Bosnia and Herzegovina

Cheerleading Bosnia

In an interview with TOL, High Representative Paddy Ashdown outlines stark choices that Bosnia will have to make soon.

by Tihomir Loza

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina - No matter how beautiful, unpolluted, and close to the heart of Europe, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is by no means a place in which well-to-do Westerners flock to buy holiday homes. Yet the man who is often described as the West's proconsul in Bosnia told TOL he has just done so. The International Community's High Representative Paddy Ashdown says he and wife Jane are planning to spend a lot of time in Bosnia when they retire.

Due to security concerns, the former leader of British Liberal Democrats cannot reveal yet the exact location of the house, which he said is being refurbished at the moment. Bosnians familiar with the details of the purchase respect this. "It suffices to say that the house is not on Bosnia's stretch of the Adriatic coast, yet the high representative is planning to buy a little boat as well," a Bosnian source told TOL. Last autumn, a Bosnian paper speculated that Ashdown was eyeing properties on the Jablanica lake some 35 miles southwest of Sarajevo.

Had Ashdown bought a house at the time when he took over from Austrian career diplomat Wolfgang Petritsch last May, the house would have automatically come with the title of national hero. Nowadays, Ashdown is more likely to find himself and his reform program dismissed in smug editorials, with the increasingly ridiculed term "reform" squeezed between inverted commas.

Ashdown says that being misunderstood comes with the job. "I know how to handle this, I don't pay attention to these things," he said. But there have simply been too many misunderstandings to ignore.

As a pedigreed pro-Bosnian figure, Lord Ashdown was bound to receive a warm welcome by the ethnic Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) public and the remains of the old Bosnian multiethnic scene in Sarajevo-and he did. Last spring, the press wouldn't miss the opportunity to recall that this "English aristocrat," as some mistakenly referred to him, was one of only a few prominent Brits to argue for Western military intervention in Bosnia, a fact often highlighted in Sarajevo as an exception to the rule.

Yet nine months later, the same outlets routinely come close to suggesting that he is little else than an exponent of Perfidious Albion tasked with not only doing away with Bosnia's multiculturalism but also with preparing ground for the sell-off of Bosnia's family jewels to international investors at a fraction of their real value.

So what's gone wrong in the romance between Ashdown and the country that "gets under your skin," as he likes to put it?


Bosnia is a country whose citizens have lived in different kinds of limbos ever since the old Yugoslavia embarked on the road to breakdown in the late 1980s. It's fair to say that most ethnic Serbs and Croats waited for their brethren over the border to come and take them from uncertainty into the supposed warmth of a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia, respectively. Sure enough, Belgrade and Zagreb played leading roles in the subsequent three and a half years of unrestrained ethnic cleansing, which brought unspeakable misery, not only to their Bosniak victims, but to the Bosnian Serbs and Croats as well.

Bosniaks, the largest ethnic group and the one which generally exercised more restraint at ethnic feuding, chose NATO as their preferred deus ex machina. The alliance only entered the fray in 1995, after almost three and half years of war. But instead of delivering a unified Bosnia under a single government in Sarajevo, NATO air-force and artillery only helped iron the rough edges of the existing frontlines, making it easier for the three exhausted, but hopelessly distant sides to reach a peace agreement, which they reluctantly did later that year in Dayton, Ohio.

Bosnia has been on life support ever since. The West has fed Bosnia, rebuilt much of its infrastructure, kept its three armies apart from one another, and forced its ethnic groups into joint institutions. While the country is still on the map thanks mostly to Western effort, the side effect was what is now commonly referred to as Bosnia's dependency syndrome. Further blocking domestic potential was a sense, prevalent among all the three ethnic groups, of Bosnia representing a piece of unfinished business in the process of remaking of the region.

In short, Bosnia has been a waiting room whose confused inhabitants have looked to supposedly omnipotent foreigners with a mixture of often irreconcilable hopes and growing impatience. Ashdown understands this bit well.

"We all in BiH, foreigner and BiH citizen alike, wait for the Great Archangel of Deliverance to descend ... to save us all. We look for the big event, rewriting of Dayton [Peace Agreement], advent of NATO, or the new high rep, and everything will be all right. I don't think that's what we should be looking for. I think we want processes here... not events," Ashdown said.

Yet, it was an unwanted event that marked and redirected the Ashdown reign. He inherited a Bosnia governed, at least nominally, by a collection of often tiny parties that were packed together into tight parliamentary majorities after months of Western-sponsored post-electoral engineering in the aftermath of the November 2000 elections.

The achievement was often hailed as the cornerstone of Bosnia's postwar recovery. Vindicated were those Western voices who argued that democracy was a cure for Bosnia's ills. They preached that as long as Bosnia's ethnic groups were given enough opportunity to vote, they would eventually oblige and turn their backs on extremist forces that led them to war.

In this scheme of things, the international community organized elections in Bosnia every other year, with early elections at various local and entity levels held even more often. A triumph at the 2002 elections by the governing moderate parties, which were by now at loggerheads with one another, was expected. Ashdown himself appealed to Bosnians to give their vote to reform.

In fact, already in his inaugural speech in May 2002, Ashdown urged Bosnians to come to the ballot box three months later. "Your votes are the building blocks which we shall need to create the new Bosnia and Herzegovina," he said.

If anyone had any doubts what the international community's preferred choice was, the new high representative made it absolutely clear the three extremist ethnic parties were not that choice.

"Too many politicians use fear, rather than hope, to get votes. Now is the time to vote for this country's future, not its past. Now is the time to vote for hope, not for fear," he told Bosnia.


But the people didn't oblige. To start with, the turnout was low. Those who bothered to vote gave the majority to the three war parties, the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

To tell the truth, the results were not dramatically different from the 2000 ones but were a tiny bit more difficult to play with. It turned out that it was impossible to manufacture a moderate party majority in the Bosniak and Croat-dominated Federation entity, so it didn't make much sense to push too hard in Serb-ruled Republika Srpska either, hence the international community had little choice but to let the three nationalist parties back to power.

They also had to adapt quickly to this unwanted and unforeseen situation.

"It is not my job to say to Bosnian people 'vote for this party, vote for this person!' Maybe the international community has done a bit too much of that. It hasn't proved to be particularly successful," Ashdown now argues.

In fact, given that the elections-the first postwar ones organized by Bosnia's authorities-passed in near perfect order and that the next general elections were not due before 2006, nothing short of a radical conceptual change in the overall approach to Bosnia would have sufficed. Within weeks, Ashdown was arguing in an op-ed piece in the New York Times titled What I Learned in Bosnia for reprioritizing nation building efforts.

"...[W]e thought that democracy was the highest priority, and we measured it by the number of elections we could organize. The result seven years later is that the people of Bosnia have grown weary of voting. In addition, the focus on elections slowed our efforts to tackle organized crime and corruption, which have jeopardized quality of life and scared off foreign investment," wrote Ashdown.

While the new strategy of placing the rule of law and job creation before democracy was exactly what many liberal Bosnians had argued for-and what Ashdown, in fact, came close to advocating himself months before the elections-the high representative's apparent ease in embracing the nationalists as his new partners left many feeling betrayed. Some even demanded that Ashdown use his vast executive and legislative powers to annul the elections.

"You know the old line of Berthold Brecht in the 1930s in relation to Nazism? 'The people have come to the wrong conclusion, the people should therefore be disbanded.' You can't do that! ... I have to work with the people that we were given," Ashdown said.

Ashdown is a politician, "a very practical politician," he says. He set about the task of working with those who are by no means his natural allies in a campaigning manner. Even though he knew as well as anyone else that the three parties' leaderships and the vast criminal structures link to them have merely become more pragmatic, he vigorously talked the nationalists' alleged transformation up. He still likes to do a bit of that.

"We may or may not have got a collection of parties that are suitable and convenient to every member of the international community, including me, but we have got governments who say they are committed to reform... Every single one of them ... adopted the language of reform, and the specific promises on justice and jobs," Ashdown told TOL.

While this taming strategy makes perfect practical sense, even those who never doubted Ashdown's good intentions reckon he's overdone it. What has often happened is that the nationalists were smart enough to return his compliments. And Ashdown often responded by throwing more compliments back at them.

Recently, the biggest Bosniak nationalist newspaper Dnevni avaz named Ashdown the personality of 2002. In fact, Ashdown shared the title with Islamic Community Head Mustafa Ceric, a leading proponent of rigid nationalism. At a ceremony to mark the occasion, Ashdown praised Dnevni avaz as a remarkable business success story as well as a decisive player in the struggle to create strong, professional journalism.

Dnevni avaz is nothing of the sort. Deservedly or not, it is a symbol of corruption and the 1990s nationalist brutal takeover of the media sector. While there are Serb, Croat and Bosniak outlets that have contributed more than Dnevni avaz to the spreading of ethnic prejudice and bad taste, no one before had ventured as far as to describe its journalism as professional.

What looked like Ashdown's endorsement of the Dnevni avaz editorial line shocked Sarajevo liberals. The independent Dani magazine published an issue with a completely blackened cover meant to symbolize the thick darkness that, according to the editors, descended on Bosnia with Ashdown's Dnevni avaz antics. Others were similarly outraged.

Has Ashdown lost much sleep over this PR disaster?

"Not really. I mean, you know, Avaz is not the first paper in this country to misquote me. I was very careful to say about Avaz that I regard them to be a commercial success but didn't go along with their editorial line. It's not for the first time in my life that a newspaper has picked on my words and distorted them. Avaz is an extraordinary newspaper. It has a very considerable commercial success, it has a huge readership in this country."

It is not inconceivable that Dnevni avaz would misinterpret Ashdown. But given that this chapter came on the heels of a series of run-ins with truly independent journalists, hardly anyone gave a thought to the notion. Meanwhile, Ashdown simply continues to protest his indifference toward media attacks.


But what is it that Ashdown does care about?

"My task is to drive forward the reforms that make this into an effective and efficient state, a rather unusual state, a state not like France or Germany or Britain, a state perhaps more like Switzerland. A light level state structure, significant power devolved to the local level, but with very strong human rights legislation to protect the rights of minorities and of individuals, ethnic, and cultural rights," Ashdown said.

He has a difficult balancing act to perform here. Bosnians are indeed very well aware of their country's "unusualness." Perhaps it suffices to say that as a country of just over four million, Bosnia has thirteen various level prime ministers. But while the Bosniaks would generally like to transform it into a more centralized state that they routinely describe as "normal," the Serbs and Croats prefer Bosnia to remain unusual, often to the point of not being a state at all.

It is in essence still an identity game, but one that was long ago hijacked by demagogues and crooks. Ashdown argues the way out of this vicious circle is to gradually lure Bosnians away from their fixation with things ethnic. "The moment you force mono-identities on people you have blood on the streets," argues the high representative, citing Northern Ireland as an example. Bosnians should instead reconcile with their true and more complex identities in line with the prevailing European trend.

"I speak as an Irishman, perhaps there are similarities here. If someone asked me thirty years ago when I was a British soldier, I would have said I was British and that would've probably been enough. The concept of mono-identity... was actually a very prevalent idea in the days of empire, in the days of a nation state... If you asked me who I am now, I have to give you a rather more complex, arguably a rather more modern answer. I am Irish by blood and by birth and I am proud of that. I have settled in Britain and live in the West Country, which I represented in parliament. So I am West Countryman and I am proud of that too. And I am British, and I am European, and unless I can describe my identity in all those ways, I cannot describe who I am," Ashdown said.

His jobs and justice program, to which the winners of the October elections pledged support, is aimed at refocusing Bosnians' attention.

"I can't make every Croat in Herzegovina love BiH... I can't make every Serb in Republika Srpska love BiH. But if we could together with BiH politicians make a state that served its citizens well, that gave them jobs, justice, good education, good health services, then over time citizens get to trust that state," Ashdown said.

The high representative has already carried out far-reaching reforms on the justice front, including the introduction of an independent judicial commission, the creation of a state level court, and the introduction of new criminal code and criminal procedure codes at both state and entity levels.

It will be much harder and take more time to create a pool of competent and independent judges and prosecutors, though. During the war and its aftermath, Bosnia's judiciary was damaged even more severely than other public sector spheres. Many top legal experts left the country, while judicial institutions were subjected to direct control of the ruling nationalist structures. While according to Transparency International corruption persists at all levels, not a single corruption case has yet been successfully completed at a Bosnian court.

Unsurprisingly, this hasn't helped Bosnia's ailing economy. The country was a relatively prosperous place before the war, with a GDP of over $11 billion and a per capita income of $2,400. By the end of the war in 1995, GDP had dropped to just $2 billion. Even though the postwar growth figures were skewed by a frenzy of internationally-sponsored reconstruction projects, the country's GDP is still at less than half of the 1990 level. Bosnia's imports are four times larger than exports.


Importers, who are more often than not closely linked to political parties, have dictated much of Bosnia's economic affairs. Countless perfectly reconstitutable businesses have been strangled since 1995 to clear the way for cheap imports. Those companies often ended up being sold cheaply to party cronies, who then sold their assets for hefty profit. Governments have failed to take any measure to put domestic producers at an advantage over importers. At the same time, international agencies estimate that sales tax and customs evasion set back state coffers some $500 million annually.

"The medium-term challenge is to get the economy going. We should have started two years ago, because we've got to convert this from an international aid economy into an export based one," said Ashdown.

But it is hard to see how exactly this can be achieved. Most of Bosnia's traditional export industries have been destroyed or are impossible to resurrect without foreign investment. Bosnia has also suffered an unprecedented brain-drain in the last fifteen years. The country's infrastructure, although mostly restored, is not particularly inviting either. It is, in fact, difficult to imagine how Bosnia can begin to compete with its rather poor neighbors, let alone the successful transition economies of Central Europe.

"Look, it's a race! Foreign investors are not tripping over themselves to invest anywhere... We've begun to... clean up the judicial space. My aim is to make this the most trusted judicial space, legal space, in the Balkans," Ashdown said.

The Office of High Representative (OHR) has recently taken a series of measures aimed at creating a better climate for business. In February, Ashdown decreed the establishment of an indirect tax policy commission charged with introducing a single customs administration and a single, Bosnia-wide value-added tax (VAT), a notion fiercely resisted by Republika Srpska politicians until recently.

But Ashdown and other top international representatives rule out investing in special business incentives before the basics are sorted out. For instance, the high representative points out that Bosnia has the highest mobile phone charges in Europe. Calling abroad from any phone in Bosnia is still ridiculously expensive. Bosnia's electrical power distribution system has one of the highest levels of wastage. What hurts the economy even more is that industrial consumer is still charged more than domestic consumer.


Ashdown wouldn't invest much in infrastructure either, even if the money were available. "I instinctively as a liberal want to see money put into human beings rather than physical infrastructure," he said. Yet it is difficult to imagine that the capital Sarajevo's 150-mile distance from the nearest motorway wouldn't be seen as an impediment by potential investors.

Nor is it much easier to take at face value Ashdown's frequent and impassioned outbursts of belief in Bosnia's inner potentials.

"I think the strength of this country comes from the intellectual community. They are very bright, very talented, and if I look to this country's future, I think it is low-resource-use, high-value-added industries. You leave to one side things like natural resources of wood, aluminum, hydroelectric power... but the wealth of this country will come from skill, from weightless industries, it's the computer technologies, one of those nations, a bit like Switzerland in a sense, whose success will depend on the intellectual capital that we are able to generate here," Ashdown said.

No matter how much they wished this were the case, few Bosnians would be able to even begin discerning the contours of this future Swiss-like world in the one they live in. If anything, many will recall that SDS, HDZ, and SDA often talked exactly about turning Bosnia into a Switzerland just before they turned it into a free-for-all killing field.

Indeed, in a country where most of the youngsters still dream of leaving for the West, this kind of foreigner talk is often dismissed as outlandish. Yet that is by no means to say that Ashdown and other Bosnia cheerleaders, such as World Bank Bosnia Director Joseph K. Ingram, are wrong to massage the society's self-confidence. The reality is that Bosnia has little choice but to start relying more on its internal resources, for soon there won't be much else to lean on.

According to Ashdown, the pace of the withdrawal of international aid is such that Bosnia will be bankrupt in three years time if it fails to move "eye-wateringly fast" on the economic-reform front.

"We could not afford to let this country slid back into a vacuum of conflict, because that would affect the rest of the Balkans. So the international community won't leave. But the question is, how does the international community stay? Does it stay as investors, as businessmen, as artists, colleagues and tourists, and friends, or does it stay in some sort of mute presence that is here simply to stabilize chaos? So, the choice is very stark, and it will be made in the next couple of years," said Ashdown.

Bosnia will not be making that choice alone. When it comes to regional cooperation, there have actually been some very encouraging developments in the past few years. While negative sentiments still surface in interstate relations and everyday life, Belgrade, Zagreb, and Sarajevo nowadays conduct their mutual affairs in a calm and constructive, if not always cordial, manner. There is a strong sense that relations among them are steadily improving. The countries of the Balkans have also reached an impressive series of bilateral and multilateral agreements, including free trade agreements. Of course, pressure and encouragement from international representatives has been key in this area as well, with Ashdown doing his bit, as passionately as ever.

"We can only succeed together. That's true of BiH, but it's also true of the region...My message to my friends in the Balkans is: '...You should lock yourself together in this region, so that when you make your demand to join Europe, you do so not asking Europe for charity, but Europe understanding that by you coming in you add value to Europe. It is important that we change our mindset away from victim and supplicant and into a 'Look, Europe, you can't afford to have us out,'" said Ashdown.

Tihomir Loza is the editor in chief of TOL's Balkan Reconstruction Report.

Copyright =A9 2003 Transitions Online. All rights reserved.


Transitions Online
Copyright © Transitions Online. All rights reserved.