New Politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s journey from the Dayton Peace Accords to sustainable democracy has rested on the notion that ethnic power-sharing and highly decentralized government would, over time, give way to more integrated forms of government and politics. Ethnic interests, though still primary, would cease to be the exclusive basis on which power is won and exercised. Other forms of association – environmental, business, labor, students and pensioners, etc. – transcending ethnicity would take their place in the political system.

The country’s two entities – the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is largely Bosniak and Croat, and the largely Serb Republika Srpska - would similarly diminish in importance as state-level government assumed more constitutional authority to govern the country as a whole and to move Bosnia-Herzegovina moved toward joining the European Union. Government would ease up on minutely crafted formulas of ethnic representation and become a “melting pot”, more reflective of a meritocracy, in which all citizens  – Bosniak, Croat, Serb or other – have a stake.

After the war ended in 1996, it seemed that this premise was taking hold. The Dayton Peace Accords stopped the war and gave Bosnia’s leaders the stability needed to build peace among the warring factions and bring the country together into a shared system of government. And indeed, leaders found their way to integrate defense, customs and other critical governance areas in the first few years after Dayton was signed. “Political recovery” from the war seemed to be in the offing. EU membership beckoned. But, in 2006, when diplomats pushed leaders to dial back on “vital national interest” vetoes that were being misused to hold further reform back, the deal fell through by two votes in parliament. 

From then on, political recrimination, not integration, has reigned as the country’s political currency. Politicians have staked their credentials on defending ethnic interests to the exclusion of the public interest, which, in poll after poll, including those by NDI, puts jobs, the economy, and corruption at the top of a reform agenda.

The human rights front is no less fraught. A 2009 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), mandating removal of electoral barriers to high office for citizens who do not profess to belong to one of the three main ethnic groups, has been put off for six years now – even though Brussels had conditioned progress toward EU membership on implementing the decision. Politicians whose parties inveigh against any hint of ethnic slight, real or imagined, feel no compunction in changing their own ethnic identity to land a coveted government post assigned to an ethnicity not originally theirs. And because jobs outside a bloated public sector are hard to come by, people see few options but to play the political patronage sweepstakes to secure employment. People have protested the dysfunction – and indeed came out in droves in widespread and violent demonstrations last year – but can’t get sufficient traction to spur change.

This situation, however, may be changing, as important signs of “new politics” emerge, however slowly. They won’t replace old-style politics, but they may be able to punch through in certain places. To start, Bosnia-Herzegovina has a government. That may sound glib, but it’s not; following the last general elections in 2010, parties took 16 months to haggle over ministerial portfolios and lucrative slots on the boards of state-owned enterprises. After last October’s elections, it has taken a mere six months to agree on a governing coalition. Second, the Europeans, long frustrated, like the Americans, in not winning political consensus on the ECHR decision and other political reform issues, have defered them by removing accession conditionality on them for the time being.

The EU is instead backing a new initiative, the Anglo-German Compact for Growth and Jobs, that reboots the accession process in exchange for political commitments on such things as lowering payroll taxes to spur jobs, arresting corruption and easing access to capital to encourage investment, and enshrining stronger labor and social protections. Many gripe that conditionality has been considerably softened, and they have a point. But, if properly resourced and incentivized, the emphasis on jobs and the economy may bring about tangible improvements to Bosnia’s four million citizens, and with it more practical politics.

There are political and civic actors in Bosnia-Herzegovina ready to act: a multi-party, multi-ethnic group of senior politicians is ready to work on anti-corruption and economic reform legislation, and has the proven means to get things done. A younger group of political party activists is promoting business internships for young people so they can develop professional skills and help rescue the destitute economy. A coalition of civic groups that put several thousand trained citizen monitors in polling stations across the country is making the case for election reform that, if enacted, can prevent fraud that continues to mar the process. These are important signals that democracy can work in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- by spanning ethnic lines, entity boundaries and political affiliations, and by including both political parties and civil society. In concrete and meaningful ways, they each substantiate the original premise that democracy can help a society recover from conflict by emphasizing common pursuit of shared goals.

But to work in full measure, these new forces have to confront complex realities that defy easy answers: how to create constituencies other than ethnicity that can influence election outcomes; how to diminish the many formal and powerful structures susceptible to corruption, and how to motivate citizens to be active when the payoff may not be clear in the short term.

And in Bosnia-Herzegovina’s labyrinthine politics, it can be easy to lose one’s way. When one door opens, another can close. No sooner did parties finally agree to form a government and start in on the Compact, the largest Bosnian Serb party, finding itself in opposition, abruptly boycotted the state parliament and is threatening to boycott other state institutions, effectively putting the kibosh on Compact-relevant legislation. For the moment at least, the Compact may be stalled by the very politics it seeks to surmount.