Bosnia Not Ready To Assume 'Ownership' Of The Peace Process

Recent comments that Bosnia is nearing readiness to assume "ownership" of the peace process begs the question - which local institutions and individuals should be entrusted with such responsibility?

Bosnia Not Ready To Assume 'Ownership' Of The Peace Process

Recent comments that Bosnia is nearing readiness to assume "ownership" of the peace process begs the question - which local institutions and individuals should be entrusted with such responsibility?

Four years after the end of the war, Wolfgang Petritsch, the international community's 'High Representative' in Bosnia has begun to talk of "Bosnian ownership" of the peace process.

This may prove to be a bold new initiative, or it may risk much of what has been achieved since the end of the fighting.

At present, the international community is active in all areas of Bosnian political, social and economic life. It is routine for diplomats to seek to influence the appointment of presidents and government ministers, the selection of policemen and municipal officials, the development of school curriculums, the allocation of housing, the investigation of political and economic crime, and the content of local media.

At the same time, the Office of the High Representative drafts and often imposes the bulk of the legislative programme at state and entity levels, from witness protection to property law, from national symbols to privatisation, from telecommunications to administrative fees.

Most observers agree that building peace in Bosnia requires an external authority with powers such as those exercised by the High Representative. The problem is that so far, despite its intrusive role, the international community has failed to achieve breakthroughs on substantive issues, which might contribute to a self-sustaining peace process.

The concept of "ownership" raises one obvious question, namely to which individuals or local institutions should "ownership" be entrusted? For this to be constructive, it is essential to determine which institutions are capable of taking responsibility for the public good, and distinguish them from those which are a result of the distortions of Bosnian society during the past decade.

The forces at play within Bosnian society are more complex than they first appear. Inter-ethnic conflict may seem to be the dominant feature, and the root cause of resistance to the goals of the peace process.

However, ethnic reconciliation represents only one axis of the peace process. The other axis is the transition from a communist to a free society, building an infrastructure of democratic and free-market institutions, laws and traditions from a limited base.

The nationalist parties in power in Bosnia inherited the communist party's tools of social and economic control. In the course of nearly four years of war, they seized yet more power, via their monopoly on violence and their control of informal economic activity.

The key element of the present power structure is what in the former Soviet Union was called the 'nomenklatura' system. One dominant party through its various bodies and committees controls all significant appointments, promotions, allocation of privileges and dismissals. This prerogative of selection covers all of the institutions of state, including the legislature and judiciary, as well as managerial positions in the economy.

The all-pervasive infiltration of public institutions by party personnel keeps them subordinate to the party, which maintains loyalty and discipline by excluding dissenting voices from influential positions.

The nomenklatura system eliminates the separation of powers, irrespective of what the constitution may provide, and the continuation of these structures means that there is no institutional separation between politics and the economy, whether in the private or public sector.

So long as this system remains intact, the new institutions created under the Dayton Agreement will not acquire real authority.

Since these power structures are fundamentally incompatible with the rule of law and economic development, it is not surprising to see the nationalist regimes entering into a period of institutional crisis. While they may be influential enough to block international programmes, they are far from stable.

Changes in the regional context - the prospect of political change in

Zagreb and the decline in Belgrade's power - are eroding sources of external support, while the climate of inter-ethnic hostility within Bosnia is no longer sufficient to mask their inability to deliver basic social services.

The crisis is most advanced in Republika Srpska, where the entity institutions have not functioned effectively for more than 12 months, but is also becoming apparent in Croat-controlled areas and could spread throughout the country as international support is reduced.

As cracks in the nationalist power structures begin to appear, it is not the opposition parties or civil society movements which are rising to challenge them, but expanding criminal networks and growing social unrest.

If democratic institutions are not ready in time to take over governance, the result could be state collapse. The deep crisis in governance at all levels is masked at this moment by the support of the international community.

Much international strategy to date has been directed at building institutions, which exercise no effective power. This is particularly the case for the joint institutions at state level, which enjoy no support from the Croat and Serb participants.

However, working directly with the institutions - mediating disputes, building administrative support - will not of itself accomplish a shift in power away from the nationalist regimes. Using the authority of the High Representative to prop them up or bypass them when they become deadlocked also fails to address the real problem.

The prevalence of nationalist rhetoric in Bosnian politics should not deceive the international community into believing that hostility between ethnic groups is the principal obstacle to the peace process. Progress can only be made by dismantling the power structures which the nationalists parties manipulate, and changing the way power is exercised.

By directing its attention to the structural problems, the international community can begin to work towards "Bosnian ownership" of the peace process. However, it is clearly unhelpful to talk of handing over responsibility for building a state, reintegrating the ethnic groups or modernising the economy to power structures fundamentally opposed to these programmes.

Christopher Bennett is a senior editor at IWPR and a founder member of the Berlin based European Stability Initiative. Details of the think tank's new report, Bosnian Power Structures, is available by e-mail from

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