Bosnia Is Teetering on the Precipice of a Political Crisis

Should the United States be trying to stop it?

A demonstrator waves a Bosnian flag as police stand guard while protesters gather in front of a local government building in Tuzla in February 2014. (Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator waves a Bosnian flag as police stand guard while protesters gather in front of a local government building in Tuzla in February 2014. (Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images)

More than two decades after Bosnia and Herzegovina gained its independence following the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia, the government there is facing yet another looming political crisis, and the West appears to be doing little to stop it.

At issue is an electoral law impasse that’s a symptom of a weak constitution that was never meant to govern a country for a significant period of time, with political power brokers who have no incentive to resolve the crisis and four foreign countries clamoring for influence.

In 1995, the Dayton Accords put a stop to the three-and-a-half-year war in the Balkans, and Bosnia still uses Annex 4 of the accords as its constitution.

Under that constitution, all places at all levels of government are allocated by affiliation to one of three groups: Croat, Bosniak, or Serb. The country, since the end of the war in Bosnia, has been divided into two federal entities. One is the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, populated primarily by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. The other is Republika Srpska, whose president is currently Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik, a onetime Western darling now flirting with secession.

Political crises aren’t new in the Balkans, but a new version of an old crisis is now crystallizing. In 2016, with some Croats advocating for a third, Croat-dominated entity to accompany Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bozo Ljubic, a Croat politician, brought forward a complaint.

Previously, the House of Peoples was made up of delegates reflecting the proportion of the main ethnic groups living in different cantons, with at least one delegate from each ethnic group. Ljubic complained that this violated Dayton because appointing Croats from majority Bosniak cantons distorted Croats’ rights to legitimate representation.

In December 2016, the Constitutional Court agreed with him, annulling several parts of its election law and called for a new one.

Passing a new law in time for general elections — for the tripartite presidency and the House of Representatives — isn’t that easy. Some Bosnian Croats and Croatians in Croatia want the law amended so that Bosniaks cannot elect Croat representatives. Numerically dominant Bosniaks, they argue, should not be allowed to elect their own and Croats’ member of the tripartite presidency.

“We are facing this year new elections that are in danger of not being implemented as this electoral law — there’s no deal between the three parties to change this electoral law,” warns Zeljana Zovko, who was a foreign affairs advisor for the chairman of the Council of Ministers of Bosnia and Herzegovina and is now a member of the European Parliament from Croatia.

Others say, however, that such language is a political power grab by some Bosnian Croats — specifically, the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Croats’ largest political party, better known as the HDZ.

The proposed electoral law is “almost exclusively the product of HDZ talking points,” argues Jasmin Mujanovic, a political scientist and author of Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans.

“It has very little to do with ethnicity or nationalism,” he says. “It’s the continuous attempt of the HDZ to carve out a de facto one-party state in the regions where it’s done very well electorally.”

Mujanovic adds that HDZ-supported electoral law would immediately be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights.

Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European history and politics at the University of Graz in Austria, says the HDZ, in addition to securing its voting bloc, is trying to mobilize its voters. “It serves, even if HDZ doesn’t have way with election law, as a way to mobilize troops and get support,” he says.

The electoral law is part of a low-grade political crisis created and perpetuated by several larger issues in Bosnia, including the failure to develop a new constitution.

“What Bosnia needs is a constitution,” Bieber says. “They’ve been operating with Dayton as a constitution for more than 20 years.”

The Dayton Accords were meant to end a war by placating warring ethno-nationalist leaders, but Annex 4 has been used to govern Bosnia for more than two decades. “Dayton is a great way to end a war but a lousy way to organize a state,” one former senior U.S. official agrees.

Yet supporting Dayton remains the pillar of U.S. policy toward the region.

“U.S. Government policy remains dedicated to supporting the people of [Bosnia] in upholding the Dayton Peace Accords, maintaining the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and promoting continued European integration,” wrote a State Department official in response to questions.

The State official also noted that any electoral law could not conflict with the Dayton Accords.

The resistance toward changing Dayton doesn’t just come from an international order; the country’s power brokers and political leaders, experts say, do not want to change the system because they stand to gain from furthering ethno-national divisions.

“There are too many people benefiting from the system as it is,” Eric Gordy, a professor at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, says.

The EU was misguided in its belief that “the carrot of European integration was sufficient for local power brokers to give up patronage networks,” says one Western diplomat in the Balkans, who spoke to FP on the condition of anonymity. “The system that lets them maintain power is an ethno-national system.”

Dodik is one such power broker. In the past two years under his rule, Republika Srpska brought in thousands of rifles, and there are currently 78 Russian-allied nationalist organizations in the region.

“I’m not at all convinced that Dodik in the next year won’t try basically to pull off a Transnistria scenario,” Mujanovic says, referring to the Russian-backed breakaway region of Moldova. Bieber says he sees Dodik’s strategy not as secession but as a way to “gradually have the state wither away.” He continues: “At the end of the day, it’s a very fragile house of cards, and it just requires a little breath of air, and it will collapse on itself.”

While Washington and Brussels take a back seat to the brewing crisis, Belgrade and Zagreb both have dogs in this fight, and Moscow and Ankara are growing increasingly influential. “Russia has been very, very active in the country, in Republika Srpska,” says Valentino Grbavac, an associate at the Institute for Social and Political Research in Mostar, Bosnia. “They own all of the oil and gas industry, they do retraining with police force — they have really vested interest.”

Nor is Russia the only outside power interested in meddling. “You have Turkey doing similar things [in the Federation] with the Bosniaks, helping political candidates, funding them,” Grbavac says.

It isn’t the threat of war that scares people but rather the idea that a low-grade conflict will break out. “I don’t think that what’s around the corner is war,” Mujanovic says, offering that what he sees coming is a “very significant degree of instability that may feature low-intensity conflict.”

While some are wary that the United States should get involved, others see it as the one country — with its history in Bosnia, role in creating the Dayton Accords, and trust from the Bosnian population — that might be able to mitigate the conflict.

“With sufficient Western attention, the political stalemate in Bosnia could be managed to avoid a full-blown crisis,” the former senior U.S. official says. “It’s a discrete issue that is not necessarily solvable, but it is manageable.”

Mujanovic points out that the sanctioning of Dodik in January 2017 in the last days of President Barack Obama’s administration, which was otherwise largely absent from the Balkans, “made a huge, huge difference.”

“The price point for stabilizing this country — recommitting to [a] substantive project of democratization, reform — that price point is actually still remarkably low,” he says. But “that price point is evaporating very quickly.”

Yet it’s unlikely that the United States under President Donald Trump, which is focused on hot spots such as North Korea and Iran, is going to get more involved in Bosnia or the Balkans anytime soon.

Bieber acknowledges that the United States has leverage and credibility in the country but says it has been a weak actor in the region. Obama was largely absent, and with the Trump administration, “even that kind of support is unclear.”

Nor will there necessarily be senior State Department staffers in place to support Bosnia in potentially pivotal 2018 elections. Hoyt Yee, the widely renowned deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, who was responsible for Central and South Central Europe, recently left that position.

That leaves Bosnia where it has been: in a state of political paralysis, as the country’s political problems both continue and worsen, and without the attention of much of the Western world.

The Balkans, the former senior U.S. official says, “fell off the map during the Obama administration, and it’s still off the map.”

FP’s Dan De Luce contributed to this report.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola