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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

How to Leave a Democratic Bosnia

It has been eight years since the signing of the Dayton Agreement, and Bosnia is still not functioning as a full-fledged democracy. While there has been much progress since 1995 and the prospect of a return to violence is virtually nil, the country is still politically unstable, economically weak and socially fragile. Indeed, because Bosnia cannot yet function on its own, it is still administered by the international community under the leadership of the high representative, Lord Ashdown.

At present, there is no consensus on how to change this situation. Some commentators assert that the only way for Bosnia to achieve full democracy under the rule of law is for the high representative to scale back his intervention in Bosnia's domestic affairs. In an open letter addressed to Lord Ashdown, published on July 16, 2003, the European Stability Initiative, a think tank based in Berlin and Sarajevo, contended that so long as the high representative continues to wield his wide-ranging "Bonn powers," first granted in 1997, true democracy and the rule of law will not be achieved in Bosnia.

In ESI's view, the fault for this situation lies with the neocolonialist international policies in Bosnia implemented chiefly by the Office of the High Representative: "In BiH, outsiders actually set [the political agenda], impose it, and punish with sanctions those who refuse to implement it (authors' emphasis). At the center of this system is the OHR, which can interpret its own mandate and so has essentially unlimited legal powers."

In response, Lord Ashdown retorted that "to scale back our involvement too quickly, before peace has been fully secured, would, frankly, be to gamble with [Bosnia's] and this region's future." Defending his own actions, he asserted, "I'm never going to apologize to anyone for moving too fast, for pushing too hard. The country has not got time. It needs people who are impatient." Indeed, many in the international community in Bosnia, including the influential International Crisis Group, contend that only more robust intervention by Lord Ashdown will bring about full democratization.

There is no doubt that the virtually absolute power of the international community in Bosnia has encouraged an atmosphere of dependency, passivity and even resistance when it comes to governance among the Bosnian political leadership. It is no less true that the country suffers, in the words of Lord Ashdown, from an inherently "dysfunctional political system, weak institutions and the enduring threat of crime and corruption."

But both arguments conveniently sidestep the real problem: the Dayton Agreement. Simply put, Bosnia isn't working because no one has been willing to admit publicly that Dayton fashioned a political system that makes the country virtually impossible to govern successfully without an international presence. Dayton created a deeply decentralized form of governance dominated by two artificial and largely autonomous entities, the Serbian-dominated Republika Srpska and the Muslim (Bosnian)-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Indeed, Dayton has fostered a system that now boasts multiple parliaments and more than 100 ministries.

To be fair, there were few other options at the time of the negotiations in 1995. The primary goal then was to end the war, and the cost of achieving it was the creation of the ethnically defined entities. It was, as one individual involved in the negotiations once said to me, an agreement that would someday have to be revisited.

Unfortunately, the international community has been unwilling to face up to the reality that Dayton cannot carry Bosnia into the future indefinitely. In addition, there are many Bosnian politicians who are opposed to any changes in Dayton because it would undermine their political fiefdoms and force them to be more accountable to Bosnian voters for their actions. As a result, Dayton has become entrenched policy, compelling the international community to remain deeply engaged in administering an ungovernable country. It is this reality, no less than the obstinacy and corruption of Bosnian politicians, that accounts for the decision a few years after Dayton to enhance the powers of the high representative, powers that are at the core of the now-heated debate over Bosnia's future.

So what should be done? Despite all the furor caused by the ESI call for reduced international involvement in Bosnia, the answer does not lie in either curbing the authority of the high representative or in pushing the blame off on the Bosnians. Rather, it is time for the leaders of Bosnia and the international community to begin the process of moving beyond Dayton, through the organization of a constitutional convention in 2004.

The goal of the convention should be to replace Dayton with a new constitution that establishes a truly democratic political system that meets the requirements of entrance into the European Union -- something that Dayton can never do. The organization of a constitutional convention would have three positive effects on the current political environment in Bosnia.

First, it would resolve once and for all the question of how and when the international community will eventually end its protectorate over Bosnia. Second, it would put all Bosnian politicians on notice, not least those who have thrived on the miasma of Dayton, that they will soon be responsible for running the country and therefore held directly accountable for their actions. Finally, it would significantly enhance the pace of Bosnia's entry into Europe and provide renewed hope for the people of Bosnia.

Lord Ashdown should launch the convention process by convening a meeting of key Bosnian politicians, members of parliament and relevant nongovernmental organizations in tandem with the international community to initiate the establishment of committees and working groups on the model of the European Convention with the goal of reaching a final plenary session ratifying a new constitution by early 2005 -- 10 years after the signing of the Dayton Agreement.

Within six months of the ratification of the new constitution, elections would be held to fill the new government. To ensure stability and smooth transition for the new government, the international community headed by Lord Ashdown would continue to play an active, though declining role, in administering Bosnia until one year after the new government.

Although there will be many in Bosnia as well as in the international community who will oppose a constitutional convention as either premature or a threat to stability, the time has come to recognize that struggling along in the existential political morass of Dayton is not the solution to the difficulties facing Bosnia.

A new constitution is the only political mechanism capable of providing a legitimate and appropriate exit for the international mission in Bosnia and, most importantly, giving the people of Bosnia the democratic government they deserve.

Robert B. Hitchner is chairman of the Dayton Peace Accords Project and Laurance S. Rockefeller visiting fellow at the Center for Human Values at Princeton University. This comment appeared in Friday's edition of The Wall Street Journal.