The seemingly reinvigorated engagement of the USA and the EU with the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo prompted a frenzy across the region in September. The outcome of the facilitated talks between President Vucic and Prime Minister Hoti was clearly branded as a huge success for President Donald Trump by his US Special Envoy for the dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, Richard Grenell. The motives for the US’s engagement are questionable to say the least, while the outcomes are best summarised as light on substance and heavy on publicity. A few days later, the EU hosted a second in person high-level meeting of the Belgrade-Priština Dialogue, also between Vucic and Hoti, with no concrete outcomes. By the end of September, the US deal was in shambles and the next scheduled Brussels meeting had been cancelled, leaving the future of the dialogue and both countries’ European future unresolved.
The refreshed US activity around the dialogue, alongside 2020’s positive developments for North Macedonia and Albania, who both got a green light to start EU negotiations in March, leaves another one of the Western Balkans’ thorny issues dangerously far behind. With its many vulnerabilities and lack of concrete solutions, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) remains a vortex for the entire region and for its citizens. This is exactly why it must not be forgotten or left any longer to continue brewing its own, politically induced, crippling destabilisation.
For a long time BiH has been stuck in a place of peaceful and relatively stable unresolvedness. This December marks the 25th commemoration of the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA), which is poorly managed by its political leaders and the Office of High Representative (OHR). Valentin Intzko became the 7th High Representative of BiH in March 2009 and has kept the position since. This goes against the logic and purpose of the position, which was not established with a view to becoming a permanent employment for a single foreign diplomat.
Back in 2009, the EU Council stated that it will not be in a position to consider an application for the EU membership until the transition of the OHR to a reinforced EU presence takes place. Under Intzko’s leadership, the OHR is not using its significant powers to push BiH’s authorities to meet the benchmarks of the Agenda 5+2 criteria set by the Peace Implementation Council (PIC). Notwithstanding the poor performance, both of the High Representative and the institution, the OHR still comes at a high cost of a 5.5-million-euro budget for 2020/2021. Therefore, the first point for the EU’s enhanced engagement with BiH should be a serious review of the OHR in a pursuit of solutions for the many legal and procedural complications that accompany its dissolution.
A pathway for the office’s closure exists, but it should be considered alongside changing the notion of ‘peace’ defined in the DPA that was relevant back in 1995. The new conceptualization of peace should be about democratic principles and the rule of law combined with remodelling the constitutional arrangements, which has been on the agenda for a long time. It would allow tackling the erosion of institutions and political clientelism, while the EU accession process and its framework could become a true agent of the necessary change. So far, BiH has been the slowest among the Western Balkan countries on the EU path. It has managed to fulfil just one of the 14 priorities from the European Commission’s Opinion on the country’s membership application, published in May 2019. This small progress arrived after a five-year stalemate and should not be hailed as a major advancement. The latest EU opinion concludes that, with a few small exceptions, BiH has not made progress in the last 18 months.
It is clear that democracy in BiH will continuously fail under the Dayton Agreement framework. The political climate and the governance system in BiH remain polarised and rooted in a deeply embedded nationalistic rhetoric, which reinforces the perception of divisions along ethnic lines. According to the last Freedom House report, BiH’s democracy score is 3.32 out of 7, making it a transitional or hybrid regime. The continuous degradation of democratic tools keeps the state government in the clutches of the main political parties and their leaders, who continuously block the establishment of executive institutions. It took more than 14 months following the last national elections in 2018 to appoint the Council of Ministers of BiH in December 2019, which blocked essential processes in the country. Even the upcoming local elections, originally scheduled for October 2020, have been postponed until 15 November over budget delays caused by disagreements over appointments to top positions in state institutions.
The political stalemate in BiH results in a perpetual and dangerous institutional paralysis which affects every sphere of societal and state functioning. The dysfunctional state is not able to look after its citizens, which is resulting in a new and continuous exodus of skilled workers and many young people who are simply not able to deal with the barren conditions of the everyday. BiH, for the second time in the last few decades, is facing a major loss of human capital, with serious negative implications on important service sectors such as healthcare and education. In addition, the everyday flight of people is devastating for the social fabric of BiH’s society and is destroying the cohesion of communities, which took many years to rebuild, some partially, following the war. This time around, Bosnians have no intention to return because of their lack of hope that their country will ever transform into a citizen-oriented model. If only those unable to migrate remain in the country, BiH has no future.
Civic-focused modernisation has to be combined with finding a format that will allow for reconciliation in BiH, which is still an unresolved issue. The consequences of the war that ravaged BiH between 1992 and 1995 are not going away any time soon. Notwithstanding the importance and success of the Hague Tribunal (ICTY), there is still a desire and expectation to have a transitional justice process, primarily an extra-judicial one, to come to terms with the legacies of the war abuses. Resolving the cases of missing persons, also pertinent for Kosovo-Serbia relations, alongside reformulation of peace is an important step in building consensus for coming to terms with the past for BiH’s citizens.
Finally, looking outwards, BiH has complicated issues with other Western Balkan countries that need to be urgently resolved. The country doesn’t recognise the sovereignty of Kosovo (or its official documents) and maintains a strict visa regime, which is reciprocated by Pristina. The frozen status also affects the trade regime between the two countries and makes it extremely difficult for the citizens of both to maintain relations with close family members. The frozen relations between Kosovo and BiH, although seen as tangential, is a problem indirectly pertinent to the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue and finding a resolution should be given immediate priority. In addition, both Serbia and Croatia feel entitled to dig deeply into BiH’s internal matters and support the self-reinforcing cycle of divisions as well as BiH’s foreign policy.
Renewed engagement with BiH is now more pressing than ever, but not in a ‘business as usual’ manner. The sequence of steps is as important as the solutions themselves, with a focus on the things that work, such as mostly functional local self-government or newly built post-war community cohesion. Decisive engagement vis-à-vis the EU accession process should develop a new, BiH-tailored, simplified pathway, at least in the initial stages from 2020, conditioned on depersonalising internal political forces that continue to send a misguided message to the citizens about their own relevance. Transcending the currently dominant status quo has to begin immediately.