Bosnia and Herzegovina
is facing its most serious crisis since the end of the armed conflict in 1995. Bosnian Croat parties are threatening to boycott the country’s institutions due to the Bosniak parties’ refusal to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court ruling. This ruling would require each of Bosnia’s three ‘constituent peoples’ - Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs - to be able to elect their own representatives without the interference of other constituent peoples.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is facing its most serious crisis since the end of the armed conflict in 1995. Bosnian Croat parties are threatening to boycott the country’s institutions due to the Bosniak parties’ refusal to implement a 2016 Constitutional Court ruling.
This ruling would require each of Bosnia’s three ‘constituent peoples’ (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs) to be able to elect their own representatives without the interference of other constituent peoples.
A boycott would affect the upcoming budgeting process, ultimately preventing its passage. As a consequence, state employees would not receive salaries, effectively stopping the state from functioning.
Without a budget, the 2022 general elections also cannot be held, pushing Bosnia and Herzegovina ever closer towards dissolution. This follows three years of political deadlock and acute tensions over a Bosnian Serb threat of secession.
A vicious and self-perpetuating spiral is erasing all sense of agency and hope for Bosnian citizens. International community interventions have kept Bosnia alive for 26 years since war ended in 1995, but at a cost.
These interventions have further widened the gaps among the three main nations, as it has become easier for politicians to refuse to compromise, counting on a deus ex machina in the form of the international community headed by the Office of the High Representative, the OHR.
The originally conceived minimalist institutions have been drastically expanded, overburdened by the OHR’s unilateral and unpopular impositions. There has been no real progress in rebuilding trust and cooperation. Relations between the three nations are arguably worse today than in 1991. Most Serbs and Croats do not wish to remain in such a state, while Bosniaks wish to stay, but do not want to share power. Further institutional erosion might lead to dissolution and the emergence of another Transnistria, or more than one, in the middle of Europe.
Equal on paper, not in practice
At the heart of the issue is a lack of political representation and the bloated administrative system, which unnecessarily frustrates all three sides and continually pits them against one another.
Originally, Serbs were considered the only constituent nation in the Republika Srpska, RS, and Bosniaks and Croats were the only constituent nations in the other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This meant that Serbs ruled the RS by themselves and that Bosniaks and Croats would share power in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2000, the Constitutional Court, in a contested five-to-four ruling – opposed by two Croat and two Serb judges, and supported by two Bosniak and three international judges – ruled that all three nations were constituent nations on the whole territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Bosnian government and parliament building in Sarajevo. Photo: EPA/FEHIM DEMIR
Federal Option Offers Bosnia Way Out of Quagmire
A state based on four units, none with an inbuilt ethnic character, offers Bosnia and
Hercegovina a route out of its current deadlock - and towards a new European future.
The Western City of Mostar. Photo: Aerial shot, CFI
Ultimately, the ruling was a turning point for the worse in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the refusal of local politicians to implement the ruling, the High Representative imposed sweeping constitutional amendments to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and RS constitutions in 2002.
The result is that all three nations became equal on paper, but the changes included ill- conceived cross-national voting mechanisms that opened a path for relative majorities in each canton or entity to elect both their own representatives and the representatives of the other two constituent nations.
Elements of these imposed decisions were, ironically, deemed unconstitutional in the Constitutional Court’s “Ljubic” ruling 14 years later, demonstrating that the OHR and the international community have often imposed decisions that cause more harm than good.
Because refugees did not return in large numbers to areas where they are in a minority, both entities have a strong majority. The RS population today is 82 per cent ethnic Serbs while the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina is 70 per cent Bosniak.
In all, eight out of ten cantons in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina have overwhelming majorities of Croats or Bosniaks.
Consequently, there is a lot of room for relative majorities to elect both their own representatives and the representatives of relative minorities. This means that, due to numerical advantages, even though Bosniaks and Croats are entitled to veto powers in the RS, the Serbian parties there can unilaterally elect the Bosniak and Croat representatives to the upper house of the RS parliament and government.
This practice is especially egregious in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where Croat parties fill some Serb positions, and Bosniak parties elect the majority of Serb and Other (national minorities such as Jews and Roma) representatives in the upper house – and enough Croat representatives to rule the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina without Croat parties.
Croat parties, which won over 85 per cent of the Croat vote in 2000 and 2010 were excluded from the government in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina following these elections. Some Bosniak politicians in Sarajevo even changed their national identification from Bosniak to Serb and Croat to fill in certain positions reserved for ethnic Serb and ethnic Croat representatives in 2021.
Being a majority is the only source of protection within this system. Electoral engineering continues to create political tensions, as these token representatives do not have actual power and are simply voting with the party that elected them. This means that Bosniak, Croat or Serb veto power is nonexistent in areas in which they are a minority, although by constitutional design they are guaranteed it at all levels in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The current political system also discriminates against the ‘others’, the 3.7 per cent of Bosnia’s population who do not identify as Bosniak, Croat or Serb. This includes national minorities such as Jews and Roma. ‘Others’ may not run for the three-member state presidency or the upper house, which represents the three constituent nations.
Five rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, ECHR, called for the end of this discrimination, but nothing has been done to rectify it as the current system of constituent nations prevents its implementation. Even worse, while Others have guaranteed seats in the entity’s upper houses, in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s House of Peoples, their seven seats are almost always occupied by Bosniak politicians who declare themselves Others for political reasons.
In the last 20 years, only one Roma and one Jew have been elected to the “Others Club” in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina House of Peoples. Other national minorities such as Albanians, Czechs, and Italians have never been elected even though these seats are reserved for their representation. The current system is unworkable and undemocratic.
Bosnia and Herzegovina must reform, as there is no way to make the current system viable with so many loopholes and with 13 governments, 149 ministers, nine presidents and VPs, and 613 MPs. There are too many layers of administration, which one of the poorest countries in Europe, with only an estimated population of only 2.6 million people, cannot afford.
A better system would give Bosnia real sovereignty
A better and easier blueprint would not only reduce the bloated administration by 75 per cent and save over $50 million per year in salaries but also implement all the ECHR rulings and remove current avenues for discrimination.
This alternative system is a territorial federation, without any national or ethnic quotas for political offices. Instead of a state with three constituent nations, Bosnia could become a federation of four federal units.
Fashioned after the domains of the four public electricity companies, there would be no need for national or ethnic quotas. Anyone could run for any office, regardless of nationality. Asthree of the units, with Bosniak, Croat, and Serb majorities, would be territorially discontinuous, the specter of separatism would deteriorate.
Further, moving the capital from Bosniak-dominated Sarajevo to the fourth unit, Brcko, the only major municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina in which all three peoples live in substantial numbers, would introduce true multinationalism to the national capital.
These federal units would share power at state level, as is the case in many federated states. It would open a path towards EU accession, which is currently stalled by the existence of various discriminatory electoral provisions and the presence of the High Representative, with powers to amend any legislation and remove democratically elected representatives from office.
Bosnia and Herzegovina could gain full sovereignty for the first time in its modern history and the High Representative could finally leave the country 26 years after the war ended.
Instead of a country with a complicated, bloated, and discriminatory political system, Bosnia could become a simple federal state made up of regions, like many other EU states including Austria, Belgium, or Germany.
As all three nations would retain power over the territories that they have effectively controlled since the end of the war, there would be no winners or losers – and the number of MPs, ministers and presidents could be reduced by 75 per cent from 771 to only 195.
The alternative to such a reform is a continuation of the political crisis, gridlock, frustration, escalating tensions and overspending on unnecessary bureaucrats and representatives. A simple federal state instead of a complicated system of ethnic and national quotas is a way out of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s quagmire and towards a more equitable political system.
Sarajevo. Photo: Aerial shot, CFI
Valentino Grbavac is a PhD candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on federalism, power-sharing and institutional design in divided societies.
Ivan Pepic is a PhD student in political science at the University of Geneva. His work focuses on electoral systems and power-sharing democracies in deeply divided societies.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of CFI.
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