As Stefan Fule, the EU Commissioner for Englargement, leaves Sarajevo after an abortive 9-hour meeting with the leaders of Bosnia’s seven main political parties, there is an eerie sense of déjà vu for those who remember Europe‘s role in the 1990s war.
For the last two weeks, tens of thousands of citizens across Bosnia have been demonstrating daily on the streets of the major cities and towns, demanding the resignation of their political leaders whose corrupt and nepotistic practices have brought the country to an economic standstill, drained resources, stifled inward investment and impoverished its people.
But Mr Fule didn’t appear to be listening. Spending most of his time in Bosnia in meetings with those same discredited political elites, the EU commissioner sent little more than a lukewarm message to the protesters. Instead he opted for the safe route and focused (yet again) on Bosnia’s failure to implement the 2009 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on the Sejdic-Finci case on which Bosnia’s accession to the EU is conditional. Although important, this has now been overshadowed by the much wider debate on how Bosnia is to be governed.
The current developments in Bosnia, on the streets and in plenums, present a totally new challenge which could lead to ending the long-term political and economic stagnation in Bosnia, and which surely require a fresh international approach. Yet Commissioner Fule appeared to be riveted to the familiar groove, devoting hours to negotiation with politicians whose interests are best served in maintaining the status quo. This suggests that the current EU administration which oversees Bosnia is not up to the task. Indeed, the commissioner, in a tacit admission of defeat, has now withdrawn altogether from the Sejdic-Finci issue, handing it over to the Council of Europe and the EU High Representative, Cathy Ashton.
This all has a familiar ring to it. It recalls how, in 1991, the EU’s predecessor, the European Community, attempted to stem the escalating conflict in Yugoslavia through a series of futile summits, broken ceasefire agreements and an ongoing lame ‘peace’ conference, ending up as a virtual spectator in a genocidal war.
At the time, the arguments of those who urged Yugoslavia’s early admission to the European Community as a means of holding the country together and forestalling more widescale conflict fell on deaf ears in Brussels and other European capitals. The signals sent by the mass anti-government demonstrations in the streets of Belgrade by unpaid industrial workers in early 1991, and later by university staff and students and the media, were also ignored.
Today, the situation is different, and Bosnia is unlikely to erupt in another war. The nationalist element which characterized the 1990s conflict is missing, despite the efforts of the Republika Srpska leader, Milorad Dodik, and his Croat counterpart, Dragan Covic, to play the ethnic card. Street protests have taken place in multi-ethnic Mostar and Brcko, and on Tuesday a thousand Serb war veterans demonstrated on the streets of the Republika Srpska capital, Banja Luka. While careful to distance themselves from their counterparts in the Federation, their social grievances were similar. In the RS, anyone brave enough to protest against government policies is portrayed as disloyal and faces more severe penalties than in the Federation.
Yet the majority of people throughout Bosnia, regardless of their ethnicity, share the same social and economic hardships, and have become increasingly disenfranchised. This is what both validates and empowers them, and why they cannot be ignored. After a stormy start, the protests are now largely peaceful, and the protesters’ demands reasonable and coherent. In Tuzla, Bosnia’s former industrial heartland where the uprising originated, a plenum has been formed which proposes the formation of a technical government, made up of experts who have never been affiliated to any political party. There are many well-qualified, capable people who with the right encouragement would make suitable candidates in the elections later this year.
The drive on the part of Bosnia’s citizens is there, but the situation remains fluid. Without sufficient support, both internally and internationally, the momentum may be lost and protesters give up the battle. Alternatively, the atmosphere may become more volatile as some may feel they have little to lose beyond their own self-control.
The current power-sharing system with its multi-layered governmental dross originating from the 1995 Dayton Agreement, drawn up in haste to end the war, and favouring nationalist elites, is clearly unsustainable. The EU shares some of the responsibility, and now needs to raise its game, beginning with a clear message of support to those who are working towards greater democracy and an end to the divisive policiticking which has prevailed since Dayton. This would also be in the wider regional interest where similar corrupt government practices affect citizens’ daily lives. In the longer term, it is not impossible that developments in Tuzla and other Bosnian towns will resonate elsewhere in Europe where there are significant wage differentials, high unemployment, and politicians remote from the needs of the electorate. The Croatian foreign minister, Vesna Pusic, has called for Bosnia’s early admission to EU structures. This is also seen as in Croatia’s interest since it shares a border over 1,000 km long with Bosnia since Croatia’s entry to the EU last July. But it is also in the interests of the EU as a whole that Bosnia is offered early entry, which would entail the dismantling of the cumbersome Dayton apparatus.
The United States and the international financial institutions can play a supportive role, but for now this is primarily a European issue.
Yet, EU Commissioner Fule’s focus on implementation of the European Court’s ruling in the Sejdic-Finci case, where he sees some of Bosnia’s politicians as being more cooperative than others, is not helpful, and indicates that he does not seem to have taken on board that Bosnia’s political elites across the ethnic spectrum have lost their legitimacy, and can only function within the current political chaos, with its prevailing democratic deficit.
So what needs to happen for the chasm between international actors and events on the ground in Bosnia to be bridged?