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Daniel Serwer

October 14, 2015



I today attended a meeting with Republika Srpska (RS) Prime Minister Željka Cvijanović, who is in Washington talking about reducing government Bosnia’s bureaucracies and decentralizing the Bosnian state. I can agree with her general stance on those questions. But she neglected to mention in an initial brief presentation at a meeting hosted by Foreign Policy her President’s referendum proposals.

The current issue is a referendum called by the RS assembly on a vaguely worded proposition that challenges the authority of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s courts and of the High Representative who supervises implementation of the Dayton peace agreements reached almost 20 years ago:


Do you support the unconstitutional and unauthorized imposition of laws by the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly the imposed laws on the Court and Prosecutor’s Office of BiH and the implementation of their decisions on the territory of Republika Srpska?


The High Representative has discussed the legal issues the referendum raises in a Special Report of the High Representative to the Secretary General of the UN on the Implementation of the GFAP in BiH. The law on the referendum has not yet been published in the Official Gazette. Instead of proceeding as usual with that, the RS President and government are using the threat of the referendum to extract concessions from the European Union, which is engaged with RS in a seemingly interminable dialogue on its justice system.

I will leave the legal issues to the lawyers. What is the diplomatic impact of what RS is doing?

What I told the Prime Minister is this: the referendum proposal is convincing a lot of people in Washington that RS is doing the wrong thing in such an objectionable fashion that it is making the unthinkable thinkable: sanctioning RS officials and even abolishing the entities, which are the heart of the Dayton agreements.

The reaction is less dramatic in the EU, which still hopes to engage the RS and the Bosnians in general in reform processes intended to soften the edges of the country’s entity structure and enable it to make faster progress towards becoming a candidate for EU accession. I wish the Europeans well in that effort, which is backed by the international financial institutions on which both entities and the state government in Bosnia depend. The EU reform plan means the Europeans are less likely to join the US in vigorous action against the referendum proposal.

That is too bad, because only when the RS sees Europe and the US closing ranks and getting ready to do something dramatic will it yield to sweet reason. That is what happened with the Brcko arbitration that reintegrated one of the most contested pieces of real estate in the country and with defense reform that unified the armies in Bosnia ten years ago. Until the Europeans and Americans decide to act together in a concerted way, we’ll see little progress.

Some will wonder why I even attended a meeting at which I was bound to hear propositions that I object to.

My general approach to life as a private citizen and professor is that I am willing to listen to any foreigner the USG allows into the country (and quite a few it won’t allow in). My willingness to listen is in no way an indication of agreement or even softness. I was absolutely clear that Dodik’s toying with the referendum and using it to extract concessions from the EU is damaging not only his reputation but the viability of the RS. Catastrophic was the term I used to describe the likely outcome.

I am saying so publicly as well so there is no doubt about my views. It is arguable that we needed to allow the RS to continue to exist at the end of the Bosnian war in order to make peace. The peace has lasted, and for that we should all be grateful. But institutions are not necessarily forever. If the RS continues on its counterprodutive path, Americans and Europeans should reach the logical conclusion.



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