Digging another metre deeper in Bosnia and Herzegovina


Democratic values and principles have been under fire in Bosnia and Herzegovina for years, from within and without, a battle between ethnocracy and democracy is being waged in the country at the expense of its citizens. While grim-eyed ethno-oligarchs strive to both increase and future-proof their power, hundreds of thousands of Bosnians have left their country, and a future that appears devoid of prospects. The EU’s role as mediator remains problematic.

Nationalism kills

Bosnia and Herzegovina are in the midst of the worst crisis the country has faced since the end of the war. On so many levels and in so many areas. For what feels like at least a decade now, whenever you get the feeling that it couldn’t get any worse – that the downward plunge must surely have hit bottom and there has to be a turning point just ahead, “we dig the hole we’re in another metre deeper”, as a colleague laconically put it. But it is not just a pit undermining democratic principles, not just a crater into which state structures threaten to sink, not only a trench dug to keep out supposedly “other” ethnic groups: there is digging going on wherever you look, an unflagging abundance of digging. Democratic values and principles have been under fire from within and without for years in Bosnia and Herzegovina, a battle between ethnocracy and democracy being waged at the expense of the citizens. While grim-eyed ethno-oligarchs strive to increase and future-proof their power, people from all parts of the country travel to the border with Croatia, weekend after weekend, queue for hours on their way to democracy and the EU. According to the Union for Sustainable Return and Integration, 170,000 Bosnians left the country in 2021 alone, the second year of corona.


One person – one vote: not in Bosnia and Herzegovina

In mid-March, Bosnian citizen Azra Zornić wrote an irate open letter (not her first) to the international mediators dispatched to her country to deliver an electoral and constitutional reform, come what may. She, and many others with her, probably let out a sigh of relief three days later on hearing that the negotiations mediated by the EU’s Angelina Eichhorst had broken down, for the nth – and this time the final – time.

Azra Zornić is one of six appellants who have taken Bosnia and Herzegovina before the European Court of Human Rights and won their suits. Thus far, the Court has ruled five times that the Bosnian Constitution discriminates against those of the country’s citizens who, like Ms Zornić, declare themselves to be just that, citizens, or who belong to the group of the “others” – in other words, that it discriminates against all of those who either do not (want to) identify themselves as belonging to any of the three “constituent peoples” or who, simply because they live in the “wrong” entity, are ineligible for election as a member of the Presidency or to the House of Peoples. In a 2014 judgement, the Court in Strasbourg explicitly stated that the time had come for a political system that provided every citizen with the right to stand for election without granting special rights for constituent peoples to the exclusion of minorities or citizens. 2021 was supposed to be the year that an electoral and constitutional reform would finally materialise. Or so said the international players involved, at any rate. And thus the negotiators made several trips to Sarajevo: Angelina Eichhorst of the EU’s External Action Service and Matthew Palmer, a special envoy designated by the U.S. administration specifically for electoral reform in Bosnia. The Bosnian Croat party HDZ and the Bosniak party SDA were called in, other parties were added to the circle, negotiations went on behind closed doors. The mediators, after making it clear that they were only there to mediate and not to make proposals of their own, nonetheless laid all sorts of ideas and documents on the table – while neglecting to lay them before the public. This, though they decided not to take up into the negotiations a number of proposals from political parties, including proposals that had already been introduced in Parliament – because these proposals were deemed as “unrealistic”. The liberal party “Naša Stranka”, for example, had drafted a constitutional amendment which would have replaced the current tripartite Presidency with one president and completely done away with the House of the People, the second chamber of Parliament, and with other mechanisms whose purpose is to safeguard “vital interests of the nations”.

By contrast, there appeared to be more understanding at the EU-US led negotiations for the concerns of the nationalistic HDZ and its long-recited mantra that, as far as possible, only Croats should be allowed to vote for Croat representatives in elections to the presidency and House of the Peoples – i.e. for an approach that would have further deepened division along ethno-territorial lines, resulting in more ethnocracy rather than genuine democracy. The establishment of additional election districts drawn along ethno-territorial borders was discussed, next the idea of only “virtual” or gliding election districts, and then suddenly there was talk of electors combined with very unequal weighting of votes – depending on where a voter lived and for whom they voted, their vote could have up to 13 times more weight than that of someone a few kilometres away. The Bosnian HDZ enjoyed backing from within the EU itself: Croatia lobbied at all levels and every opportunity for election reform as envisaged by the HDZ. Just one day after the Russian invasion, Croatia’s President Zoran Milanović announced that while he sympathised with Ukraine, it was imperative that electoral reform in Bosnia and Herzegovina not be forgotten, it being a matter of “vital interest” for Croatia.

The citizens are more democratic than the politicians or the EU mediators

While ethno-nationalist groups were striving to increase and entrench their power at the negotiations, numerous civil society initiatives, both older and newer, stepped forward to demand that that democratic principles and values should finally be resected in their state. “Izmjeneustava”, for instance, gathered more than 63 000 signatures for a petition making this demand, and Pod Lupom presented 92 000 signatures in support of the use of new technologies to help prevent election fraud. In order to engage citizens in the reform process, the EU organised and funded a “Citizens’ Assembly”. Announcing with great fanfare that the voices of citizens were of enormous importance for these reform efforts, their organisers pledged to ensure that citizens would be heard and their views taken seriously. In March, during the last days of the negotiations, Eichhorst presented the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations for the new system of government: the presidency should be made up of four persons elected by Parliament (rather than three directly elected members), and the Houses of the Peoples at the state and federation levels and the Council of the Peoples in RS should be eliminated. These proposals did not appear on the negotiation agenda, however. Instead, the fruitless discussion there about electors, vote weighting and the make-up of the Houses of the Peoples continued. Azra Zornić wants reform too, as do many others, but not reform at any price and certainly not just a deal, any deal, however bad it may be. The citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina are way ahead, far more democratic that many of their politicians and the US-EU mediators.

Attacks on state structures aimed at destroying the State of Bosnia and Herzegovina

While the electoral and constitutional reform efforts were underway, Serbian MPs blocked all work in Parliament, and set to work destroying state structures. Germany’s nomination of Christian Schmidt to take over as High Representative met with opposition in Republika Srpska (RS), supported by Serbia and Russia. Their narrative was that Schmidt had not been confirmed by the UN Security Council (Russia made sure of that) and thus had not formally taken office, meaning that he was merely a tourist. The outgoing HR, Valentin Inzko, had enacted legislation amending the criminal code that criminalised the denial of genocide or war crimes and the glorification of condemned war criminals, whereupon the RS representatives announced a boycott of state institutions, and Serbian delegates stopped taking part in parliamentary sessions, making it impossible for Parliament to get anything done. Although Inzko is often blamed as the instigator of the crisis, and the amendment cited as its cause, they simply provided a convenient “hook” on which to hang it.

Milorad Dodik and his SNSD party, the ruling party in RS, and the consolidation of their power is what this is really about. That, and their opposition to a ruling of the Bosnian Constitutional Court confirming that public land is owned by the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina rather than by the entities. The RS has borrowed huge sums, including via bonds issued on the stock exchanges in London and Vienna, and in this ruling the Court determined that the RS does not have the authority to dispose of woodland, meadows, rivers and lakes as it pleases, i.e. to make them available to the investors it so urgently needs. Though Dodik has made threats about secession, that the RS would hold a referenda or just declare independence, many times over the years, this time a red line had been definitively crossed. In October, the RS parliament declared that the BiH medicines agency no longer had authority to act in the RS and passed legislation establishing a separate agency at the entity level. At the same time, Dodik announced that the RS intended to establish its own army, judicial council and value added tax system outside of the existing structures at the state level. The RS parliament formally confirmed this intention on 10 December. The OHR, whose powers would allow it to intervene and, for instance, to declare the legislation invalid, announced that it was “concerned”. High Representative Christian Schmidt first announced that the extensive “Bonn powers, which he is authorised to wield, were best left in a drawer, unused; he later indicated that he might be willing to open the drawer. While the calls for sanctions against Dodik grew louder, and the USA, at least, toughened its sanctions against him, it was alleged that Oliver Varhelyi , EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, had made a deal with Dodik that there would be a six month moratorium before any laws setting up parallel structures would go into effect. In early February, the RS parliament discussed legislation that would establish a separate judicial council and withdraw recognition of the existing state-level body.

The destruction of Bosnian state structures is still going on, though, as the RS continues, with Russian backing, to hack its way out of them. Dodik maintains direct contact with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. Inside Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dodik can count on support from Cović: Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb ethno-oligarchs united in their desire for a dysfunctional state. There are signs of a rapid deterioration in the situation in the Western Balkan region as a whole as well: in addition to the escalating political crisis inside Bosnia, the impacts of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine are affecting the entire region. The issue of Russia’s influence in the region is now front and centre, and this is an issue that is not going to just go away. Primarily responsible for its current immediacy is the tradition of alliance between Serbia and Russia: Serbia has been increasingly open in recent years in touting the idea of establishing a state incorporating the entire “Serbian world” and claiming for itself the role of protecting all Serbians everywhere. This implies a challenge to the integrity of neighbouring states with a Serb minority, i.e. BiH, Montenegro and Kosovo. Russia’s rationale for the invasion of Ukraine rests on the same logic. If the EU und USA cannot bring themselves to take more decisive action, or rather, if they continue to lend support to nationalistic forces through their behaviour in negotiations instead of supporting progressive political and civil society organisations and deliberately strengthening state institutions (e.g. Parliament, central election commission), there is a risk of further radicalisation and destruction of state institutions and their complete paralysation.

Citizens left to their own devices amidst rising prices and a bleak political situation

There can be no doubt that Russia’s war on Ukraine is affecting the political situation and daily life in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The situation before the war was already grim though. For instance, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic revealed just how dilapidated the healthcare system had become, if it wasn’t apparent already, as well as the alarming degree of dysfunctionality of the many levels of government, the lack of clarity as to who was responsible for what: citizens were left to face the pandemic on their own. Tens of thousands of them crossed the border to have themselves vaccinated in Serbia, while Bosnian politicians spent months claiming someone else was responsible for ordering vaccines. Soup kitchens, all funded through charitable donations, were already warning about a surge in visitors last year; there was even a soup kitchen opened specifically for infants. Since the war against Ukraine began, energy and food prices have been rising every day, and the soup kitchens are overwhelmed. The numbers of people who pack their bags and emigrate to the EU have been on the rise for years. The list of tasks that the state, the public administration, is supposed to fulfil but does not could go on. Usually, it is citizens, organisations that step in to attempt to fill in the gaps. This struggle, which feels ever-present, is exhausting and debilitating. And yet there is still resistance, above all when it comes to preventing the destruction of nature, the environment, often right outside one’s own home. There are many groups and activists, a number of local and regional networks have been formed recently, above all in the battle against mini-hydropower plants, and they have had many successes.

Europe must defend its values in Bosnia and Herzegovina too

Weakened by decades of partisan appointments, corruption and abuse of power or rendered dysfunctional by a political blockade, Bosnia’s ailing institutions, above all in the justice system, are either unwilling or unable to cope with this, the worst political crisis since the end of the war. Despite calls for the EU to impose sanctions, notably from a number of members of the European Parliament, the EU has only managed to agree on suspending funding for certain programmes in the RS thus far. At least the international EUFOR protection force in the country has been strengthened, by raising the number of troops from 600 to 1100.

Several MEPs have made critical statements as have some individual members states, and there has been some reporting in international media: this (particularly the engagement by MEPS) is perceived in progressive, civic-minded circles as very positive and supportive. It is probably responsible for some of the “course corrections” that have been made and has contributed to a (more) open discussion and sometimes encouraged other stakeholders to react.

In view of the geopolitical developments and the decades-long escalation of the situation in BiH, with the continuing erosion and destruction of state structures and common perspectives, it is high time for unambiguous and resolute action in support of democratic values, against further ethno-nationalistic tendencies and territorial division. Everything possible should be done to stem these divisive efforts. European, democratic values must be defended here, just as they are being defended in Ukraine. Since February 2022, since the “watershed moment”, it ought to have been clear that a policy of appeasement towards nationalists and autocrats is and always will be the wrong approach.