“Bosnia needs our immediate attention,” a Dec. 10 MinnPost Community Voices commentary by Kelly Baker, paints a melodramatic portrait of a country that has been at peace for nearly 15 years. It would be wrong to underestimate the horrors of the war that ravaged Yugoslavia from 1992-95, but I think it is irresponsible to claim that Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) now confronts the prospect of a return to such violence. The armed forces of BiH, which have received extensive schooling and professional training from NATO members, report to a BiH-level command. The two entities of Bosnia-Herzegovina do not have military capabilities of their own.
It is certainly true, as the author asserts, that debate continues over the degree to which BiH should be a centralized as opposed to a decentralized state. The Dayton Agreement created in 1995 a system of governance that left much authority to the two entities (known as The Federation of BiH and the Republika Srpska) and put safeguards in place to enable each of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s major “constitutent peoples” (Bosniak, Serb and Croat) to protect its vital interests.
Since 1995, some in the international community, including the United States, have insisted that BiH needs more and stronger central institutions — in other words that the state needs to be strengthened and the powers of the entities reduced. The number of BiH-level institutions has grown to include a Defense Ministry, a Foreign Ministry, a Ministry of Finance, Customs, etc.
BiH is administered as a virtual protectorate
The Office of the High Representative (OHR), created by the Dayton Accords, has administered BiH as a virtual protectorate since its creation. The High Representative has asserted the power, for example, to hire and fire officials, including elected officials, and to decree or annul laws. The OHR has often been the instrument for advancing the agenda of “centralization.”
Ethnic Serbs and Croats in BiH have, over time, increasingly resisted the move toward centralization, believing that the decentralized BiH created under the Dayton Agreement is a more appropriate structure and one that is fully adequate to qualify BiH for EU accession. They have nevertheless kept the door open to a discussion of possible constitutional changes when the EU is prepared to negotiate BiH entry.
To date the EU has not made clear what, if any, structural changes it may seek in order for BiH to join. Some point to Belgium as an example of a functional but decentralized EU member state and wonder whether the BiH constitutional framework really needs much change to qualify for membership in the European Union.
The nature of current debates
Disagreements among citizens and their political leaders about the institutional arrangements best suited to Bosnia-Herzegovina are a normal part of the political process. Those who would like BiH to continue as an international protectorate under the High Representative conjure up the specter of violence to advance their own agendas. The fact is that the current debates in BiH are not about secession. On the contrary, they are an effort to find the structure that best enables the citizens of BiH to live and prosper together, ultimately as members of the European Union.
More than our attention, Bosnia-Herzegovina needs our good judgment, our common sense. Fifteen years after the tragic war in Yugoslavia it is time to place the responsibility for governance on the citizens and democratically elected leaders of BiH.
The anachronistic Office of the High Representative should be closed, replaced (without its absolute powers) by a European Union Mission that can work with BiH to prepare it for EU membership. It is time for us to respect our own principles and stop trying to impose our vision on people who wish to make choices for themselves.
Ralph Johnson is the president of the international practice of Quinn Gillespie & Associates in Washington, D.C. In that capacity, he represents the government of the Republika Srpska and is registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He formerly served as principal deputy high representative in the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina and as U.S. ambassador to Slovakia.