Kurt Bassuener Remembers Paddy Ashdown

The untimely death of Lord Paddy Ashdown on December 22, 2018 at age 77 has been felt deeply in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as among the country’s friends and allies. It is also deeply personal for several of us at DPC, for he was a friend and ally. His funeral was Wednesday.

As leader of the Liberal Democrats in the British Parliament, his clear and authoritative calls for international intervention during the war in Bosnia came at a time when the British government policy effectively aided in the efforts of the country’s enemies to dismember and destroy it. These presaged a consistent commitment that he continued until his death. As Baroness Arminka Helić wrote after his passing, “Lord Ashdown was the best friend that Bosnia-Herzegovina could have wished for. His contribution to Bosnia’s post-war recovery was invaluable.”

DPC co-founder Eric Witte and myself, then with a precursor organization, the Democratization Policy Institute (2000-2002), approached Ashdown in late 2001, with an offer to help draft a strategy, agenda and implementation plan for his coming term as High Representative in BiH. To our surprise, he took us up on our offer – and approached the US Institute of Peace for the funding to pursue this intensive research and strategy effort. It was an iterative and interactive effort with Ashdown and the team he was building. The result of this collaboration was “An Agenda for Bosnia’s Next High Representative,” a version of which was published in May 2002. At the time, neither Eric nor I realized how rarely one can see an effect of one’s efforts in the policy analysis and advocacy realm. We were of course, pushing on an open door in the sense that we already shared Ashdown’s disposition toward helping BiH establish the institutional structures to allow it to move forward under its own power.

Ashdown as High Representative (and, lest we forget, EU Special Representative as well) came with a strategy, but also exploited unforeseeable opportunities. This included the exposure of Republika Srpska’s intelligence and military engagement in illegal arms sales to Iraq in advance of the 2003 US-led invasion (which he supported). Ashdown accelerated the development of state competences in these security sectors; nobody in 1995 envisioned a unified BiH army or intelligence service; by 2006, both were a reality. Contrary to assertions that the development of the state being a result of “legal violence” against the RS, or imposed, the overwhelming majority of state-building occurred through inter-entity agreement. In the economy, rule of law, security sector, and ability of BiH to pursue Euro-Atlantic integration, Ashdown aimed to leave BiH with far greater capacity than he found it. Institutionally, he undoubtedly did.

Some years later, toward the end of Ashdown’s tenure as High Representative, I was given the opportunity to work for him in OHR’s Political Department, Strategy and Planning Section. (He once ebulliently termed us, while bursting into our office, “the license-to-think people”. We felt most of the time more like the back office of the front office, or crisis-response staff.) It was there that I grasped his managerial and political skills firsthand. In meetings, he sought – and received – input from all around the table. One could be blunt in delivering advice. He enjoyed sparring, had a considerable ego, and was difficult to sway once “hard over” for a course of action. But as an advisor, one felt valued. He had a human skill set and commitment, based on a set of values, not seen after his departure.

His own commitment, however, continued. While he made a point initially to be deferential to his successors, he progressively became more vocal as the trajectory in BiH accelerated in a negative direction – and the institutions that were painstakingly assembled allowed to be hollowed out and crumble. A relatively early indicator of this was an article he co-authored with Richard Holbrooke in 2008. A USIP roundtable in Washington followed, which laid bare the transatlantic divide in situational assessment that had been present for a decade. Ashdown continued, from his position in the House of Lords, to push for a recalibration and alignment of British, EU, and Western policy toward BiH and the Balkans. Just weeks before his death, he joined two other former High Representatives in decrying Croatia’s invasive role in BiH politics. After Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić proposed a Kosovo partition/”land swap,” Ashdown joined predecessor Carl Bildt and successor Christian Schwarz-Schilling in opposing it – on its own terms and for its already felt effect on BiH.

This commitment to the country itself, and the relationships he built there, was remarkable. Among my fonder memories was the dinner I shared with him and other former OHR colleagues in late 2015. It says something of the man that he remained close to members of his former security detail. In the ensuing discussion on the downward slide in BiH, they served as relayers of the lived experience of BiH citizens in these decaying conditions. His belief in BiH’s future was sincere; his dismay at what he saw as squandered promise was visceral.

When he left BiH and since, Ashdown faced unfair caricature as a neo-colonialist “viceroy” who ran roughshod over the country, impeding its democratic development. This view, widely held at the time, justified EU triumphalism and withdrawal as “local ownership.” In my view, Ashdown held far greater optimism in the will of BiH politicians to reform and evolve for the good of the country than they ever demonstrated. They have since taken unchecked “ownership” – in a feudal fashion.

In 2005, he came to our office to find me alone – we discussed some analysis we had generated. In our (relatively rare) solo impromptu chat, he asserted the HDZ BiH would evolve, pointing to the mother party in Croatia under Sanader. I countered with something along the lines of “they had to, Paddy – they got their asses kicked and were out in the cold. This HDZ never really has been.” He found this too pessimistic a reading. The hopes he had were hardly uncommon after the EU’s “big bang” 2004 enlargement; he himself had coined “from the push of Dayton to the pull of Brussels.” His sincere hope was that the institutions he helped BiH build would be vested with energy and propel the country into the European mainstream. The fact that they were not was not his failing, but that of the political class – many members of which he had placed hope upon. One commonality with his (very different) successor, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, was that he tended optimistically to see BiH’s political party leaders as politicians, rather than the oligarchs they are. To his great credit, he adjusted his views and was vocal about them once this hope was evidently dashed.

Even some of Ashdown’s sharper BiH critics from the time of his tenure have come to reevaluate and appreciate his role after more than a decade of EU-led policy atrophy and decline. Nobody of his profile, caliber, or strategic mindset has since been deployed in BiH or the region. Erwan Fouéré’s tenure as EUSR in Macedonia holds many parallels in terms of his true belief and outspokenness in theater and afterward; but he never held the same authority under Ohrid that Ashdown did under Dayton. The constituency Paddy aimed to serve was in BiH; all foreign actors since demonstrate evident orientation to Brussels or other EU capitals – BiH is a stage (and a fat paycheck), not a mission. As my friend Bob Hand has put it, Bosnia for most is now a case, not a cause. For Paddy, it was always the latter.

Divisions in the West and the EU are crippling. Absent a resurgence of leadership from EU members and reinforcement of Dayton’s executive instruments, the Office of the High Representative and the EUFOR deterrent force are likely to remain unused.

This places the onus on BiH citizens, fleeced and exploited by their political elites for almost three decades running, to take the initiative in forcing a change to the unsustainable status quo. There are many in the West who say they wish to foster liberal democratic values but can only generate notes of concern at their deterioration. Too many international officials in Bosnia today have discounted, disregarded, and even humiliated the Bosnians who have everything at stake. Paddy Ashdown is gone in this sense too. No one of his caliber is available to help from outside. Ashdown embraced the kind of grassroots energy now needed to rescue Bosnia from internationally coddled corrupt leaders. He would applaud Bosnians stepping to the fore to demand accountability from their political leaders and the institutions capable of perpetuating it.