Bosnia Back on International Agendas

Politically speaking, the year 2009 for Bosnia and Herzegovina was a wash, as the country’s leaders failed to meet the majority of requirements for EU and NATO integration. This year’s election could change that, but no one’s holding their breath, Anes Alic writes for ISN Security Watch.

Having failed to make any advances in reforms in 2009 – thus falling short of the requirements for NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) or the EU’s visa-liberalization policy – arguably, Bosnia’s greatest achievement in 2009 was attracting the attention of the international community and luring it back to work thanks to new post-war records of political obstruction and ethnic intolerance.

After being bumped down on the priority lists of many western countries over the course of the past few years, Americans and Europeans re-emerged in 2009 to push changes to the country’s constitution, which is more of a peace agreement than anything else. Constitutional reform is seen as a vital step toward eventual EU and NATO membership.

However, negotiations collapsed in the face of ethno-nationalist posturing, leading to even wider rifts among the leaders of the country’s three main ethnic groups, who in turn have used the opportunity to inflame ethno-nationalist sentiments in the public. Seemingly unfazed, western powers are not backing down and, indeed, even plan to carry out constitutional changes this year – one way or another.

Election before reform

Srdjan Blagovcanin, executive director of the Bosnian branch of Transparency International (TI), told ISN Security Watch that 2010 isn’t likely to outshine 2009.

“Bosnia and Herzegovina is going to remain behind all the countries in the region in terms of European Union membership aspirations. All the stalled reforms are not going to be resolved in 2010, or even considered, despite international community pressure,” Blagovcanin said.

Indeed, this year will be even more trying for Bosnia than 2009. Not only will it have the typical lack of political will, obstruction and incompetence of the local leadership to deal with, but also presidential and parliamentary elections in October.

The reality is that since the last parliamentary and presidential elections in 2006, Bosnia’s governing parties have failed to conduct a single reform. Though working toward EU integration was a major campaign promise in the previous election, which failed considerably, candidates will not be standing before voters with any embarrassment. After all, fulfillment of election promises hovers at about 5 percent, and Bosnian voters appear to have grown used to, and even accepting of, failure.

Even now, nine months ahead of the elections, it is safe to predict campaign platforms – and reform will not figure into the agenda.

A few months ahead of every election since the end of the 1992-1995 war, the ethno-nationalist rhetoric starts in full swing, creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty among Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats alike, and because of this, ethno-nationalist leaders and parties are expected to gain more strength in the months leading up to October.

Nationalist parties will likely offer a way out of the financial crisis and a way into the EU – promises they will not fulfill once elected.

The fear vote

And worse still, some, including Blagovcanin, fear that this year’s election campaign season will be more radicalized than previous ones because the current ruling parties have nothing else to offer to the citizens.

“Since there have been no achievements in reforms, the economy, the fight against the corruption, and since the EU and NATO are more distant than ever, in order to preserve their votes, the current rulers are going to turn to spreading ethnic intolerance,” Blagovcanin said.

“When regular citizens are feeling fear and that their religious, ethnic or national identity is being jeopardized, they don’t care about privatization, employment and corruption. They will vote for the parties that promised to protect them,” he added.

Concerning the constitutional reform initiative, Bosniak parties will continue with their request to minimize the influence of the two entities in order strengthen and increase the functioning capacity of state institutions – which coincides with international community goals. However, Bosniak parties’ refusal to compromise will trigger further demands from Bosnian Serb politicians to ensure the survival of the Republika Srpska entity.

Republika Srpska authorities, led by entity Prime Minister Milorad Dodik, will continue to maneuver the Bosnian Serb entity into a position to call a referendum on secession from Bosnia, though many doubt that the west would ever allow such a move.

Dodik views the proposed constitutional reforms as a blatant attempt to do away with Republika Srpska as an entity power and create a unified state. As such, Republika Srpska officials will carry on with their public campaign to dissolve state institutions and establish a dominant Bosnian Serb entity. Its leaders have already announced that the constitution talks should resume after the elections, which would, after months of forming the government and parliament, mean sometime in 2011.

Republika Srpska will continue to advocate for a return of the jurisdictions taken from them by the international community and transferred to the state level, including taxation, the army and the judiciary. Calls for a public referendum Republika Srpska to challenge the stripping of these jurisdictions and other issues will increase in the coming months.

Parallel to this, Bosnian Croat nationalist politicians will continue to advocate that eventual constitutional changes should enable the creation of a third entity, dominated by Bosnian Croats.

Late last year, Bosnian Croat leaders renewed those demands, stressing that the current two-entity division is not acceptable, because it does not secure equal rights for Bosnian Croats.

Dual realities

All in all, much like in 2006, Bosnia will be consumed by electoral fever, marked by ethno-nationalist accusations, threats and uncertainty. But the reality is that Bosniak politicians are aware that Republika Srpska cannot be suspended; Bosnian Serb leaders know they cannot secede from the Bosnia; and Bosnian Croats are astute enough to figure out that the international community will never allow the country to be further carved up along ethnic lines.

Despite these clear realities, nationalist rhetoric to the contrary has always worked, and there is no indication that it will not work again, this year.

In all of this, what is most disturbing – aside from the fact that the Bosnian electorate repeatedly allows itself to fall into the same voting traps – is that the opposition on all three sides has never been weaker. Aside from a few parties that can count on votes from mostly urban areas, most of the opposition parties cannot, at this point, win even a minimum of seats in parliament. And among those who can, there is little chance of forming a like-minded coalition.


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