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  • A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia
  • Obrad Kesić
Mathew Parish , A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia. London: I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010.

Matthew Parish, the former head of the Legal Department of the regional Office of the High Representative in Brčko has written a book that never quite attains its full potential of becoming the definitive work about the international efforts in state-building in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but the scandals and failures of the Office of the High Representative which it thoroughly documents make it an extremely interesting and timely book as the EU and United States ponder what to do in this troubled state.

It also vividly documents enough of the hubris, undemocratic and often illegal behavior displayed by the international actors to paint a convincing (but perhaps unintended) picture that state-building undertakings like the one in Bosnia have little chance of success as long as there is no real accountability for the international representatives who lead and manage them.

The story told by Parish is an insider's view of what has gone wrong with the international effort in Bosnia, it is told well enough to make it essential reading for anyone, currently or in the future, studying or, involved in international state-building. He focuses most of his story on the complicated and unusual case of the International Arbitration for the contested town of Brčko.

Parish's real strength as an author, as an eyewitness, and as a participant in the international effort in Bosnia, is his narrative about Brčko. He succeeds in guiding the reader through the complicated intricacies of the arbitration process and provides insightful commentary on the possible motivations of the main actors in this dramatic tale (his comments and insight concerning Robert Owens, the international and dominant arbitrator are especially revealing.) He is clearly most comfortable with the subject matter surrounding the complex Brčko case, probably because as an international lawyer and as someone who spent several years focusing on the complexities of the arbitration and legal processes surrounding Owens' decision, he has been forced to deconstruct and examine every aspect of it. His knowledge and mastery of this material shows in the relative ease in which he is able to explain even the most confusing details of the Brčko case. He uses the context of established and historic legal frameworks in order to provide greater insight into the [End Page 271] whole process and in order to establish a valid legal foundation for a highly controversial and unprecedented decision.

Unfortunately, one of his main weaknesses is his attempt to chronicle the history of Bosnia and of the war(s) that was (were) fought on its territory during the 1990s into a handful of pages. This brief history is confusing, distorted and in the end not very useful in the overall context of an otherwise well documented and written narrative. It leaves one wondering if the book could have been better off without this brief digression into history. On the other hand, the brief historic description of Brčko is more coherent and of greater benefit to the reader.

Another slightly (at times) frustrating shortcoming is the author's apparent lack of understanding and knowledge of local political dynamics, relationships and history, which is often at the heart of the arrogance and miscalculations displayed by the main international actors; and, which in turn, are at the heart of Parish's critical analysis throughout the book. In the overall context of his analysis these flaws are not very serious but they are noticeable and at often distracting.

From the very beginning of his book, Parish makes it very clear that he views both the Brčko arbitration and the international protectorate over Bosnia as being problematic and of dubious legality. In fact he makes a clear case throughout the book that both were driven by autocratic and imperialistic impulses stemming from individual hubris and malevolence of major individual international actors. He notes in the introduction:

But the arbitration procedure turned out to be a cloud with a silver lining. It gave the International...