Four Policy Suggestions for Renewed International Efforts in Bosnia-Herzegovina

On January 27th, 2014, Reuf Bajrovic of the Emerging Democracies Institute (EDI) spoke to a packed audience at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University in New York City. While primarily focused on the general elections scheduled for Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in October of this year, Bajrovic’s talk also examined more broadly the effects of the Dayton constitutional order on the country’s politics and BiH’s shifting position in European and American foreign policy. Columbia Professor Tanya L. Domi introduced and chaired the presentation. Bajrovic began by noting that going into the 2010 elections, there were few expectations of change as the Social Democratic Party (SDP) had suffered a colossal defeat four years earlier and the dominant nationalist blocs seemed poised for another sweep. Yet despite a non-sectarian campaign message that flew in the face of conventional, Western accounts of BiH politics as dominated by ethno-nationalists, the SDP came out of the 2010 as the largest vote-getter in the country. In the post-election period, however, SDP leaders appeared unable or unwilling to resist the lure of power and entered into a series of convoluted coalition governments at the state and entity level. In the process, the party increasingly began shifting its focus away from recognizable social-democratic principles and, instead, towards securing government posts and making deals with the nationalist hardliners. Bajrovic, who had joined the SDP in 2007 as a campaign advisor, left the party as a result in 2011, as did many others, including the SDP’s representative in the BiH State Presidency, Zeljko Komsic. Komsic, the single most popular politician in the country, has since gone on to form his own party, the Democratic Front (DF) and, according to Bajrovic, seems poised to absorb the majority of the left-progressive vote in BiH that the SDP had formerly dominated. But the experience of the 2010 elections also revealed a deeper truth about the political system in BiH. Namely, that the Dayton system had created a network of essentially reactionary incentives that discouraged the formation of multi-ethnic parties which, in turn, has promoted the emergence of a deeply chauvinistic, provincial and corrupt political culture. The very “ultra-consociational” principles of the Dayton system which were meant to create a functioning apparatus of government after the end of the war have now become a barrier to the country’s further progress. As an example, Bajrovic cited the current Sejdic-Finci negotiations. Here, a case which concerned the inability of “non-constitutive peoples” in BiH (e.g. Roma, Jews) to stand for many elected offices, has been transformed into a near hostage situation, as the Croat nationalist HDZ, a party which won less than 10% of the total vote in 2010, now demands a constitutional guarantee for fully 1/3 of the power in the state for itself. A similar situation, moreover, played out during the recent census, the first BiH had conducted since 1991. After a trial run of the census, as well as numerous polls, had shown that somewhere between 20-35% of the population would declare themselves as “Bosnians and Herzegovinians” rather than Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats, representatives of the nationalist blocs began making concrete efforts to legally and practically compromise the data that would be collected—especially as it concerned questions of “identity,” which they ensured would become as charged as possible. In the end, the citizens’ actual responses were undermined by such transparent violations of privacy, with evidence of rampant tampering with the forms and data collected, that Bajrovic believes the numbers, whatever they purport to show in the final tallies, will be essentially unusable. Summing the matter up, Bajrovic commented during the question period that Dayton’s ethno-territorial structure and institutional incentives were perhaps best understood as a terrible mixture between the Ottoman millet system and Stalin’s nationalities policy. The disastrous situation in BiH, he continued however, was also in no small part the responsibility of the international community and its failures to insist on the implementation of established democratic and human rights norms by the political establishment in BiH, who, in any case, absolutely depend on the international community for their financial and political welfare. The structural problems of the Dayton constitutional system were in large part offset by robust international engagement in BiH between 1996 and 2005/6 but as the international community has progressively withdrawn from BiH, the glaring flaws of the Dayton order have been exposed. Bajrovic also drew special attention to the shift in European Union (EU) policy post-2005, after the election of Angela Merkel in Germany, which all but completely froze serious efforts to help guide countries like BiH into the Euro-Atlantic community. Croatia’s ascension in 2013 notwithstanding, after the perceived failures of Bulgaria’s and Romania’s entry into the Union, German policy makers, in particular, remain deeply suspicious of substantive efforts to bring the remaining Balkan states into the EU fold. As it concerns BiH’s immediate neighbours, Bajrovic noted that Serbia’s policy has essentially remained unchanged from the 1990s, arguing that its insistence on playing the “defender” of Serbs in neighbouring states has normalized what is otherwise an egregious violation of international norms, namely, the interference of foreign states in domestic affairs. It was Zagreb’s return towards a similar policy, however, that most concerned Bajrovic. While the Mesic administration had taken great strides towards distancing itself from Franjo Tudjman’s policies in BiH, the Josipovic administration has since reversed many of these changes, in turn, and once again become a tacit supporter of Croat nationalist objectives within BiH. Despite all this, looking ahead to the 2014 elections, Bajrovic insisted that there existed some room for optimism. He expected “new facts on the ground,” first because Milorad Dodik’s SNSD was likely to come out of the polls severely weakened if not outright defeated. Regardless of whether the SDS is able to form government itself in the Republika Srpska (RS), it looks likely that the Serb nationalist bloc will be split and thus severely weakened. Moreover, the emergence of civil rights associations like the “1st March” Coalition, who have gone on a massive voter registration push, could see as many as 2 or 3 non-Serb nationalist MPs elected in the entity, further creating the possibility of concrete movement with respect to the near constant obstructionism currently representative of Banja Luka’s politics at the state level. Secondly, Bajrovic likewise believes that similar changes will take place in the Federation, where he expects the DF to emerge as a major new political player. On this point, however, he stressed a desire to see the party first establish itself as a principled opposition lest a decision to form or join government too soon take it the route of the SDP. Thirdly, evidence of renewed interest on the part of Washington to reengage with the region, Bajrovic believes, has the potential to add substantive dimensions to what are currently lifeless international efforts, as dominated by the EU. On this point, Bajrovic drew his discussion to a close by noting the four concrete policy objectives he has consistently stressed to policy makers in D.C. and BiH:

  1. It is imperative that the German position on BiH and EU expansion be altered by the Obama administration. Berlin’s recalcitrance on this point has empowered secessionist and chauvinist forces in BiH and jeopardized the very essence of the country’s peace.
  2. The expectations and commitments of the international community, especially with respect to the Office of the High Representative (OHR), must be made clear. The OHR cannot and will not leave until BiH’s constitution has been reformed and brought into line with European democratic and human rights norms. Also, OHR’s adjudicating role must be transferred to a BiH Supreme Court or given to the existing Constitutional Court.
  3. BiH must be defended from and supported in her efforts to repel the near constant efforts of its neighbour’s and their domestic allies to endanger the country’s institutions. Belgrade and Banja Luka must be prevented from holding further “joint sessions” of its respective executive bodies and Zagreb’s insistence on dismantling of FBiH likewise curtailed.
  4. International policy makers must cease treating party leaders in BiH as the only local partners, especially with regards to constitutional reform questions like the Sejdic-Finci case, and must instead engage the relevant Parliamentary bodies.

A substantial Q & A session followed with still further discussions after the event had formally concluded. In all, the night provided for a stimulating exchange of ideas on BiH’s fate in its second post-war decade. – Jasmin Mujanović | @JasminMuj