The impact of the recent election could become more “civic” than it might appear, if politicians seeking to represent that term examine their own motives, drop their international crutch, and craft an alternative to the patronage bedrock on which the current Bosnia and Herzegovina depends.
By David B. Kanin
The Democratic Front (DF) actually did not do that badly in what were default elections. People appear to have voted out of habit, to protect their personal status as links in one of the patronage chains, or as a statement of their status in the ethnic communities Western activists keep telling us do not (or should not) matter. The only evidence of principled commitment was negative—the clear vote to get rid of Zlatko Lagumdžija, whose play-acting as a champion of multi-cultural politics had worn pretty thin. The DF did not receive as many votes as Lagumdžija’s Party (the mis-named Social Democrats) did last time around, but it did put itself in a position to establish credentials as an alternative to ethnic communalism, if its leading personalities can focus on something besides being leading personalities.
Assuming Komšić and other DF figures really are concerned with the problems facing communities forced together in an unworkable Bosnia, they might consider tacking a few central questions:
Is there a workable alternative to patronage?
Calling politics in Bosnia (or, for that matter, in other shards of former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, or Romania) “corrupt” does not do the system justice. Big Man-focused structures—whether formed around familial, religious, ethnic, local, or other exclusivist ethics—feed, protect, and employ their constituents. They negotiate with other similar structures, and organize resource inhaling tools (we call the current form of these things “political parties”) to maximize the Big Man’s ability to be—in the words of Anthony Quinn in “Lawrence of Arabia”—a river to his people. This remains the diachronic core of politics and economy in the Balkans and much of the rest of the world, no matter Western blather about democracy, so-called “free” markets, transparency, and governance. Patronage subsistence systems cannot be wished or legislated away—Komšić and his party need a much better idea than the Western slogan of constitutional reform.
What is Bosnia going to produce and who is it going to sell it to?
No one in the country—or among the legion of foreigners who tell Bosnians what to do—has figured out how the first “Bosnia” since the 15th Century forced to function outside a larger imperial or Yugoslav market is going to survive (much less prosper). The EU remains the Holy Grail for Bosnia and other supplicants, but the experiences of Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, and Croatia after achieving membership should give the “outs” some pause. It would be worthwhile for DF notables to discuss with like-minded people in the new EU members and in countries waiting outside the gates of “Europe” how they might organize a regional market and transportation system (current road building programs matter a lot more than constitutions). Such a social cardiovascular arrangement is essential to mutual material progress toward escaping the deepening dependence on a Germany that is taking down the rest of Europe and cannot be good for the weak Balkan economies.
Is there actually a “civic” alternative in Bosnia?
The fictionalized memory of Bosnia’s multi-cultural past forms the mirror myth to the legend of ethnic conflict that now is so out of fashion. The catastrophes of the 1870s, 1912-1919, the 1940s and 1990s demonstrated the fragility of various regional arrangements and externally imposed security caps and ideologies. This record leaves it unclear why ordinary people should do anything other than remain loyal to their families and patronage networks—no matter if these advertise themselves using tribal, ethnic, religious, class-based, or “civic” rhetoric. Željko Komšić, by bucking “authentic” Croats and rejecting Lagumdžija’s performance repertoire now has to decide if he wants to take on the encrusted layers of politics as usual. This would involve a rejection of the temptation to become just the next Big Man, and a commitment to providing a social umbrella under which those people in both entities who chafe under the dead hand current authorities hold to their throats can usefully engage in a no-holds barred consideration of the hard work it would take to change things.
How should the DF and other parties come together?
One of the real “what ifs?” in Bosnia is what would have happened if Selim Bešlagić had become a civic standard bearer in the 1990s instead of Lagumdžija. Bešlagić’s record in Tuzla suggests he really would have tried to put together a cross-ethnic Party capable of earning public respect. It likely will be harder for Komšić now to do what Bešlagić might have done then because so much political and social damage has been done in the meantime. The key is for all concerned to accept that their party labels are irrelevant and their personal ambitions should take a back seat to the common goal of forming an institution capable of taking on the patronage bosses and forging an alternative to the Big Man system. It is essential that all concerned prevent any effort by Lagumdžija to force his way back into the political picture. It also is important that Komšić and the others find someone in the RS willing to join them while taking on the weakened but still self-important Dodik and his cronies. Whoever has the courage to do this will have to stomach personal insults, political bullying, and—early on—likely electoral defeat.
How should Bosnia manage international noise?
This is not a rhetorical question. The Europeans and Americans are going to continue to lecture the locals in the attempt to get them to focus on the wrong things—constitutional “reform,” conditions set by an EU far from certain ever to let Bosnia join the club, and the menu of demands laid down by various international institutions, NGOs, and self-certain Western activists. After two decades, it should be clear to Bosnians of all flavors that the West can offer markets and material assistance but not much in the way of organizing principles or strategies for social cohesion. The internationals will like the idea of Komšić—just as they bought into Lagumdžija and Dodik—but might well not like it if Bosnia’s next civic option decides not to be a supplicant but to engage them in real negotiations. In my view, that is what the DF and any partners it attracts should do.
At best, Bosnia is looking at more years of political, economic, and social uncertainty. To have a chance, any new effort to construct a civic politics will have to be a lot different than what has come before. If it is not, ordinary Bosnians should not be blamed for sticking to their patronage defaults when it comes time to vote again.
David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).