The protests in Sarajevo are a window of opportunity for the EU to regain the initiative on the stalled reform process in Bosnia.
By Edward Joseph
Tahrir Square, Taksim Square, and now, Sarajevo’s Bosnia-Herzegovina Square. Thousands of Bosnians formed a human chain there last week, refusing to let parliamentarians leave until they broke a stalemate that prevented vital identity documents from being issued. After years of unrelenting political deadlock, have Bosnia’s long-ignored citizens finally awaken?
The answer is at best, maybe. It remains to be seen whether upset over identity numbers, which are essential for birth certificates and passports, has touched a wellspring of suppressed anger as in Turkey and Egypt or is merely an episodic burst of desperation. Surely, popular anger will intensify as government inaction has now taken a tragic turn (the infant denied treatment in Germany because the parents could not obtain a passport has died.)
On the other hand, defying international efforts to stimulate civil society, the Bosnian public – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniak Muslims alike – has mostly sat back and watched passively for nearly two decades as wartime-era politicians have squabbled while exploiting their positions for personal and party gain.
Indeed, the elites in Bosnia are easily the least accountable in the Balkans, which is a notable achievement in a region with little tradition of actually seeking the views of voters. Bosnia’s parties function as corporations without shareholders, divvying up their influence over an array of Socialist-era enterprises and public utilities while they squabble along ethnic lines.
These parties exist for the revenue that they can absorb, maintaining their grip on power through a combination of patronage, manipulation of the media, and populist messages that still resonate strongly in deeply divided Bosnia. If ever a besotted country deserved the government that it has, it is Bosnia, which has continued – election after election – to fall for cheap nationalist theatrics and send the same parties, indeed the same leaders, back to office. If he could have visited Bosnia, Abraham Lincoln might well revise his maxim that “You can’t fool all the people all the time.”
What’s more, even if the identity number protests prove to be a true “Bosnian Awakening”, such a movement cannot by itself bring about the change that Bosnia desperately needs. This is because the country remains in the grips of deep ethnic divisions, which the protests only threaten to aggravate.
To recap, the mess over identity numbers is caused by the insistence of Serb representatives on a special prefix that will distinguish their entity, Republika Srpska, from the central state – a variant of the core dispute that brought Bosnia into three-and-a half-years of war.
Rather than consider modifying their position in the wake of public outrage, RS leaders have seized on the protests as evidence that Sarajevo is “unsafe” for Serbs, continuing the wartime and post-war narrative that a strong Bosnia threatens Serb interests.
Sadly, despite the polarization that has been painfully obvious in Bosnia since the war ended in 1995, a seductive theory took hold among foreigners a decade ago that Bosnia’s progress hinged on giving these same feuding, venal politicians “ownership” over their destiny, displacing the international supervisor who had prodded the parties into post-war state building.
In 2006, the then High Representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, embraced the ownership theory and announced that he would no longer intervene to overcome intransigence by the country’s politicians. This self-emasculation proved Bosnia’s turning point. The country’s progress in building effective, representative institutions – precisely the kind necessary to join the EU – immediately went into reverse in the face of unrelenting assault, chiefly from the RS leadership. The result has been economic decay and political stagnation, presided over by a crony, multi-ethnic political establishment.
The downward spiral at the central level has cast its shadow over the unwieldy Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the entity that links divided Croats and Bosniaks, diminishing the incentive to pursue reform there as the country’s central institutions continue to unravel. A recent, US-sponsored conference elicited valuable suggestions on reforming the Federation entity, but that there are no indications of serious commitment to realizing the reforms.
Four years ago, Washington also tried its hand at sparking interest among Bosnia’s Serb, Croat and Bosniak leaders in reforming critical flaws in the country’s constitution, but that effort also went nowhere. Apart from these efforts and the occasional high level visit, international policy in Bosnia has mostly been on auto-pilot with Brussels relying on Bosnia’s presumed interest in joining the EU as the mainstay of its policy, while American officials still exhort the country’s politicians to mend their dilatory ways.
The embarrassing standoff in front of the state parliament – which trapped a group of visiting bankers considering investing in Bosnia – should serve as a wake-up call. Policy makers must grasp that if the protests take hold, the result is not likely to be quiet reform, but heightened inter-ethnic tensions.
This is because the protests are mostly a Bosniak affair. Bosnia’s Croats and Serbs remain alienated physically and politically from the state capital, Sarajevo. At the same time, ignoring those Bosniak protestors risks an insidious form of alienation among Muslims, who may lose hope altogether in an EU future.
Brussels must finally shelve the blithe notion that Bosnia can continue to drift while the EU dangles the remote carrot of eventual membership. Instead, as she has done so effectively in Kosovo, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton must become personally engaged.
But Ashton will need a strategy to dismantle the sclerotic party and governing structure that maintains its stranglehold over Bosnia, perpetuating ethnic division. Instead of the cookie-cutter approach, Brussels must finally craft a stabilization and association plan for Bosnia that is grounded in reality.
The country simply does not have – and cannot produce on its own – a fully functioning state and political system; and the existing Stabilization and Association policy, devised in Thessaloniki ten years ago, works only with countries that have such a system.
Seizing on the shared interest of Bosnians in joining the EU, it is Brussels which must supply the critical incentive to reform, linking – with absolute clarity and resolve – Bosnia’s internal political and administrative functionality with meaningful rewards on its EU prospects.
Respecting the newly aroused public interest, this new policy of “internal-external linkage” must be presented clearly both to the political elite and to Bosnia’s citizens.
Still, that strategy alone won’t be enough to shake Bosnia’s politicians out of their torpor; Ashton will need another weapon to tackle the symbiotic cronyism that keeps Bosnia mired. The solution is readily available, under the core EU requirement for aspirant countries to have a “fully functioning free market.”
The EU, in partnership with the weakened Office of the High Representative, should insist as well on rapid, transparent privatization of key state-owned enterprises.
In addition to creating a windfall for the debt-ridden state, privatization will remove the cash cows that sustain the country’s political leadership, forcing them to compete for votes on the basis of their ability to solve problems – like the need for vital documents and mechanisms that meet EU standards.
Together with changes to the electoral law, these reforms can create momentum for fundamental change in Bosnia, including required change to the Constitution. Undoubtedly, political leaders will resist this initiative. But the standoff around parliament has made them uncertain and vulnerable. If Brussels moves boldly, seizing the opportunity created by the rare demonstration of public revulsion with the status quo, it can catch the political class off-guard.
With an accession plan tailored to addressing Bosnia’s intractable gridlock, incorporating accelerated privatization as its catalyst, Brussels can finally displace Washington and assume its rightful place as Bosnia’s mentor. After years of drift, and continued reliance on the United States, it is time for the EU to show bold imagination and assert its leadership in Bosnia. If Bosnia is to have a successful “awakening”, it is Brussels that needs to rouse from its slumber.
Edward P. Joseph is Senior Fellow Johns Hopkins SAIS Center for Transatlantic Relations in Washington, DC. He has worked in the Balkans for over a dozen years, most recently as Deputy Head of the OSCE Mission in Kosovo.
This article was originally published on Balkan Insight’s Future of Bosnia section and is available by clicking here.