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INFO   :::  Region > Bosnia - PAGE 1 > Filling Bosnia’s reform gaps


Filling Bosnia’s reform gaps

Daniel Serwer

March 1, 2016



This USAID “gap analysis” for Bosnia and Herzegovina dropped into my inbox last week. I encourage those interested in the prospects for political and economic reform there to have a flip through the powerpoint slides. Bottom line: whatever the international community and the Bosnians have been doing about reform since 2006, it isn’t working.

There are likely several reasons for this. The ethnonationalist polarization of Bosnian politics intensified rapidly in 2006 after the rejection of the “April package” of constitutional amendments. Bosniak candidate for the presidency Haris Silajdzic amped up his rhetoric against Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik, who replied in kind. Both enjoyed political success as a result, though Dodik has last much longer and gotten much louder.

At about the same time, the European Union chose Christian Schwarz-Schilling as the international community’s High Representative responsible for ensuring implementation of the Dayton accords. Schwarz-Schilling was committed to lightening the touch of the Hirep and vowed not to use the dictatorial “Bonn powers” that had been bestowed on that office in 1997. This relieved a great deal of the pressure for reform and freed the country’s politicians to pursue their private interests at the expense of the state, as they would no longer find themselves summarily sacked for doing so.

The financial crisis of 2007/8 then took the wind out of the Bosnian economy’s sails. With growth slackening, the politicians found less cream to skim and naturally slowed the pace of reform even further, hoping to husband some state resources for their own benefit and to protect themselves from the electorate’s wrath at the reduced patronage benefits available. The corrupt and costly consequences of their behavior are well-documented. Corruption in Bosnia is not an aberration. It is the system, as Valery Perry has recently shown.

The question is: what should a foreign assistance organization like USAID do with its money in a situation like this?

Obviously not what it was doing before, which was grants to lots of widely scattered even if worthy projects. Nor, in my view, should it try to push reform by financing it. The money AID is likely to have in the future for Bosnia is nowhere near enough to convince a rational actor to undertake the kinds of reforms that are needed. Only the EU and the international financial institutions have that kind of money these days.

But conditionality and external pressure is not enough. The current Bosnian leaders won’t reform unless they feel some pressure not only from the international community but also from their own constituencies. One of the few reforms Bosnia has gotten right in recent years is its electoral system, which runs reasonably well. The problem has been that voters keep electing the same ethnonationalists who promise to protect them from other ethnonationalists. This mutual security dilemma keeps all three varieties in power, each for fear of the others.

Were I in charge, I would take all of the AID money and put it on a single objective: mounting a serious, sustained campaign across ethnic lines to unseat corrupt politicians and replace them with people committed to transparent and accountable governance, again across ethnic lines. The money might go to independent investigatory media, auditing bodies, judicial training, civil society organizations and thinktanks to support the kind of analysis and social mobilization required to unveil corrupt practices and hold perpetrators accountable.

The 2009 AID Anticorruption Assessment Handbook recommends pretty much that kind of program. In a country where “high-level fugures collude to weaken political/economic competitors,” it suggests:

seek gradual pluralization of political system with new competing groups emerging based on open, vigorous and broad-based economy

build independence and professionalism in the bureaucracy, courts and legislative institutions.


There is a serious question whether an effort of this sort can be run out of an American embassy. Valery Perry thinks yes. I doubt it. American embassies have too many other urgent priorities to worry about the merely important. The latest is countering recruitment of foreign fighters, which has pretty much taken precedence in all countries with significant Muslim populations for the past year or two. Bosnia has contributed a more than proportionate number of fighters, so that priority is likely to crowd out most everything else.

Of course any ambassador worth her salt would want to know if the US government is funding a program of the sort I suggest and exercise oversight. But wisdom might dictate that it be conducted, transparently and accountably, through non-governmental channels. There are lots of American and non-American civil society organizations capable of such work. I hope they get the resources needed to make a real go of it.



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