Breaking through the blockade: An ethnic straitjacket paralyzes the democratization of Bosnia-Herzegovina

For the foreseeable future, the political culture in Bosnia and Herzegovina will remain authoritarian. Large sections of the society striving still to ethno-national mapping and security.

After the Dayton Agreement in 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina received significant support from the international community, which sent stabilization troops to secure the fragile peace and established the Office of the High Representative, which was to oversee civic affairs and was given extensive powers for this. A lot of money was made available to rebuild the country. The UN and many nations offered consulting as well as assistance through their aid and development organizations.

Twenty years later interest has dwindled. The smoldering conflict is frustrating and the unwillingness of Bosnia’s elite to reform, exasperating. There is no sign of development, and instead of rapprochement there are old and new forms of mistrust. The population is suffering and losing hope that things will change for the better. More and more frequently the talk is not merely about crisis; many already regard Bosnia as a “failed state.”

The roots of these problems were already evident in the Dayton Agreement. The Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina (laid out in Annex 4) established a construct that enables nationalist groups to block legislation and prevents the emergence of a democratic and multiethnic society. The country was divided into two “entities”: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, inhabited primarily by Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks, and the Serbian Republic for the majority of Bosnian Serbs. These two entities have extensive autonomy, each with a prime minister and sixteen ministries. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in turn, is divided into ten cantons, which are also organized according to ethnic proportionality. The over-arching central state of Bosnia-Herzegovina also has a joint government and a joint parliament, but with only limited power.

Identity politics

The three “constituent peoples” have access to posts and positions according to an ethnic quota system and have significant veto power for any political decision deemed contrary to the vital national interest of the respective community. This provokes blocked legislation and makes compromises difficult. Thus the short-term interests of political parties or ethnicities determine policies, while a shared notion about the development of the country has not yet developed.

The consequence of the prevailing identity politics is that the system does not incorporate and represent different socioeconomic interests. It also fails to react to developing social needs, but instead maintains the dominance of political elites, who have also been able to establish themselves comfortably in economic terms. Such a system reinforces political patronage, gives rise to a mushrooming, ineffective bureaucracy, obstructs self-sustaining economic growth, encourages endemic corruption, and leads to the squandering of public funds. Conversely, it impedes rapprochement across (ethnic) borders and makes moderate politicians look weak. The system has proved resistant even where changes to facilitate the desired entry into the EU are urgently needed. Already in 2003, Bosnia and Herzegovina was recognized as a potential applicant country for EU accession. In 2009, however, two citizens of the country—Jacob Finci, a Bosnian Jew, and Dervo Sejdic, a Bosnian Roma—successfully appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), arguing that because they did not belong to any of the three “constituent peoples,” they were unable—as “others”—to run for a position in the tripartite state presidency or in the second chamber of the joint parliament (the House of Peoples). The constitutional reform urged by the European Union in response has yet to be adopted. It is an ominous sign that on June 1, 2015, the EU nevertheless implemented the Stabilization and Association Accord (SAA) already signed in 2008 and was satisfied with a vague declaration of intention regarding “reforms.” “The governing elite have successfully resisted every major change,” complains Mirela Grünther-Đečević, former director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s office in Sarajevo. “If the international community is not prepared to become more involved in Bosnia and Herzegovina and if the most important actor—the EU—does not have a consistent strategy and course of action, politicians in the country will not be forced to make changes.”

The Heinrich Böll Foundation has frequently addressed the role of the international community in very concrete terms—with sound information and political analyses—and has outlined the weaknesses and proposed alternatives. The central goal here has been to establish a critical public dialogue and a direct relationship between international players and the organized citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina. While they have consulted with select organizations to evaluate the situation in the country, the truly important decisions are made far removed from civil society and the public.

In the EU integration process, the EU has supported civil society, but has regarded it more as a “service provider” and failed to include it sufficiently in the political debates and negotiations. In order to stimulate the paralyzed EU integration process “from below” and shake up this relationship, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has supported the Initiative for Monitoring the EU Integration Process from the outset. The thirty-one organizations of the initiative have worked together to develop alternative reports to the official EU progress evaluations. In this way members of the initiative have become important contacts—for the Members of the European Parliament and EU politicians as well as for the local media.

Governance in Bosnia-Herzegovina is fundamentally opaque, regardless of political orientation; the most important decisions are made beyond the realm of procedures and formal institutions that are at least partially accessible to the public. For years the Heinrich Böll Foundation has supported various forms of civic engagement in order to incorporate citizens into decision-making processes. This engagement has focused on participation in decisions on environmental issues. The goal has been to inform the local population and responsible authorities about environmental protection and the principles of sustainable development or to increase their knowledge in these matters. More recently, the significance of public assets and public space has also been addressed. Thus initiatives for sustained urban development were established in Banja Luka and in Sarajevo, the first of their kind in the country. The Center for Environment in Banja Luka is also active outside the city as a competency center for issues concerning citizen participation in approving spatial planning documents.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation wants to promote intervention as a constructive alternative. One particularly important dimension of this is making citizens aware of their rights and how to exercise them. Only then can they demand accountability and effect changes, and only then can the general rancor toward the government and politicians be channeled in constructive directions. Especially important in this regard are young people, who suffer most from the general lack of prospects and political apathy and are therefore drawn to radical authoritarian and violent “solutions.”

At the same time, civil activists are trained in media competency and public relations to be able to carve out space in the media—against the significantly more appealing lowbrow competition—and attract public interest. This is possible only through creative forms of collaboration with the media and the development of independent programs. Thus together with its project partners the Heinrich Böll Foundation has conceived radio and television shows that address marginalized issues and succeed through information and expertise.

Recently established initiatives show that the foundation’s long years of intensive work have not been a fight against windmills. The Initiative for Free Declaration has successfully protested against phrasing used in the 2013 census that did not leave adequate space for civic (as opposed to ethnic) self-identification. The citizens’ initiative The Park is Ours was formed in response to a corruption affair in Banja Luka. This group, which seeks to protect public assets from corrupt investments, brought thousands of “šetači” (“walkers,” or demonstrators) onto the street for months. In recent years, civil society has been increasingly able to exercise its watchdog role.

The political culture of Bosnia-Herzegovina will remain authoritarian and collectivist for the foreseeable future. Despite the fact that much of the population mistrusts politicians, political parties, and institutions, they still seek security in ethnic and national categories. This will change only gradually. The many initiatives show that it is possible for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina to break away from this and choose a different orientation. As the EU expands its borders to include more and more of Europe, it cannot lower its standards of assessment, but instead must demand that they be maintained.

Few women in politics

Matters are similar regarding women in politics. The percentage of active female politicians, which was low to begin with, has been sinking even lower. A quota of thirty percent, required for all legislative bodies in Bosnia-Herzegovina as of 1998, initially ensured a significant increase in the number of women in parliament. However, proportional representation with open lists, introduced in 2000, subsequently undermined the effectiveness of women’s quotas since voters now influence who gains a seat in parliament. And the electorate wants, first and foremost, to have men in office.

Through continuing education, campaigns, and workshops, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has sought to support committed women from NGOs and political parties. This has occurred in collaboration with INFOHOUSE, the CURE Foundation, and additional partners. Since 2011, 470 women from sixteen political parties, twenty NGOs, and fifteen cities have participated in these activities. Women and NGOs outside the capital city have been particular target groups, as they have fewer opportunities to participate in this kind of project.
Although much has changed for women, things have remained largely the same in terms of gender politics. In the local elections of 2012, twenty-nine women ran as candidates, but only five women were named mayors or municipal leaders. In the national elections in 2014, the legal gender quota—raised again in 2013 to 40 percent—was observed, so that 42 percent of the candidates on the election lists were women, but only nine were elected to the forty-two member joint parliament. In response, the Heinrich Böll Foundation supported a program to educate men from all twelve parliamentary parties—the first of its kind in the country. The program aimed at strengthening the position of women in the social and political domains. And that means, first of all, voting for them.

Being different with equal rights

In an already conservative society that is now marked by war, divided into ethnic identities, and economically stagnated, it takes courage to be openly homosexual and to demand equality. A majority of the population despises gays and lesbians and regards them as “abnormal” and “sick.” This discriminatory attitude is reinforced by the traditional ties between the nationalist political elite and their respective religious communities. Nevertheless there are also people in Bosnia-Herzegovina who dare to speak up and let their fellow citizens know that respect for those who are different is also a part of democracy.

Consequently, the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Bosnia-Herzegovina office has initiated, together with partner organizations Open Center and the CURE Foundation, a project that raises awareness to LGBT issues and fights homophobia. The project Coming Out! Advocating Promotion and Protection of LGBT Rights, was started in 2013 and is financed by the EU. It has been aimed not only at civil servants, but also at journalists and representatives of civil society. The common goal of the diverse actions has been to raise awareness about the needs and concerns of the LGBT community and to increase the visibility of the community as a whole, so that authorities proactively support equal treatment. Approximately 1,000 police officers in Sarajevo were sensitized to the problems of LGBT people as part of their training; several officers who were demonstratively uninterested in the issue at the beginning of the training sessions had completely changed their attitudes by the end of the course.


Dieser Beitrag ist Teil unseres Dossiers "Für Demokratie - Vom Engagement der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in der Welt".