Debate over how to help a crisis-striken Bosnia ranges from involvement to encouragement. But a third, unpalatable option for a frustrated EU may lurk just behind the scenes: abandonment

Commentary about the Bosnia-Herzegovina is today dominated either by a focus on crises, which talks up the risk of violence, or an obsession with the EU enlargement process, which exaggerates the EU's leverage in the region. The two perspectives inform the views of two factions in an on-going policy struggle about how to deal with Bosnia, which goes all the way from the coffeehouses of Sarajevo to High Representative Catherine Ashton's office. But fifteen years after the Dayton Peace Accords ended the war, Bosnia may be facing its worst crisis yet, and one that suggests an unpalatable third option lurking behind the scenes.

In mid-February, Republika Srpska passed a law making it possible to hold a referendum, widely interpreted as a step towards secession of the Bosnian Serb entity. It comes in the run-up to an October 2010 election which has seen leaders in the country's two self-governing regions - the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, made up mostly of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and Republika Srpska, made up of Serbs - rehearse language not used since before the war.

Two Factions, One Hope

How far the conflict may spiral out of control and how to deal with it is the issue of contention between the two factions. Yet both factions share something; a belief that the international community can somehow help the war-torn country break free from the stranglehold of ethno-territorial politics. They are both heirs to a liberal, interventionist tradition that was born over Bosnia policy debates in the 1990s.

One group believes that it can be done either by maintaining the international community's present role, particularly the OHR, or by replacing it with an equally powerful successor body, which maintains the involvement of both the US and Europe in the country. The other group believes that it is the nature of the international community's set-up which retards the country's progress and that it needs to be replaced with a different EU presence.

They both have powerful backers in the EU, from several European governments to European parliamentarians. Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, takes one side; his successor as High Representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, takes another. Intellectual fuel for each sides is provided by two former OHR employees, both of whom have gone on to establish think-tanks; Gerald Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative, and Kurt Bassuener who runs the Democratization Policy Institute.

Both sides have data to prove their perspectives. One group hails Bosnia's progress on the Visa Road Map as evidence that a conditionality-based programme can overcome divisions and produce reform. The other group highlights the obfuscation which allowed Bosnia to claim it had fulfilled the necessary requirements. Based on their respective data, one group insists that Bosnia is so different than the Central European countries which joined the EU that the standard EU accession process cannot hope to succeed; the other insists that the EU has not even tried to apply its accession policies and will succeed if it begins to do so in earnest.

Like all EU debates, the struggle between the factions is as much about the EU's power and future role as it is about Bosnia. For if the EU cannot "hack" Bosnia to use US diplomat Mort Abramowitz' phrase, then what can be expected of the EU elsewhere in the world? But if the EU can transform Bosnia, its power to influence countries on its eastern borders (and beyond) may still be potent. As it has been since the war in the mid-1990s, Bosnia is about so much more than Bosnia.

But a Third Option Exists

However, there may be a third and altogether more depressing possibility: that both groups are wrong and that there is little the international community can do, whatever guise it takes and whatever methods it uses, to fundamentally change Bosnia. It may be able to prevent an immediate crisis, by lifting visas for Bosnian traveling to the EU and by granting participation in the Membership Action Plan for NATO. But it cannot any longer change the underlying dynamics - the back-sliding has gone too far.

For no matter where one looks, Bosnia has now regressed so far back from even the reforms of yesteryear and the politics of accommodation that are key to a peaceful country and EU accession that it is hard to believe international engagement can change the situation. The socialist/nationalist elite, which dominate politics in both the Federation and Republika Srpska, will not allow it and ensure that all independent initiatives, from NGOs to political parties, are co-opted into the system of control.

On this reading, the EU's main short-term leverage - granting visa-free travel to Bosnians wanting to visit the EU in exchange for reforms - is a one-shot deal. Nothing the EU has to offer in the short-term is as attractive as the chance to travel into the EU - and there is even disagreement about whether this promise created long-lasting reforms or only superficial changes.

This is a scenario few would want to accept. For if true, it would mean that it was time either to give up on Bosnia's viability as a unitary state or the country's EU integration. As the former is likely to be more unacceptable to most (but not all) EU governments, it would mean the EU would have to develop a strategy of containment for the country, not integration - one that would see the EU engulf Bosnia, like South Africa engulfs Lesotho, as the rest of the region proceeds to integrate into the EU.

In such a scenario, the country will survive on European hand-outs, remittances and the few businesses that can make a profit after the political elites extract their rent. Politicians would continue their nationalist rhetoric, but be barred from making any concrete steps either towards secession or internal violence - by an over-the-horizon military capability and garrisons of EU troops. Years of economic deterioration and a sense of regional incarceration will likely increase the flow of illegal migrants and spawn recidivist and even violent reactions. But the alternative - integrating a Bosnia that is not ready for EU accession, let alone peaceful co-existence, will be seen by many in the EU as worse.

"Ya basta!"

If this third policy is not going to become reality, Bosnians are going to have to understand the choice before them. For the Bosnian Serbs, it is not a choice of European integration or an independent Republika Srpska. For the Bosnian Croats, it is not between European integration and a third entity in Bosnia. And for the Bosniaks it is not a choice between European integration and a centralized state. For all groups, it is between the dysfunctional status quo, ad infinitum, or a reform process that re-starts the country's long-term European integration.

The Bosnian people are said to want their country to move forward. They are said to be tired of hateful rhetoric which has brought nothing but poverty and isolation. But if they want to convince the EU that it can still have a role to play in helping the country reform, then the choice is theirs. They will need to produce a movement like "MJAFT!" in Albania," "Ya basta!" in Spain or "Otpor" in Serbia. They will need to allow a new style of politicians to emerge. They will need to show that they do not want the EU to give up on them and they will not give up on themselves. For as things stand now, the two factions that have argued over Bosnia policy may give way to a different faction.


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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.