Bosnia’s ragged demise

With international interest in the country having dissolved, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s politicians can now start pulling apart the political architecture imposed by the US Government at Dayton, bringing the state ever closer to irretrievable collapse.

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Conflict Background


By Matthew Parish

Bosnia’s High Representative has not issued a single order of significance since March 2011, and now seldom even makes public statements of significance. Embroiled in Middle Eastern crises, the international community no longer cares a jot about the Balkans. The international pressures now buffeting the region are financial. Bosnian economic contraction is driven not only by global recession, but also by Croatia’s impending membership of the EU, whose consequent increased regulatory standards for imports drive down Bosnian exporters’ profit margins. The domestic political consequences of economic turmoil in a country so heavily reliant on public sector employment are biting austerity. Hence the need to divert the population’s attention from the economic to the political is pressing. Thankfully a propitious instrument to achieve this is at hand. International interest in the country having dissolved, Bosnia’s politicians can now start pulling apart the political architecture imposed by the US Government in the Dayton Peace Accords.

The principal dynamic of this wrecking project is Serb exploitation of Bosniak-Croat divisions. Until recently, the foremost pretence of inter-ethnic Bosnian unity was an uneasy axis within the country’s Social Democratic Party between two people. One is Zlatko Lagumdzija, the party’s Bosniak President and Bosnia’s Foreign Minister. The other is Zeljko Komsic, the party’s Vice-President who serves as Croat member of the tri-partite Bosnian Presidency and (rarely amongst Croats) supports a centralising political agenda. Yet these two individuals have proven incapable of getting along, despite mutual political benefits to their doing so. On 23rd July 2012 Komsic quit the SDP, citing objections to Lagumdzija’s proposals for constitutional reform. His objections were unsurprising: the reforms anticipated would have rendered his own re-election unimaginable. Hence his resignation was an act of political self-preservation.

One might wonder why constitutional reform has again become a salient theme in Bosnian politics, when frequent past attempts all failed so abjectly. To understand this, we must look to a final feeble effort by the Europeans to press their preferred vision for the country upon Bosnia’s intractable ethnic politics. In its December 2009 judgment, Sejdic and Finci v Bosnia and Herzegovina, the European Court of Human Rights declared Bosnia’s constitution to be unlawful. That is because the constitution requires the tri-partite Presidency to be populated by one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb. Yet some people in Bosnia, including Messrs Sejdic and Finci (Roma and Jewish respectively), belong to none of these groups. Hence they are disenfranchised from Presidential candidacy. The same reasoning was applied by the Court to the House of Peoples, Bosnia’s upper legislative chamber that likewise works on the basis of ethnic quotas.

This debate might seem theoretical. The number of Roma is post-war Bosnia may be as few as 7,000 (0.17% of the population); the number of Jews as low as 500 (0.015%). Political allegiances in Bosnia being strictly divided upon ethnic lines, no Roma or Jew has the remotest prospect of being elected President in the near future, even if legally (s)he were able to stand. Nevertheless the European Court held that disenfranchisement is undemocratic in principle, and Bosnia’s constitution must be reformed. The European Union duly latched onto the ruling, stipulating constitutional reform as a precondition for further steps towards EU accession.

Perhaps it was too much to hope that a Court ruling would succeed where OHR dictates and over a decade of diplomatic pressure had failed. This was not the first time the international community had tried to wield EU membership prospects as a tool to force constitutional reform. Those with longer memories will recall the failures of police reform, the constitutional amendments negotiated by Don Hayes (a former American Permanent Deputy High Representative) and “Dayton II”, all internationally driven constitutional reform projects using the same political tool of conditionality for EU accession.

Every Bosnian politician appreciates that EU membership for Bosnia is a remote prospect, even in the medium term. The European Union is collapsing under the weight of its current disorganised and impoverished Balkan members, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. The notion of soon admitting so dysfunctional a country as Bosnia strains all credibility in the hallways of the European Commission, where minds are focused on mitigating the consequences of premature monetary union.

Nevertheless none can be seen to admit that Bosnia’s chances for proximate EU membership are zero. Bosnia’s population still fantasises of EU accession as the sole prospect for relief from its perpetual economic misery. Hence EU membership for Bosnia is a game of smoke and mirrors. The EU pretends to offer accession negotiations, premised upon conditions that Bosnia’s politicians find collectively unpalatable. Bosnia’s politicians pretend to believe them, and pretend to negotiate to meet the conditions on which they all know they cannot agree. The Sejdic-Finci judgment is just the latest example of this pattern.

The reason the reforms mandated by the Sejdic-Finci judgment are impossible is because any amendment compliant with the ruling will undermine the Croats, who already perceive themselves as an endangered minority. If ethnic quotas are removed from Bosnia’s electoral system, it is inevitable that the smallest group will suffer. If (as is currently estimated) Bosnia’s population is something like 50% Bosniak, 40% Serb and 10% Croat, then on any system of suffrage stripped of ethnic affiliation it is unlikely that there would be a Croat member of a tripartite Presidency at all. Komsic’s identity is illustrative of this problem, for he is a Croat in name only: he was elected by a majority of Bosniaks due to his ardent unitarian views. Most Bosnian Croats harbour thinly veiled contempt for him as unrepresentative of their devolutionary political interests. Were Bosnians granted suffrage for the Presidency without ethnic quotas, Bosniaks would have no need to vote for a heterodox Croat as a second proxy representative of Bosniak interests. Instead they could just vote for a second Bosniak. Hence there would be no Croat member of the Presidency, and no role for Zeljko Komsic either.

One possible reform, of which several variants have been proposed, is for voters each to declare themselves a member of a group that forms an electoral college, the three largest of which vote for their favoured member of the Presidency. In principle if not in practice, the number of Roma might one day exceed the number of Croats in which case the Roma electoral college might prevail over the Croat one and Mr. Sejdic could be elected to the Presidency. The problem for Mr. Komsic with this model is that he is unpopular amongst Croats and hence he would not be elected while Croats remain one of the three biggest groups (unless his current Bosniak supporters declared themselves Croats for the purposes of a Presidential election, something which cannot be excluded when viewing events through Bosnia’s warped political lens). Hence the irony of the constitutional reforms entailed by the Sejdic-Finci judgment is that the biggest loser from them, if implemented, is Zeljko Komsic, arguably Bosnia’s most genuinely multi-ethnic politician.

Enter now Milorad Dodik, President of the Bosnian Serbs. His agenda is to promote detachment of Republika Srpska from the rest of Bosnia. Hence he would delight in annihilating the political power of the State Presidency, arguably the most functional institution of Bosnia’s central government. As a matter of principle, he cares little about how the members of the Presidency are elected. But as a matter of politics, he will take any opportunity to exacerbate Bosniak-Croat relations and thereby divide and conquer, cementing his own separatist agenda. Hence he purported to agree a set of constitutional reforms to implement the Sejdic-Finci judgment with his hitherto arch-rival, Zlatko Lagumdzija.

Komsic, foreseeing the death of his own political career if Dodik and Lagumdzija cemented their deal, resigned from SDP. He did this not once but twice, the first time on 20 March 2012 (subsequently retracted). His more recent resignation appears permanent. He now plans his own multi-ethnic party to compete with SDP. Komsic being genuinely popular with Bosniak SDP voters, Dodik split his principal Bosniak opponents down the middle and paralysed the operation of the Presidency in a single stroke. This was all achieved in the name of pursuing a strategy for European integration agreed as an ostensible compromise with his foremost political opponent.

With the central government fatally weakened, Dodik is now pushing to finish SDP as a political force. Lagumdzija is in a spin, and he needed to make only the mildest misstep for Dodik to deliver the fatal wound. The misstep was delivered on 3 August 2012, when Bosnia’s Ambassador to the United Nations voted in favour of a UN General Assembly resolution criticising Syria. Lagumdzija as Foreign Minister was apparently responsible for the instruction to vote in favour of the resolution. Dodik does not care for Syria one way or the other and still less for the UN General Assembly, a mostly irrelevant body whose resolutions carry no more than moral force. Nevertheless Dodik suddenly emerged as a constitutional scholar, complaining that the Foreign Minister is only entitled to act on the instructions of the Presidency. Lagumdzija has no mandate to act on a frolic of his own. Faced with such an affront to Bosnia’s constitutional order, the Bosnian Serbs withdrew from the central government, paralysing it, until Lagumdzija and all of SDP resign and head into opposition. This is something Lagumdzija will never do, for it would ruin his own career as SDP subsequently removed the leader who had brought upon it such calamity.

Dodik managed to perpetuate paralysis in Bosnia’s central government for 14 months after the October 2010 elections. After just five more months in which the government was ostensibly functioning, he has again achieved the same result. Even better for him, the Croat member of the country’s Presidency is now a member of no political party, and Dodik’s principal Bosniak political opponents, SDP, are cast to the winds. All this is achieved while the international community in Sarajevo is on its summer holidays.

This is a convenient situation for the Bosnian Serb leader given the economic cards he currently has to play. His people are hungry and poor, and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. In the medium term, Bosnia’s economic development can come only from exporting agricultural products to the EU. But amidst financial turmoil it is hard to see how investors will risk participation in corruption-laden Bosnia, trade barriers will be lowered or EU consumers will absorb increased supply when their own wallets are tighter. Nevertheless Dodik has managed to fill the economic vacuum with extraordinary political success. Slowly but surely, he is persuading his European interlocutors that a central Bosnian state is not a credible project. He is not doing this by stomping his fist as a secessionist bogeyman. Rather his tools are supporting constitutional reform along the lines of the Sejdic-Finci judgment; manipulating Bosniak-Croat divisions inherent to the Bosnian political structure; and serving as a constitutional guardian of the separation of powers between the country’s Presidency and Foreign Ministry. The learned Judges of the European Court of Human Rights should be commended for their political acumen in intervening in so dense a thicket.

Amidst their own economic crises, the Europeans have grown weary of Bosnia’s travails and the Americans long ago lost interest. The jungle has grown back, and the logic of the Dayton constitution is playing out its inexorable course. Dayton gave the Serbs disproportionate political leverage: their entity would be unified in the post-war government structure, while Bosniaks and Croats would be left bickering between cantons amidst the temperamental balance of the Federation’s devolved political structures. The corollary of this model is that sooner or later, the Serbs would be able to pull it apart. Eventually the Europeans will acquiesce in the fait accompli, because they are unwilling to invest the diplomatic or financial resources to prevent it from happening during an era where so many more serious global problems predominate.

Amongst diplomats and commentators, a consensus has emerged that the Bosnian state is now close to irretrievable collapse. The question remains whether this breakdown will entail a return to violence. The threat of renewed hostilities is periodically hoisted as a warning flag to maintain the meagre persisting level of international interest in the country. Yet like EU integration, the threat of renewed civil war may also be a mirage. Unlike in early 1992, no side is prepared for violence. They are too concerned about how to feed their families to be bothered buying guns. Moreover the course of the Bosnian war had its own unseemly logic. By separating the country’s three different groups by geography, often forcibly, it foreclosed the mutual fear of domination that drove the prior conflict. Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats no longer much intermix. In their day-to-day dealings, they have forgotten about one-another. They are each mere distant monsters to the others, who go about parallel lives. It will not be easy to persuade the ordinary man to go to war and risk his life and that of his family, just to reopen territorial divisions settled some twenty years ago. Hence renewed warfare is unlikely amidst the biting poverty of contemporary Bosnia. With the threat of violence ever more remote, the final glue holding Bosnia together as a functional state has likewise dissolved. The country will be cast to pieces – hopefully peacefully – amidst the waves of Europe’s second Great Depression.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland. He was formerly the Chief Legal Advisor to the International Supervisor of Brcko, a post “suspended” by the Office of the High Representative in May 2012. 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, was published by I.B.Tauris in 2009. His second book, Mirages of International Justice: The Elusive Pursuit of a Transnational Legal Order, was published by Edward Elgar in 2011.



1 Response

  1. RBIH

    Dodiks lobby boy is at it again with another doomsday prophecy. Listen, what is going to happen for sure in maybe five years is the end of Dayton. Do you know what that means? it means war and the end of cantons and entities and a restoration of civil liberties. You remember that do you? when BIH was a republic, just before it was forced at gun point by your government to accept this dysfunctional peace genocide appeasing peace. The majority of BIH does not want this system and the majority wants a multiethnic, civil democratic BIH and at the end the majority will get this.

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