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comment 15 Aug 12

Depressed West Averts Gaze From Bosnia’s Demise

As the EU and the US grapple with intractable economic problems, Bosnia’s imminent demise seems likely to pass almost unnoticed.

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 seems to care about the Balkans. The international pressures buffeting the region are financial. Bosnia’s 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 faded, Bosnia’s politicians can now start pulling apart the political architecture imposed by the US government in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords.

The principal dynamic of this wrecking project is Serb exploitation of Bosniak [Muslim]-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 the mutual political benefits to their doing so. On 23 July 2012 Komsic quit the SDP, citing objections to Lagumdzija’s proposals for constitutional reform. His objections were unsurprising: the planned reforms 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 attempts in the past all failed so abjectly. To understand this, we must look back to the final effort by the Europeans to press their preferred vision for the country on 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 unlawful. That is because the constitution requires the tri-partite Presidency to be manned by one Bosniak, one Croat and one Serb. Yet, some people in Bosnia, including Sejdic and Finci (Roma and Jewish respectively), belong to none of these groups and are thus disenfranchised from Presidential candidacy. The same reasoning was applied by the Court to the House of Peoples, Bosnia’s upper legislative chamber, which likewise operates 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 per cent of the population); the number of Jews is as low as 500 (0.015 per cent). Political allegiances in Bosnia being strictly divided on ethnic lines, no Roma or Jew has any prospect of being elected President in future, even if legally he or she 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 2004 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 as dysfunctional a country as Bosnia strains all credibility in the hallways of the European Commission, where minds are focused on mitigating theconsequences of premature monetary union.

Nevertheless none can be seen to admit that Bosnia’s chances for proximate EU membership are zero. And Bosnia’s population still fantasises about 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.

But the reforms mandated by the Sejdic-Finci judgment are impossible, because any amendment compliant with the ruling will undermine the Bosnian Croats, who already perceive themselves as an endangered minority. If ethnic quotas are removed from Bosnia’s electoral system, the smallest group will suffer. If (as is currently estimated) Bosnia’s population is something like 50 per cent Bosniak, 40 per cent Serb and only 10 per cent 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 for his ardent unitarian views. Most Bosnian Croats see him as wholly 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 Komsic.

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 then 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 Sejdic could be elected to the Presidency. The problem for Komsic with this model is that he is unpopular amongst Croats and hence he would not be elected as long as 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 Komsic, arguably Bosnia’s most genuinely multi-ethnic politician.

Enter now Milorad Dodik, President of the Bosnian Serbs. His agenda is to promote the detachment of the Bosnian Serb entity, the Republika Srpska, from the rest of Bosnia.

Hence he would like to annihilate 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, 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 the SDP, Komsic being genuinely popular with Bosniak SDP voters.

With the central government fatally weakened, Dodik is now pushing to finish the SDP as a political force. Lagumdzija was in a spin, and he needed to make only the mildest misstep for Dodik to deliver the fatal wound. That 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 body whose resolutions carry only 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 State Presidency and that Lagumdzija had no mandate to act on his own. Faced with such an affront to Bosnia’s constitutional order, the Bosnian Serbs withdrew from the central government, paralysing it. However, Lagumdzija will not resign and head into opposition as this would ruin his own career.

Dodik managed to paralyse 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 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, the SDP, are cast to the winds. All this was 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 has to play. His people are poor, and this is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. In the medium term, Bosnia’s economy can only develop from increased exports of agricultural products to the EU. But amidst the current 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 Seydic-Finci judgment; manipulating Bosniak-Croat divisions 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 in the Federation entity’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 are likely to acquiesce in the fait accompli, because they are unwilling to invest the diplomatic or financial resources to prevent it from happening at a time when 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 buy 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 original conflict.

Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats no longer much intermix. In their day-to-day dealings, they have almost forgotten about one-another. They go about parallel lives. It will not be easy to persuade ordinary people to go to war and risk their lives just to reopen territorial divisions settled some 20 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. Bosnia’s fate is to fall to pieces – hopefully peacefully - amidst the waves of Europe’s second Great Depression.


The author 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. www.matthewparish.com

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