Matthew Parish, A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia

| 15 June 2010 | By Kenneth Morrison

Since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 a number of books have emerged that focus on post-war, internationally driven state-building in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Numerous academic works and the memoirs of former High Representatives, Paddy Ashdown and Carl Bildt, have provided illuminating insights that have helped to explain the dynamics of post-war Bosnian politics and the complexities of state-building in the post conflict context.

Matthew Parrish’s new book A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia is the latest of these studies and represents something of an anomaly. Usually addressed only as part of the wider process of Dayton implementation, Parrish’s book focuses primarily upon the city and wider district of Brcko.
As such, it is a worthy addition to this existing body of literature. The author draws upon his significant experience garnered from his time in the gainful employment of the Office of the High Representative, OHR, in Bosnia. Located within the Brcko office, he was the head of the legal department of the Brcko supervisor and, as one of OHR staff responsible for overseeing the implementation of the DPA in the contested district, is well placed to tell the story of Brcko’s rise and fall.

The early part of the book establishes the wider context within which the Brcko case is framed, with the first chapter presenting an overview of the relevant academic theory. Here the contrasting theoretical approaches to the process of state building (namely “post-liberal peace-building” and “partition theory”) are briefly addressed. The first of these posits that in failed states recovering from civil conflict, democratic institutions can be transplanted into the domestic political framework as a means of building stable governance.
The second approach, however, posits that such ambitious projects are futile in the post-conflict context and that partition should be established before the building of democratic structures can begin in earnest. “Good fences”, the argument goes, “make good neighbours”. The Dayton Agreement is something of a mix of some of the key elements of both, creating a de facto partition while creating a blueprint for future integration – a complex, some would argue impossible task, in the post-war political climate.
Of course, theoretical debates can often be rather dry and unintelligible, but here they are succinctly conveyed.
But illuminating as they are, it is the author’s account of the internal dynamics within international organisations, such as the OHR, and the complex relationship between these organisations and the domestic political elite, that sets this book apart.
Parrish highlights what has become all too obvious in the years since the signing of Dayton – that it was interpreted differently by the international community and domestic political elite, the former believing that it would work as a constitutional mechanism for creating the foundations for a multi-ethnic democracy while many within the former believed it was simply a stepping stone to the creation of mono-ethnic independent states.

The district of Brcko mattered to both. One of the thorniest issues during the Dayton negotiations and beyond, the status of Brcko represented a genuine problem for the international community. Unable to come to a final resolution (to decide whether the city should become part of Republika Srpska or the Bosniak-Croat Federation), the international administrators responsible opted to create a “free city”, a quasi-independent enclave administered by internationals and existing alongside Bosnia’s two larger entities.

But while ostensibly problematic, this innovative arrangement was initially rather successful. Internationally-supervised Brcko made, in the first decade of the post-war era, economic and political progress that outstripped every other area of Bosnia. It was an ambitious micro-project within the wider process of Dayton implementation, and one which created great strains within the OHR – most clearly manifested by the increasing tension between the organisation’s “Southern” office in Sarajevo and its smaller “Northern” office in Brcko.
Such tensions were, however, overshadowed by the significant benefits generated by rapid economic development and progress in the realm of judicial reform and public administration. But Brcko’s fate has mirrored that of Bosnia holistically.

Since 2006, however, the situation has steadily worsened. Political uncertainty, driven primarily by the international community’s mixed signals over the future of the OHR, has reversed many of the aforementioned achievements.
The reality, as Parrish acknowledges, is that Brcko’s “free city” status could only be assured, and be viable, when there existed consensus between, and commitment from, external powers. Brcko remains, to a great extent, as problematic as it was in 1995.   

Parrish’s book, then, tells the story of the successes wrought by innovative policy and the dangers of premature disengagement. As an international lawyer first and foremost, there is always a danger that the author will write in a dry and overly legalistic style at the expense of a flowing narrative.
To his credit, Parrish has largely avoided these pitfalls, presenting us instead with a challenging and illuminating work within which long, complex legal arguments do not obscure the main thrust of the book.
The markedly critical tone of the book, however, is unlikely to make Matthew Parrish a resoundingly popular figure with his former employers and other international organisations active in Bosnia. His damning critique of the role and the actions of the OHR and the state-building attempts by the international community can make for uncomfortable reading.

Be that as it may, this is a story that needed to be told, not least because it is a story of our times – one of internationally-driven state-building in the contemporary context, and all of the inherent problems associated with such projects.
The Brcko case is idiosyncratic, revealing and demonstrative of what can be achieved through strong and resolute international engagement. But it is, conversely, a cautionary tale that should be closely considered by those engaged in even more ambitious state building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, and given Bosnia’s current political crisis, A Free City in the Balkans is a timely and valuable addition to the existing literature.   

Kenneth Morrison is a Senior Lecturer in Modern East European History at De Montfort University and is the author of Montenegro: A Modern History, IB Tauris, 2009.
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