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

Bosnia: Mostar Future in Ashdown's Hands

Paddy Ashdown may move to unify the city after local politicians fail to reach an agreement over its future.
By Mirsad Behram

The High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina appears likely to issue a decree on the future status of Mostar, after local political leaders failed to unify the ethnically divided city.

As the international community prepares to complete the restoration of Mostar’s ancient bridge - whose destruction during the war cemented the ethnic partition of the city - it has become apparent that it will take a lot more than bricks and mortar to unify the capital of southeast Bosnia.

Earlier this month, the High Representative, Paddy Ashdown, criticised the local authorities for not reaching an agreement to bring together Mostar’s parallel political and economic infrastructure - a move that has led many to believe he will impose unification on the city.

A brutal war in the early Nineties effectively divided Mostar into Croat and Bosniak sectors, separated by the Neretva river - the front line during the fighting in the city. The warring factions signed a peace deal in Washington in 1994 that brought about the Bosnian federation, but a special interim status, or temporary statute, was accorded to Mostar, perpetuating ethnic separation.

Ashdown is looking to change the temporary statute as it undermines efforts by the Office of the High Representative, OHR, to integrate the two communities.

Under its interim status, Mostar was divided into six ethnic municipalities, three Bosniak and three Croat, which Ashdown wants to see merged into a single, multi-ethnic unit.

A special commission tasked with drafting a new Mostar statute was formed in April this year, on Ashdown’s initiative, and given until the end of July to come up with a solution.

But the 9-member body, comprising representatives of all three constituent people, Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, failed to achieve eight goals set out by Ashdown as basis of the new Mostar statute, among them a single budget, parliament and administration.

Internal squabbling between the local politicians has brought the commission to the point of collapse, with only five representatives left.

Not long after the commission was launched, the multi-ethnic Social Democratic Party, SDP, and the Bosniak Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, PBH, quit claiming that the way it was set up gave the nationalist Bosniak and Croat parties, the SDA and HDZ, far too much influence over decision-making.

Things came to a head in July, when the SDA withdrew from the commission after insisting that the Bosniak municipalities must be retained to prevent being “outvoted by Croats”.

Ironically, back in the Nineties, when the demography was different, the party had lobbied for a unified Mostar.

During the conflict, and in the ensuing years, some 30,000 Bosniaks and Serbs - who together made up two-thirds of the population - were forced out of the city. At the same time, there was an influx of Croats from other parts of Bosnia, appreciably boosting the community’s size.

The SDA claims that under a single municipality, the party would lose all its seats to the HDZ in next year’s elections, even if all the Bosniaks in the city voted for the SDA.

The SDP, meanwhile, has accused the OHR of collaborating with the HDZ, implying that if Ashdown were to unify the city it would only suit the Croat party’s interests.

During Ashdown’s visit to Mostar earlier this month, the SDP declared the commission was nothing but a farce and that the OHR, knowing this, already had a solution prepared in advance.

Ashdown blamed “obstructive party machines” for the commission’s failure. “For the first time, Mostar's elected representatives had an opportunity to forge a modern European administrative system for their citizens,” he said on August 1. “The failure sends a negative signal to Europe. The European countries want to see that [Bosnia’s] elected representatives are capable of resolving their own problems.”

The High Representative is unlikely to back down from his intention to unify Mostar, prompting some politicians and local analysts to suggest that he will act unilaterally on the issue, perhaps as early as September.

While Ashdown did not give any hints as to possible OHR action if a last minute compromise between the local authorities was not found, he made it clear that Mostar’s future would have to be decided before the end of December and certainly before next year’s municipal elections.

"We will use the summer break to take stock of the situation and determine how to move forward," he said. "The fact that we will have municipal elections next year means that the Mostar statute must be resolved by the end of this year. I share the impatience of Mostarians who want to see this issue resolved and the city and the services they pay taxes for become more normal."

Ashdown has left his newly appointed senior deputy High Representative, Ambassador Werner Wnendt, to coordinate dialogue on unification among local parties that walked out of the commission and those who remained.

“OHR is currently in the process of listening and meditation. We expect an update at the beginning of September when we will act accordingly,” Mario Brkic, OHR spokesperson in Sarajevo, told IWPR.

Meanwhile, as builders prepared to complete the arch over the bridge that will connect the east and west banks of the city, Mostar’s inhabitants appear resigned that not much is likely to change.

Reflecting the mood of the city’s population, Dragan, 25, expressed his disappointment at the inability of local politicians to come to an agreement, “There is still so much more that needs to be done before we can call Mostar a normal city. We, the citizens, have lost the last chance to have a say in the future running of our city. Now we sit and wait for the High Representative to make a decision for us.”

Mirsad Behram is a Mostar-based independent journalist and Nerma Jelacic is IWPR Bosnia project manager.

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