Debate surrounds international community's role in Bosnia

With tensions rising in the western Balkans, the international community's envoy in Bosnia announced last week that he will be stepping down.

By the end of this month, the US and other Western governments must decide whether to replace the High Representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, when he leaves office June 30 and, if so, what sort of mandate to grant his successor. Their decision will have enormous implications for the effort to build Bosnia into a viable, unified state capable of joining the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Mr. Schwartz-Schilling, who once argued that the Office of the High Representative (OHR) should be closed down altogether on June 30 to allow Bosnians to take fuller responsibility for their country, recently reversed this position. In high-level meetings with leaders in Berlin, Washington, and London this week, he advocated leaving the office open.

Sources say the German diplomat's change of heart is the result of the confluence of several events. Fiery campaign rhetoric leading up to October's elections heightened tensions between Bosnia's three ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – as did the triumph of radical nationalists in neighboring Serbia's elections Jan. 21. Add to that the impending decision by the United Nations on whether Kosovo should be granted independence from Serbia.

"All of these things have a psychological impact on Bosnia and make for an extremely complicated situation," says Schwarz-Schilling's spokesperson, Chris Bennett. Shutting down the OHR, he says, has become "a question of how much risk you are willing to undertake."

Since 1997, the High Representative has had the power to impose legislation and fire public officials, tools used regularly by previous holders of the office. Schwarz-Schilling, who took office in early 2006, has championed a hands-off approach, arguing that imposed solutions are unconstructive, merely giving the illusion of progress.

"If there isn't local support, then these imposed laws simply don't get implemented," Mr. Bennett says. "It's about empowering the local authorities to take responsibility for the future of their country."

This soft approach has been satisfactory to Bosnian Serbs, who fought the war in order to create their own ethnically pure state, and generally resist any move that would strengthen national institutions at the expense of those of Republika Srpska, as their entity is called.

It has been extremely unpopular among non-Serbs, most of whom live in the country's other entity, the Bosniak-Croat Federation. The International Crisis Group is expected to be releasing a report in the coming days that is critical of Schwarz-Schilling's performance.

"Schwarz-Schilling's approach has undermined all that has been achieved and is endangering any chance of success for the remaining reforms that are needed for the final departure of the international community," says Sarajevo-based political analyst Senad Slatina. "How can you turn control over to Bosnia-Herzegovina's politicians when ethnic-based politics, the politics that caused the war, have never been seriously confronted in this country?"

A 1995 peace treaty – the Dayton accords – ended Bosnia's four-year civil war, but left its underlying causes unresolved. Critics note that the settlement, which divided Bosnia into two ethnically based "entities" under a weak central government, has made it nearly impossible for the country to govern itself without the regular oversight and intervention of the High Representative and other foreign officials.

"Dayton gave us a system where a handful of people can block almost any decision or legislation and it is impossible to unblock it without the High Representative," says Jakob Finci, the head of Bosnia's civil service administration. "It's hard to believe this country could be operational without such an office."

Haris Silajdzic, the Bosniak member of the Bosnia's tripartite presidency, notes in a Monitor interview that the US Congress passed a resolution in 2005 stating that Bosnia's Serbs committed genocide against his people during the 1992-95 war.

"Yet the West prefers to talk about three 'warring factions' because it allows them to expend the least effort and assume the role of mediators," he says. Instead, Western powers should recognize that there were clear aggressors and victims in the war, he says, and should undo the results of ethnic cleansing and ethnic politics "even if it means breaking some political eggs."

For now, the international community is focused on making Bosnia eligible for first steps toward EU membership.

Given the tensions in the region, it's widely expected that the international community will keep the OHR open. What hasn't been decided, sources say, is what sort of powers to grant the next high representative – the interventionist ones that Schwartz-Schilling has eschewed or the limited ones he has practiced.

Regardless of their decisions, the road ahead will be a difficult one, as creating a functional national government will require the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats to agree to substantive changes to the Dayton constitution.

"Obviously we can't agree on what kind of constitution and country we would like to have," says Mr. Finci. "We will definitely stay in this situation for the next few years because there is no clear picture of what would be acceptable to all three groups."

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