Monday

26th Feb 2024

Opinion

The West's dirty Mostar deal

  • Shrapnel damage in Mostar. 'The international community has engaged in Mostar in fits and starts for years, seeking to address the needs of a city that had been bitterly divided during the war' (Photo: il desiderio di una vita normale)

As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Dayton Peace Accords on Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), citizens of the city of Mostar will for the first time in 12 years vote in local elections on Sunday (20 December).

Since 2010, when the Constitutional Court of BiH suspended part of the election law on Mostar that it deemed discriminatory, political parties have not agreed on a remedy.

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A June agreement between the leaders of the two biggest Croat and Bosniak parties, the Croat Democratic Community (HDZ BiH) and Party of Democratic Action (SDA), with the engagement and approval of the EU special representative in BiH and resident US and UK ambassadors has been praised by these same actors as a democratic breakthrough.

The EU is eager to claim that this step means that one of the 14 key conditions from the May 2019 European Commission Avis to achieve candidate status has been met.

Unfortunately, nothing could be further from truth.

The deal, negotiated below the public and political radar in BiH as well as Western capitals, only appears to remove the discriminatory provisions.

Instead, it betrays the aims of the international community's post-war engagement on Mostar, and contravenes all principles of democratic rule of law and needed constitutional reform in BiH as laid down in the EC Avis.

The international community has engaged in Mostar in fits and starts for years, seeking to address the needs of a city that had been bitterly divided during the war.

Efforts aimed at securing a functioning and accountable city administration, however, have failed, and Mostar is widely viewed as one of the most corrupt parts of the country.

An effort in 2004, aimed at phasing out the ethno-territorial fiefdom power of party-controlled districts and strengthening a more rational city-wide administration, was never fully implemented.

Party elites, who resented their loss of power and associated lucrative opportunities, stymied it.

The 2010 Constitutional Court ruling, which led to a decade of local stalemate, underscored the incongruity between local political actors seeking to further embed ethnic discrimination into the political system through gerrymandering and the EU and other Western actors seeking to instil reforms in line with purported European values.

This circle never could be squared.

The deal struck in June was transactional and values-free for two reasons.

First, in order to score a deliverable, Western diplomats excluded all but the two main nationalist parties from the negotiations, ignoring every other voice.

Second, it laid the groundwork for further ethno-national gerrymandering at higher political levels, in stark opposition to the spirit that the Dayton agreement was supposed to ensure.

In exchange for party agreement on changes to the electoral law to finally enable elections, the Western powers demonstrated they would tolerate two other separately negotiated agreements.

Monoethnic ghettos

The first, a new city statute to be adopted by the new city council at its inaugural session, would re-create monoethnic, electoral district ghettos, returning ethno-territorial division in a semi-formal way to a city in a country that purports to want to join the EU.

Worse yet, the West would turn a blind eye to a written commitment on higher-level electoral reform aimed at facilitating the de facto introduction of a third, Croat ethnic entity into BiH.

Citizens, civic activists and opposition politicians who embrace liberal democratic values chafe at the message sent by the EU and US.

Initially proud of what was proclaimed a triumphant breakthrough, international negotiators now privately deny their involvement in the engineering, while not publicly speaking out against the terms of the deal.

In so doing, they continue to lend legitimacy to politics that would be roundly criticised anywhere else.

The Mostar deal is just the latest episode in over a decade of misguided – and demonstrably failing – Western policy in BiH (and the Western Balkans).

Without a (strategic) policy in BiH, the EU retreated to a policy of containment, and to simulating "process and progress" through tick-box exercises that made no impact on the ground.

Incoherence from the US reflects the general lack of a BiH policy, amplified by the Trump administration, but stretching back to the George W. Bush era.

The result is a seal of approval from the US and EU, granting carte blanche to local leaders who have failed to deliver even basic services like efficient garbage collection or a fire department or a rational public health system to the city. It is no wonder that citizens have lost faith not only in their own leaders, but also in the West.

Is there anything that can be done?

On Sunday, citizens of Mostar have the chance to, with their vote, at least rescue their city from ethnic disintegration by preventing the two-thirds majority HDZ and SDA need in the city council to adopt the new statute.

At the same time, such a vote could rescue European, Western liberal democratic values – from the cynical, short-term transactionalism demonstrated by the diplomats, who rushed to praise a deal they should have known better than to trust.

This will not be easy, for patronage and fear continue to be powerful motivators.

On the EU side, member states need to urgently speak up against the new statute, and related agreements.

They should also stop trying to convince themselves that fixing Dayton Bosnia's weaknesses is too complicated, intractable – a notion that too long served as a self-fulfilling prophecy and scapegoat for the lack of political will.

Author bio

Bodo Weber is a political analyst at the Democratization Policy Council (DPC)

Disclaimer

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

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