Comment: Backing the Wrong Horse

Ashdown's high-handed attitude towards the independent press and misguided trust in nationalist parties will get him nowhere.

Comment: Backing the Wrong Horse

Ashdown's high-handed attitude towards the independent press and misguided trust in nationalist parties will get him nowhere.

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

No international envoy received such a warm welcome on his arrival in Bosnia as the current High Representative Paddy Ashdown. And none has managed to disappoint and anger so many in such a short space of time.

Bosnia's moderate political parties and the independent press invested much hope in the former leader of the British Liberal-Democrat Party, but they no longer see him as an ally for two reasons.

The first is the High Representative's naïve belief that Bosnia's ruling nationalistic parties (The Serbian Democratic Party, Croatian Democratic Union and the Party of Democratic Action) can deliver much-needed reforms.

Ashdown seems to believe that corruption, not nationalism, is the biggest problem facing today's Bosnia - a fascinating opinion given the fact that the former has sprung from the latter.

It is simply incredible that the envoy - who has almost godlike powers in Bosnia - publicly promotes the idea that the former architects of genocide and ethnic cleansing can now move this country towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

How can parties founded on nationalist ideologies be trusted to reintegrate a multi-ethnic country, especially one as fractured as Bosnia? And given that the establishment of the rule of law is one of the reforms Ashdown hopes they will deliver, he should realise - because they certainly do - that if the state were to function as a law abiding entity for the just one day, their entire leadership, with few exceptions, would find themselves in prison for corruption, their part in wartime atrocities and other crimes.

The second reason for the estrangement between the High Representative's and moderate sections of Bosnian society is the insults he's aimed at some of the country's leading liberal-minded political journalists.

Judging by Ashdown's recent public appearances and declarations, his attitude can be summed up as aggressive and overbearing.

His attitude towards moderate, independent papers - namely the dailies Oslobodjenje and Nezavisne Novine, and weeklies Dani and Slobodna Bosna, and their leading editors and commentators - is perceived as British colonial arrogance.

All his predecessors have praised such media for their explicit anti-nationalist outlook, but Ashdown seems to disapprove of them for taking such a stance.

The head of the International Crisis Group in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mark Wheeler, was among the first to note that Ashdown had managed to turn media that had made the greatest contribution to tolerance, the fight against corruption and the creation of a legal state into his strongest critics.

Ashdown has reportedly dismissed the analyses of one of the most prominent commentators in Bosnia-Herzegovina as "barroom rumours" and the readers of Slobodna Bosna as "fools".

The High Representative seems to have turned against journalists who worked throughout the war, keeping alive liberal values at great risk, and who in the post-conflict period sought to advance the cause of reconciliation and stability.

Relations between Ashdown and the liberal press hit an all time low when the daily Dnevni Avaz nominated him Personality of the Year. Accepting the accolade at an award ceremony, Ashdown described the paper as "the clearest example of professional and business success".

These remarks appalled liberal circles, which view the title with suspicion, as it was formed by a nationalist party, which has regularly changed its allegiances over the years according to who was in power.

The bitterness this has caused was best described by the prominent political commentator Ivan Lovrenovic, who, writing in Dani, said, "Everyone who knows anything about journalism and the situation here knows that things are exactly the opposite of what [Ashdown] said about Avaz. (It) stands for all the worst characteristics of unscrupulous politics, chameleon-like service to all regimes, systematic violation of the basic principles of journalism."

The cover of the issue of Dani that followed the Personality of the Year ceremony was blacked out in protest at Ashdown's comments.

It's unclear what lies behind Ashdown's attitudes. It could be put down to western prejudices about the Balkans, or possibly a flawed strategic view or a combination of both.

What's clear, however, is that he had a choice when he assumed office: back politicians and media that have turned Bosnia-Herzegovina into a symbol of crime and darkness or ally with those who oppose them.

Ashdown appears to have made his choice.

Senad Pecanin is editor in chief of the Sarajevo weekly BH Dani.

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