Bosnia: A New Sort of Government

Changes in central government have disturbed some nationalists and foreign observers.

Bosnia: A New Sort of Government

Changes in central government have disturbed some nationalists and foreign observers.

After three months of political bargaining following the October 5 general election, Bosnia-Herzegovina has formed a new central state government, which will have some new powers that in the past belonged to entity administrations.


The new Council of Ministers bears the stamp of Bosnia's top international mediator, High Representative Paddy Ashdown. He ruled that central government should have three more ministries than the existing five, as well as a completely different internal set up. The objective was to achieve more efficient institutions.


But international and local analysts fear the new system might create more problems than it solves. They say the new government is not only unconstitutional but also confusing.


Particularly unhappy with the new arrangement was the Serbian half of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, RS, which always preferred to keep central government at arm's length.


Nikola Grabovac, economics professor and former federal finance minister, said he was sceptical about the new look authority. "These (new) ministries are not constitutional and once they start proposing legislation they might meet resistance in parliament," he said.


The three central ministries prescribed by the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 were foreign affairs, foreign trade and civil affairs. Human Rights and Finance were added by parliament in the spring of 2000, and now justice, security, and transportation have been created.


Ever since the signing of Dayton, which has served as the country's constitution after the war, RS tried to undermine the authority of central government. The Bosnian Serb entity sought to retain as much power as possible for itself and to develop strong links with Serbia.


Also likely to arouse Serb displeasure is the way the new government will be run.


Previously, each ministry was represented by a Bosnian Serb, Croat and Muslim (Bosniak), who rotated between the post of minister and two deputy ministerial positions. Every decision required the consent of all three. In addition, all ministers served terms as premier and deputy premier.


Now, following Ashdown's decision, things are much simpler. The posts of premier and two deputy prime ministers will be fixed positions. And the heads of the ministries are to have only one deputy and will not be rotated either. The country's three ethnic groups will be equally represented in the new configuration.


Ashdown imposed the changes last December to improve the central government's work and cost-effectiveness.


However, some foreign and local analysts warn that his decision may have been too hasty. They believe Ashdown should have amended the constitution first before tinkering with government structure. They point out that the new ministries have no proper job descriptions spelled out in law.


Mark Wheeler, head of the leading think-tank International Crisis Group in Bosnia, said this would make it rather hard for them to function.


"Until we see what the competencies of the ministries are, we won't know if this is the huge breakthrough toward creating a more functional, coherent and competent state," Wheeler said.


Analysts say the problems are further exacerbated by the way in which ministers are appointed. First of all, the prime minister designate has little or no say on who the latter should be. Instead, they are proposed by the ruling parties and have to be vetted and approved by Ashdown before parliament can vote on them.


"In any normal country, the prime minister - with the approval of the parties - would be able to choose the people he will work with," Wheeler said.


Another problem could be in financing the new, larger government. Most of the customs, taxes and other sources of budget income have so far been the responsibility of RS and the other Bosnian entity, the Federation, which then paid fixed amounts to the central budget.


Ashdown aims to divert some customs duties to the central budget and to introduce a new, state-level Value-Added Tax, VAT. While the former could happen by the end of the year, the latter,analysts say, may require at least 18 months.


Very few nationalist politicians, who are now slowly coming back to power, dare to oppose Ashdown openly on this issue. However, it is expected they will do their utmost to slow down and eventually block the process.


Grabovac was sceptical about the transfer of customs to state level because it would leave the Federation and RS without income to pay for things like the army and war invalids. "Customs account for 70 per cent of government income. Of course (the authorities) are opposed to losing them," he said.


The opposition would have been even stronger and more public had Ashdown decided to proceed with the introduction of a new joint, state-level defence ministry, according to Wheeler. There was broad media speculation that this might be on the cards.


"If Ashdown had imposed a common defence ministry, protesters would have come out on the streets," Wheeler said. "The war was not so long ago, which is why we have two armies. No one will take to the streets to protest against VAT."


Wheeler stressed that a common defence ministry would eventually be required for Bosnia's membership in NATO's Partnership for Peace programme.


He said international players believed a strengthening of the country's central state structures and the further diminution of entity powers would enable it to function better and improve its prospects of joining the European Union.


And Wheeler believes that Brussels should get more involved in advancing this process.


"In the past, EU left it to candidate countries to fulfil the requirements for accession. In Bosnia, there is no government capable of doing that. There will have to be some kind of provisional arrangement whereby EU takes Bosnia by the hand and shows it what to do, " he said.


Grabovac agrees that the current government structures in Bosnia are not viable and that unless central authority is increased the state will simply wither away.


Daniela Valenta is a freelance journalist based in Sarajevo.


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