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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Interview on Bosnia

Philip H. Gordon
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Interview With Sead Numanovic of Dnevniavaz
Washington, DC
December 15, 2009


Question: How do you see Bosnia? Is this country falling apart? Is there going to be a war?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Those are challenging questions. We see Bosnia as an important piece of the European puzzle picture that hasn’t been moving forward in recent years in the way we would have hoped. I think it’s fair to say that for a number of years after the Dayton Peace Agreement Bosnia was making slow but difficult progress. Within the past several years, maybe three years, it has stagnated or even regressed. That’s one reason that our administration got so engaged from the start, because we don’t want that to happen. We think the Western Balkans are on track to join EuroAtlantic institutions and become really part of Europe, of the stable, democratic, prosperous Europe, and Bosnia hasn’t been on that train for a few years.

Question: What is the reason for that stagnation? How would you describe it?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: It seems to be an inability of the country’s leaders representing different entities or different ethnic groups, to compromise and to accept that Bosnia should be a functioning state. Their priorities have been more for their entities and their groups than for the country as a whole. So long as that’s the case it’s going to be hard for Bosnia to move forward as to need to.

Question: Do how to break that, to move on?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: It’s not going to be done with one decision. What we have suggested and encouraged is that leaders agree first to solve the remaining challenges in the five objectives and two conditions that were laid out by the PIC [Peace Implementation Council], and there remains to be agreements on state property and defense property and that would be both necessary in and of itself, but also a sign that the leaders are prepared to work together.

Through the process led by Deputy Secretary of State Steinberg and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, we have also put forward some ideas on some modest political and constitutional reforms that would also make Bosnia a more functioning state, able to get at least on the starting line for European Union membership.

Again, none of these is a quick and easy fix and none of them is dramatic in and of itself, but unless and until the leaders can demonstrate they’re prepared to take such steps, which again are not only important of themselves but as a symbol to the people of the country that they want to act together and move forward together, then it’s not going to happen.

Question: What is your strategy, the U.S. strategy for Bosnia?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Our strategy is to continue to demonstrate that we are committed and engaged. We want to help Bosnia. Ultimately, Bosnia can only help itself. Bosnian leaders and the Bosnian people, it’s up to them. We can’t do it for Bosnia. We can help and we can provide ideas and we can provide some leadership and we can provide and I think have been providing resources, but ultimately we can only do so much. It’s going to be up to the leaders and the people of Bosnia whether they want to come together and move forwards towards Europe, or be left behind as the rest of the region move forward.

Question: If Bosnia is left behind it’s going to fall apart.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Well, that remains to be seen. We certainly hope not. But that prospect or that possibility is something that Bosnians need to consider. Will they be better off if that happens than they would be if they accepted some modest changes to move forward. I think the answer is no. I think history has demonstrated that that’s the answer. That’s what Bosnians are going to have to think about.

Question: You mentioned these “Butmir” negotiations. Is it dead?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: No.

Question: According to the current President of Bosnia, it is. Zejko Komsic recently claimed on a couple of occasions that it’s over.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We think of it as a process. It was never take it or leave it, here’s a package, if you don’t accept it by this date then it’s dead and we walk away.

It was an effort, is an effort by the United States and the European Union to help with some ideas. It seems to be the case that left to their own devices Bosnian leaders aren’t going to come up with their own proposals. So we thought it useful to help and to give ideas.

But this is a process that has to go on. To declare it dead, fine, then replace it with something else. The idea is to get agreements and a process going. It’s not any specific measures that we will have proposed.

Question: Is “Butmir” started too late or too early? Too late in the sense that we are facing with the elections very soon, and the same manner, too early because we are having the election campaign already starting. Should you wait a bit after the elections?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: It’s never too late or too early. If leaders decide they’re not prepared to do this before the elections then they will have lost further time. And then we’d have elections, but then they’re going to be faced with the same challenges then. So we didn’t want to wait a year and let Bosnia fall a year further behind some of its neighbors. We wanted to give them the opportunity now, and we still do.

Question: The outcome of the “Butmir” failure so far is that Bosnia lost the opportunity for MAP [Membership Action Plan]. That’s true, right?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: No, it’s not true. I don’t accept the premise that Bosnia lost the opportunity for MAP. On the contrary, I think what NATO said was and was meant to be very encouraging for Bosnia. The NATO Foreign Minister said we have decided to invite Bosnia to join the MAP once it completes the necessary political reforms. That’s pretty forward leaning. It’s not well, we might invite them or we’re still thinking about it, or some of us don’t think they should have it. It’s we want to do this. We’ve decided to do this and now Bosnia just needs to make some political reforms.

Question: The reforms are the ones that are actually in bits of the “Butmir” package, right?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: NATO didn’t define specifically what political reforms Bosnia needs to make, but I think it would be clear to everyone when Bosnia’s on the path to reform and when it’s not. So NATO Ministers will have to look at the situation as it evolves, but I think what’s positive in the MAP decision to the extent that all Bosnian leaders want MAP, what’s positive about it is it does put the ball in Bosnia’s court to say okay, we heard what you said, now, then they can come back to NATO and say we’ve made these reforms, now we expect to see MAP because NATO has said -- Again, it didn’t say do some reforms and then we’ll think about it. It said once they do the reforms we want to give MAP to Bosnia. So that’s a real opportunity for Bosnia.

Question: What the country is facing now in particular, the challenges that Mr. Milorad Dodik, the Prime Minister of the Republika Srpska is putting forward, he sent yesterday officially a proposal to the RSNA, National Assembly of the Republika Srpska, for the referendum on the foreign prosecutor and judges. He is constantly threatening with the referendums, doing everything he can to secede, actually, even though he claims that secession is not his policy, but the deeds are what counts. How to tackle it?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We were very disappointed to see Mr. Dodik’s reaction to the High Representative’s decisions on international judges. The High Representative supported by the entire PIC took the decision that -- first of all I want to say we think the international judges and prosecutors have been very helpful over the years -- this decision was meant to signal that in some areas we felt it would be constructive to let Bosnia and Bosnians themselves take on the roles that were being played by the international judges and prosecutors, although we’re happy to see them stay in an advisory capacity; and for the issue of war crimes, which is a particular case, that they should stay on. We supported that, the entire PIC supported that, and we were very disappointed to see Mr. Dodik’s reaction to it which is really a challenge to Dayton.

These decisions cannot be appealed or challenged. It’s not up to the entities or individual leaders to do that. So questioning that, challenging it and criticizing it is really a front to the notion of Bosnia and to Dayton, and that’s not acceptable to us.

Question: What are you going to do?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: They won’t have any meaning. Any referendum or vote or statement allegedly nullifying this decision doesn’t have any impact. It’s a legally binding decision and we expect it to be implemented.

Question: So Mr. Dodik could have a referendum but it’s not going to be binding, right?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: In our view, any referendum or vote or statement on the subject would not apply.

Question: But what to do with Dodik?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I think he has to understand, it’s the same message that we’ve sent to everybody in Bosnia, that there are two paths to the future. If he wants to continue to block agreement and challenge Dayton and challenge the consensus of the international community, he will be left behind. Unfortunately, Bosnia as a whole suffers when leaders can’t come together. So we have the same message for everybody, that there’s a real opportunity which if seized would lend our support and put Bosnia on the path to Europe and so many of the benefits it would bring. And if he wants to continue to challenge Dayton and the international community then he’s effectively punishing the whole state and his own community.

Question: He’s not going to be put on the blacklist? No contacts, no meetings, no visits?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I don’t want to speculate. Right now what we’re trying to do is engage with all the parties and get them to move forward.

Question: How you are responding to these critics that the decision on the foreign prosecutors and judges is a concession to Dodik, especially in this anti-corruption part of the foreign judges and prosecutors?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Laws will still need to be enforced. Our view, and this is always a question of finding the right time and the right balance. I think that the logic of the decision was that after so many years of relying on international judges and prosecutors, it was time to ask Bosnians to take more responsibility for implementing their own laws. Again, you can always question is it too soon, is it too late, should it have been done sooner, should we have waited, but this was the view of the High Representative and the PIC that it would benefit Bosnia and in fact frankly we feel that way across the board, that over time Bosnia -- Nobody wants to see Bosnia as a protectorate. Bosnians need to start stepping up and taking responsibility for their own country. This is a step in that direction.

Question: It’s kind of an unsecure step because we are seeing more of the signs of collapse in the country, a failing country, than taking the responsibilities. You have Dodik on one hand, but you have the Croats calling, asking for their entity as well. Those are the signs of a country that’s falling.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Some are. And again, that goes back to the initial point about a lack of consensus among the parties and a lack of willingness to make the necessary compromises to move forward. Some Croats are calling for that. We don’t believe that that would be a helpful step. Bosnia’s political structure is already complicated enough with the entities that it has, and adding another one would only complicate it further and would be moving in the wrong direction.

Question: Also some people claim that actually Dodik is your player, so to speak. He does in the end what is in the American interest, even though pushing some things to accommodate to adjust. Is he your puppet?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: No. I believe we just got finished talking about an example where I said we were very disappointed in his action and made clear that we’re not going to recognize it. I don’t think there’s much of a case for the notion that somehow he does whatever we want him to do.

Question: What with the OHR [Office of the High Representative]? It’s also kind of a dead institution. Its credibility is lost.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: OHR has played an important role and still has an important role to play. We have said that it will be time for OHR to move on when the objective and conditions laid down by the PIC have been met, and they haven’t. Until they are, then OHR is going to stay in place. That is not ideal because Bosnia should be looking after itself and there should be a feeling that this is a real country that its citizens belong to and Bosnians are taking decisions about their own future. But unless and until they’re prepared to do that, then OHR is going to stay in place and play that role that it continues to have, which until Bosnians agree among themselves is going to be an important role.

Question: It seems to me that a lot of Bosnian politicians are actually implementing Dodik’s policy, waiting for you to get tired and simply to move on, to leave. Is it going to happen?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: We’re not going to leave. As I said, we’re committed to Bosnia. The United States has invested a lot of time and resources and energy and emotion into the question of Bosnia and we’re not going to leave. What would happen if that scenario plays out is not that we would leave but that Bosnia would continue to stagnate. Again, the rest of the western Balkans would move forward. People would be more prosperous and secure and the people of Bosnia wouldn’t be. That’s what we’re asking them to think through. That was the Vice President’s message in May when he went and gave a speech to that effect, and he challenged Bosnians, and that challenge remains. It’s for Bosnians to do what they need to do to have their own country and put it on the right path.

Question: But I’m afraid that this process of stagnation is actually a dissolution of Bosnia. It could lead very clearly and very firmly to the dissolution. Would you let Bosnia collapse and disappear?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: I think we’re all afraid of that and that’s why we’re so concerned about Bosnia and that’s why we’re trying to help. Nobody wants to be complacent. I say stagnation is the scenario, but of course it could be worse than that. We’ve seen worse than that in the past in Bosnia, and that needs to be a lesson to all of us of how dark the future could be. I hope the Bosnian people will take that to their own leaders. Is that the future that their leaders are really offering them?

Question: But we’re still missing the clear answer. What are you going to do? It is not the issue of the ownership, but the issue of the security, the issue of future. You cannot rely only on Bosnians.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Bosnians shouldn’t have to rely only on themselves, and that’s what I keep saying, we are prepared to help. We’re invested, we’re engaged.

The Deputy Secretary of State has made three trips to Bosnia in the past two months. He’s responsible for 192 countries in the world. He’s been more often to Bosnia than any country in the world. I think that is a sign of how engaged we are and how much we care about moving Bosnia forward. So in no way are we saying this is up only to Bosnians and good luck and good riddance. On the contrary. But at the same time we are saying, because it’s true and inevitable, we can’t do it for Bosnians. I think Bosnians have too long looked to us to come in and say okay here’s the military force, here’s the constitution, do what we say, and we’re going to make these difficult decisions for you. We just can’t do that. So it is something we’re going to have to do together.

Question: Planning to visit Bosnia soon?

Assistant Secretary Gordon: Yes. I don’t have particular dates. I was there with the Vice President. I would like to go back. I’m also interested and committed to it and would look forward to going back.

Question: Thank you very much.

Assistant Secretary Gordon: It’s a pleasure. Nice talking to you.


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