By Kurt Bassuener
The question of whether to maintain Brčko Supervision promises to be among the most contentious topics to be discussed among the members of the Peace Implementation Council Steering Board at its upcoming meeting, to be held in Sarajevo on Monday and Tuesday.
Brčko District is the circuit breaker of the BiH conflict system, at least as it pertains to pretentions to RS independence. Without control of at least a hefty slice of Brčko District, the RS cannot be territorially contiguous. This is why the issue could not be agreed at Dayton and was put up to binding arbitration in the first place.
Fulfilling conditions to end Brčko Supervision is among the five objectives in the “5+2” criteria for the closure of OHR. It is also the one of the five on which the US is more equal than other members of the PIC Steering Board. The Brčko Arbitrator is American – former State Department lawyer and Dayton negotiation team member Roberts Owen. The Supervisor (along with all his predecessors) is also American – Principal Deputy High Representative Roderick Moore. The US invested considerable development aid, military presence, and political capital in the District. Without US acquiescence, closure of Brčko Supervision simply cannot happen.
There are numerous reasons to question the Republika Srpska’s intent and goodwill on adherence to the Final Award. First and foremost, the statements of RS President Milorad Dodik that he wants provisions for “peaceful dissolution” added to the BiH Constitution – as reportedly stated at a recent meeting in Cadenabbia, Italy – hardly argues for eliminating international tools related to that strategic hinge, given any independent RS’ necessity for control over Brčko. The RS Peoples’ Assembly rejected the legitimacy of the 1999 Brčko Final Award and has never rescinded that stance. Unilateral RS efforts to demarcate the IEBL (in violation of Dayton’s Annex 2) also run putative borders through the District. Given Brčko’s strategic position and the prevailing political uncertainty – calls for RS independence, a Croat third entity, and likely violent reactions to moves in either direction – it hardly seems to be a logical time to reduce international capacity.
In the District itself, political corruption is rife, BiH “politics as usual” is seeping more invasively into the heretofore relatively immune District, and Brcko’s citizens in general prefer the security of Supervision as a safety valve in an otherwise unpredictable BiH.
An honest assessment of the facts in Brčko District – not to mention in the context of BiH as a whole, in which the viability and structure of the state is regularly called into question at the highest levels – militates against ending Supervision for the foreseeable future.
But never mind the facts on the ground. Ending Brčko Supervision has become an idée fixe for most continental EU members of the PIC Steering Board (the Netherlands being the only exception). Just in time for the PIC SB meeting, the RS has published a map without the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) running through the District, in response to previous objections on official RS maps that showed a contiguous RS. At the previous PIC, also just in time, EU representatives notified their colleagues of a new decree amending the laws governing RS official maps.
Unfortunately, it is easy to see why the EU and its largest continental members have Brčko Supervision in their sights. American leverage in the PIC SB is concentrated on this issue. Once the box is ticked on Brčko Supervision, US resistance (along with many other PIC Steering Board members) to sidestepping the remaining 5+2 objectives – state property and defence property – will be that harder to maintain. Let there be no doubt that this would come next. Already, despite obvious backsliding on the fiscal sustainability and rule of law objectives, they remain “completed” as far as the EU is concerned. There is no reason to believe any of the other criteria will be assessed with any more intellectual honesty.
The US – along with Great Britain, Turkey, Japan, Canada and the Netherlands – have been in a defensive posture in the PIC Steering Board for quite some time – and in constant retreat against EU pressure to weaken or eliminate the Dayton executive instruments. Rational arguments with the EU don’t work, since the EU’s motive is not on the rational plane. This is about Brussels proving itself to itself – proving that it has the transformative power here that it credits itself with (with much justification) elsewhere in post-socialist Europe. Bosnia and Herzegovina is just a stage for an exercise in self-esteem maintenance for an insecure EU. Brčko Supervision, OHR and an executive EUFOR are all deviations from the enlargement dogma, so must be eliminated. Whatever that means on the ground in BiH, so be it. It is pointless to engage in a dialogue in which the facts on the ground are immaterial to your interlocutors. It is not an argument that can be won.
Ending Brčko Supervision would fatally weaken the US-led effort to resist EU pressure to close or relocate OHR. This is precisely why Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the EU institutions in Brussels – in collusion with the RS Government – are so fixated on getting it agreed at the upcoming PIC Steering Board meeting. It’s all about weakening US leverage, especially in the eyes of those countries that share its concerns. The Americans would be foolish to appease them. There is nothing to be gained by the US in ending Supervision. On the contrary, giving any ground on this issue would be fatal to maintaining the executive failsafe of maintaining the OHR, which in turn – along with an executive EUFOR – is the only bulwark against, and avenue to respond to, threats to territorial integrity and the peace.
Beyond maintaining Brčko Supervision, there are no defensible positions to retreat to, given the box we put ourselves in with the low bar of 5+2. The logical policy of those countries willing to have a reality-based policy in the PIC SB – and they span three continents – is to make clear that Brčko Supervision will be maintained until the point that they no longer have any reason to fear the country could collapse. That means enforcing Dayton until it is replaced by a popularly legitimate, durable structure which allows for political accountability. That will be a while. Until then, the executive instruments need to be maintained to stave-off violent collapse. There should be no artificial timeline. The EU enlargement approach provides no shortcuts around this necessity.
The US must not retreat at the PIC Steering Board meeting on this issue. It will weaken its leverage across the board with the EU on Bosnia – and in the region – if it does. It can also count on the support of Britain, Turkey, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands – but only if it stands firm. This is no time to hesitate.
Kurt Bassuener is a policy analyst and Senior Associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a global initiative for accountability in democracy promotion. He lives in Sarajevo.