Croat crisis pushes Bosnia towards endgame

The inability of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political system to represent Croat interests will bring the stricken country to its knees – and provide useful cover for the Bosnian Serb leader’s plans.

By Matthew Parish

In November 2009 I predicted the independence of Republika Srpska. Since then, events have passed more quickly and have taken a more surprising turn than I had imagined. The catalyst for Bosnia’s final collapse was the victory of the Social Democrats, SDP, in the October 2010 general elections.

Over the course of 2011, an increasingly sorry narrative of irreversible political ruptures will permanently disfigure Bosnia’s political composition. It will be a dangerous year, in which political instability will compound the economic misery to which Bosnians are inured.

Bosnian Croat politics, previously muted, are now bringing the country to its knees. As in prior elections Bosnian Croats voted overwhelmingly in October 2010 for two nationalist parties, the Croatian Democratic union, HDZ, and its splinter sister party, HDZ-1990.

Nevertheless Bosnia’s political system has been incapable of representing Croat political preferences. The Croat member of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, is a member of SDP, a party which purports to be multiethnic but in reality is overwhelmingly Bosniak.

Hardly any Croats voted for Komsic but he was elected nonetheless, due to Bosnia’s unusual electoral rules. While there is an ethnic quota for many elected officials, including the Presidency, the same quota does not apply to voters and any Bosnian citizen can vote for any candidate for the Presidency. Irrespective of who votes for them, one candidate from each ethnic group, who receives the largest number of votes, is elected.

Thus Komsic was elected to the Presidency on the votes of Bosniaks, who are perhaps four to five times as numerous as Croats, although the vast majority of Croats voted for other candidates. Bosniaks have obtained two members of the three-man Presidency, and the ethnic compact on which the Dayton Peace Accords were built was thereby undercut.

Now matters are getting worse. The SDP has managed to form a government in the Federation with marginal minority Croat parties, meaning that the two allied HDZ parties, which represent the vast majority of Croat political opinion, are frozen out of the entity’s government.

The new government will therefore reflect Bosniak interests at the expense of those of Croats. Croat politicians and the Croat public have concluded that the Federation cannot accommodate their political aspirations. Bosnian Croats also vote in Croatian elections, and the only incentive previously keeping Zagreb quiet in the face of Bosnian Croat demands for secession, or further devolution, was the lure of EU membership.

As that prospect looks more distant, the moderating influence of the EU accession process has evaporated and Bosnian Croats are unleashed to pursue their political ambitions.

HDZ and HDZ-1990 have a common immediate goal: creation of a third Entity, dominated by Croats. SDP coalitions with minority Croat parties at HDZ’s expense would thereby become a thing of the past. Revenge for the pretence that Komsic represents Croat interests would be sweet. After they get their entity, or if they cannot get it, the ultimate goal is the secession of “Herzeg-Bosna” and union with Croatia.

In this irredentist agenda the Bosnian Croats have found an unlikely ally in the shape of the the President of the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska. Milorad Dodik supports Croat aspirations for their own entity, because any programme that divides the Federation empowers him.

This explains Dodik’s recent rapprochement with Croatia’s President, Ivo Josipovic. Behind the expressions of mutual regret for wartime hostilities and public commitments to resolving environmental problems, their private agenda is more elementary. Dodik will support Bosnian Croat aspirations for detachment from Bosnia in exchange for Croatia’s acquiescence in the separation of Republika Srpska.

Thus Dodik stokes the collapse of the Federation, and relishes watching from the sidelines as Bosniaks and Croats lock in combat. This alleviates international pressure against his own secessionist project and provides him with breathing space to take a number of symbolic actions that strengthen Republika Srpska’s already advanced state of autonomy. In recent weeks, Dodik has signalled his intention to destroy the Indirect Taxation Authority, undermine the State Court and assume entity control over extradition policy – arguably a breach of the Bosnian constitution.

He has also declared that Bosnia’s High Representative, Valentin Inzko, has no authority over the Serb half of the country. Whereas Dodik’s attacks upon Bosnia’s foreign governors and the state would previously have been met with outrage, his current actions are barely a distraction from the Bosniak-Croat confrontation that threatens to fissure the Federation’s politics. There is no pressure upon him to agree to the formation of a state government for as long as the Bosniaks and Croats are at loggerheads.

The principal cause of the contemporary crisis has been an irreversible loss of interest in Bosnia by the international community. After the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords were signed the West embarked on an aggressive programme of state-building, creating institutions of central government for which there was no consensus amongst Bosnia’s three national groups.

Now Western attention has frayed, and those institutions have become a battleground amidst the ruins of which Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs fight for irreconcilable political aims.

The Dayton constitutional structure was never sustainable as a permanent political settlement because it was forced upon the antagonists using diplomatic and military threats. It was only a matter of time before this external pressure evaporated and the system blew apart.

The limit of the international community’s attention was approximately 10 years from the end of the war. Since then, the artificially constructed Bosnian state has become increasingly dysfunctional, and there is no reason why that trend should be reversed.

The sole hope for Bosnia’s continued territorial integrity was a strand of Bosniak political thinking embodied in Bakir Izetbegovic, the current Bosniak member of the country’s Presidency. Izetbegovic’s philosophy differs dramatically to that of his father, Alija, the wartime Bosniak President who advocated a unified state in which Islam would be the prevalent political influence.

Bakir’s view is that Bosniaks have tried to seek reconciliation with Serbs and Croats since the end of the war, embodied in a power-sharing central government, but the attempt has failed.

Bosniaks therefore would do better to focus on wealth creation and consolidating their political authority in areas of outright Bosniak control. Business interests should trump intractable political battles. The Serbs and Croats should be left to go their own ways.

Their parts of the country will inevitably remain poorhouses because the Bosniaks possess the affluent and cosmopolitan capital, Sarajevo, and the country’s principal industrial centres of Tuzla and Zenica. Serbs and Croats present no economic threat to an autonomous Bosniak territory, which will do better unconstrained by the obligation to seek impossible political compromises.

But this vision, which was the source of reconciliation last year between Izetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action, SDA, and Dodik’s Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, has been eclipsed by the new Bosniak politics of SDP and its leader, Zlatko Lagumdzija.

Under the pretext of pushing for a unified multi-ethnic Bosnia, SDP has created political confrontations that it cannot win without the strong support of the international community. Croats and Serbs will unilaterally withdraw from state and Federation institutions dominated by SDP and its faux pretence of multi-ethnicity.

Although SDP has managed to create an artificial coalition in the Federation with fringe Croatian parties, the arithmetic of the state parliament will not allow it to do the same thing there without the support of some or all of SNSD, HDZ and HDZ-1990. Bosnian Serb politics are sufficiently united to ensure that it would be political suicide for any minority Serb party to form a pact with SDP.

In the meantime, Inzko is intent on withdrawing this August. The plan apparently conceived in the hallways of Brussels is to have him semi-retire to Vienna. There he will formally remain High Representative, with the so-called “Bonn powers” that allow him to impose and dismiss officials, but without continuing to swim daily with the sharks in the politically toxic waters of Sarajevo. This non-resident High Representative will be taken even less seriously than he is now.

The EU successor mission, in theory devoted to Bosnia’s non-existent process of EU accession, will watch helplessly as Dodik’s withdrawal from the state becomes ever more irreversible and as Croats and Bosniaks hurl insults at one-another over the de facto collapse of Federation institutions.

Neither Croats nor Serbs will issue declarations of independence this year; they will not need to. An aggressive agenda of publicly repudiating the Dayton political structures will keep them popular with their electorates, deflecting attention from Bosnia’s deepening economic malaise. The country may remain in a theoretical legal union for some years to come, but the last vestiges of multi-ethnic political cooperation ceased some months ago and will not be revived.

Should the centrist government in Belgrade fall over the next 12 months, Dodik may become emboldened in his centrifugal strides away from Sarajevo, knowing that a less compromising government in Belgrade, led by the nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, will not be inclined to oppose him.

Perhaps the most important outstanding question is whether Bosniaks will take up arms to prevent the disintegration of their country. Widespread violence seems unlikely. The three different peoples of Bosnia have become used to living apart in the 15 years since the war ended.

They have no incentives to murder their neighbours, as they once did, because they are no longer mixed together; the war divided the country into mono-ethnic Bantustans and despite all the international community’s efforts, that has not been significantly reversed. For most Bosniaks, Republika Srpska is to them much as is Kosovo to the Serbs: a land that invokes raw emotional responses of resentment, imagined as occupied by a hostile alien people.

But, ultimately, it is a place they never visit, and the increasing political autonomy of Serb and Croat parts of Bosnia makes no practical difference to them.

Just as the Serbs view Kosovo, Bosniaks will remain perennially bitter and hostile to those associated with what they have lost; but as with the Serbs over Kosovo, they will not fight. Whatever political developments unfold in the coming months and years, the country is already divided and the status quo is not threatened.

This cautious optimism has two caveats, Mostar and Brcko. The divided towns were thorns in the peace negotiations at Washington in 1994 and at Dayton in 1995 and remain problematic to this day. Mostar, the Bosnian Croats’ capital, permits no easy division: the tourist attractions and infrastructure links are in Bosniak east Mostar, while the commerce and industry is in the Croat west.

An uneasy truce is observed along an unreconstructed front line. The international community has overlooked the real possibility of a conflagration in Mostar erupting at any time. Brcko also remains problematic because under US tutelage Bosniak refugees returned to the town in significant numbers; yet that town centre must now form the land bridge between the two parts of Republika Srpska, if Dodik is to achieve his goal.

While Brcko has fewer guns than Mostar, there is a real risk of ethnic confrontation there if the transition to Republika Srpska domination of the town is not managed smoothly.

As the Peace Implementation Council prepares finally to bring the shutters down on OHR Brcko, just six months into the new Brcko Supervisor’s mandate, this is a ball that the US government, Brcko’s traditional guardians, seems destined to fumble.

The future of Bosnia without heavy international oversight is inevitable disintegration. The international community should now be focused upon managing the side-effects of this ugly process rather than striving to keep alive a discredited vision.

Matthew Parish was formerly Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brčko, a city in northern Bosnia subject to post-war supervision by the US government by reason of its strategic importance in the country’s conflict. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs. www.matthewparish.com

Mr. Parish’s book on international intervention in post-war Bosnia, A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia (International Library of War Studies), is published by I.B.Tauris.

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