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Bosnia & Herzegovina: Is the Current System Viable?

April 8, 2021
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More than 25 years after the Dayton Accords which ended the largest genocide in Europe since World War II, modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is still dominated by ethnocentric rhetoric and divisions along ethnic lines. The country is run by an inefficient government, captured by nationalist parties only looking for the betterment of a specific ethnic group, with the result being a country littered with corruption scandals and suffering from an unsustainable level of outbound emigration which renders one of the worst brain-drains in Europe. With its supposed goal of EU accession far from becoming a reality and the threat of break-up or secession of certain entities within the state seeming like a real possibility, will Bosnia and Herzegovina survive in its current state?

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Reuters/Dado Ruvic

The current situation in the country leaves much to be desired. Following the Dayton Accords, two entities were created in BiH, Republika Srpska (RS), in which the Bosnian Serbs are the clear majority ethnic group, and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina (FBiH), itself further divided into 10 cantons, in which the Bosniaks and the Croats share power. The result is arguably the world’s most decentralised state in which there are four judicial jurisdictions and fourteen Ministries of Justice. In total, the country has 13 governments and parliaments, 3 presidents and 149 ministries (Basseuner 2017). Such a structure leads to a myriad of problems, both politically and in society at large. Not a single new law was passed during the 2019 parliamentary session, and the unemployment rate for young people is among the highest in Europe.

As with other countries in the Western Balkans, BiH has been subject to state capture by the leading nationalist parties, while the complex state structure has allowed the elites from these parties to consolidate and legitimize their control and use urgent measures to push legislation through without debates. Media freedom in the country is poor, with journalists regularly receiving threats. Corruption, too, is a serious issue, as public funds are used to line the pockets of some members in the devolved governments.

Education is another area where the country remains deeply divided. BiH lacks a common core curriculum and, as a result of the Dayton Accords, education is beyond state competence, as its implementation falls instead to the 10 ethnically dominated cantons and RS. The different ethnic groups are taught through different syllabi, the result of which has been a politicisation of education and a further division of society among ethnic lines.

Due to the increasingly nationalist rhetoric, a break-up of BiH is something which could easily become a reality, with nationalist politicians such as Milorad Dodik becoming more and more politically active. In addition to this, there is currently a proposal to drastically increase the vote share of the Croats, which could ultimately lead to the creation of a third Croat entity in the country.

BiH has made an application to become a member of the EU, but this seems more like a pipe dream under the current framework. A key sticking point surrounds the constitution and the Sejdić-Finci case. In the country, only people who belong to the three ethnic groups are allowed to stand for election, thus people who belong to other groups, such as Jews or Roma, are not eligible. A court ruling in 2009 found that this structure is in violation of Article 14 of the European Court of Human Rights. Considerable work needs to be undertaken in this field before the country can join the bloc.

More than 25 years after the Dayton Accords which ended the largest genocide in Europe since World War II, modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is still dominated by ethnocentric rhetoric and divisions along ethnic lines. The country is run by an inefficient government, captured by nationalist parties only looking for the betterment of a specific ethnic group, with the result being a country littered with corruption scandals and suffering from an unsustainable level of outbound emigration which renders one of the worst brain-drains in Europe. With its supposed goal of EU accession far from becoming a reality and the threat of break-up or secession of certain entities within the state seeming like a real possibility, will Bosnia and Herzegovina survive in its current state?

The Current Situation

The current situation in the country leaves much to be desired. Following the Dayton Accords, two entities were created in BiH, Republika Srpska (RS), in which the Bosnian Serbs are the clear majority ethnic group, and the Federation of Bosnia & Herzegovina (FBiH), itself further divided into 10 cantons, in which the Bosniaks and the Croats share power. In addition to this, the constitution was amended in 1999 to allow for the creation of the Brcko district. Each entity is responsible for the creation and passing of laws and the state of BiH itself has very little authority. While the RS is centralised, the 10 cantons in the Federation have governing powers. The result is arguably the world’s most decentralised state, in which there are four jurisdictions and fourteen Ministries of Justice. In total, the country has 13 governments and parliaments, 3 presidents and 149 ministries (Basseuner 2017). Such a structure leads to a myriad of problems, both politically and in society at large. In FBiH, given a plethora of ethnic and territorial voting opportunities, a government has still not been formed since the general election which took place in 2018, and not a single new law was passed during the 2019 parliamentary session (Valerie 2021). The three recognised ethnic groups tend to vote for the nationalist parties which represent their ideas, and, according to the Wilson Center, two-thirds of B&H municipalities have 70%-99% one ethno-national community, which leads to a clear division in party politics (Hayden 2021). The political deadlock and lack of progress have ultimately led to dire consequences for the citizens of BiH, most notably the young generation. In 2019, the unemployment rate for young people (15 to 25 years old) was 33.8 percent (Pisker 2020). In addition, a 2014 study showed that 49.2% of young people wanted to leave the country (Žiga 2014). One of the greatest effects of the dire political and economic situation is the brain drain and negative population growth. According to the 1991 census, the country had a population of around 4,380,000 people, whereas the official census of 2013 showed that this number decreased to 3,530,000 (Westminster Foundation for Democracy 2020). The United Nations estimates that the country has a population of 3,301,000 as of 2019.

State Capture

Alongside with the inherent weaknesses of the BiH constitution, the country has witnessed state capture, with its roots lying in the Dayton Accords, as the agreement allowed the elites to from the three ethnic communities to legitimize and consolidate their control over the state due to its institutional complexity. According to a 2020 report published by the European Union, “all levels of government are showing signs of state capture” and freedom of expression remains questionable, with the major media outlets controlled by the political parties in both television and print, while journalists regularly receive threats. The BH Novinari association (a non-political and non-profit journalist association based in Sarajevo) recorded 56 cases of violation of journalists’ rights in 2019 (European Commission 2020). Politics in the country is highly polarised and, in many instances, as is noted by a member of the local assembly in Brcko district, “in order to get a job as a policeman, firefighter or litter picker, party membership is needed” (Hopkins 2021). An example which shows the extent to which state capture has occurred in BiH can be seen from The Amendments to the Law on the Civil Service of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was adopted in October 2015, ultimately resulting in the appointment or discharge of high and mid-management civil servants being subject to the ruling party at the time, which essentially gave the party free reign (Transparency International 2020). Furthermore, as is a characteristic in other Western Balkan countries, such as the neighbouring Serbia, various laws are often passed without debate under urgent parliamentary procedures.

State capture also helps to enshrine corruption, which is already rampant in the country, with political parties and public officials often being in the limelight. Transparency International makes reference to a clear violation in their 2020 Examining State Capture Report. The then Minister of Agriculture for the Federation decided which farmers would receive agriculture grants on the basis that they returned half of the subsidy to him. State capture by the nationalist political parties is well-entrenched in BiH, something naturally expected since the Dayton Accords intrinsically legalise ethnic divisions and power sharing among the three main groups. As John Hulsey mentions in his paper Ideology and Party System Change in Consociational Systems: The Case of Non-Nationalist Parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2019), the three-party system built around the main ethnic groups means that BiH does not have a single countrywide party system. The result is the overwhelming success for the different nationalist parties. However, it should be mentioned that non-nationalist parties, such as the SDP, have become more popular in the course of time, though overall support share for them has remained at only around 20% of the overall vote share as of 2018 and at the end of the 2020 municipal elections non nationalist parties managed to gain control of Sarajevo and Banja Luka, the capitals of the two entities (Euronews 2020).

Education

Ethnic divides are not only witnessed in the political system. Education is another area where the country remains deeply divided. BiH lacks a common core curriculum and, as a result of the Dayton Accords, education is beyond the scope of state competence, as its implementation falls instead to the 10 ethnically dominated cantons and RS (Basseuner 2017). The result is that the different ethnic groups are taught through different syllabi, which enforces ethnic divides in a number of ways.

First, all three separate narratives focus on the victimisation of a given group, which is hard for the country to control when two of the three curricula (the Serbian and Croatian) are adopted from outside of its borders (Magil 2017). Second, BiH practises a system of two schools under one roof in which schools are, sometimes physically, divided between the groups, most notably between the Croats and the Bosniaks in the FBiH. This system is actually in breach of a 2014 ruling by the Federation entity Supreme Court (European Commission 2020). The result has been a politicisation of education and a further division of society among ethnic lines.

Break Up

It is due to the increasingly nationalist rhetoric that the question of partition in BiH has again come to fruition. The secession of RS from BiH is a topic that is certainly nothing new, while Milorad Dodik, head of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and The Serbian President in the three-President structure, even said that the political crisis in the country “will disappear only when Bosnia disappears” (Euronews 2020), also referring to the country as “an impossible state” (Milacic 2020). He has also on many occasions tried to push an independence referendum through, most notably early in 2020, when RS sought to rid the top court in BiH of foreign judges (Aljazeera 2020). However, Bosnian Croat leaders are also looking to cement the position of the Bosnian Croats, as under the current legislature all people in the FBiH vote for the Bosnian and Croat President, regardless of one’s nationality. Since the Bosniaks vastly outnumber the Croats, who make up around 15% of the overall population, the Croat membership is ultimately decided by the larger Bosnian vote. Thus, calls for a third Croat entity within the federation have risen—mainly from Dragan Covic, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ). Under the proposed HDZ election reform (currently being discussed by the EU), the HDZ would be able to cement its position in the cantons in which the vast majority are Croats—at the expense of Croats who live in the pre-dominantly Bosniak controlled areas by effectively disenfranchising them. Additional votes from the HDZ-dominated cantons would enable the party to fully control the Croat caucus in the lower house of the FBiH Parliamentary Assembly (Ruge 2018). This would lead to an even greater division in a country already hanging on its last thread, so the threats of the SNSD and the HDZ to block a general election scheduled for next year, should their demands not be met, adds fuel to the fire.

EU talks

In 2016, BiH formally applied for EU membership, and in 2019 the European Commission (EC) issued an opinion on the country’s application, along with annual progress reports. Although the country has shown some progress in addressing the key points that were found in the EC opinions, the country has ultimately failed to adopt or amend any laws which substantially tackle the points raised and has only fulfilled one priority which was listed on the EC opinions (European Western Balkans 2020). A key sticking point surrounds the constitution and the Sejdić-Finci case. In the country, only people who belong to the three ethnic groups are allowed to stand for election, thus people belonging to other groups, such as Jews or Roma, are not eligible. A court ruling in 2009 found that this structure is in violation of Article 14 of the European Court of Human Rights, which ultimately means considerable work needs to be undertaken in this field before the country can join the bloc. However, this effectively involves amending the constitution, something which is much easier said than done, since all three ethnic groups are vested with veto powers and the only group that seems to really be pushing for constitutional change are the Bosniaks, while the Serbs and the Croats are more or less happy with the status quo or, in the case of RS, looking for secession (Hopkins 2021).

However, the lack of progress towards EU secession should also be put into context of the EU’s 2020 expansion package. The so-called carrot-and-stick model is well-known among scholars of International Relations, where the potential prospect of EU accession (the carrot) is accompanied by the needed reforms (the stick). However, it seems as of late that EU support for countries in the Western Blakans has been waning, which raises the question of whether these states will be admitted at all. Such was the case in 2019 when France vetoed North Macedonia’s accession into the bloc (Bildt 2019). Thus, the desire to undertake the needed reforms in BiH may start to decrease if EU membership is far from being a certainty.

Conclusion

For a country so divided, it is miracle that BiH still remains a single state. 25 years after the Dayton Accords, the country finds itself in the same position with little prospects for growth. The level of emigration is alarming and those young people who decide to stay need to provide for an ageing population which is ever increasing. In order for the state to survive in the long-term, it is clear that reforms are necessary; however, the incumbent dominance of national parties, a lack of political will and threats of secession make any reforms very difficult to accomplish. All of this is taking place against the backdrop of the country’s hopes to join the European Union—a distant reality until the country manages to tackle the recommendations offered by the European Commission. BiH may seem doomed—however, the recent victories of the non-nationalist parties in the capitals of RS and FBiH represent a positive step in finding a solution to the country’s ethnic divisions. But the real change will not be brought about until the country stops postponing constitutional reforms and tackles the fundamental problems which are tearing the country apart, as working on washed-down solutions under the current legislature will not lead to progress in the long run.

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