[Opinion] : The right direction for Balkans policy

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


“Group rights–including the ASMM in Kosovo as well as Bosnia’s existing constitutional provisions–are the wrong direction. The right direction for EU and US policy in the Balkans is greater support for individual rights under the rule of law.”

By Daniel Serwer,  @DanielSerwer ,

Washington, 06 September 2023, / – Labor Day weekend is over, so everyone in the US is back at work. It’s a good moment to reflect on EU and US policy in the Balkans.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is pointing in the right direction. It has decided, subject to confirmation, that the Bosnian constitution, agreed at the Dayton peace talks in 1995, violates the individual rights of its citizens. They cannot all vote for their choice as president, due to geographic and ethnic restrictions, which also dominate in the election of other officials.

This power-sharing arrangement was essential at the end of the Bosnian war. It reassured the warring parties that they could hold on to power. Other ethnic groups would not be dominant. Twenty-eight years of peace have ensued.

That is nothing to sniff at. The Dayton scheme seemed a house of cards when it was signed in December 1995. The Americans made the constitution difficult to amend because they realized how fragile the arrangement would likely be. But the constitution they imposed was precisely what the then warring ethnic nationalists wanted. They have used its bizarre concatention of group rights to protect their own hold on power. They have also prevented citizens who don’t identify with a particular group from gaining power.

This is not the first time the ECHR has intervened in favor of individual rights regardless of ethnicity. Bosnian politicians have mostly ignored its previous decisions. This one will likely suffer the same fate, unless something is done to counter the inertia.


Kosovo is different, arguably more successful. Its minority communities are much smaller relative to the majority than those in Bosnia. Still, Kosovo has strong constitutional arrangements to protect minorities, including a veto on constitutional changes. There are reserved seats for minorities in parliament as well as the government, minority vetoes, and an advisory Council of Communities linked directly to the President. But there are no ethnic restrictions on voting rights comparable to Bosnia’s.

Belgrade, Washington, and Brussels have been pressing Pristina hard to implement a 10-year-old agreement that calls for an Association of Serb-majority Municipalities (ASMM). Belgrade wants it to have executive powers. That would make it a level of governance intermediary between Pristina and the country’s municipalities, which have ample powers of their own.

The ASMM could thus become analogous to Republika Srpska in Bosnia. Advocates of the ASMM say that such arrangements for minority governance exist in more than a dozen European Union member states. But in all those instances the neighoring countries recognize the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their neighbors. That is not the case with Kosovo, as Serbia has steadfastly refused recognition and its officials now assert it will never happen.

What is to be done?

Washington and Brussels should be pressing Bosnian politicians this fall to implement the most recent as well as previous ECHR decisions. The Europeans and Americans should also back off pressing Pristina for the ASMM, explaining to Serbia that its formation will have to await Belgrade’s recognition as well as recognition by the five non-recognizing EU members. Washington and Brussels should also be prepared to guarantee that the ASMM will be consistent with the Kosovo constitution. They have said as much in op/eds. They should say it in a formal international agreement.

Along with these diplomatic moves should come a vigorous effort to upgrade the judicial systems in both Bosnia and Kosovo. Unfortunately, the Bosnian ruling parties are gutting serious reform. Bosnia needs to make its prosecutors and judges far more independent of politics. Extending the existing international OSCE judicial monitoring to prosecutors would be a major step in the right direction. In Kosovo, it is vital that Belgrade encourage the Serb judges and police to return to the country’s institutions, which they exited last spring at Belgrade’s behest. Belgrade also needs to refrain from influencing their decisions.

Group rights–including the ASMM in Kosovo as well as Bosnia’s existing constitutional provisions–are the wrong direction. The right direction for EU and US policy in the Balkans is greater support for individual rights under the rule of law. This is still at least a decade-long project, despite the many well-intentioned efforts that have preceded it. The sooner Pristina and Sarajevo start, the sooner they’ll finish.


Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

This opinion was first published at website.               

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of . 

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