Negotiating division and co-operation in today’s Bosnia

The system of government in Bosnia and Herzegovina is characterized by the tension between different types of mutually reinforcing distrust, which make institutional change and the emergence of new elites more difficult than in neighboring countries.

By Florian Bieber

As Bosnia is recovering from the latest crisis – once more the largest one since Dayton – it is useful to reflect on the underlying challenges Bosnia is facing today. When the late Richard Holbrooke brokered the Dayton Peace Accords in late 1995, most attention was devoted to drawing the new internal boundaries of Bosnia and Herzegovina (henceforth, Bosnia) to arrive at the “magical formula” which implemented the previously agreed division of the country into 49 percent under the control of the Serb Republic (RS) and 51 percent under the control of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), the predominantly Bosniak and Croat entity. Thus emerged an over 1000 km long border known euphemistically as the inter-entity boundary line (IEBL). On the other hand, the constitution and new institutions of the country received only scant attention during the negotiations. It is thus not without irony that it is those institutions which have been at the core of the profound political crisis which Bosnia has been slipping into over the past five years, while the borders have remained relatively uncontested.

Does this mean that too much attention has been placed on borders and too little on institutions? While certainly the institutions established at Dayton were often flawed, the border drawing was controversial and remains potentially a source of contestation. The boundary between the two entities largely followed the ceasefire line and only contained two major adjustments: one in western Bosnia to accommodate the 49/51 formula by placing thinly populated regions under the control of the RS and granting the Federation full control over parts of Sarajevo previously under Bosnian Serb rule — a territorial transfer which came about with the last chapter of ethnic cleansing, with most Serbs leaving the neighborhoods under pressure from the RS leadership in March 1996.

The border between the entities has become largely invisible over the past 15 years: in the first years, many feared crossing the border and police check points in the vicinity of the border constituted efforts by the entities to prevent people from moving freely within Bosnia. Even if the police were absent, this invisible line became visible by stalls selling cheap cigarettes from the other entity and taxi drivers waiting for customers from the other side, as few were willing to cross this line with the wrong license plates. With a common currency and a unified license plate, and a decline in the profitability of the cross-entity cigarette trade, the most visible reminders today are the large signs reading “Welcome to the Republic of Srpska”.

With few exceptions, the IEBL has also become the ethnic dividing line in Bosnia. Prior to the war, most municipalities were multinational. The ethnic cleansing during the war largely destroyed this diversity and territorialized ethnic belonging. The internationally administered return process was possibly the largest experiment to undo the consequences of ethnic cleansing. Refugees and internally displaced persons did not only have an unconditional right to return (unlike what seems currently likely in either Cyprus or Palestine/Israel), but were also assisted if they did want to go back home.  Even if (on paper) half of the two million IDPs and refugees returned (the return process has slowed to a trickle since 2003), the returnees often did not stay or became a new minority, marginalized when it comes to jobs, education and services. Only three municipalities bucked the trend and ‘changed hands’ since the end of the war. Grahovo, Drvar and Glamoč in Western Bosnia today have Serb majorities, as they did before the war, although they lie in a Federation canton named after the Croat secessionist project, ‘Herceg Bosna.’ The main reason that these municipalities saw such massive returns after the war was due to the overwhelming Serb majority they had before the war and the fact that Serbs were expelled from the region only towards the end of the war in 1995. These three towns are thus the exceptions which prove the rule that ethnic cleansing has largely worked.

The internal borders of Bosnia are today less physical markers, but continue to firmly separate political power and cement ethnic divisions. A second category of borders in Bosnia are the external borders with its three neighbors Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. Here a two-level border regime emerged. The physical border became more substantial since 1995 as Bosnia’s border regime evolved, and it is likely to increase in significance as Croatia’s EU accession will lead, if not immediately, to a Schengen border between the two countries. On the hand, there is an ethnic border regime: an overwhelming number of Croats in Bosnia hold Croatian passports and a growing, but unknown number of Serbs in the RS have been acquiring Serbian passports. According to the Gallup Balkan Monitor in 2009 and 2010, 15.4 and 7.5% respectively of surveyed inhabitants hold a Serbian passport; in the Federation, 15.2% and 33.8%, respectively, hold Croatian citizenship.

This trend was certainly encouraged by the one-year gap between the EU decision to liberalize the visa regime for Serbian (2009) and Bosnian citizens (2010). Beyond formal dual citizenship, other informal privileges granted to Croats or inhabitants of the RS create a virtual ethnic trans-border community. There are two ways of looking at this reality. Often, the ethnic ties are seen as a negative hold-over from the war years and help to undermine the already weak Bosnian state cohesion. These networks produce and reproduce loyalties and identities which can challenge the Bosnian state. This is exemplified by statements from the current president of the RS, Milorad Dodik, in which he stated that “case that tomorrow Bosnia and Serbia would play, I would cheer for Serbia.” Accordingly, only 15.8% of inhabitants in the RS support the Bosnian football team, while 75.8% in the Federation do. Forging closer ties to Serbia and fostering informal cross-border ties also reduced identification with Bosnia. A consequence is the large support (over 80%) among Serbs in the RS for the independence of their entity over the continued existence of Bosnia.

Alternatively, one could also interpret these ties as having a moderating effect. In 2009, Tim Judah, the Balkan correspondent of The Economist coined the term Yugosphere. This Yugosphere describes the network of ties with the countries of former Yugoslavia in business and culture which have emerged since the end of the wars. They do not express a desire to re-constitute a political unit called Yugoslavia, but rather describe an alternative within the framework of existing states. Now, in addition to the Yugosphere, there are also a ‘Croatosphere’, and a ‘Serbosphere’. These are cross-border networks based on affinity along national lines. These ties are fostered by the above mentioned examples of state policies, including citizenship regimes, and create a sense of community. If the Yugosphere does not necessarily present a challenge to the existing states, it could be argued that the national spheres similarly provide for another layer of identity, but do not have to undermine multi-national states per se. It could be argued that these linkages provide for multiple centres and networks, which might reduce the degree of contestation over only one, namely the state.

The challenge for Bosnia arising from the ‘Croatopshere’ and the ‘Serbosphere’ is that these often enjoy more legitimacy and have been able to provide greater benefits to Bosnian citizens which partake in these alternative spheres, including freedom to travel and jobs, than the state. Moreover, these spheres are exclusive and the largest Bosnian community, Bosniaks, lack such a comparable dimension. Most importantly, unlike the Yugosphere, the national spheres often (but not necessarily) challenge the legitimacy of the state and thus constitute an alternative rather than an additional layer to identity among Bosnians.

Both transnational and subnational structures and networks have been unable to overcome or to short-circuit the cumbersome decision-making processes within Bosnia. While there is widespread agreement that institutions in Bosnia which require consent across national lines have struggled to take decisions for years, the frequency of blockages increased since 2006 when Milorad Dodik came to power in the Republika Srpska for a second time and pursued a confrontational stance towards international actors and Bosniak parties. The fact that neither the state nor the Federation have had a government for more than four months after the elections in October 2010 is indicative of the tense political environment. The reason for the political blockages can be easily attributed to, depending on the perspective, the President of the RS, Milorad Dodik, or Bosniak politicians insisting on further centralization of the state. The modest legislative record of the Bosnian parliament in recent years and the slow government formation, however, are not caused only by a particular politician, or a particular elite.

Instead, it might be tempting to shift all the blame to the power-sharing arrangement established at Dayton. With its emphasis on ethnicity and strong linkages between ethnicity and territory, it seems to provide a recipe for confrontational ethnopolitics. Nevertheless, it is equally misleading to consider the entire political system as a source of the current crisis in Bosnian politics.

While it is true that just as there are populist politicians which thrive on the current impasse, there are also institutions with multiple veto points and excessive emphasis on ethnic representation, colloquially known in Bosnia as “counting blood cells”, i.e. predetermining peoples professional opportunities based on their ethnic belonging. In order to find out why Bosnia is struggling, we need to explore other causes.

As survey for UNDP in 2007 found Bosnia to be at the bottom of international leagues when it comes to social trust. Only 7.8% of surveyed citizens indicate that they trust others, considerably lower than other countries, including those in South Eastern Europe. This low level of trust transfers into low levels of trust in institutions and low levels of interest in politics, again significantly less than in any other country in the region. What is striking about the findings is that Bosnia is less characterized by low levels of trust between ethnic groups, or by particular groups towards some institutions — by Serbs towards the state for example — but by a generally low level of trust, not ethnically neutral, but preferences along ethnic lines are overshadowed by the general breakdown in trust.

Considering this backdrop, it is not surprising that Bosnia has essentially become a “low trust state”. The institutions are predicated on the low trust along ethnic lines: veto rights and blocking mechanisms are the embodiment of low levels of trust in political opponents (sometimes justified). International supervision since Dayton has often interfered into political decisions due to low trust in local political elites (often for good reason). The political discourse of elites has been based on the rhetoric of low trust: a key theme of Milorad Dodik’s party SNSD over recent years has been the need to preserve the RS against threats from Bosniak parties and international pressure. The supposed threat and low trust in both parties from other ethnic groups and international actors were the core message. Similarly, Dodik recently rejected the introduction of a new article in the Bosnian constitution, known as the “Europe clause” which would allow for laws essential to EU integration to pass with fewer veto rights. Similarly, Croat parties have emphasized the need for a third entity to protect Croat interests from being marginalized. Finally, predominantly Bosniak parties emphasize their distrust toward the RS and the intentions of the non-Bosniak parties towards the state.

Whilst for most citizens’ distrust is not primarily ethnic, the distrust of parties has clear ethnic overtones. If the goal of parties with a mono-ethnic electorate is to generate loyalty within the ethnic group at the expense of interethnic relations, the parties in Bosnia have failed. If, however, the ethnic distrust is both a way to channel broader frustration and a mechanism to re-produce distrust, it has worked. The effect of distrust is disengagement from politics and helps to sustain parties that re-affirm low trust politics and, while not being particularly trusted themselves, direct high levels of distrust elsewhere.

The Bosnian system of government is thus characterized by the tension between the different types of distrust: the distrust by citizens, as captured by surveys, is based on the perception of corruption and abuse of office, as well as by the inability of the state (and sub-state units) to deliver services citizens expect, such as health care, social protection and employment. The low levels of trust along ethnic lines, as promoted by most political parties, on the other hand reinforces ineffective institutions and legitimizes the (ab)use of office to further a particular mono-ethnic agenda, often in conjunction with party and individual interests. The two different sources of low trust in Bosnia thus are seemingly disconnected, yet mutually reinforcing. This has made institutional change and the emergence of new elites more difficult in Bosnia than in neighboring countries. Although low levels of trust are not a given, they are part of the DNA of Dayton Bosnia.

What does this experience tell us about post-conflict institutions and international intervention?

  • First, if the institutions have as many veto points as in Bosnia (a law proposed by government can be blocked in at least four different ways by both entities and “constituent people” before being passed), the risks of blockages increases and the state fails to deliver, further undermining the legitimacy of the state;
  • Second, if the state lacks incentives for cooperation and instead constantly has to compete with national ‘spheres’ or sub-state units which can govern in the absence of multi-ethnic decision making, the prospects for elites finding an interest in making institutions work decreases;
  • Third, without islands of ‘success’, where the state can generate trust and legitimacy, the under-performance of the state only helps to legitimize alternative state projects;
  • Fourth, while political contestation might often have ethnic overtones, social concerns are shaped by fear, distrust and low levels of social cohesion, with limited ethnic dimensions. In brief, the causes for ethnic politics might not be found in ethnicity, but in other dimensions of alienation and exclusion.

Florian Bieber is a Professor in South East European Studies at the Center for South East European Studies of the University of Graz.

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