and some local politicians) fear Bosnia's current administrative system is far too complex and cumbersome to steer the country towards EU membership.


But the two statelets have rebuffed calls to make amendments to the Dayton constitution, especially the Republika Srpska, RS, which fervently defends its right to protect the territory and the powers it gained under the 1995 peace deal.


"The Dayton Peace Agreement is one of the obstacles to a functioning state in Bosnia and Hercegovina," Doris Pack, the European parliament's chief representative for Southeast Europe, told IWPR. "It has become an obstacle to European integration."


"The state is still extremely weak," agreed Marcus Cox, an analyst for the European Stability Initiative. "Institutions show little signs that they even know what their problem is.


"The practical level of governance is a problem that needs resolving first. Nobody knows who is responsible for what."


The continuing weakness of the state appears to be the major obstacle blocking the road to Europe. Both local analysts and international officials worry that without a revision of the Dayton deal, the doors of the EU could remain closed to Bosnia for ever.




The difficulty of fulfilling reforms has become even more apparent since the European Commission last year agreed to undertake a feasibility study to assess Bosnia's readiness to take the next steps towards European integration.


Everyone knew that a negative answer would have damaged the standing of politicians on both sides of the ethnic divide - albeit a minority - who are willing to overlook their ethnic differences in favour of common progress towards Europe.


Therefore, the feasibility study’s "Yes, but" answer at this stage did not come as a surprise.


In its report, the EC said it hoped to be able to recommend the opening of negotiations on a SAA next year "on condition that [Bosnia] makes significant progress in a number of areas identified as priorities for action".


A 16-point list of proposed reforms was handed to Bosnian authorities.


Europe's demands centred on compliance with existing international obligations, more effective governance, a more effective public administration, more effective human rights provisions, judicial reform, a drive against organised crime, more effective management of asylum and migration, customs and tax reform, budget legislation, the production of reliable statistics, a more consistent trade policy, the creation of an integrated energy market, the creation of a single economic space and reforms to public broadcasting.


The government embraced Europe's "Yes, but" answer with euphoria and most of the media - joined by the politicians - was soon promising that the "significant progress" that the EC was seeking would be achieved by the middle of 2004.


The government's Directorate for European Integration drew up an ambitious plan of legislation, which foresaw the creation of 45 new laws and 25 new institutions to ensure that the EC's shopping list of reforms were dealt with.


Five months after the feasibility study was prepared, however, the international community, analysts and the media were all ringing alarm bells.


On March 10 this year, the HR, Paddy Ashdown, sharply criticised the nationalist parties that rule both entities for obstructing the reforms and Bosnia's road to Europe.


The Bosnia authorities, he said were "missing many of their self-imposed deadlines for the start of the SAA agreement", he said.


"Not one of the 16 reforms has been implemented," echoed the headlines in Slobodna Bosna magazine.


Tarik Djodjic, economic adviser to Adnan Terzic, chair of the Bosnia and Hercegovina Council of Ministers, which oversees the reform process from within the Department for European Integration, says this assertion is wrong.


"In each of the 16 reforms we have made progress," he insisted. "What we are doing at the moment cannot be judged by numbers."


But a March 31 EC report on the progress of the reform process says that while modest progress has been made by Bosnia, not one of the reforms has been completed in full.


Michael Humphreys, head of the European Commission Delegation to Bosnia and Hercegovina, reiterated to IWPR that the feasibility study had not set in stone a deadline for the fulfilment of the 16 points; it just wanted "significant progress" made within a year.


While Humphreys was reluctant to issue judgements over Bosnia's progress, he did venture that "reforms could be speedier".


"We are still a long way from having an efficient and functioning state,” he said.


However, the office of the High Representative, OHR, was more vocal in its dissatisfaction with Bosnia’s wobbly progress.


"OHR's view, and we will make this clear to the EC, is that [Bosnia] is not making enough progress," Julian Braithwaite, OHR's director of communications, told IWPR.




While both the international community and government officials agree Bosnia has made some progress in several areas- they cite reform of the judiciary, a new law on prevention of money laundering and the establishment of the State Agency for Information and Protection, SIPA - major problems remain unsolved.


One is the law on a unified Public Service Broadcasting, PBS. Bosnia's main television station is still divided into two at the entity level, while the international community wants to see the both parts united - and tangibly freed from political control.


"We must make sure the PBS can never again be misused to create ethnic division," Humphreys told IWPR.


On March 14, the OHR said a draft law on the PBS that had been put in front of Council of Ministers was not good enough. It failed to "truly unify the public service, its infrastructure and products", the OHR complained, urging the Council to reject the proposed legislation.


Another serious obstacle that is unlikely to be resolved before the end of the year is the establishment of full cooperation with the Hague tribunal.


The court wants above all to see the arrest and handover of the its two most important indicted war criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic - the former Bosnian Serb political and military chiefs respectively - as well as full access to documents relating to them and other suspects.


However, Republika Srpska - where the two men remain popular folk heroes - shows few signs of willingness to tackle the issue beyond issuing vague declarations of intent. Considerable outside pressure on the entity to arrest Karadzic and Mladic and open its archives to tribunal prosecutors has not borne fruit.


The latest monthly update on Bosnia's progress to Europe released by the Department for European Integration on March 16 noted that the most recent deadline for bringing indicted war criminals to justice had expired on January 1.




Most of Bosnia's citizens would like to share in the relative prosperity that EU membership promises to bring. However, a recent poll by the Croatia-based Prizma research agency on behalf of the United Nations Development Programme in Bosnia shows membership is not a priority among any of the three ethnic communities that make up the country.


In the Republika Srpska, in particular, many people strongly oppose sacrificing the entity's independence in the interests of European integration. "The view of the Serb people that the Serb Republic must not be abolished has to be respected," Republika Srpska president, Dragan Cavic, said in February, "because if there was no future for the Republika Srpska, there would be no future for Bosnia and Hercegovina."


On a more emollient note, however, Cavic added, "If we want to preserve the Republika Srpska, we must not allow ourselves to be guilty of the non-functioning of Bosnia and Hercegovina."


The Bosnian Serbs are not the only parties guilty for the state's "non-functioning". While Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats often outwardly appear more supportive of integration and of undertaking whatever constitutional changes will expedite this, their parties are sometimes as obstructive as their Bosnian Serb counterparts.


Early in March, for example, Ashdown accused the main Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, of holding up the process of transferring judicial competencies to state level. The HR has also accused the principal Bosnian Croat party, the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, of blocking the creation of a unified school system.


Nevertheless, it remains true that both the people and political leaders of the Federation tend to offer less resistance to plans to weaken or even abolish the entities in the interest of EU membership.




As criticisms from the HR intensify and deadlines fly by, there seems little chance of Bosnia surmounting the challenges that Europe has laid down - at least, by the end of this year.


The EC feasibility study obliges Bosnia to show enough independence and maturity as a state to permit the HR "to become at most a facilitator and mediator".


But this is not happening. Instead of initiating changes on its own, Bosnia continues to wait for the international community to act on its behalf.


"The international community continues to take on the responsibility of making the major decisions," Cox said. "In a democracy, governments work when they are forced to work. Bosnia needs that kind of a democratic pressure.


"Bosnians themselves do not expect much from their own politicians but turn to the international community."


Cox feels Bosnia is not doing much to make itself more attractive to the EU, "The EU is not going to come to Bosnia; Bosnia has to go to them and say - these are the reasons why you should take us on."


According to Humphreys, even Bosnia's muddled state structure as it now stands ought to have been able to implement more reforms than it has done. "They [the reforms] are not that huge," he told IWPR.


He also expresses concern about the amount of time and energy the international community is still spending in Bosnia, "At some stage the international community has to stand back."


According to Braithwaite, "Bosnia has to realise that the longer it relies on our help the further away they will remain from the EU."


However, some outside experts place more stress on the progress that has been made so far. "Bosnia does what it can to fulfil the reforms required by the EC," Pack said. "There is an efficient Department for European Integration. I just do not know if they can do it all in time. The current state structure is the problem."


The active presence of so many international bodies in Bosnia, she continued, is not always a help, adding “to the already complicated structure of the state".


"Bosnians find themselves lost in a forest of different agendas and sometimes do not know which way to turn," she said.


From the perspective of the Bosnian authorities, the country has advanced enormously since the end of the war in 1995 and the state is already much stronger than before.


"The international community must realise we need some time to implement all the decisions," said Djodjic. "This is a revolutionary change to the structure in which we have lived until now.


"Europe has its plan for Bosnia and we want to be in Europe. We will make ourselves desirable for the EU."




Even if the EC does not agree there has been "significant progress" this year, there is still hope of long-term inclusion in one of the world's most exclusive clubs.


The EU has invested huge sums in the country for one thing, and later this year it will increase its stake in the country when it assumes peace-keeping duties from SFOR.


Simply geo-political reasons, according to some analysts, dictate that Bosnia will not be abandoned in the long term.


"To have a black hole is not in Europe's strategic interest," Cox said. "In principle, the EU has never showed enthusiasm to take on countries from the Balkans. But strategically they have to remain involved. The region has already cost them a lot of money."


Despite the delays that have held back even the most basic reforms, some officials doggedly stick to a prediction that Bosnia will join the EU by 2009.


According to Adnan Terzic, chair of the Council of Ministers, the spring of 2009 will see his country finally inside the union.


But most outsiders, however benevolent, dismiss this date as totally unrealistic. "The government can forget its target date of 2009," said Pack. "Instead of setting dates they should deal with their internal problems. There are too many problems to sort out in a few years. It is too soon to be predicting dates of accession."


Humphreys agreed, "2009 is not a realistic time. We will not give a time-table and if we did it would not be exactly stimulating."


Nerma Jelacic is IWPR project manager in Sarajevo.

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