Widely expressed concerns about a deep crisis on the way in the Republika Srpska (RS) entity of Bosnia-Hercegovina are a tempest in a džezva. A lot of the reactions I have seen portray high representative Paddy Ashdown’s decision to suspend the autonomous police of RS as some kind of unjustifiable and dictatorial power grab. It wasn't, but at the same time, the action highlights some of the problems with his job.
First to the reasons why the action is not an unjustifiable power grab:
1. Why grab what you already have: Paddy Ashdown is the UN High Representative for Bosnia-Hercegovina, an office created by the Dayton Peace Agreement to oversee the federal government and the governments of the two entities. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) has extensive powers, including the ability to veto legislation and to remove public officials for violations of the Dayton Agreement. This has been controversial in the country, and Mr Ashdown has fueled the controversy further by using OHR’s powers more extensively than his predecessors. Nobody doubts that he has the power, if there is any debate it is over how politic it is to use it.
2. The entities and subentities create crises that need to be addressed: In theory, OHR should cease to exist once Bosnia-Hercegovina becomes functional as a state. But not all political actors in the country want it to become a functional state. From the beginning, authorities in RS have sought to weaken the authority of the federal government and behave as though their entity were a state. The other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina (FBiH), is periodically weakened by the efforts of political forces among Hercegovinian Croats to act as though federal and Federation control did not exist. The dominant political parties among both Serbs and Croats do not disguise the fact that they would rather be part of a different state.
3. The RS authorities invited a response: One of the requirements of Dayton is that authorities cooperate with ICTY. This is also a requirement if Bosnia-Hercegovina is going to be included in European regional arrangements, which offer the only opportunity for political or economic progress. How many suspects have been arrested and extradited by RS since RS began to exist (in a legal form) in 1995? I didn’t hear you. How many? That’s right, ZERO. It is a violation of Dayton and an obstacle to the progress of the country. Which is what the far right parties in power in BH want, and there is no reason to allow them to get it.
As to the threats of crisis: RS premier Dragan Mikerević resigned, as did federal foreign minister Mladen Ivanić. Mr Ashdown put it well in an interview with BBC: “If somebody wants to resign because they have to cooperate with the Hague, that is their problem.” RS president Dragan Čavić is threatening protest measures and a referendum in which ”RS would choose its own way.” Considering what happened last time his party tried to create an independent state by fiat, the threat is as empty as it is irresponsible.
The bottom line: Mr Ashdown acted within his legal powers. It is true that he made the ultraright Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) angry, but the price of keeping SDS pacified is far higher than any conceivable corresponding benefit.
Now to the down side. What this whole tempest shows is the underlying weakness of OHR as an institution: OHR will never run out of reasons to justify its continuing overlordship, and as long as it does the electorate in the entities will never stop providing reasons. People will continue to vote for extreme right parties to show their frustration with OHR, and then their elected officials will behave irresponsibly. OHR will use this irresponsibility to expand its own power to undo the work of elected officials. The reason is simple. One way to assure that politicians will behave irresponsibly is to create a system in which they carry no real responsibility. Dayton created a vicious circle in which the extreme right and the international administrators depend on one another. If there is a way out of this vicious circle, nobody has put on a light to show it yet.