Paddy Ashdown on Bosnia and Herzegovina: “These are dangerous times; they are very dangerous times indeed”

Paddy Ashdown talks on "The global power shift" in Brussels March 1st 2012 -  Some rights reserved by PhOtOnQuAnTiQuE Lord (Paddy) Ashdown, former international High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006, led this week’s House of Lords debate on the situation in the country following its recent election. Here’s what he had to say…

Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon (LD): My Lords, a few months before the last election in the last months of 2009, my right honourable friend William Hague and I—well, at least he was not my right honourable friend then, but he is today; he was then the shadow Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—wrote a joint article for the British and foreign press on Bosnia and Herzegovina. We complained bitterly that Bosnia was stuck, that the progress that we had made during the previous 10 years had gone backwards, that the tone of nationalistic rhetoric had risen, that this was dangerous and that Bosnia remained stuck in a mire of dysfunctionality and corruption.

We ended that article with this paragraph:

“Today Radovan Karadzic is finally on trial in The Hague on charges of alleged genocide and war crimes in Bosnia. As he and others are called to account over their part in the horrendous events of the 1990s, it would be a supreme irony if their plans for carving up Bosnia-Herzegovina were to be realized simply because the international community was too busy to care”.

So it was then; so it is, I have to say, today, for Bosnia has not moved one inch forward—it has indeed gone backwards. This is despite the fact that this was a key article in the coalition agreement, one of the very few in the foreign affairs section of that agreement, which picked out the Government’s priorities; despite the fact that we have had in Mr William Hague a Foreign Secretary, until he was relieved of that position, who was genuinely interested in Bosnia and Herzegovina, advised by the admirable Arminka Helic, who is due shortly, to my delight, to join our number here; despite the fact that he knew what had to be done; despite the fact that he had a series of policies to push forward the process of making a functional state in Bosnia and Herzegovina; despite all those things, we are now exactly where we were in 2009.

No, we are in a worse position than we were in 2009, for Bosnia has not gone forward but has gone backwards in the most dangerous way, despite the fact that we have in Bosnia and Herzegovina today more instruments of leverage, power and influence than in other country on earth. We are spending hundreds of millions of euros every year in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We have a police mission under the European Union; we have EUFOR under the European Union; we have the largest European Union mission; and yet, because of a drowsy apathy in other European capitals and because of the most signal failure of policy over seven long years on the part of Brussels, Bosnia has slipped backwards.

It does not please me to say these things. This is now both a tragedy and exceedingly dangerous. I shall talk about the tragedy first.

For the first 10 years of Bosnia’s progress, it was the poster boy of post-conflict reconstruction. It moved further than any other country has ever done. We had a million refugees returning even to the Golgotha of Srebrenica—Muslims returning to Srebrenica. We had the genuine building of institutions of functional government. We had free elections carried out by the Bosnians alone to the highest possible standards. In my time in Bosnia, we took the two armies and we welded them together into a single-state army under the control of the presidency. We took the three intelligence services and we welded them together under the control of Parliament. We created in faster time than in any other country a genuine system of VAT revenue in place of a shattered, broken and corrupted sales tax. We brought together the customs services; we began to lay the foundations for the unification of the great city of Mostar. I do not claim these as successes for those who were high representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for we played but a small part in them.

None of these things was done, as the legend now says, by the use of the Bonn powers or by coercion; all of them were done by persuasion. All of them were done by having a co-ordinated policy from the European Union and Washington to drive the process of state functionality. All of them were done not by me but by brave Bosnian politicians such as Adnan Terzic and Dragan Covic, who were my partners in my days there and who took great risks to themselves and believed in the Bosnian state. These were achievements by the Bosnian politicians; they passed through the Bosnian state democratic institutions; they were not imposed by outsiders. And then, in 2007, sadly, the European Union adopted a policy to stand back and take no further action. It would leave it to the policy of ownership.

For seven long years, Bosnia has gone backwards. For seven long years, the noble Baroness, my good friend Cathy Ashton, has presided over the European External Action Service’s actions in Bosnia and we have seen, without any step taken to prevent it, all the progress of those 10 long years successively unravel, starting in Republika Srpska with Milorad Dodik. If there was ever an example of how Bosnia has failed to move forward, in the elections held last week, Bosnia ended up with exactly the same collection of politicians running it as it had before: the same people who ran the war, the same obstructionists.

I ask us to reflect for a moment. It is 20 years next year since the Dayton agreement, and yet, in 20 years, despite all those advantages, despite all the leverage, we have utterly failed to put together the kind of functional state that could provide the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina with a future, the only future that they can have that gives them prosperity and security, as part of the European Union.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, was even persuaded by her advisers to go to visit Milorad Dodik as though he was the head of a state, not the head of an entity, and sit down with him when, on his table, there was a map and flag of Republika Srpska and the flag of the European Union, but no flag for Bosnia-Herzegovina. You could not give a clearer example that the European Union was not interested in the state. Of course, it says that it is, but that is not how it worked out. Every Bosnian knew that from now on the whole emphasis was to be not on the functioning of the state but the functions of the entities. The entire political activity in Bosnia is now spent not on trying to build a functional state capable of joining the European Union but, instead, of investing in the old institutions of division: the entity and the federation. Those are exactly the same ingredients as took us to war.

This is a tragedy. So much has gone missing. We have stood by and allowed this to happen. Because we permitted Milorad Dodik to start spouting the old rhetoric of secessionism, we have an equal and contrary reaction from the Bosnians on the other side; so the rhetoric of division has risen in the past seven years in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the rhetoric of unity has faded away.

The mood in Bosnia today confirms to that old Balkan proverb: “Da komsiji crkne krava”, which means, “My neighbour’s cow is dead, that makes me happy”. That is the mood of Bosnia today: not unity, but disintegration; not the building of a functional state but the investment of political power in the entities. What are we to do? You cannot have a more terrible example of a long-term failure of public policy than our failure to build on the foundations of Bosnia-Herzegovina to create the functional state necessary to join the European Union.

Here is where it gets dangerous. We now have instability in Bosnia. We have secessionism in Republika Srpska and deep, deep disappointment among the Muslim community—the largest Muslim community in any European country; an ancient Muslim community that goes back 400 years and understands that there is no contradiction between Islam and European values. It is feeling left out, just as it did in 1992.

A friend said to me the other day, “Isn’t it a good thing that the two great foreign policy challenges of our time—the Ukraine crisis and the crisis of fundamentalist jihadism—never come together?”. Oh yes they do, they come together in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Russia is now playing mischief with the Serbs in Republika Srpska. It is offering it false loans to enable it to duck out of its agreement with the IMF. It is playing the Ukraine crisis right into the heart of Europe. We stand by and do nothing.

At the same time, thank God, the Bosnian Muslims are as difficult to radicalise as you can imagine—they continue to wear their skirts as short in Ferhadija in Sarajevo as they would in any other city on a Friday evening. If you go to Bosnia in weather like this—in still, clear October weather—you see rising above every little Bosnian Muslim village little columns of smoke ascending to an Allah or God who is offended by alcohol, at the bottom of which you will inevitably find a slivovitz still cooking up the plum brandy that is necessary to survive the winter. These are not easily radicalisable people, but there are now significant numbers, not just from Bosnia but from Sanjak, Montenegro and Albania now joining ISIL, because they see no hope left in a nation to which we will not commit the necessary political will to make it into a functional state.

I know that my noble friend will tell me that the Government have supported the continuation of EUFOR. I am glad of that; it is a good move; but EUFOR is the backstop that prevents failure becoming something worse; it is not a plan to take Bosnia forward. I know that the Government are saying that there is a rapprochement between us and Germany that will bring forward some plan for economic and social progress, but that is not the core of it. You cannot create a strong economy unless you create a functional state. Unless we address that and come forward with a series of co-ordinated plans and procedures to achieve that and push it forward, Bosnia will remain where it is.

These are dangerous times; they are very dangerous times indeed. I do not believe that the threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina today is that it returns to conflict. There is no mood for that, thank God, in Bosnia-Herzegovina today, but, for the first time, I cannot totally discount it. I do not know what will happen if a grenade is thrown into a mosque in Doboj on Friday night. By and large, the threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina is that while the rest of the Balkans moves forward, it continues to sink into a black hole of corruption and dysfunctionality from which we do not have the will to move it forward but may never leave because of its destabilising influence over the whole region. That is where we are unless we shift gear.

I am sorry that in our Chamber, where the tradition is for more modulated prose than I have used today, I have had to speak rather bluntly and openly, but I am depressed and frightened by what is happening in Bosnia. I am appalled at the failure of public policy that has led us to this. The Government have to lift more of the burden; they have done much but not enough in this process. I am sorry if in this speech I have been rather stronger than is normal in this place but simply, I know no other; I can find no way to whisper a wake-up call.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Parliament.


  • Alex Macfie 25th Oct '14 - 4:13pm

    Perhaps one thing that could be changed is the joint Presidency system, which seems to institutionalise sectarianism. By having always a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak, and citizens having to vote along ethnic lines, the electoral law effectively says that there is no place for you in modern-day Bosnia-Herzegovina if you are not an ethnically pure Serb, Croat or Bosniak who hates anyone who is not of your kind. And I’m sure that the heirs of Milosevic etc would not have it any other way. If there is one thing ethnic nationalists hate more than ethnic nationalists of the opposing lot , it is anti-nationalists, or moderates. After all, if non-nationalists got into power, this would break the cycle of hatred on which the nationalists rely for their power base. And that is the last thing any extreme nationalist wants to happen.

  • Alex Macfie 25th Oct '14 - 4:15pm

    Of course the 3-member Presidency should be elected by STV, with the top 3 candidates getting elected regardless of ethnicity. This would force candidates to reach outside their own community to get elected, thus leading to the election of more moderate politicians to the Presidency.

  • Eddie Sammon 25th Oct '14 - 4:34pm

    Two main points:

    1. Liberals should not allow the world to descend into violent anarchy. We need to work with our allies to do our bit.
    2. Can someone have a polite word with Nick Clegg and tell him our four priorities in the manifesto are not worthy of a country with considerable power and responsibility in the world. Tax increases and international security need to go on the front page.

  • Richard Dean 25th Oct '14 - 4:58pm

    One of the obvious conclusions is that the approach that Paddy and his friends and the EU was keen to push didn’t actually address the real problems. Suggesting that more of the same is unlikely to succeed.

    The most striking thing about Paddy’s description of the history is that things were indeed imposed from outside, albeit through local agents. “WE took the two armies and we welded them”, “WE took three intelligence services and welded them”, “WE did this, WE did that”. Fine if the EU money is coming in to keep everyone happy, falls apart predictably if it’s not.

    “WE have failed to put together a … state” To have a functioning state you first need a functioning society, and one that learns from its mistakes rather than pretends to until the handouts end. Or rather the functioning state and the functioning society go hand in hand. Maybe the EU focus on the first has been the problem all along.

  • We had a fully functional state…it was called Yugoslavia however people like you mister Ashdown supported it’s disintegration because we were not obedient to the West and because we were an example of a successful socialist nation that gave human right such as free education, housing, health care, maternity leave and everything else to our citizens. We had a thriving economy, armed forces to be proud of and one of the greatest leaders of the modern world, we were the world. Today we have nothing because we don’t have Yugoslavia.

  • A Social Liberal 25th Oct '14 - 11:18pm

    No Adnan, the reason Yugoslavia fell apart was because it depended on one man to hold it together. Tito was a great leader but he was the lynchpin on a very rickety cart. Because nobody could replace him, when he needed to be replaced there was no-one and the inevitable happened. The wheels fell off the rickety cart.

  • SIMON BANKS 26th Oct '14 - 3:45pm

    I can fully understand Adnan’s mourning for Yugoslavia and its breakup has been bloody and destructive. However, the first part of Yugoslavia to break away was Slovenia. I don’t recall Western powers supporting one side or the other, but the Slovenian breakaway was sparked by two things: (1) the Serbian nationalist Milosevic leadership in Yugoslavia; and (2), the fact that there was no longer an external threat from the Soviet Union.

    As for Paddy’s record, Richard has a point, but externally-imposed reconstruction can work if it has the local people mostly behind it – instance West Germany after 1945. Then, though, the allies were able to work with German leaders who’d been without parties or power for many years. I assume Paddy was trying to reach beyond some Bosnian political leaders to war-weary Bosnians.

  • Richard Underhill 24th Mar '16 - 6:11pm
    justice for Radovan Karadzic has been delayed mainly because he was in hiding, in disguise, for so long.
    It would be topical to argue about the sentence, but there were bigger political lessons which the UK government of the day failed to learn, perhaps because there was so much else going on.
    The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was united by the external threat posed actually by Stalin and, at least theoretically, by his successors prior to Gorbachev. It was also united by a communist dictatorship, one of the mildest in central, southern or eastern Europe. The irony was that countries that had Soviet troops under Gorbachev had peaceful transitions. The SFRY did not.
    Federalism without democracy is inadequate. When Slovenia left the SFRY the balance in the nominal federalism collapsed.
    A long-term policy of social engineering ended. Marshall Tito thought he had succeeded. Young men were conscripted into the armed forces to face the external threat, which did not flare up into actual combat, nor was Albania invaded. The army posted them away from their mother’s apron strings. At weekends they want out and met local girls. The consequent marriages were voluntary, often between people of different ethnicity. The result was an increasingly large proportion of people who belonged to no ethnic group and considered themselves Yugoslavs. When they fled from militant nationalism they did not have a country to return to.
    People whose ancestors had converted to Islam during the Ottoman Empire were also misunderstood and victimised. telling them that they would be able to return to a multi-ethnic Bosnia when the war was over was legally wrong, fallacious in that the future is always uncertain and morally hypocritical. It will take a long time to put Humpty-Dumpty back again, possibly never. The protagonists may not desire it. The pain is too recent.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Jul '17 - 7:37pm

    Euro commissioner Chris Patten commented in his book First Confession that
    “Paddy Ashdown particularly helped to do this in Bosnia with a formidable display of leadership which made me regret that Britain no longer has an empire to provide further career opportunities for him.”

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