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Bosnia and Herzegovina: A Case of Outsourced Politics?

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A voter behind a screen in Bosnia and Hezegovina's 2016 general election

The first essay in Progressive Britain’s new ‘Spotlight on the Western Balkans’ series.

Following Bosnian politics can be a daunting task. The country is stuck in a vicious cycle that can make events appear repetitive without any clear possibility for change – at least without the intervention of external actors. For that reason, many of the political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), while nominally in favour of a domestic solution to the country’s internal problems, keep reaching out to foreign partners in the hope that their negotiating position and political strength will be bolstered by foreign support. This makes policymaking and overall governability of that Balkans country with a population of 3.2 million difficult as the real demands of local constituencies get muffled by the attention given to mobilization of international support. The support in question rarely has to do with improving the life conditions and economic development of BiH, one of the poorest in Europe in terms of GDP per capita.

The Age of High Representatives – Roots of Internationalisation: 1996 – 2006

Such a stance is not surprising. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in BiH, while primarily an American creation, were in fact a multilateral effort that produced not only one of the most complex power sharing constitutional agreements seen anywhere but also envisaged the creation of the Peace Implementation Council (PIC) and the Office of the High Representative (OHR) headed by the High Representative who represents the interests of the international community. The Annex IV to the Dayton Peace Accords, which is the Constitution to BiH introduced the three member presidency of BiH, comprised of one person of Bosniak, Croat and Serb origin respectively. It introduced a bicameral parliament comprised of the House of Representatives and the House of Peoples, the latter composed of an equal number of members from the three main ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Territorially, it divided the country into two asymmetric entities; Republika Srpska, dominated by Serbs, and Federation of BiH, in itself a federation of ten cantons primarily inhabited by the Bosniaks and Croats. This division was in itself, unfair; only 9 of the 143 municipalities that BiH has were monoethnic and the country had very few areas that were not ethnically mixed.

Map of Bosnia and Herzegovina showing internal political regions

The international presence was significant requiring its own quasi-governance structure. The OHR, nominally governed by PIC whose Steering Board includes representatives of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom, United States, EU, and Turkey, would have the authority not only to oversee peace and stability in BiH but also to lead and design reforms and to act as an internal arbiter. Additionally, the High Representative, as the person with considerable authorities was to report to the UN Security Council on an annual basis.

This solution enabled the international community and its politico-military presence in the country wide global support in embarking on a statebuilding effort that was to transform the country into an EU candidate and a modern federal country. This period, roughly between 1996 and 2006, which we could call “the age of high representatives” was marked by the attempts of the international community to reshape BiH as a modern federal state. With that in mind, creation of a number of state institutions, the return of property to its pre-war owners, the return of refugees, significant capacity-building that was to ensure the creation of a more efficient public administration and a general optimism regarding the country’s future. When a Bosnian parliamentary delegation visited Bulgaria in 2009, the Bosnian MPs remarked that their host country did not appear to be more advanced and developed compared to BiH despite Bulgaria already being an EU member state. Indeed, in that period the average wage in BiH was equal or somewhat greater to that in Bulgaria and Romania whereas today it is between 10 and 20% lower than in those countries.

The Age of Missed Opportunities – Dodik’s exploitation of the break-up of the international consensus and EU policy failures: 2007 – 2018

From a today standpoint in which the multipolar world seems to be reconstituted, the events in BiH at the end of the first decade of the 21st century make the country look like a canary in the coal mine. Despite the fact that the leading Serb political leader Milorad Dodik,  head of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD – Savez Nezavisnih Socijaldemokrata) party came to power in 2006 on a reformist agenda that was to replace the ignorant and backward policies of Serb Democratic Party (SDS – Srpska Demokratska Stranka), he quickly abandoned it in favour of an obstructionist politics. First display of such an approach was evident when he launched his first threat to withdraw the Serb cadres and MPs from the BiH institutions in 2007.

From then on, this combination of threats of withdrawal, the declarations that a referendum on independence or a referendum on the jurisdiction of BiH institutions would take place in RS have allowed Dodik to position himself not only as the main obstructer of the Euroatlantic integrations but also the most powerful politician in BiH. Not limiting himself only to Russian support, Dodik successfully reached out to European populists such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban and undertook a significant lobbying effort in the US. The OHR which in the previous period would sanction political leaders for such behaviour did not have the authority to sanction Dodik following a lack of consensus over such measures among the international actors present in BiH. Soft measures, such as international criticism or the fact that the SNSD was expelled from the Socialist International in 2012 proved to be inadequate to change Dodik’s behaviour.

One of the mantras of the 2006 – 2018 period which could be dubbed “the age of missed opportunities” for the country was that “BiH should speak to Europe with one voice.” But it became clear that for their part the EU member states were unable to speak with one voice not only to BiH and to the rest of the Western Balkans states but also to its American and British allies. Already in 2003, the EU viewed the existence of the High Representative as an obstacle for the ability of BiH to join the EU and claimed that its closure was a precondition for granting the country candidate status. The US and the UK, on the other hand, sceptical towards Dodik who they once saw as a moderate reformer before becoming a secessionist, believed that the OHR should stay in BiH as a guarantor of the country’s territorial integrity while the international community should maintain the ability to intervene in domestic matters.

The EU put much stock in the potentially transformative power of the accession process and to the processes of Europeanisation that accession to the bloc would entail for BiH. This hope, however, has been misplaced. As the prospects of EU membership became a more and more remote possibility for BiH, the potential impact of the terms and conditions of EU membership on the country’s public administration came to matter less and less. This stands in stark contrast with the convergence and reforms precipitated by the 2004 or 2007 enlargements to Central and Eastern Europe. To be sure, the Bosnian economy converged to a certain degree with that of the EU, but this convergence was not always a driver for prosperity in BiH and elsewhere in the Western Balkans as exposure to EU markets had a largely negative impact on some industries, particularly in agriculture.

It would only be in 2018, when the European Commission launched its Western Balkans Strategy that an attempt to address the shortcomings of the EU’s approach by promoting more investments began to materialise. However, this investment would be conditional only on a watered-down version of the EU convergence criteria and it remains unclear whether it can lead to full membership.

On the policy front, the EU promoted the independence of the judiciary through the establishment of judicial councils. These were self-governing bodies that were led and operated by judges and prosecutors that were designed to oppose and prevent political influence over the judiciary. In practice, however, following the departure of the foreign judges and prosecutors in 2009, investigations into high-profile political corruption moved from the national level Court and Prosecutor’s Office to the more corrupt and less independent prosecutorial offices in the entities. A Structural Dialogue on Judiciary reform process that was designed by the EU as a direct concession to Dodik’s threats that he would launch a referendum calling for the abolishment of the BiH Court and Prosecutor office did not lead to any more consensus regarding the work of these two institutions.

Between 2015 and 2018, the EU also attempted to promote economic development through a set of neoliberal economic reforms known simply as ‘the Reform Agenda’. Several moderate successes such as increased tax collection, exports and the decrease of unemployment were recorded during this period. The main achievement of this was the elevated stance of the country in the eyes of the international financial institutions that were making BiH a safer place for European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) investment that were intended to promote the modernisation of public infrastructure, such as railways and motorways. This success, however, was not exploited by either the domestic or international actors as a catalyst to promote a more advanced and robust economic agenda.

Part of the reason for this was the focus of the country’s leading Croat parties on the issue of the constitutional reform. Following the 2006 failure to adopt the so-called ‘April package’ of constitutional reforms, the changes to the BiH Constitution that would allow those that are not members of the three major ethnic groups (‘the constituent peoples’ as the BiH Constitution agreed upon as a part of the Dayton Peace Accords calls them) to run for the BiH Presidency and the House of Peoples (the upper house of parliament at the national level) were not passed. A high-level dialogue led by then EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule crumbled in 2013 without reaching a compromise that would satisfy the two main requirements for constitutional reform: that it satisfies the demands of the Croat political parties to secure the election of a Croat presidency member in a way they see fit and that it secures the demands of the Bosniak parties that it does not lead to

Map showing the ethnic populations of Bosnia and Herzegovina  

Genocide denial as a trigger for the current crisis: Present day    

As a matter of compromise amongst the international community that has, as we have observed, essentially fallen apart in the country, the OHR had not imposed a single political decision or piece of legislation since 2009. However, in 2021, his departure from the post, imposed changes to the country’s criminal code that criminalised genocide denial. Reacting to this, Dodik used his denial of the genocide committed in Srebrenica in July 1995 as a cornerstone of his narrative that separate views of the past had made BiH so deeply divided (and at least partly ungovernable) for more than a decade. This triggered Dodik to call for the withdrawal of the RS and all Serb representatives from the national institutions as well as the gradual dismantling of the country’s armed forces, intelligence agencies and police institutions. On the face of it, this can be understood as a clear attempt by Dodik and SNSD to precipitate the secession of RS from BiH.

However, due to the lack of any international representation that would support either a secession or his move towards a confederal arrangement for the country and a threat of imminent US sanctions, Dodik now finds himself in a position where he cannot advance his agenda much further. Just as he did in 2011, when faced with strong pressures from parts of the international community, Dodik would retreat to a position that would allow him to negotiate concessions on another front.

This time, Dodik demands a division of property management between the BiH state and its regional entities that would allow for the commencement of infrastructure projects such as the construction of a hydroelectric plant on the River Drina in cooperation with investors from Serbia without the need for prior authorisation from national level authorities. However, the previous attempts to enact the laws that would, following the principles established in other federal states, prescribe which elements of state property should be governed by the state and which should be governed by the entities have failed and have not been on the table for more than a decade.

International strategy of the Croat and Bosniak political parties

While the Croat political parties (HDZ – Hrvatska demokratska zajednica, Croat Democratic Union and HDZ 1990 – Hrvatska demokratska zajednica 1990, Croat Democratic Union 1990) that had provided tacit support to Dodik since 2011 did not view his move towards secession favourably, they have also declared little desire to oppose it. Instead, they have limited their stance largely to a single issue of electoral reform which would not only accommodate the needs of the non-constituent peoples as requested by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), but also secure the selection of a Croat presidency member who would come from an electoral unit comprised mainly of Croats.

In this way, Croat political parties traditionally support European integration because they tended to believe that this would strengthen their demand for such electoral reform. However, the lobbying efforts of the Croat parties, conducted mainly through Croatian diplomatic networks and their ties to the largest political group at the European Parliament and in the European Council, the European People’s Party, have been thus far unsuccessful in shaping the policy proposals coming from the EU.

Parties that compete within the Bosniak political body contend with an internal cleavage between nationalist and non-nationalist parties. The non-nationalist group also have prominent non-Bosniak members but their presence and support in the non-Bosniak majority areas remains limited and the non-nationalists have remained largely passive in their actions. Generally, the Bosniak parties primarily expect that the US foreign policy priorities of the Biden administration will prevent the eventual break-up of the country or its slow disintegration into a confederation. While US diplomacy indeed claims that these are its policy objectives for the country, this was also the case since 2007 when Dodik started his secessionist push.

US diplomatic support is, therefore, not enough to bring an end to the secessionist drive in RS.This support, moreover, does not present a more realistic plan for how BiH could join NATO and the EU, nor does it help to mobilise those forces that would sanction Dodik by severing the international ties that RS has developed.

When Bosniak leaders point out that the very point of the Dayton accords was not only to promote peace but to protect the very existence of the country and that further escalation could bring war, they draw the attention of an international audience. But, when Dodik deescalates his rhetoric, as he has done in 2011 and 2021, the international audience has thus far remained content with having averted the worst case scenario – break up and greatly increased chances of a return to violence. In that way, BiH becomes a perpetual source of ‘averted war’ turning it from a state-building effort into a conflict management situation.

All three of the main ethnic groups in BiH rely on international engagement as a core part of their political strategy. But despite the parallel means, there is no moral equivalence of ends. It is not the same to attempt to seek to justify secession, genocide denial, the undoing of state-building efforts and obstruction of European integrations. Still, a firm belief that only more foreign engagement can change the realities of the country leaves prospects for progressive reform firmly in the hands of external actors. Some external actors, such as Serbian president Vucic, have exploited this opportunity for years by simultaneously playing to an international audience – when seeking to deescalate any secessionist threats – and to a domestic audience – when seeking to present his demands to international actors as nothing more than what Kosovo Albanians demand for themselves.

In a similar way, Turkish leader Reyyep Taib Erdogan plays to a domestic constituency when declaring himself a protector of Bosniaks and to a regional audience when he offers his mediating services while promoting Turkish foreign investment. While Russian influence may be limited to being a spoiler of the Euroatlantic integrations process it still represents a source of domestic pride as well as music to the ears of hard-line Serb nationalists. The crisis also leaves the US as the only factor of stability in this part of the world. In that way, the Bosnian crisis remains a source of reputation for all the major external actors involved except the EU for which it remains clear evidence of the bloc’s sustained position as a weak geopolitical actor in the region.

Challenges for the centre-left causes

The constant crisis greatly diminishes the perspectives of a more progressive agenda that would lead to reconciliation, modernization and a more inclusive and democratic framework of governance.

Issues such as gender equality, discrimination and a move towards sustainable development remain low on the priority of the domestic actors and all advances made in this area are more a result of a gradual evolution of the citizens’ perceptions of these issues than a set of efforts focused on their promotion.

Occasional successes that happen such as the long overdue 25% increase of the minimum hourly fee that the trade union of workers in trade accomplished are important and were reached largely without considerable political support. Constituencies that would support the rule of law have actually been weakened by the focus of foreign engagement on constant crisis de-escalation. When local governments that claim to have a progressive agenda emerge, as was the case with the Canton Sarajevo government in 2019, they are demonized as traitors and unpatriotic. This despite the fact that the cross-entity collaboration was certainly not a priority of this government: it focused its efforts mostly on the fight against corruption and good governance.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP – Socijaldemokratska partija) as the only credible centre-left force in the country is attempting to position itself as the moderate voice that seeks to accommodate both the national and the ethnic demands that its constituents have. But it faces an uphill battle in mobilizing the support outside of its traditional workers and cosmopolitan basis in the basins of Tuzla and Sarajevo.

One of the main reasons for its lack of success were the internal struggles within the party that usually arise when one faction of the party accuses the other for too much accommodation to the nationalist rhetoric. In 2013, this was the case when Željko Komšić the Croat Presidency member left the party claiming that it is seeking to accommodate demands of HDZ towards the creation of the third entity. This also happened in 2019, when almost half of its branch in Tuzla canton, one of the party’s traditional strongholds left the party out of protest because the party refused to enter the national coalition with SDA (Stranka demokratske akcije – Party of Democratic Action), the leading Bosniak party.

The party also did not invest much in maintaining its presence in Republika Srpska – only in the last few years it has managed to made its presence more heard in that part of the country. That however, did not translate into electoral success as the party remains confined to the assemblies in Federation of BiH and at the national level. Thus, the party is manoeuvring carefully between the nationalisms of the country attempting not to betray its principles. Its social-democratic allies in Europe could have also done more in order to elevate the party’s stance on the international plane or to help reframe the aforementioned ignorant view of BiH that exists. It is hard to believe that the parties that belong to the ALDE or EPP groups in the European parliament get better or equal coverage and support than the SDP from the S&D group does.

For more on the Western Balkans, read the introduction to the series here.