Constitutional reform in Bosnia – the democratic alternative

Insisting that chauvinist oligarchs produce substantive democratic reforms is a fool’s errand and it boggles the mind that this has been the guiding mantra of the international community’s involvement in BiH for nearly two decades. The ordinary people of BiH deserve a chance to have an actual say in the future of their country. It is a process that their supposed international “partners” should finally help to facilitate.

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Conflict Background


By Jasmin Mujanović

I have previously elaborated why there is no reason to believe that a political system based on consensus, compromise and participation would not function in Bosnia and Herzegovina. What is necessary for such a model to work, however, is that ordinary citizens actually be involved in its creation and, of course, its later implementation and operation. What we absolutely cannot have is any sort of “constitutional convention” which circumvents the participation of citizens in the elaboration and adoption of any future constitutional reforms. I have no doubt that BiH’s political elites will come to certain compromises as they have in the past – the issue is that these compromises will, once again, come at the expense of ordinary citizens, much as the supposed compromise of Dayton did. The recent expansion of the governing sextet to include Radončić is not an expansion of the franchise – it is the consolidation of an oligarchy.

What is necessary then is something of a cross between a “citizen’s assembly” as has been attempted in the Canadian Provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, and the on-going “truth and reconciliation”-like approach of the REKOM comission. The idea is a simple one – any future BiH constitution should reflect the common values and interests of ordinary Bosnians and Herzegovinians. A process which involves them in the actual creation of the most critical legal document of their society should have the effect of investing them in that document’s execution – instead of completely divorcing them from substantive political participation, as is presently the case. Moreover, it would hopefully result in the creation of mechanisms which would replicate, deepen and institutionalize this process on all levels.

Initially, what one could imagine taking place is a series of assemblies across the country – presumably in all the major cities, though steps should be taken to ensure the participation of rural residents. The assemblies would be facilitated by various activists, academics and experts from across the country, the region and the world, providing their assistance in explaining the desired results, and different possible models of constitutional reform. The citizens would then have various opportunities to critique what they have heard, to offer their own suggestions, debate among themselves and so on.

Each assembly could, theoretically, involve several hundred citizens (the ones in Canada usually involved somewhere between 100 to 200 individuals) and multiple assemblies could even be held in the same city – in workplaces, universities, public halls etc. Steps should be taken to ensure that participants reflect all of the demographic realities in the country – however, with emphasis placed on a diversity (or plurality) of identities (i.e. rather than being strictly Bosniak, Croat or Serb, organizers should ensure, as much as possible, that participants represent different regions, classes, age groups, gender(s), sexual orientation(s), educational backgrounds, personal orientations etc).  Participation in the assemblies should be treated in a similar manner as jury duty, with participants screened but ultimately chosen essentially at random, and with a basic stipend and services provided to ensure the greatest amount of diversity possible in said participants (e.g. child-care for single mothers).

Ideally, this process would take several months – allowing for robust debate, several drafts and eventual consensus in each of the major centres. Once several drafts have been compiled from across the country, the team(s) of experts would now be tasked with producing a smaller number of combined draft constitutions – let us say, three though this number could vary. From here, two courses of action seem possible: either to send all three options to a country-wide referendum, allowing voters to choose their preferred model. Alternatively, it might be prudent to send all three drafts back to the assemblies, where one draft could be chosen, and it in turn sent to a straight-up yes-or-no country-wide referendum. Different interpretations of this process are possible, suffice it to say.

It is especially important to ensure that overtly partisan participants (e.g. high-ranking party members or hired rabble-rousers – likely of the nationalist sort) be kept to a minimum.  Indeed, the entire process is designed to circumvent the individual party apparatuses and speak directly to and with the citizens themselves. It is fundamentally premised on the belief that a deepening of the democratic experience in BiH can and will, slowly but surely, begin to heal the wounds of the war and invest its peoples in some semblance of a collective future. Since no such attempts have been made before (indeed, precisely the opposite has actually so far been the practice), we cannot have expected any other outcome than the despicable mess facing us presently.

Readers will note that I have avoided making any firm suggestions about what sort of constitutional order the country ought to have myself. While, for instance, I am sympathetic to a highly-devolved federalist scheme, similar to the one advocated by the Naša Stranka, or more broadly a South African model, I do not think that it is particularly wise for anyone to impose or advocate for any one vision. Indeed, I think this replicates precisely the sort of relationship which my proposal here is attempting to avoid: namely, political and intellectual elites telling Bosnians and Herzegovinians what they ought to do, rather than listening to what they want.

As such, this proposal is one more concerned with practice rather than outcomes. As I stated earlier, I believe the principal task of any substantive constitutional reforms in the country must be the expansion, opening and deepening of the democratic process, particularly the empowerment of individual citizens. As such, I am of course open to still other alternative models and suggestions provided the above “thematic” goals be incorporated and accounted for.

As a final point, it bears stating that if the monetary costs of such an undertaking seem overwhelming, they need only be contrasted to the current situation in the country, which in many cases seems like a literal pit of fire in which millions, if not billions, of dollars are wasted and laundered, every year. By comparison, a process which would actually facilitate the emergence of a responsive, participatory democratic culture has virtually limitless potential for a “return” on any proverbial and actual investment.

Insisting that chauvinist oligarchs produce substantive democratic reforms is a fool’s errand and it boggles the mind that this has been the guiding mantra of the international community’s involvement in BiH for nearly two decades. The ordinary people of BiH deserve a chance to have an actual say in the future of their country. It is a process that their supposed international “partners” should finally help to facilitate. The worst-case scenario of such an attempt could not possibly be any worse than our current reality or our recent past, while even limited success could represent a revolutionary leap forward.

Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD student in Political Science at York University, in Toronto, Canada, working on the topic of participatory democratic alternatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is a regular contributor to Politics, Re-Spun.



3 Responses

  1. This yet another sad example of attempting to “impose” or to “talk-in” peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina into selfcanceling so called multicultural society.
    Yugoslavia has been disolved because their constitutive nations refused to live together in it. Why is Bosnia different, beeig always described as small Yugoslavia?
    Dayton agreement has set up FUNCTIONAL environment in BiH. Why doesn”t it function then? The answer is simple, it is FBiH not functioning whereas Republic of Srpska IS!!! People in Republic of Srpska is satisfied with what they have and thay are trying to improve economic situation in the country whereas Bosniak (not Croats) are willing to grab more then belongs to them and they do not allow FBiH to function.
    It is hard to imagin how could it be that a unitary Bosnia might function better while it is obvious that their (lager) half of the state cannot???
    The main issue is elsewhere, Bosniak want to impose their will primarly to Serbian citizens and (as a collateral demage or gain) to Croats.
    I think that 20 years after the civil war, Bosniaks should finally focus on themselves and let others live normally.

    Do we need another war? Sebian people from Srpska does”t want it? Then again, who does???

  2. …As you read about Bosnia and Kosovo in your daily newspapers I remind you of the words of Socrates spoken at his trial in his own defence: “I do not know what effect my accusers have had upon you gentlemen but for my own part I was almost carried away by them; their arguments were so convincing. On the other hand scarcely a word of what they said was true.”….

  3. Zlatan Ramusovic

    Avgerinos, that’s not why Yugoslavia is non-existant. And even if that is a claim that you wanted to argue for, you might want to go ahead and actually argue for it. And the glaring generalisations about the current attitudes of Serbs in Bosnia (or Bosnian Serbs) and Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats are ridiculous. For one, ascribing collective agency to Bosniaks, as if they all want to do the same thing (i.e., impose themselves upon the Serbs, as you say), is a ridiculous claim. Perhaps you can say that certain Bosniak politicians have wanted to do things like that (but you’d have to show evidence for the claim), but then you might also show how the Bosnian Serb and Croat politicians have done similar things. And then show how this is one of the largest problems in Bosnia: using “ethnic” or nationalist rhetoric to ensure votes. But, hand in hand with this is the problem of cheating the people of Bosnia & Herzegovina out of letting their voices be heard for once. This is what Jasmin is trying to get at with this proposal/article. Also, your (Avgerinos) claim “Bosniaks should focus on themselves” just does not make sense. If this means that the respective entities should focus on their own affairs, their own concrete procedures, then I think the following has to be said: the country’s structure does not allow for meaningful and positive change, and that the Bosniaks in question, along with the Bosnian Serbs and Croats, cannot improve their lives and their country (or entity) within the current post-Dayton structure. Bosniaks cannot focus on themselves, just as the Serbs and Croats cannot either, that is, unless they want to continue the current political situation indefinitely. Or, better put, they can focus on themselves, but it is not a good idea because it makes for a shitty life in Bosnia & Herzegovina. And, for the record, the people in Republika Srpska are not satisfied with the current situation. Very few people in the Balkans are satisfied (with whatever, anything)!!

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