Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
'Raj' Claims Hit Home
"I want people to understand that I'm here to do a job. I have the tools I need to do that job, and I intend to use them," an unrepentant Paddy Ashdown insisted at an invitation-only press conference this week.
Ashdown, the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, was giving his fullest yet defence of his wide-ranging powers following severe criticism from the European Stability Initiative, ESI, which likened his administration to Britain's empire in India, the Raj. Bosnian national television and the international news media were invited to hear Ashdown's response on July 22.
"I'm never going to apologise to anyone for moving too fast, for pushing too hard. This country has not got time. It needs people who are impatient," insisted Ashdown.
On the debate about whether he has too many powers, Ashdown said, "We have travelled fast. Now, whenever you travel fast, you kick up a lot of dust. But this is dust. It blows away. I want people out there to understand - this journey continues, the pace does not slacken. It cannot."
His comments came on the day that the International Crisis Group, ICG, issued its own report on the political situation in Bosnia. It concluded that the High Representative does "need occasionally to ride roughshod over the norms of legality, transparency and democracy".
But among its recommendations, it suggests that Ashdown explain how his powers will be limited in the future.
The debate over Ashdown's powers shows no signs of slackening. It all began on July 5, when Britain's Guardian newspaper published details of a critical report by ESI authors Gerald Knaus and Felix Martin, Lessons From Bosnia and Herzegovina: Travails of the European Raj. The report appeared in the July edition of the Journal of Democracy.
Within 48 hours, journalists were invited to what was billed as an "extraordinary press conference" at Paddy Ashdown's office in Sarajevo. No more details were given.
In the event, the press conference proved to be about something else entirely - freezing the assets of individuals thought to be linked with war criminals. Despite the furore over the article, Ashdown was clearly trying to move the agenda on.
But his office was quietly concerned about the Guardian report. Head of communications Julian Braithwaite fired off a letter off to The Guardian describing the ESI report as "inaccurate and out of date".
"It does nothing to contribute to the process of helping Bosnia become a sustainable European democracy after the horrors of the recent past," he went on.
Ashdown's office issued a statement to local news outlets and he himself - always sensitive to how he is perceived in the UK - was available for interviews with the British media.
Back in Bosnia, the country's biggest selling newspaper, the unashamedly pro-Ashdown Dnevni Avaz, could be relied on not to rock the boat. It had little coverage of the "Raj" story.
But other media were more aggressive. The weekly magazine Slobodna Bosna, which is hostile to Ashdown, went to town, showing him wearing the emperor's new clothes and urging him to "go home".
The Mostar-based Dnevni List ran an editorial complaining that numerous articles had been published in Bosnia about the "failures of our Raj", yet Ashdown had never come out with a denial. It was only now that a foreign newspaper, The Guardian, had reported criticism of the OHR that there was "a problem for the Raj", the article said.
Interviewed by the national station BiH Radio 1, the High Representative began in combative tone, calling the ESI report "preposterous". The international community had invested 17 million euros in Bosnia, he said, and was there by agreement of the Bosnian people.
But later on in the interview he adopted a more conciliatory manner, saying his office was already implementing many of the recommendations made in ESI's report. Indeed, the time was now right for an "accelerated transfer of tasks to the Bosnia and Herzegovina authorities", he said.
Bosnia's politicians are often tight-lipped about how they feel about the High Representative. There are different theories for this - some say it stems from fear of angering him, others that many politicians are quietly satisfied with the aggressive work he is carrying out and accept that a strong international leader is what the country needs.
But some politicians have made their views known on this latest controversy. The Muslim member of the country's tri-partite presidency, Sulejman Tihic, said the High Representative's powers will be necessary until the country becomes a normal state.
But he went on, "However I think the High Representative and his staff interfere too much in day-to-day and personnel matters, where his assistance is not necessary."
The prime minister of Republika Srpska, Dragan Mikerevic, went further. He was quoted as saying that Ashdown's ability to impose decisions on the country reduced the desire of local politicians to negotiate things between themselves. Ironically, this is something Ashdown would very much like to promote.
The debate over the "Raj" allegations was not exactly the main topic of discussion in the coffee bars of downtown Sarajevo. Ashdown's stock with people in the capital remains reasonably high. Many people are still disillusioned with their own politicians and see the role of the High Representative as a necessary evil, at least in the short term.
"I don't know whether Ashdown has too much power," says Nermina Pasic, who works as a nurse at Sarajevo's main hospital. "It's not that I don't care about how this country is run or how much power Ashdown has. It's just that I have too many other concerns - my job, with my housing - to have time to think about it." A view shared by many.
Nick Hawton is a BBC correspondent based in Sarajevo.
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