Bosnia - the country as wreckage

Bosnia – the country as wreckage

Protests over identity cards and economic anguish once again have shown that – by themselves – neither street action nor breathless rhetoric from full-time activists or outside commentators can overcome the basic structural underpinnings of informal, patronage based social and economic networks.

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By David B. Kanin

Paddy Ashdown recently provided Bosnia’s various communities some comic relief.  The British Milord crowed that their notional nation made more progress “than any country post conflict in the world” for the ten years following the war of the 1990s.[1] Of course, he was celebrating the sub-set of that time in which he wielded his hammer to impose law, politics, and whatever else he wanted as international viceroy in Sarajevo.  In the context of the latest round of public anger directed by Bosnians of all stripes against the local Big Men he and other international Big Men have demanded renewed international intervention.  These heroes apparently believe they can shore up the unworkable political contraption they imposed in the early 1990s, sanctified at Dayton, and turned into their personal dependency.  While Bosnians once again are expressing their anguish over unfilled basic needs, EU paladins celebrate themselves and focus on such marginalia as the Sejdic-Finci ruling.[2]

Direct Democracy, Persistent Kleptocracy

In the last two years, protests over identify cards and economic anguish once again have shown that – by themselves – neither street action nor breathless rhetoric from full-time activists or outside commentators can overcome the basic structural underpinnings of informal, patronage based social and economic networks.  These are almost the only functional structures in Bosnia, other Yugoslav successor states, Albania and the EU member states of Romania and Bulgaria.  The pro-Western victors of the 2004-5 “Orange Revolution” fell into infighting and copied the kleptocrats they overthrew; it is far from clear that the current conglomeration of anti-Russian protesters are ready to do much better.

Ashdown, other EU notables, and succeeding generations of American diplomats and NGO mavens have done little more than enable the corruption and political dysfunction they once again are complaining about.  The current exchange among them on various websites largely rehashes failed proposals for more democracy or more Western intervention.  Valery Perry’s [3] and Soeren Keil’s [4] reasonable rejections of this intellectual rut are welcome exceptions to this rule.

No amount of ministerial shuffling, elections, political constitutional change, or bluster from outsiders will bring about political or economic progress until the diachronic, hegemonic, informal systems of money and power are treated as serious and central.  As things stand, it is the formal, thin, internationally-blessed layer of formal norms and rules that is marginal and may be ephemeral.

The protests are nothing new – so far.

Demonstrations that began in Tuzla should have – but so far have not – led to serious analysis of a basic structural problem affecting all shards of the former Yugoslavia.  In addition to the problems of ethnic and other sectarian divisions that get so much attention (and have proven more durable than any of the ukases issues by Ashdown or others sitting in his chair), all Yugoslav successor states continue to struggle to adjust to the demise of Communist system enterprises that at least notionally employed so many people.  Bosnia may be in the worst shape; the Dayton agreement was a truce, not a peace, and the institutions (the word hardly applies) it engendered are stillborn.  Neither hounding ministers out of their offices nor arranging for new elections will have any impact on an economic and social condition that leaves so much of the population dependent on patronage and Big Men.

It is no secret that the rickety Bosnian state has taken the place of Tito-era enterprises and functions mainly as a patronage-based employment holding pen.  According to Elvira Jukic, about half of those who are employed in the country get paid via some kind of state budget.  180,000 work directly in the public sector, to include an enormous number of under-performing (my word) ministers.[5]  Under such conditions, there is no point complaining about corruption or blaming ineffective or patronal elites.  The purpose of states in such circumstances is to serve as stakes in contests for resources and jobs – nothing else matters.  The names or notional ideologies of political parties are irrelevant.  In Serbia, this means they get created easily and often.  The Bosnian variant involves more factional jockeying within as much as among patronage networks cum political parties.  The current political season has SDA and the Croat parties on the offensive against the formations around Zlatko Lagumdzija and Fahrudin Radoncic.  Last year, Lagumdzija and the Serbian boss Milorad Dodik struck a deal.  Your guess is as good as mine as to who will be shaking hands with whom before the end of 2014.  Shuffling the names would not matter.

Therefore, the common tendency to blame the country’s agonies on rapacious or incompetent elites is both wrong and beside the point.  The various political Big Men serve the traditional function of enriching those in their networks in a context where small size and minimal formal economic comparative advantages mean Bosnia, Macedonia, Kosova, and other entities in the Yugoslav shatter zone do not have any other basis for subsistence.  The experiences so far of Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia inside the EU suggest membership in that body is a much overrated elixir (it is too soon to comment on Croatia).  One reason the patronage system has been able to brush aside local and international efforts to dismantle it is that to date no one has come up with a practical, unifying, competently organized means of improving the basic economic conditions that nourish it.

Throw the bums out – and then what?

The ideology of protest also continues to get in the way of progress.  Bosnia is not alone. False starts in Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bulgaria, Ukraine, and the post-Yugoslav states suggest public anger and activists’ bravado do not by themselves produce constructive change.  In some of these other places, (Egypt and Ukraine, for example) there is enough of a state to make it a stake worth capturing.  That is not the case in Bosnia; if activists manage to seize political institutions in Sarajevo, what would it matter – what could they do?  Only when someone or some group proves capable of turning these rhetorical questions into real ones and proving them with answers might Bosnia undergo meaningful political change.

So far, it does not look like Bosnia has a Lenin ready to do this job so – even if the next round of demonstrations proves more significant than the last – an organized revolution might not be in the cards.  Instead, perhaps the country needs a Beppe Grillo, an individual attractive across entity and sectarian lines that could dish out well-earned ridicule to Big Men on all sides but also organize a political movement capable of galvanizing more than just votes.  Whoever aspires to leadership in Bosnia needs to do better than the would-be reformers whose serial, ongoing failures since 1989 to mobilize political action proved popularity is not enough.  What remains unclear is what outrage or accident will produce the sense of salience that so far no local hero, NGO maven, or Western official has been able to conjure up.

Even the development of such a movement with the support of EU cheerleaders would not be enough.  Anyone who gains preeminence over what passes for a Bosnian “state” would have nothing functional to work with.  As things stand, the first Bosnia since the 15th Century not to be part of a larger imperial or Yugoslav market simply does not have the potential for an economic pie large enough to enable entrepreneurial classes large and functional enough to desire a transparent legal playing field instead of the normal opacity of business as usual.  What might create something like a larger market would be regional arrangements advancing current discussions of free trade areas toward a common market enabled by infrastructure priorities.

Balkan progenitors of such a development would do well to learn from what once were called the Asian Tigers rather than remain in thrall to the EU.  No “Marshall Plan” or EU membership process will do the trick, because the costs of entry are too high for economies as small and uncompetitive as those in this region.  Chronic inequality is the basic condition of Western economic systems – and is on the increase.  Bosnia and neighboring states (including those already in the EU) face a permanent subaltern status if they join that club.  On the other hand, skillful use of protectionism for at least a while (the primary basis for development since the 1960s) and exploitation of relatively low labor costs might give Southeast Europeans some leverage if they can come together to face off together against Germany and other richer actors in the West.

Such a development would require that those who want to organize an alternative politics recognize that they cannot do so except as part of an economic system encompassing everyone from the Sava to the Aegean.  The EU, Turkey, Russia, the US, China, and other foreign actors should become trading partners held equally at arm’s length when it comes to political and security influence.  There is no question that chances are very slim that a critical mass of elites, counter-elites, and activists would commit themselves to sloughing off local prejudices and counterproductive enthrallment to “Europe,” but the evidence is mounting that the only way out of being ”Balkan” is embracing that concept and giving it new meaning.

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).


1) Elvira Jukic, “EU Officials head for Bosnia over Protests,” Balkan Insight, February 14, 2014.

2) Natasa Krstin, “B-H:  European Commissioner Ends Engagement on Implementation of Sejdic-Finci Ruling,” Al Jazeera Balkans, February 19, 2014.

3) Valery Perry, “Elite-Driven Reform Will Not Save Bosnia,” Balkan Insight, February 11, 2014.

4) Soeren Kiel, “Bosnia Must Be Rebuilt in Sarajevo, Not Brussels,” Balkan Insight, February 14, 2014.

5) Elvira Jukic, “Bosnia’s Bloated Budget is Consuming Cash,” Balkan Insight, February 17, 2014.

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