ANALYSIS – A new High Representative in Bosnia?
Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina is once again in hands of countries that saw violence of 1990s as a 'humanitarian' issue and pursued policies of 'containment' in face of genocidal violence
*Dr. Emir Suljagic is the Director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center. A part-time lecturer at the International Relations Department of the International University of Sarajevo (IUS), Dr. Suljagić is also the author of two books: “Ethnic Cleansing: Politics, Policy, Violence - Serb Ethnic Cleansing Campaign in former Yugoslavia” and “Postcards from the Grave”
*Reuf Bajrovic is a former Minister of Energy in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and currently the Co-chair of US-Europe Alliance, a Washington-based think tank.
Many in Bosnia were shell-shocked when the investigative news-portal Istraga published an article in the final week of 2020 claiming that Germany was working on replacing Valentin Inzko, the Austrian High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The Office of High Representative was established under the Dayton Peace Accords to oversee the “civilian implementation” of the peace agreement. The most powerful international institution in BiH, the OHR has played a prominent role in the process of institution-building in BiH in the recent past. However, since the beginning of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, the role of the OHR has been largely relegated to expressing public concern over the increasingly audacious attempts by Serb separatists and Croat politicians to undermine the peace and stability of the country.
The recent news was dumbfounding for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was obvious that Germany was working behind the backs of the other NATO and EU members of the Quint (an informal group of NATO members, including the US, the UK, France, and Italy), to highjack EU policy in the region. Secondly and more importantly, it was revealed that Germany had struck a separate deal with Russia in order to obtain the country’s approval to appoint a new High Representative. As Russian officials have worked to undermine the credibility of the OHR for more than a decade, repeatedly calling for its closure, just what sort of quid pro quo such a deal might entail is certainly troubling. To add insult to injury, the deal was revealed on the heels of a recent controversial visit to BiH by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Finally, Christian Schmidt, the man slated to be the new High Representative, seems a dubious choice to many. In addition to being labeled a Russland-Versteher (literally, “Russia-understander”), he has strong links to the ruling Croat nationalist parties in both Croatia and BiH. In fact, as a German official, he was awarded the “Order of Ante Starčević” – a Croatian state honor previously bestowed upon political and military figures, some of whom were found guilty of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Within days, the initial report published by Istraga was confirmed by the German daily Tageszeitung as well as by respected German journalist and Balkan expert Michael Martens. Martens later tweeted that the greatest threats to peace in BiH are “US-imposed constitutional ‘solutions’ ” which would not succeed in the face of EU opposition. Clearly a preemptive rebuff to the anticipated return of the American presence in BiH under Joe Biden, this is an illuminating testament to the intellectual climate in the chancellery. Interestingly enough, even as German officials disparage US involvement in the region, the German government is simultaneously spending millions on lobbying to keep the American military presence in Germany. What is good for the goose is good for the gander, and it is decidedly unclear how US military and political presence at once constitute a security asset for Germany but poses a “threat to peace” in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The German push for a new High Representative is also taking place against the backdrop of what appears to be a more assertive EU effort to exclude the UK forces from the ALTHEA military mission in BiH. The UK contingent of this force --known as “over the horizon” -- was a battalion-sized unit prepared for rapid deployment in case of emergency. Despite the force’s efficacy as a deterrent, it is no longer a part of the mission. Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina is once again in the hands of the countries that saw the violence of the 1990s as a “humanitarian” issue and pursued policies of “containment” in the face of genocidal violence.
Germany has not necessarily been acting in good faith in Bosnia and Herzegovina -- at least over the course of the last decade. Angela Merkel’s successive governments have helped to stifle the progress of BiH as a liberal and civic democracy, promoting the belief that the cure to the country’s ailments lay in more segregation, more apartheid. Germany has also stimulated one of the most devastating brain-drains from BiH in the country’s history, availing itself of a qualified foreign workforce at the deliberate expense of Bosnia’s own hard-won human capital. The enormous pressure of the German labor market would cripple even far stronger economies. While citizens of BiH are welcomed with open arms into the European labor force, their country remains relegated to the outermost edges of the European periphery. These dynamics function as a self-perpetuating and vicious circle: exclusion from the European community breeds dysfunction; dysfunction breeds hopelessness; hopelessness drives more and more qualified young men and women to leave their country for Germany.
The latest German move comes just weeks before Joe Biden is sworn in as the new President of the USA. Amidst widespread anticipation that the Biden Administration will assume a more robust approach to the Balkans, Germany’s recent actions appear but a hasty and premature attempt to blunt future US initiatives in the region or attempts at constitutional reform. The Russian factor is also salient, giving the entire saga an air of great power games over spheres of influence. Some Bosnian commentators have even dubbed this most recent arrangement “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 2.0.” What this analogy lacks in precision, it makes up for in its potential to embolden local appetites for territorial settlements. As political, economic, and social conditions in the region continue to worsen, it is worth reminding Europe of a simple historical truth: appeasement doesn’t work. It didn’t work in the 1990s. It didn’t work in the 1940s. And the appeasement of resurgent Serbian and Croatian nationalism certainly won’t work today.
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