18th Oct 2019


Bosnia: A new opportunity for getting closer to the EU?

  • Change afoot? Bosnian citizens are getting annoyed with the political elite (Photo: Brad Tutterow)

For many years now, Bosnia and Herzegovina has been the victim of political stagnation. Its constitutional makeup, prescribing a power-sharing government between the three main ethnic groups (Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats), equips each group with far-reaching veto powers in the political process.

Political solutions thus depend on the political will to find a compromise. Since the latter is usually absent, Bosnia finds itself in a perpetual crisis in which progress is hard to achieve.

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Major political and economic reforms, especially those connected to Bosnia’s integration into European Union and Nato structures have thus been stalled for years.

The state seems trapped in a vicious circle consisting of politicians unwilling to compromise; a political system perpetuating and legitimising such behavior; a highly inefficient and extremely costly government administration; and, perhaps most worrying, a population largely deprived of the power to substantially influence the political process.

The situation may, however, be changing.

It all started about one and a half years ago, when Bosnian citizens, for the first time since the end of the war, publically voiced their discontent with the political elite. They blocked the exits of the parliament building in Sarajevo and trapped the politicians inside until a new law regulating personal identity numbers was agreed upon.

The lack of an agreement made the issuance of travel documents impossible, which meant that sick newborns could not travel abroad in order to receive necessary medical treatment. Outrage over this situation provoked the protests that became known as the “bebolucija,” a combination of the words “baby” and “revolution.”

A second instance of civil unrest occurred earlier this year. Originally initiated by workers in the town of Tuzla who had not been paid for about two years, the protests soon spread to other cities all over the country. This time, the groups organised themselves in the form of citizens’ assemblies, which they called plenums, and presented the lower-level governments with concrete demands for social and political change. They even forced several politicians to resign.

The distinguishing feature of both protests was a genuinely socio-economic character that transgressed the familiar ethnic distinction on which the political system is based. Whether this form of citizen protest will successfully influence Bosnian politics in the future remains to be seen.

Because the plenums understood themselves to be some form of extra-parliamentary opposition, they consciously abstained from participating in the political system that they deemed inherently corrupt. Their political programme was thus not on the ballot in the October general elections. As a result, the same politicians were largely reelected.

Admittedly, in the Serb dominated part of the country, the result was a neck-and-neck race between the governing and the opposing parties and, in the Bosniak-Croat dominated part, a new liberal party gained substantial support at the expense of the Social Democrats.

But the nationalists were by no means defeated and it is highly unlikely that the traditional ethnic parties will be left out of the governing coalition once it is formed.

Back on the international agenda

Even though the protests have, so far, not had a large political impact, they seem to have put Bosnia on the international agenda once again.

True, the European Commission was involved in different high-level dialogues with Bosnian politicians in recent years. Yet these talks were of a somewhat technical nature, while a large-scale political initiative from the European Union was lacking.

Following the elections, this has changed as well. At the Western Balkans Conference of the Aspen Institute in early November, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his British colleague Philip Hammond presented a new initiative for Bosnia’s European path. In the form of an open letter, their proposal was also reprinted in major Bosnian newspapers.

The initiative is a rather simple one. Bosnian politicians should give a written commitment to reform their state institutions so as to make efficient cooperation with the European Union possible; they should furthermore commit to a larger reform agenda for the European integration process, the details of which should be elaborated together with the EU.

In return, the EU would implement the Stabilisation and Association Agreement the two partners signed and ratified a long time ago but which, due to the lack of political progress in the country, the EU has so far blocked from entering into force. If implemented, the agreement would have substantial financial benefits for Bosnia.

Small steps to EU membership

But Steinmeier and Hammond go even further. If Bosnian politicians implement the agreed-upon reform agenda, i.e. if the state apparatus becomes more efficient and economic reforms are introduced, the two politicians promise to support granting EU candidacy status to the country.

First and foremost, this proposal presents a welcome revitalisation of Bosnia’s path towards the European Union in which many Bosnians have stopped believing. Even though actual membership in the prestigious EU club is still far away, the proposal allows for sequencing the integration process into smaller steps.

Completion of each step may serve as a small success story thus presenting incentives for further reform and making the entire integration process credible once again. The British and German proposal is furthermore a clear signal that those in the higher echelons of European politics closely follow the situation in Bosnia. Given the way in which the local politicians have ruled the country in recent years, one should welcome closer international oversight.

History indicates that the international strategy may succeed.

In the early 2000s, a rather eclectic coalition of reform-oriented parties governed Bosnia. Since it was anything but sure that it would remain in power after the 2002 elections, the High Representative of the international community, the Brit Paddy Ashdown, made all parties, even the opposing nationalist forces, commit to a large-scale reform agenda.

When the nationalists won the elections, they were forced, nevertheless, to implement the reforms. But even though the strategy succeeded and the reforms were more or less implemented, Ashdown always remained the main driver behind such implementation efforts. The local politicians never took true ownership of the process.

The present initiative could suffer the same fate. All Bosnian politicians have declared their commitment to European integration. This remains true despite the growing influence of Russia and its anti-EU course following the events in Ukraine.

Bosnia got sucked into the geopolitical discussion recently, when Russia abstained from the UN Security Council vote to extend the European peacekeeping mandate for Bosnia, reportedly stating that the country cannot be forced into the EU from the outside.

Russia has, furthermore, strengthened its ties with Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, which may cast serious doubts on the respective commitments towards European integration. As of now, we have no indication that this is actually the case; all Bosnian political groups remain formally committed to EU membership.

The problem is, however, that the respective declarations do not really lead to the implementation of necessary reforms. In a first step, the current proposal asks once again for a commitment, which the locals will surely happily give. This, however, does not mean that they will actually be able to honor their commitment.

And, unlike in 2002, Steinmeier and Hammond have made clear that the High Representative will under no circumstances use its special powers to push reforms. The locals are thus expected to take full ownership of the process.

Neglecting the major obstacle

In practical terms, the great “advantage” of the Hammond/Steinmeier proposal is that it consciously neglects the major political issue of the last years, the implementation of the so-called Sejdic and Finci verdict of the European Court of Human Rights.

Because Bosnia’s constitutional makeup is aimed at accommodating the interests of the three major groups, its system of ethnic quotas discriminates against members of national minorities. It makes it impossible for them to hold certain offices in the state, such as seats in the presidency or a chamber of parliament.

The court rightfully criticised this practice and tasked the country with reforming its constitution. But since the verdict was rendered in 2009, all attempts to find a new mechanism have failed – despite many mediation efforts by the European Commission.

We can distinguish three explanations for this failure. First, Bosnia’s inter-connected constitutional system means that change requires constitutional amendments on many levels, which naturally increases the number of veto players. Second, the current system guarantees the ruling ethnic parties certain privileges that they don’t want to lose. Third, certain actors misuse the current negotiations in order to strengthen their group’s position even further; it seems sometimes as if the national minorities have no place in the discussions at all.

The implementation of the verdict has dominated political discussions in recent years and significantly stalled any other reform efforts.

In this case, it may be commendable to leave this issue aside for the moment and concentrate on those reforms that can actually be achieved. But it is important to realise that this hot button issue will not disappear.

As Steinmeier and Hammond have made clear, the resolution of the “Sejdic and Finci” question remains a precondition of EU membership. The current constitution not only violates basic liberal principles but also equips group elites, who are not necessarily willing to compromise, with far-reaching powers to block the political process at almost no cost.

As long as there is no commonly acceptable solution for this situation, Bosnia’s European integration remains anything but certain.

Adis Merdzanovic is Swiss Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. His research focuses on international intervention in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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