While the Berlin foreign policy bubble laments the state-building project fiasco in Afghanistan, Germany has effectively taken responsibility for a state-building task closer to home.
Berlin recently won its bid to appoint former German government minister Christian Schmidt as the new high representative responsible for the civilian implementation of the Dayton Peace Agreement in Bosnia. He fought fiercely for the nomination in the face of strong Russian opposition, and observers in the Balkans speculate Berlin has a plan to deal with the fallout. So he took on the burden of Colin Powell’s warning that “you break it, you own it” – dubbed the “Pottery Barn Rule”. It is true that every high representative since 2006 had been mandated to shut down the institution, but it is highly likely that Schmidt will ultimately be the one who will. If that happens then – like the United States in Afghanistan – it and Germany will be held responsible for the success or failure of the mission.
Since his debut a month ago, the new high representative has already tasted local obstruction: a boycott of the Bosnian central government by the political parties of the entity Republika Srpska (one of the two that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina ). The parties are leading this boycott following the decision of outgoing High Representative Valentin Inzko to impose a new law criminalizing genocide denial. The boycott was initiated by Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of the Bosnian tripartite presidency. He is also the leader of the SNSD party, which heads the executive of the Republika Srpska but which is also in coalition with two other nationalist parties (the Bosnian SDA and the Bosnian Croat HDZ) within the Bosnian central government. Opposition parties from Republika Srpska joined in boycotting sessions of the national parliament, fearing that Dodik would outbid them in nationalist rhetoric ahead of next year’s general elections.
The boycott is the first lesson for Schmidt about the devastating ease with which the Bosnian government can be crippled by representatives of a constitutional entity or a constituent people. It is also a lesson in foul play, whereby a corrupt ethnic oligarchy abuses the past and war crimes in the absence of any further achievement to show its constituents. The most striking example of this foul play has been Dodik’s refusal to accept the initiative of the President of the Bosnian Presidency to use the armed forces to help put out the forest fires raging in Bosnia.
Two questions now arise for Schmidt and the members of the “Quint” group (made up of Italy, France, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, which constitute its main political support): how end the boycott; and how to prevent future obstruction. More broadly, they will have to find the means to avoid a further deterioration of the political climate, which dates back to 2006 and which eroded the previous gains in state building.
Dodik has publicly stated that he wants to end the boycott. Last month, he attended the formal presidency meeting only to block every decision that came before him. After the meeting, he said the boycott could end if what he called an “internal dialogue” began, covering three key issues: the genocide denial law; the appointment of the new high representative, which he claims to be illegal and illegitimate; and other matters relating to the functioning of central government.
It is important that Schmidt and the Quints do not fall into this trap. Allowing such a dialogue would have the following consequences.
First, since Dodik is technically not asking for anything concrete by simply saying that he wants dialogue, that would be a cheap but powerful victory for him. His political activity consists of generating conflicts with Western officials and the High Representative in particular, in order to boost his electoral fortunes. More broadly, opening such a dialogue would undermine what was a valid High Representative decision and immediately weaken Schmidt in office. This would damage the institution’s credibility, including if it were to use Bonn’s powers, which Inzko deployed to enforce the genocide denial law.
Second, the demand for dialogue would further burden central government decision-making, paving the way for further erosion of national institutions. This decision fits into Dodik’s long-established model of claiming that central organs are impracticable, the ultimate aim of which is to ensure the return of powers to the Republika Srpska. This is precisely what must be avoided if the departure of the High Representative is to take place, as it should only happen if they leave behind a functioning state and a stable country.
Finally, such a dialogue would allow Dodik to use the next 12 months until the elections to shape the political debate around divisive issues that strengthen his position with voters (such as war crimes, the mandate of the high representative and the legitimacy of Bosnia as a state) rather than issues such as the country’s weak economy, corruption and the rule of law. This is precisely what Dodik needs given that his popularity was waning. Even the appearance of the international community negotiating with Dodik would appeal to voters in Republika Srpska.
The answer cannot therefore be to give in to Dodik’s demands or to offer carrots. The only useful incentive to end this boycott and deter future boycotts is a credible threat that such actions will be punished with harsh consequences.
Despite his extremist rhetoric, Dodik is not a nationalist ideologue, but a ruthless political opportunist who takes advantage of the manipulation of ethnic issues and their use to distract from blatant corruption and failed governance. In fact, he has no war crimes on his hands, and indeed, he used to condemn the Srebrenica genocide before realizing that identity abuse can be electoral useful. Its target has always been only international judges and prosecutors working on criminal and corruption cases, not those contemplating war crimes.
The Biden administration recently passed an executive order that would allow financial and personal sanctions. But, although Dodik has been on the US sanctions list since January 2017, the US approach has been undermined by the European Union’s reluctance to follow suit. But if the EU added its weight to this effort, it would show that after 15 years of appeasement, obstructing the Dayton accords now has consequences.
Germany should work to persuade the United States and Quint’s other partners to adopt common sanctions. We must not wait for an elusive EU-wide consensus to emerge on the issue. In the past, Germany has rejected calls for unilateral sanctions, arguing that the EU’s financial and Schengen regimes allow targets to bypass such measures. However, the 2018 decision by the German government to impose unilateral travel bans on 18 Saudi officials involved in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi illustrates that individual member states can target rogue politicians and officials even in their absence. of a broader agreement.
“No outside intervention can make up for the lack of domestic political will” is an expression often repeated since the Western powers began to withdraw from Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006. Nowadays, the same conclusion resonates in discussions. Afghanistan ‘lessons learned’ think tanks for Europe. The phrase not only illustrates lazy thinking, but it also absolves the external powers of blame, allowing them to say to themselves “we all did our best.” Moreover, while Afghanistan was mission impossible, Bosnia certainly is not. Its population is equivalent to that of Berlin and since the late 1990s the country has been remarkably stable, experiencing no episodes of inter-communal or other violence. But Europe and successive senior officials have allowed the political situation to deteriorate by tolerating obstruction and kleptocracy, and by repeatedly sending signals that they will not impose any sanctions on uncooperative local leaders.
Targeted sanctions will not be enough on their own and they will have to be integrated into a broader strategy led by Germany, the High Representative and the rest of Quint. But restoring the idea that obstruction will have consequences is a first step towards reforming the culture of impunity that has flourished in Bosnia.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications represent the opinions of its individual authors only.