In order to move from protests to reform civil society leaders must recognize some harsh realities and attempt to make real adjustment to see these protests forward. However, if the politicians are going to shift their mindset from ethno-nationalism to the economy, the voters must do so as well. Continuing to vote for any politician who has sought to keep office by sowing fear is a vote for the destruction of all of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
By Scott Schenking
Eighteen years since the signing of the Dayton Peace accords Bosnia and Herzegovina has erupted into violent protests, which began on the 4th of February. The most significant of the protests occurred in two cities, Sarajevo and Tuzla, while other protests occurred across the Federation, a few occurred in Bosniak dominated cities in the Republika Srpska, as well as the cities of Mostar and Brcko. As opposed to what has been reported in the international press, this is not a country-wide explosion of protests but a limited series of protests led by a subset of the population and focused on the stagnation of the Bosnian and Federation governments to revive their dying economy. As this situation unfolds the international community must reevaluate its position to avoid being complicit in the stagnation of the Bosnian government and will have tough choices ahead: allow the only hope of progress in Bosnia to continue developing while taking the risk that violence will spread or intervene.
In a National Democratic Institute public opinion poll in August 2010, the report found that an overwhelming majority of Bosnians from both entities believed that the country was headed in the wrong direction and that politicians talk about nationalism too much and economics too little. Of those polled, 54% said their lives became worse over the last four years. In the breakdown of issues, the leading problem in the country was unemployment while interethnic relations trailed at only 2%. The most important area for improvement was economic development followed by employment increase and more efficient government. But despite the widespread discontent in the country focused on the economy, ethnicity still matters and politics are still divided on key issues.
The current protests illustrate this unique dichotomy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. While the issues unite, the protests have been predominantly led by Bosniaks and mostly held in Bosniak majority cities. Despite this there are hundreds of officials of all ethnicities who jointly work together on a daily basis in Bosnia’s government. The polls clearly show that same issues connect most citizens, and while the protests have been majority Bosniak there are likely hundreds of Bosnian Croats and Serbs participating to some degree. This issue is critical to understanding why protests such as these have not produced significant change and why has stagnation continued for years.
While there may be some Bosnian Croats participating, there has not been a significant protests in any majority Croat city. Croatia recently joined the European Union and is hoping to see a rise in trade with the rest of Europe. This has provided a slight boom for business in the predominantly Bosnian Croat area of Herzegovina. As Croatia applies the entire acquis communautaire to comply with European Union law, distribution centers and other small factories and businesses have moved into the Mostar-Citluk-Ljubuski corridor of Herzegovina to avoid EU regulation. As the economy continues to dwindle there is at least hope amongst Bosnian Croats that business will rise for them and their connections to Croatia. Bosnian Croats continue to seek outside investors into their territories and they have not only completed a new shopping mall in Mostar, but continue to build a highway connecting the Croatian highway system to Citluk bypassing notoriously bad Bosnian road network.
At the end of the protests, HDZ-BiH issued statements on their website expressing concern that Bosniaks in Mostar had crossed a line by destroying Croatian cultural symbols. They reiterated that they feel pushed out and isolated from the Federation government and applauded Bosnian Croats for not responding to “provocations” by the Bosniaks to spark interethnic conflict, which would enable Bosniak government to take control. Citizens seem to recognize that nationalism is talked about too much while the underlying economic issues are avoided. Yet, these politicians ran on an ethno-nationalist platform before the elections so they feel they have been given a mandate to protect ethno-nationalist interests.
In the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb president Milorad Dodik continues to court Russian investors for the multitude of hydro-electric dams and energy infrastructure. In 2012, Dodik received a guarantee from Russian President Putin that a portion of the south stream pipeline would run through the RS. Gazprom and the Republika Srpska signed a memorandum of understanding in September 2013 outlining plans for the pipeline. Russian and European investors continue to gamble on the sustainable energy in the RS to fill the needs of Western Europe as they implement strict requirements on renewable energy. However, even with the continuous courting of investors much of the RS is unemployed. Despite a misery shared with the rest of the country only 300 people have joined protests in Banja Luka, the capital of the RS.
Dodik came to power through one of the most ethno-nationalist campaigns of any politician in the country. Over the years he has continued to make progressively provocative statements by denying the genocide, making his desire for an independent RS clear and taking all steps possible to undermine any growth or even stabilization of state institutions. After the protests, Dodik attempted to spread fear again saying that the protests of the Federation are an attempt to destabilize the RS. Despite a widespread belief in Dodik’s corruption and a weak economic track record, he continues to be the front-runner for the next elections in 2015.
The Bosniaks, on the other hand, find little hope in the current system. The two main Bosniak parties, SDA and SDP, are viewed as being deeply corrupt and grossly ineffective. Additionally, Bosniaks see themselves being squeezed out between an RS seeking independence and the Bosnian Croats courting their Croatian neighbors. Until the Bosniak leadership can develop something to invest in, there is little hope of foreign investment increasing in their territories. The companies that did exist in the Federation were privatized in what have been largely viewed as corrupt deals where the parties sold the companies for pennies while reaping the personal rewards of graft and bribes. Now, after eighteen years of work by the international community, Bosniaks are protesting against the deeply embedded corruption of the entire government system.
In order to move from protests to reform civil society leaders must recognize some harsh realities and attempt to make real adjustment to see these protests forward. First, the country is not unified. Despite general dissatisfaction ethnic divides remain and anyone attempting systemic change must work across ethnic lines to understand why these divisions can still exist. There must be a strong, open and compromising dialogue across all territories to dispel fear and weaken the ethno-nationalist power of the political parties. Second, an immediate end to all violence must occur and those responsible for it must be turned over to the authorities. The one thing I learned living in Bosnia is that the country is small and everyone knows everyone. There is nothing more detrimental to the cause of systemic change than the lack of trust that has been created due to hooliganism. Finally, if the politicians are going to shift their mindset from ethno-nationalism to the economy, the voters must do so as well. Continuing to vote for any politician who has sought to keep office by sowing fear is a vote for the destruction of all of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
At this stage, international officials are truly stuck between Dayton and Butmir. While masterfully ending an incredibly bloody war and saving countless lives, Dayton put into place a byzantine system of government so complex that master politicians can weave it to fill any desire they wish. The international community pushed for and received compromise on many issues since 1995, but that only brought the country so far. After years of stagnation, the US and the EU cajoled the Bosnian leaders together for talks at Camp Butmir in 2009. Rightfully unwilling to force a solution on BiH, the international community gave the party leaders a forum to reach compromise and make lasting adjustments to their unwieldy government but the talks ended without compromise.
And why should they? Continued stagnation and confusion provides a perfect forum for political leaders and their party benefactors to reap the benefits of a non-transparent system. The voters may gain some patronage-based jobs and continue to receive government pensions and veterans benefits but this system is wholly unsustainable. A younger generation not yet on pension and not eligible for veterans benefits has no future in the country and is finally lashing out at the government.
So, as another bout of protests occurs in BiH what should the international community do? Surprisingly, the correct answer is very little. Despite the fears that protests can cause in a post-conflict society these are a natural part of their democratic evolution and are absolutely necessary if Bosnia and Herzegovina is ever to join the rest of Europe. To understand this let’s first take a look at the alternatives.
Disengagement is not an option at this stage. While Russia may desire the EU, NATO and the U.S. to depart from BiH, a complete or even perceived departure of the international community would be destabilizing. While the party leaders need to fully acknowledge that the fate of their country rest entirely on their shoulders, the populace must know that the international community is there to continue to guide their decisions but will not intervene.
A return to intervention may be called for by some leaders but would be disastrous for the country. Use of the so-called Bonn Powers of the Office of the High Representative under UN authority is fully authorized and considered legitimate under international law. But their use would set back years of progress made with the citizens of BiH. Instead of staying out of government issues or protesting only for an increase of veterans’ benefits, the citizens are now protesting against their government and this is exactly what the party leaders fear most.
The international community must continue to make clear that outside engagement is not the solution to Bosnia’s predicament. These current protests signal a new trend in Bosnia. They began in the summer of 2013 against the government’s inability to continue to issue new identification cards preventing many from acquiring passports or visas for travel. At that time, three days of mostly peaceful protests scared the Republika Srpska president Dodik into removing his government representatives from Sarajevo in a yet another act of melodramatic fear mongering. The protest stalled by the organizers as they allowed the government to reach a compromise and one was achieved on that very specific issue by the end of the summer precluding further protests. While small and specific, this set of protests have put into motion a civil society that is now becoming organized and poised to force a broad range of issues against the government. The recent protests in Bosnia will fade as well and little effective change will result. But, the organizers will regroup and focus on a new issue in the future and more citizens will become involved.
As the international community moves past the current crisis a shift in approach is needed to hold the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina accountable for its lack of meaningful progress. Despite past statements by government leaders that Bosnia and Herzegovina intends to join both NATO and the EU the process has been stalled for years. Yet, the EU, OSCE, UNDP and the U.S. continue to flood money into Bosnia. Each year the amount is reduced as projects wane, but the faucet remains open. The EU alone provides EUR 47.26 million in funding each year. According to a U.S. Congressional Research report, the United States provided just over $2 billion in aid to Bosnia from the country’s independence through 2012. Aid to Bosnia has declined in recent years. For 2013, the Obama Administration requested $28.556 million in aid for political and economic reforms in Bosnia from the Economic Support Fund, $6.735 million in the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement account (INCLE), $4.5 million in Defense Acquisition, $1 million in Defense Training aid, and $4.75 million in Non-proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Deming, and Related (NADR) funding. The vast majority of these projects have the specific goal of moving Bosnia and Herzegovina closer to full integration with western institutions. But despite the funding and the many projects real progress is stalled as the money is squandered or used to back-fill holes in the state level budget created by corruption.
The international community must stop funding areas of failure and move to a policy of conditional funding. Projects in BiH that do not complete their reforms should be suspended as a clear signal from the international community of the standards that are to be upheld. As each new international official starts their assignment in BiH they believe that just one more project, one more injection of funds or one more initiative could spark reform or at least save BiH from itself. But they forget that nearly every machination of intervention has been worked and reworked over the last eighteen years. If the BiH current leaders do not want to join NATO and the EU, then the international taxpayers should not continue to fund their stagnation. The government of BiH has a sovereign right to their choices, but so do contributing countries.
Germany, as well as other countries of Western Europe, has already removed some resources from BiH as a result of their stagnation. All German officers and staff have been removed from the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo and the European Union Force, EUFOR, based at Camp Butmir. But this makes little to no impression on the political leaders of BiH as the rest of the international community continues to chase them around with a safety net propping up every state institution that squanders its budget. If BiH leaders cannot make clear commitments and uphold those commitments to the international community, then funding of those institutions should cease.
This approach is one that could be implemented solely in Sarajevo. Instead of returning to Brussels, Washington or the UN, the stakeholders in Sarajevo can monitor and strictly enforce standards on their projects and make publicly clear when funds are withheld. Opponents of this viewpoint will fear the resulting chaos when state level institutions struggle from a reduction in available funds. After all, they believe that the international community created state level institutions and Dodik would love nothing more than to see the state fail. While that may be true, Dodik fears nothing more than a complete loss of his power and the one thing that can guarantee that is widespread discontent in the RS.
While releasing a stranglehold like grip on the reigns in BiH is a risky proposition, it is the one approach not yet tried by the international community and the one most likely to move the country out of years of stagnation. The international community’s presence in the country, public statements against corruption and corrupt parties, and declarations against violence will provide the balance needed to prevent the nation from returning to war. The international community may not want to upset their interlocutors in Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Mostar by publicly ending programs, but sitting idly by making empty statements is equally risky as the international community will be seen as complicit in the corrupt state and future violent protests may target not only the BiH government but the international community as a whole.
Scott Schenking, Lt.Col. (ret.) was an advisor on the Western Balkans in the U.S. Department of Defense from 2006 until he concluded military service in 2013. His most recent assignment was as Deputy Defense Attaché in the U.S. Embassy, Sarajevo. Scott is currently studying international law and conflict dispute resolution with the University of London.