How stable is Bosnia’s instability?

By on April 25, 2018

What exactly is happening in Bosnia? Since the end of the war in 1995, the former Yugoslav country has hardly witnessed a period of prolonged political calm, economic growth and proper state-building, with the three warring parties and their political expressions basically ‘continuing’ the conflict with other means thanks also to the Constitution featured in the Dayton Peace Agreement – a cumbersome and asymmetrical three-layer institutional system whose ethnic-veto provisions have often paralysed any effort to streamline the country.

Usually shared and uncontroversial policy goals as membership in the European Union and NATO are sources of tensions and bickering among Bosnia’s three constituent peoples, with Republika Srpska (RS)’s president and ultimate political supremo, Milorad Dodik, who managed to slow down the already painstaking process of replying to the questionnaire the European Commission requests to those countries applying for candidate status, by boycotting Bosnia’s institutional working groups tasked with drafting the reply citing disagreement over ‘fundamental political issues’. The questionnaire was nevertheless handed over by the country’s tripartite Presidency to the Commission last February after over one year of works: just for the sake of comparison, Serbia answered the questionnaire in 45 working days, Croatia in three months, and Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia in four. It thus not come as a surprise that Bosnia is at the bottom of the enlargement race in the Western Balkans: it is the only country in the region – together with Kosovo, which however is not recognised as a State by some EU members – not to have achieved the candidate status, the first step in the long process of becoming part of the Union. Things are even more controversial when it comes to NATO, with the RS – an increasingly cornerstone of Russian leverage in the Balkans – blocking fundamental pieces of legislation needed to bring Bosnia closer to the Atlantic Alliance through the overdue activation of a Membership Action Plan.

The lack of internal consensus on fundamental issues like Bosnia’s position in the Euro-Atlantic institutions is just a reflection of the self-perpetuating destructive narratives based on ethnic rivalry which have marked the country’s history since its independence and which only grow stronger every time elections are looming – as it’s the case now, with Bosnians called to renew Entity and State institutions on October 7th. Angry ethnic rhetoric has often been used by the main parties in power – the Bosniak SDA, the Croat HDZ and the Serb SNSD – to rally their own electorate around the ‘defense’ of their people against the ‘aggression’ of the others, perpetuating the same lose-lose logic that ignited the war. This time, however, things look more worrisome as usual.

As a start, the elections will be held in a troubling legal – and therefore political – vacuum. The constant fear by Croat elites to be outvoted by Bosniaks on the positions they share in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (FBiH, the other Entity, together with the RS, composing the State of Bosnia-Herzegovina) led the HDZ in 2016 to ask the country’s Constitutional Court to annul some provisions of the Electoral Law that oversee the selection of the delegates to the FBiH upper chamber, the House of Peoples (HoP), by the Cantonal assemblies (the FBiH is itself composed by 10 cantons). To the surprise of many, the Constitutional Court agreed to the requests advanced by the Croats (the smallest among the three constituent peoples), leaving a legal void the political parties have so far failed to fill, notwithstanding the approaching of the elections and the pressures by the international community. As a consequence, not only would the larger of the country’s two entities end up without a second parliamentary chamber, but also without a president and vice-presidents (who are also elected by the HoP). There would also be no second chamber of the State Parliament, as two thirds of its delegates from the FBiH are elected from the Entity’s HoP. The scenario would present an unprecedented and full-fledged institutional, constitutional and political crisis.

Croats’ fear of being outnumbered in the country’s institutions, notwithstanding the equal footing given them by the Dayton Agreements, and the desire to make the HDZ their only legitimate and possible representative by strengthening the representation of their power base in Western Herzegovina led Dragan Čović, the party’s president and Croat member of the country’s Presidency, to renew the calls for the creation of a third mono-ethnic Entity and to forge a close political relationship with Dodik, the main advocate of Bosnia’s dissolution as a unitary state. Recent years saw the RS president becoming a ‘Balkan protégée’ of Vladimir Putin, a very useful piece in the Russian president’s strategy to increase Moscow influence in the region, especially since Montenegro joined NATO and Macedonia’s new government committed itself to closer integration in the Euro-Atlantic structures by accelerating the negotiations on the name issue with Greece. While inflammatory declarations and the threats of secession by Dodik have become almost routine since he took power as RS prime minister in 2006, the recent shipping of nearly 6,000 rifles from Serbia for the Entity’s police stoke fears of a dangerous arms race among the country’s several and heavily politicized law enforcement agencies.

In such a context, the longstanding ‘monopolist’ of Bosniak political representation, SDA, is suffering from internal feuds and conflicting ambitions between party’s heavyweights, as well as growing criticism of corruption and political patronage, which have already led to several high-level desertions in recent months, including that of Elvedin Konaković, popular premier of the Sarajevo Canton and former basketball player, who resigned from his post and founded a new party. Facing a potential defeat, Bakir Izetbegović, SDA leader, Bosniak member of the Presidency and son of Alija Izetbegović – the wartime president of newly independent Bosnia – recurred to harsh rhetoric in a poorly devised attempt to galvanize his electorate, recently saying that Bosnia will not waste money on new missile systems and combat aircraft, alluding to the recent Serbian and Croatian acquisitions of arms but, instead, it will improve its arms industry and increase its production in case of a potential future conflict. An insinuation that, as widely expected, just added fuel to the fire of the upcoming elections.

The road to Bosnia’s elections in October looks paved in further destabilization. Left almost alone in a regional context increasingly anchored in Euro-Atlantic institutions, also due to the lack of political wisdom and strategy from the European Union and its too technocratic vision of the enlargement process, Bosnia provides a useful entry point for those international actors aiming at destabilizing the Western order – like Russia trying to prevent countries close to his area of influence to join NATO, or Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States interested in spreading Salafism among the country’s Muslims.

How to tackle Bosnia’s weaknesses? The widely felt anger at the country’s ethnic elites for the lack of perspectives and the dire economic conditions has failed to produce genuine change or an alternative to the parties in power since the country’s independence – the 2014 popular revolts and the ‘plenum movement’ did not translate into a viable political option, also because of the reluctance and the fear by the international community to understand and engage such forces of change. Even opposition parties fall within ethnic lines – with the exception of the Social Democratic Party, which is however perceived as a mainly Bosniak party – and often need to recur to ethno-nationalist rhetoric, sometimes even to a harsher one, to gain supporters. How to break this vicious cycle? It is wrong and naïve to think of Bosnia’s ‘ethnic politics’ in pejorative terms only: other multinational states like Belgium, Switzerland and Spain have managed to compose their constituent peoples’ needs within a shared, if sometimes cumbersome, institutional framework. Neither Dayton is the source of all evils: its provisions do not prevent Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs to reach an agreement on issues, if the will exists. The problem, simply put, lies with the current elites, with the personal profiles of the people in charge for most of the post-war period and with the inability of the country, its educational system and its civil society to produce a better leadership, one less obsessed with securing a seat at Bosnia’s ethno-political and economic patronage system. It’s a decade-long generational question, one the EU and those of its member states with more leverage on the country – Germany, Austria, Italy – should help delivering by re-engaging with Bosnia and supporting its fresh, new, moderate forces and its young people who moved abroad to study and work. ‘Stabilocracy’ – the policy of supporting existing elites in the Balkans as long as they ensure calm and stability, notwithstanding their cronyism and the demands for change from their people – will not work in Bosnia, first and foremost because the only thing its elites can deliver is a stable instability which is detrimental to Bosnians and Europeans alike. Twelve years have passed since the failure of the last attempt by the international community to help Bosnia reform and streamline its institutions – the 2006 ‘April Package’: now, it is high time to try again with a more comprehensive approach, one that looks at both the country’s political system and its polity.

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