Unwise interventions are pushing ethnic partition.
Joe Biden’s election to the U.S. presidency in November 2020 was met with obvious relief by the United States’ allies and partners in Europe. In tiny Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, Biden’s victory prompted particular euphoria: Celebratory crowds drove through the capital waving Bosnian and American flags, while a photograph of then-Sen. Biden meeting with the country’s wartime president, Alija Izetbegovic, in office from 1990 to 1996, was projected onto Sarajevo’s city hall.
During the 1992-95 Bosnian War, Biden had been the most outspoken of the “Bosnia hawks” who advocated for greater diplomatic and military aid to the beleaguered Sarajevo government. Bosnians hoped that as president, Biden would show similar concern for the country, especially considering growing threats to Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by a coalition of Serb and Croat nationalist hard-liners.
But Sen. Biden and President Biden have pursued two entirely different policies toward Bosnia. Rather than aiding in Bosnia’s stabilization, the Biden administration has thrust the country into a major crisis, one concerning the use of the executive “Bonn powers” of the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords, the U.S.-brokered peace deal that ended the Bosnian War.
These expansive powers allow the high representative to unilaterally rewrite Bosnia’s laws and even sack publicly elected officials in the name of defending the integrity of the country’s peace. They were used extensively in the immediate postwar period to promote political integration but had all but fallen out of use for much of the last decade. Their sharp reactivation over the last year has raised questions as to whether the Biden White House has given up on the project of Bosnia’s reintegration and democratization and opted instead to work toward further ethnic partition.
Presently, the administration appears to be cementing the ability of Croat and Serb nationalists to artificially dominate Bosnia’s domestic politics to ensure their agreement to a modicum of “functional” governance. In exchange, the U.S. is abandoning its support for Bosnia’s pro-Western majority—both the country’s majority-Bosniak community but also the significant numbers of pro-Bosnian Croats and Serbs who envision Sarajevo in both the EU and NATO.
To this day, Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Accords serves as Bosnia’s legal constitution—a constitution written by American mediators never officially translated into any of Bosnia’s three official languages, which has never been formally adopted by the country’s own parliament. The Dayton constitution also has the ignominious distinction of having created the world’s most convoluted political regime, one that has served as a veritable engine of chaos. Rather than fostering a climate of peaceable power-sharing, Dayton’s Byzantine sectarian provisions have promoted conflict and brinkmanship.
After nearly two decades of gridlock and seething political tensions—including overt attempts at secession by the Russian-backed SNSD regime in the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska—High Representative Christian Schmidt, a former German parliamentarian who assumed the office in August 2021, has suddenly reactivated his office’s moribund fiat powers. His predecessor, Austrian Valentin Inzko, had only used them on a handful of occasions in his 12-year tenure in the country, and then only after arduous negotiation with both local actors and the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council, which oversees the high representative’s activities.
Schmidt, by contrast, has used his Bonn powers on eight occasions this year alone. And while most of these decisions, such as his decision to unblock election funding and a decision improving the technical administration of elections, have enjoyed broad public and international support, the high representative’s most recent actions have triggered widespread opposition within Bosnia, sharp international criticism, and have left the United States largely isolated among its Western allies as one of only two governments (along with the United Kingdom) publicly backing Schmidt.
On Oct. 2, Bosnians voted in their ninth general election since 1990. Shortly after the polls closed, Schmidt announced that he was using his Bonn powers to amend the election law and constitution in the country’s Federation, one of its two political entities. The official reason was to implement one of the eight outstanding constitutional cases concerning various grossly discriminatory features of the country’s constitution, the product of a series of rulings by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. While each of these decisions is exceedingly technical, they all essentially concern the various discriminatory provisions of the Dayton constitution, which reserves nearly all political power in the country to members of the three so-called constituent peoples—Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats—at the expense of all other groups in Bosnia, as well as members of the constituent peoples who reside in ethnically mixed regions.
But Schmidt was only going to implement one of the relevant rulings, the so-called Ljubic case, which concerns the fashion in which delegates in the upper chamber of the Federation’s House of Peoples are apportioned, and which most Bosnian constitutional experts argued would deepen the country’s discriminatory sectarian legal provisions, unless it was implemented in tandem with the seven other constitutional rulings. Indeed, an earlier attempt by Schmidt to implement this decision triggered large-scale public protests and saw him rebuked by leading international legislators, including the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Moreover, the actual contents of Schmidt’s election law were effectively gerrymandering the system to disproportionally favor the main Croat nationalist bloc in the country, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).