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Bosnia’s politics of paralysis

Bosnia’s tenth election since the end of the war of 1992-95 highlights the damaging influence of a post-war settlement that institutionalises ethnic politics, says Peter Lippman.

Peter Lippman
19 October 2010

A predictable routine has dominated Bosnia-Herzegovina’s political cycle in the fifteen years since the end of the country’s war in 1995. Every two years when elections are held, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslim), Serbs, and Croats elect their leaders, soon come to despise them, and then re-elect the same people next time round.  

A number of factors made the campaign in this, the tenth election since the Dayton agreement of November 1995 that concluded the war, more fraught even than usual - among them the pressures of a continuing economic crisis, the mounting evidence of political stagnation, and heightened separatist rhetoric. But will these events catalyse Bosnia into change, or only confirm its inability to escape the melancholy cycle? There were some surprises in the general elections that took place on 3 October 2010. But a close look at the results gives little hope that the trend will soon be reversed.

The Dayton trap

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s general elections are amongst the most complicated in the world. In 2010, nearly 4,000 candidates ran for the three levels of government being contested: the three-member presidency at the state level; the presidency of the Serb-controlled entity (Republika Srpska / RS); and parliaments both in the notional centre (Sarajevo) and in the regions.  

The mechanics can be made to sound super-democratic. But elections have failed to solve Bosnia’s ills, and the reason lies in their constituional and political context. Bosnia has a weak state apparatus and is overseen by an even weaker international representative, appointed under Dayton to monitor the country’s institutions and democratic path. Bosnia’s young and capable people have been fleeing the country since the end of the war, impelled by blocked opportunity and a consistently high unemployment rate (now approximately 40%); and leaders in the Republika Srpska regularly threaten secession.  

This record suggests the paradox of Bosnian politics: that while there is no reasonable alternative to peaceful change through electoral politics, the structural arrangements created by the Dayton constitution have created long-term paralysis. The primacy given by Dayton to ethnic categories, to the detriment of voters as citizens, lies at the root of this paralysis. The consequences are threefold:

* most political parties in Bosnia flourish by corralling their constituencies into ethnic voting blocs; thus for years, politics has been dominated by the Bosniak SDA, the Croat HDZ, and the Serb SNSD - all ethno-nationalist parties

* many of those who sought to advance separatist aims by means of violence in the war of 1992-95 have transferred the same aspirations into conventional politics, thus making the political system as a whole a hostage to their narrow agendas

* those politicians who are more creative at instilling fear in their followers tend to prevail in the elections.

The profits of power

But the ethno-nationalist dimension is more a tool than an immutable reality. Many of Bosnia’s voters and political observers alike understand that politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina is about power and profit rather than ethnic animosity. Indeed, few of Bosnia’s post-war leaders have escaped being tarnished by some corruption scandal or abuse of authority.  

An analyst of political affairs in Bosnia described to me the motivation of these leaders: “In domestic Bosnian negotiations, there are three things that the political leaders must agree on: how to keep what they have stolen; how to how to stay out of jail; and how to keep on stealing.” Those indicted or accused include the prominent Croat leader Dragan Covic, several building contractor cronies of RS prime minister Milorad Dodik, and the SDA candidate Bakir Izetbegovic (son of the party’s late founder and Bosnia’s wartime president, Alija Izetbegovic), who is notorious for his corrupt real-estate dealings and friendly relationships with local mafiosi.  

Again, behind this pattern of venality is the way that the Dayton constitution effectively institutionalised ethnic politics. The sequel is that the post-war political system has resisted the emergence of an honest civic alternative. Even the most influential non-sectarian party, the (social-democratic) SDP, has - for all its ostensibly more reasonable, citizen-based rhetoric - in practice become as entrapped by this system as any other party.  

Bosnia, one of former Yugoslavia’s six republics, was torn apart by the war and genocide of 1992-95. The Dayton agreement, reluctantly accepted by the Belgrade government of Slobodan Milosevic and his Bosnian Serb allies, legitimised the division of Bosnia into two entities (the Republika Srpska and the Bosniak/Croat-dominated Federation) that reflected the territorial divisions of the war. Since then, the ambitions of that destructive era have remained alive in RS prime minister Milorad Dodik’s increasing advocacy of outright secession of the RS from Bosnia-Herzegovina; while the Bosniak member of the three-way presidency, Haris Silajdzic, promoted abolition of the entities, an unimaginative and hardline stance that matched (and to a great extent reinforced) Dodik’s own.

In legal terms, Dodik and Silajdzic have had no chance of fulfilling their aims: Dayton forbids secession of any of the entities, and abolition or modification of the entity system requires consensus among the three main ethnicities. But the respective positions of each leader have fuelled their case - Dodik (re-elected in 2006) has the entire RS media apparatus and the ever-stronger SNSD party at his disposal, whereas Silajdzic became more of a one-man party with waning support.  

In the 2010 electoral campaign, Dodik’s rhetoric intensified: among his remarks were that “Bosnia is an impossible state that exists only in the thoughts of certain foreigners” and, “We have no reason to believe in Bosnia and the possibility of its development.”  

But there are equally negative currents among Croat and Bosniak nationalist leaders. There is an enduring Croat movement for a “third entity”, and Bosniak clerical-nationalism - strongly supported by the Reis Mustafa efendija Ceric (head imam of Bosnia’s Muslim community) - has risen in strength in the last couple of years.  

The promised land

A vigorous gust in this stale political landscape in 2010 has been a new party among the Bosniaks, the Party for a Better Future (SBB), led by a flamboyant publisher and tycoon. Fahrudin Radoncic, who owns the Sarajevo daily newspaper Dnevni Avaz, had over the years promoted the interests of various parties and leaders (successively the SDA, the SDP, and in 2006 the candidacy of Haris Silajdzic); now he stepped into the frontline by launching the SBB and announcing that he would run as a candidate for the state-level presidency.

The time seemed right for Radoncic to enter Bosnian politics on his own account, as Silajdzic’s charisma had dwindled and Bosniaks were struggling through ever more desolate times. Radoncic, whose glamorous Avaz Twist Tower - the tallest building in Sarajevo - was built with public “development” funds (allocated to him by the corrupt director of the Federation’s development bank), presented himself as a dynamic force that would lead Bosnia out of stagnation.  

The reaction, allowing for the fact that “better future” is the most platitudinous slogan in Bosnian political discourse, was startling: tens of thousands of people, including a good number of public figures, rushed to support Radoncic’s campaign, with Reis Ceric - who has long behaved more like a politician than a holy man - the most prominent.  

In fact, the dominance of the profit motive over ethnic rivalry in Bosnian politics is nowhere more clear than in the case of Fahrudin Radoncic - for this would-be representative of the Bosniaks once collaborated financially with the Serbian businessman Miroslav Miskovic, who was one of Slobodan Milosevic’s financiers during the wars of the 1990s.

Muhamed Ibrahimbegovic, one of the SBB’s top candidates, hinted at his leader’s less than principled stance by saying late in the campaign that Radoncic could be a “leader like Dodik”, that Radoncic and Dodik could lead Bosnia out of crisis together, and that the RS - from whose territory a million Bosniak and Croat residents were expelled during the war - was a “beautiful entity”.  

In the event, Ibrahimbegovic’s intervention may have done Radoncic more harm than good. Milorad Dodik was re-elected president of the Republika Srpska, and Bakir Izetbegovic defeated Silajdzic and Radoncic to become the Bosniak member of the state-level presidency. But although Silajdzic lost heavily, Radoncic’s close second place behind Izetbegovic shows that his conservative-nationalist projection of Bosniak power has strong popular appeal.  

The long haul

The biggest change in the legislative elections was the strong performance of the SDP, which won the greatest number of votes across the Federation. In addition, its candidate won the Croat position in the state-level presidency. Zeljko Komsic, a Bosnian Croat, ran on a non-nationalist platform and won most of his votes from liberal Bosniak SDP members. Yet the SDP - overwhelmingly Bosniak in membership and involved in some corruption scandals of its own - does not promise genuine renewal of Bosnian politics. The party has long held the position of entrenched opposition and has not had the chance to prove its leadership capabilities. The SDP’s victory, on one hand, represents a move away from nationalism on the part of many Bosniaks. To an equal degree it is also the result of a voter rebellion against the incumbent SDA.

The dominant Croat nationalist parties were outvoted at both national and entity levels, leading Dragan Covic to revive calls for a third entity containing a majority of Croats. For his part, Dodik will continue to press for secession and will flirt with Croat leaders in order to promote discord in the Federation. In short, these results mean that the prospect for the post-election period is manoeuvring among parties to form governing coalitions at all levels. The most probable combinations will give primacy to Dodik’s SNSD in the RS, and a coalition between the Bosniak nationalist SDA and the Social Democrats in the Federation.  

The only way to halt the syndrome of dramatic campaigns and fruitless elections is constitutional reform. True, international officials regularly call for such reform, but they also exert little real pressure to bring it about. The European Union, with serious problems of its own, has been unable to deal with Bosnia in a coordinated and robust fashion; and the United States (a brief post-election visit by Hillary Clinton notwithstanding) remains effectively detached from the country’s problems.  

In these circumstances, the only source of pressure for political change in Bosnia-Herzegovina is from below. Yet at present, the grassroots movement is anaemic. In the absence of dramatic and unexpected developments, the changes that Bosnia needs is still years - if not decades - away.

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