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Powers of New High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina Lie in Board’s Hands

Map of Bosnia and Herzegovina

German politician Christian Schmidt will become the new international High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina on Aug. 1, succeeding Valentin Inzko, an Austrian official who held the position for 12 years. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) is an international entity that oversees implementation of the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995.

After Inzko stepped down on May 27, Schmidt was appointed by the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) steering board, an 11-member body, including the U.S., that provides the High Representative with political guidance. Only one member — Russia — was opposed.

Four experts familiar with developments in the Western Balkans told VOA that Schmidt's appointment was an opportunity to fix some of the Bosnian issues, but it might lead to new problems as well.

"On one hand, you do have high risk involved," said Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "Russia has not gone along with the PIC steering board decision to approve the nomination and is very clearly opposed to it."

The Russian embassy in Bosnia-Herzegovina said Schmidt's appointment should be officially confirmed by the U.N. Security Council, stating on its website that otherwise "no appointee will have the necessary international legal legitimacy or be considered a High Representative."

FILE - Christian Schmidt
FILE - Christian Schmidt

On June 29, the Security Council, per Russian request, held a session on this matter. Russia said the Security Council should confirm the appointment with a resolution — a resolution that Russia, as a permanent member, could veto. Other countries opposed that idea, noting that the unanimous support of the Council is desirable but not legally necessary.

As there was no vote by the Security Council, it became clear that Schmidt would take over the position in August. In retaliation, some experts fear, Russia could veto renewal of the EUFOR mandate in November.

EUFOR is a military mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina that oversees implementation of the Dayton Accords and consists of about 600 troops. The Security Council renews its mandate annually, and failing to do so might create new crises.

"Is this risk worth it would really depend on what Christian Schmidt does and what the German government decides to do to back him up in these efforts. There is also a possibility of no change, more of the old, which is also not unlikely," Ruge said.

Tanya Domi, a professor at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs in New York who had worked for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission to Bosnia — said that the U.S. and Britain should already be thinking about how to prevent that scenario "not in a month" but "now."

'5 + 2 agenda'

For years, Russia has been advocating the closure of OHR, and it traditionally opposes PIC decisions and statements.

Russian Ambassador in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Igor Kalabuhov, often says that more than 25 years after Dayton Accords, Bosnia doesn’t need international supervision anymore. In March, speaking to Bosnian reporters in Banja Luka, he said: “This institute needs to be closed after 25 years so all parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina can have the ability to agree on the future of the country on their own.”

In that position, Russia supports Bosnian Serbs, whose most powerful politician, Milorad Dodik, a member of the tripartite presidency, has frequently insulted Inzko and repeatedly threatened to secede the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska from Bosnia-Herzegovina. Under the Dayton Accords, the country is split into two highly autonomous regions: Republika Srpska and the Federation, the latter dominated by Muslim Bosniaks and Croats.

"Everyone is standing around and watching, and yet nothing has changed," Domi said.

In 2008, the PIC established the so-called "5 + 2 agenda" — requirements that Bosnia-Herzegovina authorities need to meet in order for the OHR to end. Many of these goals have not yet been achieved, including stronger rule of law and distribution of property between state and other levels of government.

The experts interviewed for this story by VOA said it was not the right time to close OHR; they feared new conflicts and more political deadlock would make the country even less functional.

Ivana Stradner, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., said the reason for the Russians' behavior is their goal to prevent further expansion of the European Union and NATO. Russia is already not satisfied that two Western Balkan countries, North Macedonia and Montenegro, joined NATO, and it wants to prevent Bosnia-Herzegovina from doing the same, she said.

In March 2021, the Russian embassy in Bosnia stated: "In the case of practical rapprochement between Bosnia-Herzegovina and NATO, our country will have to react to this hostile step."

Great powers often try to expand their influence to other countries, Stradner said, but the problem is that Russia, as well as countries such as China, Iran and Turkey, often try to undermine democracy and create divisions — which in Bosnia-Herzegovina means strengthening nationalism.

The 1992-95 war drove almost 2 million people from their homes and claimed about 100,000 lives. In November 1995, peace accords arranged in the U.S. city of Dayton, Ohio, stopped the fighting, but deep ethnic tensions persisted.

In the early years, OHR played a big role in the functioning of the postwar society, including dismissing and sanctioning officials and pushing for the adoption of laws. In 1997, in the German city of Bonn, the PIC granted some of these powers to the High Representative. Therefore, they are called the "Bonn powers."

Cooperation through sanctions

With time, international interest in Bosnia-Herzegovina waned, and it was often left to local politicians to make reforms. Inzko was often criticized for not using his Bonn powers.

In a recent interview for Radio Free Europe, Inzko noted that he had expected faster progress in the country upon his arrival.

"Perhaps the international community made a mistake when it changed gears too quickly from what we had — a robust, strong, international presence — to domestic responsibility, domestic solutions," Inzko said.

The Bonn powers are not a simple instrument, Ruge said, and there are preconditions for their use, so it should not be expected that Schmidt will have all the power in his hands.

"It's with the U.S. government, the German government, the French, the Brits, the Turks as well as, to an extent, with Brussels," Ruge said. "You can't use them and shouldn't use them without knowing how to really make sure they're backed up and enforced when they are challenged. Because they will surely be challenged."

Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C., said that the key question was whether Schmidt has U.S. and EU support for a "more vigorous action against those who oppose the unity and territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

The four experts interviewed by VOA mostly agree that an area of cooperation between U.S. and Europe might be sanctions against Bosnian officials, including imposing travel bans and blocking officials from using property they own abroad, noting that Europe would need to follow up on U.S. sanctions, which had not been the case in the past.