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

Comment: Can the Nationalists Deliver?

Though heavily criticised for doing so, the High Representative engages with nationalist parties because he believes they will eventually accept reform.
By Julian Braithwaite

Paddy Ashdown's goal in Bosnia-Herzegovina is clearly stated: to help the country become a functioning state, and put it irreversibly on the path to eventual membership of the European Union.


He has made a good start in the nine short months since he arrived. He has ended the merry-go-round of rotating prime ministers that so weakened previous state governments. He has been instrumental in setting up the country's first state court, which will be responsible for trying the most serious crimes, including war crimes. And he has just launched a process to unify the collection of customs and VAT at state level.


He has also been active pushing through the standards expected of a modern European country. He has ended the extensive immunities that made politics a safe-haven for those evading the law. Key appointments are now vetted to prevent criminals and outright obstructionists taking high office. He is implementing a thorough reform of the judiciary that will break the traditional link with politics. He is taking on the deep-rooted culture of patronage and political corruption. Civil service laws have been enacted, civil service agencies established, and public utilities audited.


But Ashdown is also attempting something even more ambitious: to build a national consensus in favour of reform and Bosnia-Herzegovina's statehood. It is still the case today that most Bosnian Serbs and probably a majority of Bosnian Croats do not believe in Bosnia- Herzegovina, and vote accordingly. Yet no state can succeed in the long-term if the majority of its citizens do not support it.


That is why Ashdown's strategy has been to reach out beyond the state's natural middle class constituency. To communicate with the majority of the country's citizens who still vote for the old nationalist parties. And to convince them that it is in their interests to support reform and the state.


To build a multi-ethnic consensus, he has linked his reform agenda to the things that everyone wants, irrespective of nationality: better jobs and schools, effective courts and a European future. He has used his political skills and energy to get around the country and sell these reforms, under the now famous slogan of "Justice and Jobs". He has held town hall meetings at which anyone was free to turn up and ask him questions. He has spent the night with returnees in Srebrenica and visited hospitals in Bijeljina.


And all the while, Ashdown has avoided the overtly political issues that play into the zero sum game of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnic politics and undermine consensus, because, in his view, prosperity and Europe will defeat nationalism in the end. Prosperity will undermine the frustration and envy that breeds nationalism. And Europe will provide security and a wider identity for the country.


And the strategy has worked. The priorities of "Justice and Jobs" now dominate the political agenda. The international community is united behind them. Polling shows that these goals have popular support irrespective of ethnic boundaries. Even the nationalist parties have committed themselves to these reforms. Reforms that their voters want. Reforms, which if implemented, will also significantly strengthen the state. If anything, Ashdown has been too successful: he so dominates the political scene that there is a danger that he will crowd out domestic politicians.


But this strategy has not been supported by some intellectuals. Although far from his intention, many have felt that Ashdown has ignored them. Others saw his move to reach out to nationalist constituencies as either naïve, or worse, as showing where his real sympathies lay - a readiness to compromise with ethnic cleansers and criminals.


This misunderstanding exploded into the open following the elections on October 5 last year. In a low turnout, the electorate voted out their country's short and partial experiment in non-nationalist government. By the time the dust had settled, the old wartime parties were back in government.


Some of the country's leading non-nationalist politicians and commentators blamed Ashdown. They accused him of tacitly supporting the nationalist parties before the elections. And then they accused him of not preventing them forming the government after they won.


During the elections, Ashdown campaigned for reform. But he did not endorse any political party. To do so would have been entirely inappropriate. As an international official, it was not his job to tell people how to vote or to try to gerrymander the result. He was determined to practice what he preached, and to respect the democratic process.


And since the elections, Ashdown has not shunned the nationalists. Instead, he has called on them to deliver on their commitments to reform. Not because he naively believes their rhetoric. But because no party is monolithic: and the pragmatists who want to put the past behind them need to be encouraged. And because he has little choice: they won free and fair elections, and it is his job to work with them as best he can.


But can reform succeed with nationalist governments? The non-nationalists say no. Perhaps they are right - they have seen what they are capable of. But the war ended seven years ago. And yet the nationalist parties are still the largest in the country. To say that they have not changed and can never change suggests there is not much hope for Bosnia-Herzegovina.


Ashdown prefers to be an optimist. To believe that a majority of its citizens can be convinced to support the state and Europe. And to believe that the nationalist parties will accept reform, because that is what their constituencies want. To believe otherwise would be to give up on Bosnia-Herzegovina, and on the millions who yearn for a normal life.


Julian Braithwaite is the chief spokesman for the Office of the High Representative.


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