Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Bosnia’s Peace Envoy Is Caught in a Political Tug of War

Constitutional changes orchestrated by German diplomat Christian Schmidt have led to stalemate, but he won’t compromise.

German politician Christian Schmidt looks on as he officially takes office as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Aug. 2, 2021.
German politician Christian Schmidt looks on as he officially takes office as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Aug. 2, 2021.
German politician Christian Schmidt looks on as he officially takes office as the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Aug. 2, 2021. ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Christian Schmidt, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, has ruffled feathers in the country with his erratic approach to the role, which is generally regarded as an impartial one. He has reacted angrily to journalists, invoked Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I—who annexed Bosnia in 1908—in an interview, and even insisted that Bosnians have welcomed him “like a pop star” along the way.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina—Christian Schmidt, the high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, has ruffled feathers in the country with his erratic approach to the role, which is generally regarded as an impartial one. He has reacted angrily to journalists, invoked Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I—who annexed Bosnia in 1908—in an interview, and even insisted that Bosnians have welcomed him “like a pop star” along the way.

Schmidt hasn’t shied away from intervening in the country’s politics, either. Minutes after polls closed in Bosnia’s general elections last October, Schmidt abruptly imposed changes to constitutional and electoral laws in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of two political entities within the country—an unprecedented move. Bosnia’s Constitutional Court has postponed its decision on the legality of the changes, meaning they will remain in effect for the moment.

Schmidt’s critics say these changes empower divisive nationalist forces in Bosnia. This month, German media reported that a group of former diplomats and experts had sent a letter to the German parliament calling for Schmidt’s dismissal, accusing him of protecting those “working to undermine and destroy the state.” Senior German officials, including a former chief of staff to the high representative, were reportedly among the signatories. In an interview with Foreign Policy last November, Schmidt said the amendments were necessary to make the Bosnian state more functional. “My intention was to deblock the state,” he said.


Schmidt was appointed as high representative in August 2021 after a long career in German politics. (He had limited experience with the Balkans, serving as a long-term deputy defense minister and later a cabinet minister for food and agriculture.) Always held by a foreign administrator, the position carries significant power but little formal responsibility. The envoy is considered the guardian of the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the Bosnian War, and can remove public officials or adopt binding decisions when local stakeholders seem unwilling to act.

The Dayton Accords established a complicated governance structure in Bosnia. The country has three presidents representing Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs, respectively. Its parliament consists of two houses, one with directly elected members and one with members appointed by legislators from each political entity: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, comprising mostly Bosniaks and Croats, and Republika Srpska, comprising mostly Serbs. Each of the political entities also has its own president and vice presidents.

The amendments Schmidt announced last year will increase the number of seats for each political entity’s legislative caucus in the House of Peoples, from 17 to 23. It will also increase the threshold for nomination for the president and vice presidents for the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 35 percent for each ethnic caucus to nearly 48 percent—in line with long-standing demands from Croats. This change makes it more difficult to form a government in the federation without the support of the Croats, according to critics. A few months after the national election, the process has reached a stalemate.

In recent years, Bosnia has grappled with separatism in Republika Srpska and political interference from neighboring Croatia. Some of Schmidt’s critics accuse him of bending to the interests of outsiders, especially in Croatia. A senior European diplomat told Foreign Policy that Schmidt’s close relationship with the country is an open secret in Sarajevo. His political party, the center-right Christian Social Union, has long been associated with Croatia’s ruling party; both are members of the same party in the European Parliament. In 2020, Schmidt received the Order of Ante Starcevic, one of Croatia’s highest honors.

The senior diplomat said the amendments introduced by Schmidt could undermine Bosnia’s democracy. “In Bosnia, many favor their own clans. But to formalize it and write it in stone is painful, especially for those who still believe in Bosnia as one state and wish to see it as a normal European civic democracy,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “This decision was made against democratic values and will be detrimental in the future.”

Opponents also point out that Schmidt’s approach contrasts with that of those who seek a more centrally governed Bosnia that aligns itself with the European Union. “For many people, Schmidt is a personification of arrogance,” said Hamza Karcic, an associate professor at the University of Sarajevo. “Many feel that we have a person who is doing everything against the basic idea of his job, which should be pushing for state structures and weakening ethnic-based politics.”

However, Schmidt denied that last year’s amendments advantage the Croats, insisting the move was necessary to prevent parties from blocking reform and even the functioning of the state. “Parties in Bosnia have turned into monolithic structures defending national or ethnic interests,” he told Foreign Policy. “Someone said to me, ‘We are not one country. We are three one-party states.’ There’s a lot of truth in it.”

Schmidt laid the blame for Bosnia’s infighting with the political elite. “I haven’t experienced a country where the split between political class and ordinary people is so huge,” he said. “What’s been going on in Bosnia is the responsibility of these grown-up people, political people. … We [the international community] won’t be the nation-builders.”

Schmidt’s self-described “pragmatic” policy is in line with the long-standing approach of Western governments, including the United States and the United Kingdom, which have prioritized stability in Bosnia by seeking to balance the powers of the three ethnic communities. Both the United States and the United Kingdom applauded Schmidt’s changes last year. However, Bosnia’s divided leaders have struggled to agree on major reforms, including those that would bring the country’s legal system in line with the rest of Europe. Bosnia may face bleak prospects for joining the EU as a result, despite being awarded candidate status last year.

In the eyes of Schmidt’s critics, stability comes at the cost of satisfying the demands of Bosnia’s most powerful political players. “The stability policy is precisely what got us to the point we’re at now,” said political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic. “The result of this policy is that local elites are playing off against Western interests for their own benefits.” Those elites now include nationalist figures such as Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska; Dragan Covic, a Croat leader; and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. True stability will come from strengthening transparent institutions and the rule of law, Mujanovic added.

Some opponents fear that Schmidt’s divisive performance as high representative could sway Bosnians away from the West. “We must not equate the [Office of the High Representative] with Schmidt, who performs his duties poorly as a diplomat and as a right-wing politician,” said Irfan Cengic, a deputy to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s parliament, adding that the position remains essential in post-conflict Bosnia. Still, support for the EU within the country remains at a historic high: 92 percent of Bosniaks, 95 percent of Croats, and 64 percent of Serbs, according to a 2021 survey by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

For now, it’s clear that Schmidt does not pay much mind to his critics. He seems to have found his own formula for maneuvering within Bosnia. “A compromise here is seen as a sign of weakness,” he said. “You have to be 100 percent yes or no.”

This story was made possible by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s Reporting Democracy Travel & Reporting Programme. 

Dariusz Kalan is a Central Europe correspondent based in Warsaw. Twitter: @Dariusz_Kalan

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