Saturday

19th Sep 2020

Opinion

EU needs alternative to Bosnia 'peace cartel'

Visiting Beirut following the horrific and devastating port explosion on 4 August, French president Emmanuel Macron was surrounded by a crowd demanding that he not direct aid through the country's entrenched - and widely despised - political class.

He told Beirutis that France would lead in efforts to help, but that a "new political order in Lebanon" was needed.

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This message resonated with Lebanese citizens, who blame this and previous governments for serial mismanagement, incompetence, and endemic corruption that led to this tragedy of epic proportions.

"All of them means all of them," an anti-government chant dating to a protest movement, which began last October, was recited with even more energy now, along with a more violent one: "Hang up the nooses."

Lebanon's power-sharing agreement, agreed at the Saudi resort of Taif in 1989, ended the country's 15-year-long civil war, effectively recalibrating and rebooting a decades-long arrangement among the most powerful of Lebanon's 18 communities.

There have been several violent ructions since; occupation by Israeli and Syrian forces is history, and Hezbollah is now firmly entrenched.

Yet political elites have remained remarkably stable, united around a common interest in abusing the public trust with impunity, a game sustained by levers of patronage and fear.

This alliance of mutual interest is a peace cartel; the threat of renewed violence is its essential tool. Each participating group or party tries to maximise its interests, while the interests of the society at large are neglected.

While Lebanon is the country in which this kind of "deal" has the longest history, it is not the only one.

Bosnia parallel

Bosnia and Herzegovina is also prime example of this phenomenon - in fact, the one which inspired the term.

The 1995 peace accord, the Dayton Agreement, is also a power-sharing pact among erstwhile belligerents which reduces political life to a single category - ethno-national identity, allowing it to permeate the full breadth of public life and both enable and justify control.

Despite the façade of democracy, the impunity of political and economic power makes corruption the point of politics.

Fear has been directed towards citizens, who, since 2013, have periodically risen – with increasingly visible solidarity - to demand justice and dignity.

The last such cycle in 2018, which began, independently, first in Banja Luka and then Sarajevo, before cross-pollinating, was aggressively repressed by Republika Srpska police.

But fear has also been internalised by the West, particularly the EU, which has pursued what amounts to a pacification policy toward Bosnia and the Western Balkans more broadly.

This is undergirded by the priority of avoiding unpredictable disruption and stemming migration on the Balkan route, bolstered by the self-serving worry that any forward-looking policy shift would connote admission of past failure.

So the country's leaders effectively direct the EU's agenda in Bosnia, and control the money that comes with it.

Western patronage, infused in various forms, goes to Bosnia's political elites in what amounts to a protection racket - assisting them in pacifying an increasingly frustrated citizenry.

Many EU countries effectively profit from the resultant despair by actively engaging in human asset stripping; Bosnians leave the country at a greater rate than any in the Balkans, often leaving professions in Bosnia to wash dishes or drive taxis in Germany or Sweden.

Bosnia's political elites are rational actors - they have no interest in changing a system that affords them maximal power and lucre without responsibility or accountability.

The EU continues to pour their taxpayers' money into a system as corrupt, negligent, and mismanaged as Lebanon's for fear of the alternative, all the while proclaiming "partnership" and touting meaningless deliverables as evidence of progress.

New order

As in Lebanon, external actors cannot dictate a new political order, but the West can finally recognise its necessity.

The EU and the wider West have greater leverage in Bosnia than almost anywhere to negate the fear factor, at least in terms of politically organised violence, with the UN Security Council mandate to "maintain a safe and secure environment."

This requires reinforcing the EU's military deterrent force, Eufor, and making clear that violent repression of peaceful demonstrations will be interpreted as a violation prompting a response.

This must be followed by a real effort to support the rule of law. Ceasing to pour funds into corrupt government coffers, would help strangle the peace cartel's vital reliance on patronage.

But the active, creative side of a new pro-people policy would be to devote policy support toward bottom-up civic initiatives, including participatory design of an alternative political order in Bosnia, aimed at disempowering the peace cartel and building an accountable democracy.

The only partners the EU can have in Bosnia are its citizens.

Citizens need to lead the change to define a better future, but the West, particularly the EU, can help free them from the shackles of the peace cartel by ceasing to feed and support it.

This demands a philosophical change for a European project founded solely on elite direction.

But its own interests, as well as those of Bosnians, demand it, and it should not take a devastating explosion to make clear what the people have known all along.

Author bio

Kurt Bassuener is co-founder of the Democratisation Policy Council, a Berlin-based think-tank. Senada Šelo Šabić is senior research associate at the Institute for Development and International Relations in Zagreb.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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