The international community should start a process to close its supervision of Bosnia’s Brčko District at its meeting next week and develop a new strategy to better help domestic institutions address governance challenges and corruption, while retaining the ability to sanction any attempts to undermine security.
Brčko Unsupervised , the latest briefing from the International Crisis Group, focuses on the strategic, autonomous district which is vital to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) stability and links the two halves of both the Republika Srpska (RS) and the BiH Federation (FBiH). Brčko, once seen as a model of ethnic coexistence and good governance, is now drowning in corruption and mismanagement. This situation is made worse by the growing country-wide crisis, with political quarrels blocking formation of the state-level government and adoption of 2011 and 2012 state budgets.
“Brčko’s problems today are political and local, not due to external threats to usurp its territory or undermine its institutions”, says Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Balkans Project Director. “Supervision is not helping anymore and the international community, led by the European Union (EU), should be applying other tools to support institutional reform.”
With its unique geostrategic significance, Brčko’s status could not be resolved at the 1995 Dayton peace talks. A special international Arbitral Tribunal was established, eventually issuing a Final Award and creating Brčko District in August 1999, independently governed, belonging equally to both entities but under the exclusive sovereignty of BiH. An international supervisor was appointed in 1997 to oversee Dayton implementation.
Since 2005 there have been plans to end supervision as the conditions for closure – functioning and sustainable institutions – have been met. But it was postponed as new conditions were added amid growing concerns that the RS was seeking greater sway over district affairs. The Serb entity has now apparently met the last condition acknowledging that the inter-entity boundary line (IEBL) which splits Bosnia’s two entities does not run through Brčko.
The Federation government, and the FBiH-based parties, should work to improve relations with local business and political elites. For its part, RS has legitimate interests in the district and has contributed much to its economic revival; this benign influence should continue and grow, but should not turn malignant and question the Final Award. Both FBiH and RS parties and local elites should find common interest in fighting corruption, strengthening independence of police, prosecutors and judges.
The Peace Implementation Council should use its meeting on 12-13 December to set in motion closure of Brčko’s supervision over the coming months, but keep the Arbitral Tribunal open as a safety mechanism to modify the Final Award in case of a genuine large scale security threat. The Office of the High Representative in Brčko should close and a new EU office should open, to help stem corruption, strengthen rule of law institutions, and prepare for the EU accession process.
“The international community should not give up on Brčko and should keep the Arbitral Tribunal, the strongest tool it has to respond to external threats”, says Sabine Freizer, Crisis Group’s Europe Program Director. “But the current challenge for the district is reestablishing rule of law and good governance which only local elites can provide with expertise and support from external advisers, especially in the EU delegation”.