Friday

7th May 2021

Opinion

'Ethno-nationalism' is not way forward for Bosnia-Herzegovina

  • Bosnia-Herzegovina government building in Sarajevo (Photo: Wikimedia)

In Bosnian director Vesna Ljubić's 1986 film, The Last Switchman of the Narrow Gauge Railway, a rural administrator decries the impending closure of a local train station, declaring officiously that it will be "a historical mistake." An innocent villager asks, "Are there mistakes in history?"

Officials of the international community are on the way to making a grave mistake with respect to the way power is allocated in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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  • The 1995 Dayton agreement that helped bring an end to the war enshrined a two-entity system and a three-part presidency (Photo: Wikimedia)

Tempted by the allure of a 'deliverable', the EU, US, and UK are supporting a political process that would enhance the power of ethno-nationalist leaders, cement ethnic partition, and quite possibly lead to violence.

The 1995 Dayton agreement that helped bring an end to the war enshrined a two-entity system and a three-part presidency.

Voters in the Republika Srpska (RS) elect a Serb member, and voters in the federation elect the Croat and Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) members. This structure allowed the RS to develop as a relatively strong ethnocracy, lacking the checks and balances of pluralism.

A more pluralistic democratic process is operative in the federation, where voters can opt to vote for any presidential candidate.

This flexibility has allowed anti-nationalist Željko Komšić to be elected as Croat member of the presidency in three of the last four elections. This has angered members of the entrenched Croat nationalist party, the HDZ.

HDZ chief Dragan Čović argues that the Croat seat should be elected solely from the Croat electorate.

The European Court of Human Rights has judged as unfair the way that the electoral process discriminates against those who do not identify as one of the three "constituent peoples," or who live in the wrong entity.

In spite of these pressures for Bosnia to bring its elections more into conformity with European norms, Čović has persisted in his quest to establish an ethnic fiefdom in an area where Croats are the majority.

He would thus gain what Dodik has: a near-monopoly on power. Čović has Dodik's support for his efforts; what works for the Serb separatists, Dodik figures, should work all around: let each ethnicity have its own entity.

Corruption, division, and accountability

This would convert an HDZ-controlled part of Bosnia-Herzegovina into a long-promoted—albeit de facto—"third entity" for the Croats. Such a development would effectively turn Bosnia into a collection of three ethno-nationalist administrative units, with little left to hold them together.

It would enhance the ability of the nationalist parties to engage in corruption, to maintain division, and to evade democratic accountability.

In the RS, examples of clientelism and concentration of power abound, as I have described in detail in my book Surviving the Peace.

The RS serves as an illustration of what an ethno-nationalist political structure can do when given free rein.

For example, relatives and cronies of Dodik and his party leaders have unlimited access to untendered construction contracts that always finish with grandiose cost overruns.

Illicit despoiling of natural resources is endemic.

The judiciary is anything but fair, with judges and prosecutors regularly sweeping corruption scandals under the rug. Such is the example of an entity where one ethnic grouping enjoys dominance.

Acquiescence to an electoral scheme that satisfies those who want to further divide Bosnia-Herzegovina would cement in place similar separatist processes throughout the federation. A greater concentration of power in the hands of the ethnocrats will embolden the regime of corruption, while suppressing political opposition.

The international community must draw back from supporting such a move.

Alternatives to intensified partition are available, and must be nurtured in order to thrive. There are democratically-minded people throughout the country who have organised across ethnic lines to fight corruption and discrimination, and to restore a multi-ethnic state.

For example, young Serbs have organised to support Bosniak returnees in the Prijedor area. War veterans have joined with their former enemies to identify and commemorate places where atrocities occurred. Return communities carry on their campaigns for equal rights, in Srebrenica and elsewhere.

I have kept in contact with these activists for peace and justice—the real patriots of Bosnia—for 25 years.

These days, they worry about the political system that is in such a shambles that Bosnia's leaders cannot even organise an effective response to the Covid pandemic.

They worry about corruption that flourishes under the leadership of ethno-national cliques. They worry about making ends meet in a country that, with its rich resources and natural beauty, could be the Switzerland of the Balkans. The last thing they want is further division.

Instead of spending political capital appeasing Bosnia's separatists, international officials could use their time more wisely - and make a critical difference - by supporting grassroots activists and their campaigns.

These officials hold the cards that will determine the survival or dissolution of Bosnia. They must articulate a clear plan that supports the work of ordinary Bosnians for recovery, and formulate a strategy that corrects the weaknesses of Dayton.

The strategy must point to replacing the ethno-nationalist political dynamic with one that enhances the rights of Bosnians as citizens.

Building up the power of ordinary people is the key.

Author bio

Peter Lippman is a human rights activist and author of the book Surviving the Peace: The Struggle for Postwar Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Vanderbilt University Press, 2019).

Disclaimer

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

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