Waiting for Godot in Dodik’s Bosnia

By appealing to the notion of inter-ethnic rotation of senior government positions, Milorad Dodik has exploited and widened divisions between the Bosniaks and Croats, thereby further stymieing the formation of a state-level government.

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By Matthew Parish

Just before Bosnia’s October 2010 election, I predicted that the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik would do everything he could after that election to frustrate formation of a new state government for as long as possible. My pessimistic forecast was proved all too right.

Dodik’s master stroke was to notice irreconcilable divisions between Bosniaks and Croats that emerged from the SDP’s respectable victory amongst Bosniak voters. The SDP, the Social Democratic Party, purports to be multi-ethnic but in reality is overwhelmingly Bosniak. The party stole an electoral march on Croats, by a quirk of Bosnia’s lop-sided electoral system. In theory Bosnia’s constitution treats Croats as one of the country’s three constituent peoples, entitling them to representation equivalent to as much as a third of the positions in the country’s public institutions. But in reality Croats may represent 10% or less of the country’s current residents. Hence quotas in theory reserved for representation of Croat interests in practice may be expropriated by Bosniaks. This happens where Bosniaks vote for Croat politicians sympathetic to Bosniak positions. Because there are far more Bosniaks than Croats, Bosniak votes carry the day over those of Croats and the officials occupying quotas reserved for Croats represent Bosniak, not Croat, points of view.

The country’s tripartite Presidency is the most glaring example of this outcome. Bosnia’s constitution provides for three Presidents: a Bosniak, a Croat and a Serb. Since the country is ethnically partitioned into two Entities, the Serb President is to be elected from Republika Srpska and the Bosniak and Croat are to be elected from the Federation. Perhaps 80-85% of the population of the Federation is Bosniak. Thus if a Bosniak political party fields a Croat candidate sympathetic to Bosniak goals, then Bosniak votes may elect two members of the Presidency, Serb votes one and Croat votes none. This happened with the Croat incumbent for the last two Presidential terms, Zeljko Komsic. A Bosnian patriot who fought for the Bosniak army in the war and was awarded the Golden Lilly in recognition of his service, it is hard to imagine a Croat more sympathetic to the Bosniak cause. Komsic’s candidacy in both 2006 and 2010 elections was supported by SDP, and he was elected by Bosniak, not Croat, votes. This inevitably infuriated Croats who felt disenfranchised, with some justification.

In the meantime, SDP used Komsic’s election, and its support in the polls amongst Bosniaks, as evidence to the international community of its commitment to multi-ethnic ideals. It thereby insisted upon the right to take the position of state Prime Minister in the coalition government which would need to be formed after the October elections. At this stage, Dodik played his trump card. Appealing to the notion of inter-ethnic rotation of senior government positions, Dodik decreed that the Prime Minister must be a Croat. This is because the former Prime Minister (who remains in the role as caretaker) is a Serb; prior to that the officeholder was a Bosniak. Hence, reasoned Dodik, it is the Croats’ turn. Nevertheless this principle of rotation is without foundation. No strict rules have been applied in determining the nationalities of Bosnian Prime Ministers, the question turning in each case on the vagaries of coalition negotiations rather than any rigid ethnic formula.

Nevertheless Dodik’s political positioning yielded immediate dividends. It was open to him to insist that, as the largest parliamentary party, his Serb-dominated Alliance of Social Democrats (SNSD) again appoint the Prime Minister, as it had done after the 2006 elections. But this would have caused Bosniaks and Croats to align against him. By instead conceding the Prime Minister’s job, but only to a Croat, he stoked Bosniak-Croat tensions already inflamed by the Komsic affair. As the party with the second largest number of seats, SDP then took the position that it had the right to appoint the Prime Minister, and it would nominate another Croat in the vein of Komsic to occupy the role. At that point the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ) and its sister party HDZ-1990, for whom the vast majority of Bosnia’s Croats had voted, objected vociferously. Seeing themselves as representative of mainstream Bosnian Croat opinion, they interpreted Dodik’s remarks as anointing their candidate for Prime Minister. Thus Bosniaks and Croats were immediately split, and remain so to the present day.

For as long as Dodik can keep the two non-Serb peoples of Bosnia divided, he can rule the whole country with Machiavellian skill. Dodik’s man Nikola Spiric, a member of SNSD, remains State Prime Minister. Under Spiric’s watch the state institutions have a plentiful excuse for doing nothing: pending formation of a new government, they represent the results of the 2006 elections and have no democratic legitimacy. This is precisely what Dodik wants, since his goal is the strengthening of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb federal entity of which he is President, at the expense of the multi-ethnic central government. By keeping the state weak, he demonstrates to the wider world that multi-ethnic Bosnian democracy – which for Serbs means a democracy dominated by Bosniaks – cannot work. He thus gradually strengthens his case for dissolution of the central state and its replacement with a radically different constitutional model.

It is in this context that we must understand the failures of interminable rounds of negotiations between Bosnia’s principal political parties to form a new government. The most recent discussions were in Mostar, and towards the end of the month another negotiation will take place in Brcko. Dodik’s agenda is to ensure no government is formed for as long as possible, while pretending Olympian distance from the issue: Dodik’s rhetoric is that it is merely a dispute between Bosniaks and Croats in which he plays no role. Dodik understands that SDP is the most dangerous of the Bosniak parties for his agenda. Under pretence that multi-ethnicity remains a realistic political goal in modern Bosnia, SDP can perpetuate the international community’s hallucinations that the country has a viable multi-ethnic future. The unrealistic vision embraced by foreign diplomats is the main, or maybe even the sole, constraint upon Dodik’s political freedom of action. He would far rather deal with SDA, the Bosniak Party for Democratic Action. SDA, while ideologically more uncompromising in practice is more pragmatic and tacitly accepts the ethno-territorial division of territory which ended Bosnia’s war. The now mostly forgotten “Prud Agreement” in 2008, between Dodik and SDA’s leader Sulejman Tihic, anticipated a constitutional reorganisation devolving power to regions in each of which one ethnic group would be dominant. It was an anathema both to SDP’s agenda of Bosniak-led central government and to the international community’s goals for the country. Hence Bosnia’s colonial governor, the Office of the High Representative, scuttled it.

With SDP now in the ascendancy over SDA within Bosniak politics, Dodik’s strategy has changed. Rather than negotiate towards an impossible agreement with an adversary whose ideology is so diametrically opposed to his own, he is demonstrating the SDP agenda to be hopeless. This is achieved by supporting Bosnia’s Croats in their efforts to preserve genuine representation of their political interests (like Serbs, for the most also part centrifugal) in the central government. He thereby simultaneously denies SDP their crown of Prime Minister, and indefinitely holds Bosnia’s state political institutions in indefinite stasis. He also achieves an advantageous by-product of making Bosnia’s High Representative Valentin Inzko appear effete and inutile. Inzko had hoped to depart Bosnia by the end of August, quietly abandoning his gubernatorial powers and leaving the remainder of his mission assisting preparation for the non-existent process of EU succession to the new EU Ambassador Peter Sorensen. But with no prospects of a government being formed, premature departure of Inzko would give the impression of a hands-down political victory for Dodik over international resolve. Hence Inzko hangs on reluctantly in his diplomatic prison, frustrated by the ruthless logic of Bosnian politics in his endeavours to retire calmly to Vienna.

How can Dodik be stopped, and should he be? A predominance of opinion amongst independent scholars outside the Balkans is now of the view that the experiment in Bosnian state-building was misconceived from the outset. The Dayton peace settlement, imposed by American diplomatic and military force, came too late to prevent ethnic partition. The Constitution, drafted by American lawyers, was irremediably defective in balancing competing groups’ interests. The temptation to resort to oppression and dictatorship, exemplified in the inculcation of Bosnia’s High Representative with dictatorial powers, was foolish and unsustainable. The desire on the part of outsiders to steer Bosnian politics, through financial support for and targeted sanctions against selected political parties, has backfired. In 1998 Dodik was a darling of the international community, without whose support he would never have come to power. It is long forgotten that US diplomat Richard Holbrooke nurtured the very monster who now threatens his Dayton creation. We are currently seeing the inevitable end game in a series of chapters of shocking mismanagement by the international community. Further interventions cannot hope to succeed where prior attempts have been so misguided. While Dodik’s politics may well result in the country’s eventual disintegration, it is not clear that there is any remaining credible strategy open to the international community to prevent it.

Dodik must be grimly self-satisfied as he keeps his unloved country, of which he is the de facto premier, firmly on its knees. In the midst of financial crisis, no European leader has more than the most tangential interest in Bosnia. The country remains the Serb leader’s plaything, and this will continue for as long as Bosniak politics remain so irreconcilably divided and the international community irreversibly disinterested. The constitutional structure that allowed Dodik to manoeuvre into this position was of the international community’s creation. Rather than condemning him, perhaps they should condemn themselves for immersing this tragic country in a political maelstrom and then carelessly turning their backs upon the results.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva and was formerly Chief Legal Adviser to the International Supervisor of Brcko in northern Bosnia. He is a frequent writer and commentator on Balkan affairs. His first book, ‘A Free City in the Balkans: Reconstructing a Divided Society in Bosnia, is published by I.B.Tauris. His second book, ‘Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order, is published by Edward Elgar. His third book, “Ethnic Civil War and the Promise of Law”, will be published by Edward Elgar in 2012. www.matthewparish.com

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