Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Biden’s Team Is Dangerously Messing in Bosnia’s Politics

Unwise interventions are pushing ethnic partition.

By , a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks at the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks at the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks at the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo on May 19, 2009. Elvis Barukcic/AFP via GEtty Images

Joe Biden’s election to the U.S. presidency in November 2020 was met with obvious relief by the United States’ allies and partners in Europe. In tiny Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, Biden’s victory prompted particular euphoria: Celebratory crowds drove through the capital waving Bosnian and American flags, while a photograph of then-Sen. Biden meeting with the country’s wartime president, Alija Izetbegovic, in office from 1990 to 1996, was projected onto Sarajevo’s city hall.

During the 1992-95 Bosnian War, Biden had been the most outspoken of the “Bosnia hawks” who advocated for greater diplomatic and military aid to the beleaguered Sarajevo government. Bosnians hoped that as president, Biden would show similar concern for the country, especially considering growing threats to Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by a coalition of Serb and Croat nationalist hard-liners.

But Sen. Biden and President Biden have pursued two entirely different policies toward Bosnia. Rather than aiding in Bosnia’s stabilization, the Biden administration has thrust the country into a major crisis, one concerning the use of the executive “Bonn powers” of the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords, the U.S.-brokered peace deal that ended the Bosnian War.

Joe Biden’s election to the U.S. presidency in November 2020 was met with obvious relief by the United States’ allies and partners in Europe. In tiny Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, Biden’s victory prompted particular euphoria: Celebratory crowds drove through the capital waving Bosnian and American flags, while a photograph of then-Sen. Biden meeting with the country’s wartime president, Alija Izetbegovic, in office from 1990 to 1996, was projected onto Sarajevo’s city hall.

During the 1992-95 Bosnian War, Biden had been the most outspoken of the “Bosnia hawks” who advocated for greater diplomatic and military aid to the beleaguered Sarajevo government. Bosnians hoped that as president, Biden would show similar concern for the country, especially considering growing threats to Bosnia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by a coalition of Serb and Croat nationalist hard-liners.

But Sen. Biden and President Biden have pursued two entirely different policies toward Bosnia. Rather than aiding in Bosnia’s stabilization, the Biden administration has thrust the country into a major crisis, one concerning the use of the executive “Bonn powers” of the Office of the High Representative, which oversees the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accords, the U.S.-brokered peace deal that ended the Bosnian War.

These expansive powers allow the high representative to unilaterally rewrite Bosnia’s laws and even sack publicly elected officials in the name of defending the integrity of the country’s peace. They were used extensively in the immediate postwar period to promote political integration but had all but fallen out of use for much of the last decade. Their sharp reactivation over the last year has raised questions as to whether the Biden White House has given up on the project of Bosnia’s reintegration and democratization and opted instead to work toward further ethnic partition.

Presently, the administration appears to be cementing the ability of Croat and Serb nationalists to artificially dominate Bosnia’s domestic politics to ensure their agreement to a modicum of “functional” governance. In exchange, the U.S. is abandoning its support for Bosnia’s pro-Western majority—both the country’s majority-Bosniak community but also the significant numbers of pro-Bosnian Croats and Serbs who envision Sarajevo in both the EU and NATO.

To this day, Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Accords serves as Bosnia’s legal constitution—a constitution written by American mediators never officially translated into any of Bosnia’s three official languages, which has never been formally adopted by the country’s own parliament. The Dayton constitution also has the ignominious distinction of having created the world’s most convoluted political regime, one that has served as a veritable engine of chaos. Rather than fostering a climate of peaceable power-sharing, Dayton’s Byzantine sectarian provisions have promoted conflict and brinkmanship.

After nearly two decades of gridlock and seething political tensions—including overt attempts at secession by the Russian-backed SNSD regime in the Serb-dominated entity Republika Srpska—High Representative Christian Schmidt, a former German parliamentarian who assumed the office in August 2021, has suddenly reactivated his office’s moribund fiat powers. His predecessor, Austrian Valentin Inzko, had only used them on a handful of occasions in his 12-year tenure in the country, and then only after arduous negotiation with both local actors and the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council, which oversees the high representative’s activities.

Schmidt, by contrast, has used his Bonn powers on eight occasions this year alone. And while most of these decisions, such as his decision to unblock election funding and a decision improving the technical administration of elections, have enjoyed broad public and international support, the high representative’s most recent actions have triggered widespread opposition within Bosnia, sharp international criticism, and have left the United States largely isolated among its Western allies as one of only two governments (along with the United Kingdom) publicly backing Schmidt.

On Oct. 2, Bosnians voted in their ninth general election since 1990. Shortly after the polls closed, Schmidt announced that he was using his Bonn powers to amend the election law and constitution in the country’s Federation, one of its two political entities. The official reason was to implement one of the eight outstanding constitutional cases concerning various grossly discriminatory features of the country’s constitution, the product of a series of rulings by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights. While each of these decisions is exceedingly technical, they all essentially concern the various discriminatory provisions of the Dayton constitution, which reserves nearly all political power in the country to members of the three so-called constituent peoples—Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats—at the expense of all other groups in Bosnia, as well as members of the constituent peoples who reside in ethnically mixed regions.

But Schmidt was only going to implement one of the relevant rulings, the so-called Ljubic case, which concerns the fashion in which delegates in the upper chamber of the Federation’s House of Peoples are apportioned, and which most Bosnian constitutional experts argued would deepen the country’s discriminatory sectarian legal provisions, unless it was implemented in tandem with the seven other constitutional rulings. Indeed, an earlier attempt by Schmidt to implement this decision triggered large-scale public protests and saw him rebuked by leading international legislators, including the U.S. Helsinki Commission. Moreover, the actual contents of Schmidt’s election law were effectively gerrymandering the system to disproportionally favor the main Croat nationalist bloc in the country, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).

Specifically, as Bodo Weber and Kurt Bassuener have observed, the primary effect of the law will be to raise the threshold required to nominate a candidate for Federation president from six out of 17 members (35.3 percent) to 11 out of 23 members (47.8 percent). The president’s post is critical, as they grant the mandate for government formation in the Federation. After the HDZ spent four years blocking government formation after the 2018 election, demanding the implementation of the Ljubic case in line with its partisan preferences, Schmidt’s law will likely make the party unavoidable in government formation.

Moreover, his law has changed the sourcing of the delegates in the three primary ethnic caucuses. Nearly 80 percent of the Croat delegates will come exclusively from the ethnically homogenous electoral heartlands of the HDZ at the expense of the tens of thousands of moderate Croat voters who live in more mixed regions. The theoretical chances that previously existed at circumventing the HDZ’s monopoly on power will now be effectively impossible to avoid.

But the scale of Schmidt’s ethnic gerrymandering is still more extreme. The Sarajevo Canton, for instance, will send five Serb delegates to the entity’s House of Peoples, despite Serbs only constituting 3.2 percent of the canton’s population. Bosniaks, who comprise 84 percent of the canton, will receive four delegates. In the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, Bosniaks will receive only one delegate even though they are 41 percent of the population. Croats, with 53 percent of the population, will receive five delegates, while Serbs, at 2.89 percent of the population, will receive two delegates. In the Central Bosnia Canton, where Bosniaks comprise 60 percent of the population, they will receive half as many delegates (two) as the Croat community (four), which comprises 38 percent of the population. While it is likely that many of those Serb voters will vote for moderate, pro-Bosnian parties, a portion may support the HDZ’s partners in the secessionist SNSD, thus further expanding the influence of a party actively attempting to break up the Bosnian state.

Understandably, within days of the high representative’s decision, the pro-Bosnian Croat member of the country’s tripartite state presidency filed an emergency injunction with the Bosnian Constitutional Court. But even more striking was the international response: only two embassies came out in favor of the move—the United States and Britain. The EU delegation in Sarajevo issued a terse missive, clearly washing its hands of the affair. And a coalition of more than two dozen MEPs and MPs from around Europe released an open letter calling on Schmidt to reverse his decision and summoned him to testify at the European Parliament.

But in Bosnia, public furor focused on the United States, which was seen as the architect of Schmidt’s ploy, with Britain—consumed by its own domestic leadership crisis—merely along for the ride.

Apparently unphased, however, Schmidt began signaling his next move. Next, he would use the Bonn powers to address the status of unsettled state properties in the Republika Srpska, including sensitive military sites, the legal status of which is directly tied to Bosnia’s NATO aspirations.

As a close observer of Bosnian affairs, I began hearing from sources in key Western capitals weeks ago about Schmidt’s intentions. On the afternoon of Oct. 20, I was informed directly by a high-level source from an EU capital that Schmidt would use his “Bonn Powers to hand over Bosnian state military sites to Russian-backed secessionist authorities in RS entity.” I added that I understood that this policy enjoyed the full support of the U.S. government.

On the morning of Oct. 21, the Office of the High Representative issued a statement explaining that so-called prospective defense properties—i.e., those that the Bosnian Constitutional Court determined belonged to and were of immediate utility to the Bosnian Armed Forces—were not going to be transferred to the Banja Luka government. But it went on to explain that the broader question of unsettled state property “requires enactment of state-level legislation by the BiH Parliamentary Assembly.”

That legislation, it is widely understood, can’t happen because the secessionist authorities in the Republika Srpska assembly would (continue) to obstruct its adoption, which logically meant that the high representative would have to act. Moreover, already on Oct. 10, Schmidt had made public statements in which he made clear that he was preparing to intervene to resolve the impasse.

As such, the high representative’s apparent denial of its intention to intervene with respect to the status of “prospective defense properties” in the Republika Srpska was recognized by the Bosnian media as confirmation that it was planning a settlement that would, almost certainly, involve the transfer of significant portions of state property to the secessionist authorities. The U.S. Embassy’s solitary comment on the announcement, slamming “poorly sourced speculation about OHR’s [sic] plans regarding state defense property,” was likewise interpreted by most Bosnians as Washington revealing itself as the chief driver of the policy.

So, why has the United States engineered political favors for the very Croat and Serb nationalist hard-liners its own State and Treasury departments have been simultaneously sanctioning? At a recent session of the United Nations Security Council, the U.S. representative explained that Schmidt’s intervention was necessary to “unblock the … Federation” and “prevent the collapse” of the Constitutional Court. But if that is the case, why did the high representative simply not use his Bonn powers to, at least, appoint his own judges and prevent the worst-case scenario that U.S. officials claim to have been concerned about?

In reality, Biden has adopted a version of former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Bosnia policy, which Biden as a U.S. senator lambasted as a form of appeasement. In effect, Biden is repeating the mistake Clinton made by doubling down on the sectarian dysfunctionality of the Dayton regime, rather than assisting Bosnians in the development of a rational, liberal, democratic constitutional government.

Like the Afghans following the United States’ disastrous withdrawal from Kabul, Bosnians—including the large Bosnian-American community—have been shattered by Biden’s about-face. And the implications of the president’s propensity toward brutal realpolitik might be wider still. If this tendency holds, Biden might repeat another of Clinton’s errors from Bosnia and demand the Ukrainians halt their advance to secure “peace” with Russia at the price of the de facto partition of their country. U.S. national security advisor Jake Sullivan’s recent visit to Kyiv and the revelation of his back-channel communications with Moscow may already indicate just that. Ukraine should learn from Bosnia and press on, no matter what the White House demands.

Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe. He is the author of the book Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans. Twitter: @JasminMuj

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.