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

Bosnia's British Bulldozer

Paddy Ashdown is determined to clear path to progress by any means necessary.
By Janez Kovac

High Representative Paddy Ashdown is to bulldoze through some of the bureaucratic and administrative obstacles hindering Bosnia’s progress.


The mediator last week announced the establishment of a new committee, comprising a number of key western organisations and esteemed local businessmen, whose task will be to clear the way for international and domestic investments believed to be the only way out of Bosnia’s stale economic situation.


The name of the new group, the Bulldozer Committee, perfectly reflects the style Ashdown has displayed in the first six months of his mandate.


Before the initiative was launched, Britain’s former Liberal Democrat leader had already sacked seven officials - including the head of the Federation’s intelligence agency.


Two days after the formation of the committee, the number rose to eight with the dismissal of Pero Markovic from his post as general manager of the Suma Herceg Bosne company. The Office of the High Representative, OHR, said the official had been fired for his “long record of grossly and exceptionally mismanaging public resources”.


Ashdown’s attitude - proactive and even aggressive at times - is a refreshing novelty even for a Bosnian people long used to international intervention.


The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement established the OHR as a form of partial international protectorate for the divided country. However, the first High Representative, Sweden’s Carl Bildt, 1995-7, had little effective power and struggled through a series of exasperating negotiations in an attempt to get things done.


But his successor Carlos Westendorp, 1997-99, a former Spanish foreign minister, was given enough authority to impose laws and remove disobedient local politicians.


These powers were used to the full by the third High Representative Wolfgang Petrisch, 1999-2002, an Austrian diplomat. He cleared the way for Ashdown by sacking 64 local hard liners and passing 246 laws including those designed to protect ethnic minority groups and advance the democratic process at state and entity level


This backfired against Petrisch, however, after nationalist parties blocked the implementation of many of his new laws.


When Ashdown took over, he signaled his intentions by ordering the removal of the imposing security gate from the entrance to OHR’s Sarajevo headquarters. He said his style was to be different - oriented more towards partnership with local leaders.


But only few days after his arrival, he sacked his first local leader - federal finance minister Nikola Grabovac.


He has already pushed through almost one third of the number of changes made by his predecessor in only half a year and could very soon exceed Petrisch’s record if he continues at the current pace.


Interestingly enough, the three main nationalist parties have welcomed all Ashdown’s decisions and announcements to date. By far the strongest resistance has come from those who were once dubbed Bosnia’s “moderate” leaders.


Mladen Ivanic, premier of the Republika Srpska, RS, government and leader of the Party for Democratic Progress, PDP, was the only one to publicly reject Ashdown’s request for a value added tax, VAT, system at state rather than entity level.


And Zlatko Lagumdzija, the president of the main multi-ethnic and moderate Social Democratic Party, SDP, and Bosnia’s current foreign minister, publicly criticised Ashdown for sacking Federation intelligence agency head Munir Alibabic.


Alibabic had attracted a lot of public attention over the preceding months after accusing some nationalist politicians of having links to organised crime. Ashdown apparently made the decision to dismiss the intelligence chief after certain information was leaked to the local press - although the latter’s responsibility was never officially proved.


Some analysts believe that the change in political attitudes and alliances is linked to Ashdown’s October 5 announcement that he was ready to work with nationalists and moderates alike - as long as they were willing to implement crucial reforms.


This too was an unusual for Bosnia-Hercegovina. Over the past decade, most western diplomats and officials in the country harboured a preference – either tacit or blatant – for the local moderate parties.


Ashdown’s announcement could be explained by the fact that the nationalist parties have changed their attitude in recent years.


The Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) Party of Democratic Action, SDA; Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, and the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, have moderated their attitudes somewhat – at least publicly. They no longer fully resemble the factions that plunged the country into three and a half years of bloody war.


The SDS and HDZ in particular have learned not to openly confront the international community, choosing instead to accept the terms of any western deal in public – and then blocking its implementation on the ground.


This tactic proved successful against Petritsch and the nationalists are almost certain to try it against Ashdown – if they manage to obtain a majority in parliament and establish a government at any of the many different levels in the Federation and RS. If the nationalists prevail, the High Representative could face his first real challenge.


The OHR and other international organisations are in the process of moving customs, taxes, defence and some other key institutions from entity to state level. Only a couple of years ago, the mere mention of such initiative could have triggered widespread demonstrations and even violence, especially among Bosnian Serb and Croat hard liners.


If Ashdown runs into difficulties while trying to implement these new initiatives, he may be driven to even greater use of his powers. This may be his only hope of removing political obstacles in the way of Bosnia’s progress – but it could turn the area into a fully-fledged protectorate.


Observers have mixed feelings on this issue. While some support such an outcome, others have warned against it, saying this would exacerbate Bosnia-Hercegovina’s already serious dependency on western assistance.


The only other option for the international community would be a series of strict conditions, where every dollar of western aid would be linked to the proper implementation of a specific reform.


This would not be an easy process for the recovering nation to go through – but some analysts believe it is necessary if Bosnia-Hercegovina is to learn how to take control of its own destiny.


Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor in Sarajevo.