Brinkmanship in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Negotiations to form a state-level government in Bosnia-Herzegovina have seen the creation of two new constitutional conventions – the notion of ‘legitimate representation’ and the principle of ‘ethnic rotation’ – which will continue to exert a profound influence on the country’s politics.

By Ian Bancroft

Over a year on from fiercely contested general elections, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains without a state-level government; an unfortunate distinction it shares with Belgium, towards whom its future is almost ironically oriented. For whilst the EU endeavours to strengthen its presence and purpose, Bosnia’s politicians remain embroiled in a contest of brinkmanship; one in which the rules of the political game are being redefined, and the relative strength of the country’s political forces tested for vulnerabilities. With foreign investment drying-up, European assistance almost jeopardized and the country’s credit rating under threat, the main casualties are Bosnia-Herzegovina’s citizens, regardless of their ethno-national identity.

The on-going failure to form the Council of Ministers derives from a long-running dispute between the Social Democratic Party (SDP) – nominally multi-ethnic, yet largely dependent upon Bosniak  votes – and the two leading Croat parties, the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the HDZ 1990. The latter two parties consider themselves the only ‘legitimate representatives’ of the Croat population; thereby substantiating their claims to the ministerial posts reserved for Bosnia’s Croats. The SDP, however, refute this stance and assert that their strong electoral performance – including amongst Bosnia’s Croats – entitles them to, amongst others, the chair of the council of ministers. Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska (one of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s two entities), has backed the respective HDZs, arguing that the Croats are next in-line for the position previously filled by a Bosniak and then a Serb.

The international community – particularly, the Office of the High Representative (OHR) – has done little to help foster trust and understanding between the various parties. Earlier this year, the high representative, Valentin Inzko, suspended a decision by the Central Election Commission annulling the appointment of the president and two vice-presidents of Bosnia’s other entity, the Federation. The intervention further strained relations between Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, heightening the latter’s sense of disenfranchisement and undermining the Federation government’s legitimacy. It also served to motivate the establishment of a ‘Croat National Assembly’ – comprised of municipalities and cantons with a Croat majority – as a means of upholding and protecting Croat national interests.

This inter-ethnic quarrel has seen the emergence of two new conventions – the notion of ‘legitimate representation’ of a particular constituent peoples and the principle of ‘ethnic rotation’ of key government posts – that will continue to exert a profound impact on the conduct of politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Both serve to reinforce the ethnic dimensions of politics, further distancing Bosnia-Herzegovina from the platform-based politics on which the country’s European course will heavily depend. In addition, they further complicate efforts to bring the country’s constitution in-line with the European Court of Human Rights verdict in the Sejdić-Finci case; namely, that changes are required to ensure that individuals from minority groups can be elected members of the Presidency and House of Peoples.

Armed with blunter instruments, including the increasingly discredited Bonn Powers, and less-appetising carrots, the international community’s reform leverage is greatly reduced; despite the recent appointment of Peter Sorensen as the EU’s new special representative.  Without a solution to the festering Croat question, divisions between the Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats will continue to widen; additionally burdening politics in the cumbersome and increasingly fragmented Federation, and at the state-level. By further diluting civic conceptions of politics and creating new obstacles to constitutional reform, meanwhile, the two conventions – of ‘ethnic rotation’ and ‘legitimate representation’ – witnessed throughout the negotiations will harden the ethnic template of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s politics. Given such brinkmanship, therefore, any compromise reached on government formation will be but a temporary cessation before the next dilemma arises.

Ian Bancroft is the co-founder of TransConflict and a regular columnist for a variety of media outlets, including The Guardian, on Western Balkan affairs.

This article was first published by UN Global Experts on Friday 7th October, 2011 and is available by clicking here.

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