Slow democratization in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Five Years After Dayton: Mixed Balance of the OSCE

Marcel Stoessel*

The Dayton Agreement assigned the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe an important role in pacifying Bosnia, including preparation for elections, promoting democratic reconstruction and human rights, and military stabilization. After five years, the balance is mixed.

More than five years after the signing of the “General Framework Agreement on Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina” in December 1995, which brought the three-and-a-half-year Bosnian war to an end, that country still lacks many of the attributes of a sovereign state. While de jure it was left intact within its internationally recognized borders, de facto its territory – as well as ruling power – is divided up among the three major ethnic groups: Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats.

Elections as a Credibility Test
There are still three separate armed forces; each ethnic group has the right of veto in joint governmental institutions, and so far all elections have resulted in a strengthening of the monolithic nationalist parties. The old wartime objective of partitioning Bosnia has by no means been abandoned by Serb and Croat nationalists. But the international community is trying to counteract that centrifugal tendency.

Dayton is far more than a classic peace treaty. It assigns the job of nation building to various international organizations. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is just one of them, but it was given crucial tasks which have allowed it to demonstrate its competence and ability to act. The most quickly assembled OSCE mission, and still the largest, had to first assess whether “credible elections” were possible under the given social circumstances in the two constituent segments, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serbs’ Republika Srpska. The date of 14 September 1996, proposed in the Dayton Agreement, was not regarded as inviolable.

It was up to the acting chairman of the OSCE at the time, Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, to make the final decision about the date. He warned that elections held without minimal prerequisites could degenerate into a “pseudo-democratic legitimation of extreme nationalist power structures and ethnic cleansing.” But Cotti saw no reasonable alternative, in part because of pressure from the USA and other members of the international Contact Group.

Nationalist Obstruction
The Provisional Election Commission, chaired by OSCE Mission Chief Robert Frowick, regulated every aspect of the election process. What turned out to be especially controversial were the rules regarding refugees and internally displaced persons. While the Dayton Agreement lays down a “ground rule” that those citizens should exercise their franchise in the municipalities in which they had their residence in 1991, the Election Commission gave them the option of registering to vote in other communities. Ultimately, widespread abuse of that ruling led to a postponement of the municipal elections scheduled for the same 1996 date. It proved impossible to guarantee a neutral political climate; the freedoms of opinion, assembly, movement and the press were seriously impaired. As a result, in its final report the large OSCE observer mission refrained from labeling the balloting as “free, fair and democratic.” Aside from technical difficulties, there was well-founded suspicion of election fraud. But something else was the decisive factor: a great majority of voters had cast their ballots for the three nationalist parties, the Serb SDS, the Croatian HDZ and the Bosniak SDA. The SDS and HDZ, in particular, made a continuous international presence essential by their systematic obstruction of the peace process.

The OSCE supervised five more rounds of voting: nationwide balloting in 1998 and 2000, municipal elections in 1997 and 2000, and special elections in the Republika Srpska in 1997. The only ones who showed a slight leaning toward politically moderate parties were the Bosniaks, for whom an unpartitioned state is the sole chance for survival. The OSCE made diverse use of its extensive authority: it struck unacceptable candidates from the lists, discharged elected politicians and entire municipal councils (implementing the results of the first municipal elections turned out to be extraordinarily difficult), imposed sanctions on rabble-rousing election slogans and even, in one instance, banned two smaller parties. But the hoped-for change of attitude never materialized; not even the democratic transition in Croatia and Yugoslavia led to greater cooperation within Bosnia.

Strengthening Multi-Ethnic Parties
Without elections there is no democracy, but democracy needs more than elections. Following the first elections, the OSCE intensified its efforts to nourish a democratic, civil society. Nongovernmental organizations, such as multi-ethnic associations for the return of the displaced, were systematically promoted as an alternative to nationalist groups. Political parties were also given financial and technical assistance, with preference going to those that were multi-ethnic and committed to the Dayton process. That made sense, because the three nationalist parties have their own large, informal networks – including their own intelligence units – which gave them strategic advantage over newer groups. The OSCE’s democratization strategy includes the training of municipal and justice officials, with emphasis on fighting the corruption which is still rampant today and on promoting the rule of law in government, which enjoys little credibility in Bosnia.

In the view of the OSCE, independent pluralistic media constitute a central element in a functioning civil society. For historic truth and current events are also ethnically divided in Bosnia. With Swiss aid, the first all-Bosnian radio station was established in 1996, but despite a high level of professionalism its listening audience remained disappointingly small in critical areas. An increasingly successful tool as a deterrent against hate-filled agitprop, however, were the daily evaluations of media reporting by an OSCE-affiliated commission of media experts established in 1998 to guarantee fairness and media access for all parties.

No fewer than 16 international human rights agreements – including the European Convention on Human Rights – were integrated into the Dayton Agreements and have the standing of national law in Bosnia. In reality, however, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is commonplace, especially by the Serbs and Croats. While the return of formerly displaced locals accelerated somewhat last year, it continues to be seriously hampered. The OSCE has the largest human-rights presence in the field, with 30 human rights officers scattered across Bosnia. Their attention is focused particularly on property questions, which are of critical importance to the returnees, but their power is purely informal.

The same applies to the ombudswoman, who functions under the aegis of the OSCE but operates under national law. She hears individual complaints about human rights violations by government agencies, discusses them with the authorities and makes recommendations. The first ombudswoman, Gret Haller, a Swiss, was able in this way to help resolve a good number of individual cases without much fanfare. There are some indications that the recommendations of the ombudsperson now carry increasing weight.

In 1996, thanks to OSCE mediation, two military agreements were concluded among the former warring parties. One pact, concluded among Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Republika Srbska, deals with confidence- and security-building measures. In the course of its implementation, a large number of inspections have so far been carried out – though it should be noted that they were announced in advance, rather than being spot checks. In addition, the atmosphere among members of the three de facto ethnic armies has improved, with a marked relaxing of tensions over time. Among other things, that was reflected in a 1999 OSCE seminar on democratic control of the armed forces. The second military agreement involves subregional disarmament and covers Croatia and Yugoslavia as well. Its goal is a stable, balanced level of defense forces at the lowest levels that accord with each state’s security requirements. Initial cutbacks in heavy armaments have already been made.

Ethnic Cleansing Cemented?
With regard to elections, an area in which the OSCE has real power, there are some critical points worth noting. Non-fulfillment of the minimal conditions for the first elections helped give the ultranationalist parties additional legitimation. Far more serious, however, were the rules established by the Provisional Election Commission in 1996 and 1997, which made it too easy for displaced persons to vote in communities other than their hometowns. In those instances, the OSCE could hardly avoid the accusation of having insufficiently countered the cementing of the ethnic cleansing achieved during the war. And thirdly, there were loud complaints about partisanship, for the OSCE had clear preferences for social-democratic and liberal parties. But, for reasons cited earlier, that strategy would seem to have been justified.

Despite the media ruckus about the Bosnian elections, the OSCE has made a major contribution to democratization in the broadest sense. Of course, it remains to be seen whether a democratization which was imposed from the outside, and was to an extent itself “undemocratic,” will achieve success in the long run. But, working with the locals, the OSCE helped mightily in achieving progress toward a democratic civil society and respect for human rights. In these areas, drawing an interim balance appears premature even after five years. What is clear, however, is that since Dayton the OSCE has grown from a frequently derided paper tiger to an operational organization capable of action and decision-making.

* The author is a freelance journalist who wrote a study on the role of the OSCE in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.

2 March 2001 / Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 24/25 February 2001

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