Bosnia faces its worst crisis since war ended in 1995. Violence is probably not imminent, but there is a real prospect of it in the near future unless all sides pull away from the downward cycle of their maximalist positions.
Bosnia: State Institutions under Attack, the latest International Crisis Group policy briefing, examines simultaneous crises in the country’s two entities. While seven months after the 2010 elections there is still no state (national)-level government, the authorities of the larger entity, the Federation, were formed controversially – a main domestic institution has said illegally – on 17 March and are being disputed by the main Croat parties who have now created their own, parallel Croat National Assembly. The other entity, Republika Srpska, has provocatively called for a referendum directed against the High Representative (the international governor), and the state-level judiciary.
“These are crises of legitimacy, clashes between different visions of what kind of state Bosnia should be”, says Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Balkans Project Director. “The conflict is starting to tear apart state institutions, and it can threaten the state itself. Compromises are needed that allow all Bosnian sides – Bosniak, Croat and Serb – to feel they have won enough to justify stepping back from the brink”.
The international community contributed to the crisis when the High Representative suspended the Central Election Commission’s ruling annulling election of the Federation’s President. Much of the international community now considers the Federation authorities legitimate but most Croats and Serbs do not.
To assist in the formation of a truly legitimate Federation government, the High Representative should lift his suspension and allow the Central Election Commission decision to take effect, after which the Federation parliament should follow procedures to elect the president, who in turn should name a government that fully complies with the constitution.
The referendum in the Republika Srpska has potentially even more dangerous ramifications, but the High Representative should not try to block it as this would likely only increase turnout and heighten tensions. The Serbs should call off the referendum, but if it goes forward, they should rule out any unilateral acts challenging state institutions such as withdrawing representatives from them.
Though the situation is deeply troubling, the international community should not try to micro-manage it with technical solutions or sanctions that could encourage the Bosnian sides to harden their positions. Instead, it should use the 9 May UN Security Council discussion on Bosnia and the 13 May meeting of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council to launch a strategic policy rethink. A high-level conference should be convened to reconfirm before the June referendum the international commitment to the Dayton Peace Agreement; make clear that no entity will be permitted to destroy Bosnia’s territorial integrity; remove the High Representative from local politics in order to restore his credibility as a neutral mediator; and give the EU the capacities to become the leading international actor in Bosnia.
“The international community is too enmeshed in local politics; it needs to step back and calibrate its goals in line with its diminished influence”, says Europe Program Director Sabine Freizer. “Once the immediate crisis is resolved, Bosnia’s leaders can begin work on renewing the Dayton compact and achieving European Union membership”.