Lord Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the British Liberal Democrats and from 2002 to 2006 High Representative (HR) of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), has died aged 77. While British obituaries (see, for example, here and here) focus on his impact on domestic politics and credit him with turning the Liberal Democrats into a true political power in Westminster, people in the Balkans remember his engagement in their region. During the war in Yugoslavia, he visited the besieged city of Sarajevo and, after a dinner in London, he leaked to the press a map Croatia’s president Franjo Tuđman had drawn on a menu, outlining the planned partition of BiH between Serbia and Croatia.
Paddy Ashdown became interested in Yugoslavia after the 1992 elections in Britain, when he felt bored during the honeymoon period of the new government and a colleague suggested: “You know a bit about wars, Paddy. If you are so bored, why don’t you go out and have a look at the one that has just started in Yugoslavia?” By his own admission, he “knew so little” about Bosnia when, some ten years later, he assumed the position of High Representative. When Tony Blair sought support from his European allies for Ashdown’s candidature, one of them asked him whether Ashdown was “really up to such a difficult post”, to which Blair is supposed to have replied: “Look, this guy led the British Liberal Democrats for eleven years. After that, Bosnia will be a doodle.”
As High Representative he was tasked with implementing the civilian aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement. It is in this role that he is most remembered in Bosnia, for apart from Carlos Westendorp, the second High Representative who introduced the instrument of the “Bonn powers” – the powers to decree legislation and remove domestic obstacles – into the peace and state building toolbox of the international community, it was Ashdown who arguably had the most lasting impact on BiH’s post-war development.
I’ve met Paddy Ashdown a few times, for the first time in 2012, when I interviewed him for my PhD thesis about the policy of the Office of High Representative (OHR) in post-war BiH. I remember him coming to collect me in the peer’s entrance waiting area of Westminster palace, looking around the room and, after the clerk seemed to have forgotten where I was sitting, shouting in his deep voice: “Gospodine Merdžanović, gdje ste?” During his time in Bosnia, he had learned the language. We shook hands and took the tiny elevator one floor up to his office, where he immediately started talking about Bosnia and the many friends and allies he had, and still has in this country.
During the interview, he told me: “I genuinely love Bosnia. And I love the Bosnian people in all of their forms. They remind me so much of my own country. (…) I just wanted to make the place better.“ While many internationals have professed their love for Bosnia, with Ashdown, you somehow believed him.
Maybe this was also because of his charisma, which you could not miss when talking to him. He was a natural politician, always trying to charm the voter, interviewer, or citizen, thereby building up popularity that, later on, he could trade for something else. As he explained with respect to his policy as High Representative: “Popularity is something you build up so that you sell it to get things done. So, I knew very well that if I was going to bypass some of the roadblocks from the old politicians, who would block what I would do, I had to get behind them to the people. So I made it deliberately a policy of mine to go out and meet with the people.” This was a strategy not all HR shared. Wolfgang Petritsch, Ashdown’s predecessor, for example, told me: “I always told him: Paddy, you don’t have to get elected.”
His idea of the High Representative’s role was one of firm leadership, leading to the accusation of him being a “European raj”. Aware of his image in this respect, right at the beginning of the interview he told me: “Although I am much recognised for having used the Bonn powers extensively, I used the Bonn powers to introduce legislation less than any of my predecessors. (…) In all the things I wished to do I was going beyond Dayton. There was a key phrase in my speech, which I said: Dayton is our foundation, it cannot be our ceiling. So, in all of those things that I did, in all of those things that I think were important because of my mandate there – they all had to be done with the agreement of the local politicians.”
Ashdown did indeed use the Bonn powers more than any other High Representative, and he did use them in legislative ways as well. He was always more the hands-on pragmatist than the theoretician or ideologue in his dealings within BiH. For him, progress in the country was always measured in absolute, not relative terms; outcomes represented the justification for any kind of action by the international community.
When he assumed office, he emphasised his goal to create “the outline structure of a modern, light-level state, governing a highly decentralised country”. His three priorities were: establishing the rule of law, getting the economy moving, and beginning to tackle high-level corruption in the country. One of his major foci was the collaboration with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, where he used the full force of his mandate to secure cooperation – and punish the lack of it. But he also sought to get the economy going, most famously by establishing the “bulldozer commission” that was to detect the most obvious obstacles to doing business in BiH that could be removed by legislative means.
This combination of goals became known as the “Justice and Jobs” reform programme, into which Ashdown cajoled the domestic elites. His approach in BiH relied on the carrot of European integration – in close cooperation with Chris Patten, who at that time was responsible for enlargement in the EU Commission – and the stick of Bonn power intervention. As he said to the newly elected BiH parliament in 2002, after the non-nationalist coalition had lost the elections and the nationalist parties had returned to power: “So, the choice is not whether to reform. But how fast, how soon and, above all, who will drive the process of reform – you or me?” As it turned out, it was him who would be the main driver of reform in BiH.
Ashdown’s legacy in this respect is impressive. Among his major achievements belong the introduction of a state-wide VAT, significant progress in terms of the establishment of the rule of law, the handing over of responsibility for refugee and property return to the Bosnians, the unification of the armed forces under the command of the central state presidency, and the general strengthening of the common state structures. It is precisely this last point, together with his tough line on ICTY cooperation, that has earned him much criticism from the Bosnian Serbs. As he said to me: “You won’t find the Serbs thinking I was a very good High Representative? Well, of course not. They wanted to hang on to Republika Srpska and I wanted to make sure that they lived in a state, not in an entity.”
The notion of absolute progress that Ashdown pushed, however, had a significant downside for the system of political cooperation in Bosnia. The High Representative assumed far-reaching duties, relieving the domestic elites from the burden of having to come to compromises by themselves. Political obstruction and political progress seized to be contradictions and became simultaneously possible, which made the OHR a crucial element of everyday political life. The effects of this structural change would become evident later on, when OHR pressures faded, for one reason or another, and political blockades ensued. This is also part of Ashdown’s legacy in BiH. And he was aware of that as well: “The temptation for somebody in Bosnia with those kind of powers is to use the powers to get things done quickly. And I always used to ask: if I do this, is the advantage of getting things done quickly worth the price I have to pay, which is creating dependencies within the structure? Perfectly fair argument. And the whole thing comes down – and I’m not saying I always got the balance right – but the whole thing comes down to a careful judgement about those two things.”
With Paddy Ashdown’s passing, Bosnia and Herzegovina loses an unapologetic defender of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and a strong advocate for the country and the Western Balkans in the United Kingdom. While we did not always agree with him, his death is certainly a great loss for all us.