Empire Folds

What Just Happened in Bosnia

Something unusual happened in Bosnia last week. It made barely a blip on the news radar, as the mainstream media focused mostly on stateside sex scandals. What little did get mentioned was bent and twisted to conform to the official narrative. A typical example is this terse report by the AP:

The EU foreign policy chief says she has warned Bosnian Serbs not to expect changes from an agreement that ended their country’s civil war in the 1990s.

Dodik had threatened to hold a referendum that could have caused the treaty to unravel. But he backed down after Ashton’s visit last week.

Serbs are seeking more powers for their mini-state and question the authority of the top administrator, the Austrian diplomat Valentin Inzko.

Business as usual, then: the evil Serbs seek to undo the peace agreement but are stopped at the last minute by the virtuous international community, this time in the persona of Catherine Ashton. Nothing to see here.

Or is there?

What Dayton Says

The AP version of events is strongly reminiscent of that old joke about someone selling tiger repellent in Kansas. Namely, the notion that Catherine Ashton—or Valentin Inzko—were trying to protect the Dayton agreement from the power-hungry Serbs is a neat inversion of what actually took place.

In late 1995, the civil war in Bosnia ended with the Dayton Accords. Annex IV of the Accords was the new constitution, which set up Bosnia as a loose union of two state-like entities, the Muslim-Croat Federation (FBiH), established by the 1994 Washington Agreement, and the Serb Republic (RS). The joint government was to have six institutions and very limited powers.

Over the years, however, a series of international viceroys—”high representatives”—have imposed a number of “reforms” on the country, taking powers from the entities and creating a stronger central government. The number of joint institutions has increased to over 80. One of these institutions is the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina, set up by viceroy Ashdown in 2003.

For several years now, the Bosnian Serbs have complained about the court being biased and used an instrument of abuse. Located in the facility used by the Muslims during the war to hold Serb prisoners, the court has systematically prosecuted cases of alleged Serb atrocities. RS authorities claim that whenever they tried to prosecute Muslims or Croats accused of atrocities against the Serbs, the court would claim jurisdiction, then toss the cases into the proverbial memory hole.

In April this year, the RS parliament approved the initiative to hold a referendum on the legitimacy of the court and the state prosecutor’s office, asserting that neither was constitutional. But there was more to it than that. In his report to the UN Security Council on May 11,  Inzko argued that a successful referendum would “put into question all laws enacted by the respective high representatives claiming they are in violation of the Peace Agreement.”

How could defending the constitution be considered a challenge to it?

Under the sort of logic the Empire employs in Bosnia, Dayton is personified in the viceroy. Seeking to reclaim powers unconstitutionally seized by the viceroy therefore translates into “seeking more powers,” and any challenge to the viceroy’s absolute power becomes a threat to the peace agreement itself.

Inzko sent an ultimatum to the RS parliament: cancel the referendum by May 12, or else.

A Clash of Wills

It is an observable fact that today’s Bosnia hardly resembles the one sketched out in its own constitution. There is nothing to suggest that any of the “reforms” imposed over the past decade by the succession of viceroys has furthered the cause of reconciliation between the former belligerents. Only one imposition—the neutral license plates for vehicles—has actually met with unanimous approval.

Another imposition furthering tensions was the centralized revenue department (UIO), set up to collect and disburse the 17 percent countrywide value-added tax. The Serbs now claim they are being robbed to pay for the bureaucracy-heavy Federation (which has 10 provincial and one central government), whose financial woes are holding up arrangements with the IMF. Meanwhile, Federation politics are also holding up the inauguration of the new central government, seven months after the general elections. Yet Bosnia’s troubles always get blamed on the RS.

As May 12 approached, everything seemed set for a clash of wills between the viceroy and the Serbs. Then the Empire gave in.

Ashton vs. Inzko

Baroness Catherine Ashton, EU’s foreign policy commissar, came to the Bosnian Serb capital of Banja Luka the morning of May 12, and met with President Milorad Dodik. Following the meeting, she announced that “flaws” had been found in the operations of the court and prosecutor’s office, and that they would be investigated by an EU commission. In exchange, she said, the Bosnian Serbs agreed to cancel the referendum.

Postpone, Dodik helpfully corrected, as he argued that the purpose of it—to draw attention to the biased conduct of the judiciary—was accomplished. There was “no need” for a referendum right now, but the RS still reserved the right to question the viceroy’s powers, he said.

Whether he or Inzko was bluffing turned out not to matter: Ashton forced Inzko to fold, just days after he’d claimed to have the “full support” of the Empire.

The RS public opinion was somewhat divided on the matter. Opposition politicians accused Dodik of “deceiving and betraying” the people by not staying the course. Some commentators even compared the deal with Serbia’s capitulation to Ashton last September, when Belgrade abandoned its Kosovo policy in exchange for absolutely nothing from Brussels. But if the primary objective of calling for the referendum was to challenge the viceroy’s absolute power, then Dodik has most certainly succeeded.

Exit The Viceroy?

Ashton’s subsequent posturing about how she gave the Serbs the what-for and saved Dayton from itself most likely represents an attempt to control the fallout and put the Bosnian narrative back on track. For the same reason, Valentin Inzko may get a promotion from the Austrian foreign ministry sometime soon. His ability to project absolute power is now at its lowest point, and his continuation in office has become a liability for the Empire. The viceroys derive their authority solely from the belief that their interpretation of the Dayton Accords cannot be subject to challenge. That belief has been seriously challenged in the last several years, and particularly by this latest teacup tempest. 

It is unlikely that the Empire will abandon the “stubborn, futile nation-building project” that is Bosnia. Nor is it likely that the country’s ethnic communities will somehow find common ground overnight—not after nearly two decades of military and political conflict. However, one or more parties have always looked to the Empire to play a decisive role in that conflict, on their side. That belief may now be in question, for good or ill.

So there was something to see, after all. 

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.