Can Europe Make It?

Bosnia, and vanishing European leadership

Bosnian citizens' protest against corruption and misgovernance also reveals the deep flaws of the country's ethno-nationalist system. But where is Europe?

Goran Fejic
25 February 2014

After an episode of rioting, the despair of Bosnian citizens is moving towards more articulate forms of political action. People are gathering in the streets of Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar and other cities: not to riot, but reportedly self-organising in forums or “plenums” ito discuss and propose political-social demands. They want, for example, the expulsion of corrupt politicians, the replacement of party-based local governments by authorities with  technical and professional expertise, the revision of opaque and fishy privatisations of public property.

The gatherings are peaceful and “in the best tradition of direct democracy”, as observed by Srećko Horvat (see "Godot arrives in Sarajevo", New York Times, 18 February 2014). Most conspicuously, none of these “plenums” is based on ethnic or religious kinship. And most importantly, none of the grievances is expressed and none of the proposals made on behalf or against any of the Bosnian “constituent nationalities”. People are not flagging their ethnic identities; they are simply saying that they are sick and tired, that they want change. As citizens. Period!

The novelty is of paramount importance: for Bosnia, for the entire former Yugoslav space, and for the European Union itself if it wants to reverse its declining credibility curve in the region (which is by no means clear from its actions, or rather inactions).

Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign-policy chief, has called on Bosnian politicians to “show leadership” and take steps to “resolve not only the economic issues of concern, but also the political situation”. This is a well-intentioned but quite unrealistic message, and with her fine knowledge of the region, Ms Ashton is, no doubt, well aware of that.

The current “leadership” of Bosnia and Herzegovina is not likely to cut the very branch on which it sits by initiating reforms that would bring to the Bosnian state any semblance of the viability it so needs. This “leadership” feeds on the alleged cast-in-stone ability and willingness of Bosnians to act only as Muslims, Serbs or Croats. It has grown as a hydra whose multiple heads in villages, cities, cantons and the so-called “entities” survive only by spitting around the poison of ethnic nationalism; by blocking any serious work on reconciliation; and by vetoing whatever is proposed by the adversary (who is always perceived as ethnic, and always attempting to impose “their” ethnic interest against “our” supposed ethnic interest.)

Don’t take this critique as inspired by daydreaming. I am speaking about a country in which mixed marriages, mixed families and mixed neighbourhoods were a very common occurrence - I admit, until the 1990s. But it is also a country where new generations have grown up since the wars of that decade, and they obviously don’t buy any longer the ethno-nationalistic discourse. Young urban Bosnians are no doubt simultaneously the most “yugo-nostalgic” and the most pro-European youth in all countries of the former Yugoslavia.

The ethno-nationalistic hydra would probably have perished long ago had it not had the chance to draw its strength and, in a way, its international legitimacy from the current Bosnian constitution. An awkward constitution indeed, rather unique in its kind in today’s world of celebrated “participatory and inclusive” constitution-building. It was hammered out in 1995 under heavy American pressure, at a meeting of ethno-nationalist warlords, held in a secluded United States air-force base, and attached, as an annex, to the Dayton peace agreements.

Slobodan Milošević, an indicted war criminal, and Franjo Tudjman, his partner in the attempted partition of Bosnia & Herzegovina (regrettably not indicted), were among the international guarantors of the said agreements. The level of “national ownership” of the constitution of Bosnia & Herzegovina is further illustrated by the fact that its translation into the local language (whatever its name - Serbian, Croatian or Bosnian) was made available only fifteen years after its coming into force! The first translation was reportedly provided by - of all people! - Milorad Dodik, the seemingly undebunkable leader of the Serb-Bosnian “entity” (and something undertaken, naturally, only out of his vested interest, as it officialises the said “entity”). 

While no one can seriously deny the contribution of the Dayton agreements to the ending of the devastating war in Bosnia in 1995, is has been argued repeatedly and with equally convincing arguments, that the Dayton agreements - and the constitution attached to them - have brought about an institutional and legal system that is highly divisive, ineffective, extremely expensive, intrinsically undemocratic and ultimately non-viable.

For almost two decades, the EU has been tolerating and half-heartedly supporting that system, hoping that time will heal the wounds of war and calm the ethno-nationalistic rage, while the sticks-and-carrots of the EU "enlargement" strategy gradually delegitimises the incongruous Dayton-based governance settings and entices reforms. That hope has not materialised. The passing of time has only allowed the Dayton-based parasitic rulers (large and small) to develop stronger roots and forge alliances in the region, beyond Bosnia’s borders;  while the EU, in the midst of its own crisis and overwhelmed by “enlargement fatigue”, has lost its stick and keeps holding its carrot high, out of reach for Bosnia as it is today.

In the meantime, the hardship endured by people in all Bosnian “ethnic entities” - above all due to unemployment and corruption - has continued to grow and became unbearable. The cooker has now exploded. It happened, obviously, at the least appropriate moment from the perspective of the ever-smiling members of the European council (those who look so happy and self-confident on their recurrent collective photos against the starred blue backdrop).

After all, Brussels just doesn’t need Bosnia now. Not on top of Ukraine, on top of its own crumbling image, and on top of the seemingly unstoppable euroscepticism in its own member-states.

As to the Balkans, the European Union has has just emerged from a terribly laborious effort to concoct some sort of agreement between Serbia and Kosovo - an agreement whose main virtue seems to be that it is interpretable as “normalisation of relationship without official recognition” (of Kosovo by Serbia), thus keeping Serbia's populist government happy while allowing for the official opening of talks on the country's EU accession. The still fragile foundations of the accord (details remain vague, particularly in the judicial area), and the approach of Serbia’s parliamentary elections (scheduled for 16 March), ensure that the EU at present will do nothing to irritate Serbia. After all, Serbia is the most determined supporter of the Dayton agreements and the unfaltering patron and sponsor of the “Republika Srpska”.

Hence the meek appeal to current Bosnian politicians “to show leadership”. The appeal’s tone of tired annoyance cannot be dissimulated and the message will hardly convince anyone. I bet Catherine Ashton herself would be most surprised if the Bosnian politicians responded in any meaningful way.

But the real issue is not the lack of leadership of Bosnian politicians. Anyone knowing them would rather ask them to refrain from any leadership. The real issue - and the most disheartening - is the total lack of leadership in Europe itself. Who in today’s Europe can rise in defence of Bosnian citizens in the streets, of this truly anti-nationalistic citizens’ movement, of those rare individuals who still believe in the principles that Europe itself has, it seems, long forgotten?  

Open the doors

This is where there is no other option than to dream:

* To dream about the EU supporting the people’s forums and plenums in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Mostar and other Bosnian cities while cutting support to the corrupt ethno-nationalist bureaucrats

* To dream about those movements growing and acquiring with such EU support, a sufficient level of organisation and strength to unite and become a new constituent power in Bosnia & Herzegovina

* To dream about a new constituent assembly/process being set up with delegates from the entire country regardless of their ethnic origin, allegiance or “entity” of residence.

Now, making that aspiration come true would indeed be a long process and it could provoke some new tensions in the Balkans. As in any serious overhaul, some turbulence and disorder may have to be confronted before a better and more democratic order sets in. But is short-term stability the only remaining European ideal?

It is worth recalling some basics in contemporary democracy-building, which are consistently advocated by the “international community” itself when it seeks to support “countries in transition” (see, for example the “constitution-building programme of International IDEA in Stockholm): 

* Good constitutions take time to grow (the South African one took six years!);

* They cannot be pre-cooked and imposed from abroad

* The process by which they are brought about is as important as their content

* Inclusive participation is a must, as well as equality of language (in terms of gender, ethnicity, and religion, for example).

Yes, “post-conflict” constitution-making is a major challenge for obvious reasons: you make peace with warlords while you build a constitution with citizens. Phasing-out the former and bringing-in the latter is difficult and time-consuming.

But almost two decades have elapsed since the Dayton agreements. Isn’t it time?

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