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Bosnia: A Country in a Coma

Why the current crisis really matters. From Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.

by Almir Terzic 22 November 2012

Bosnia and Herzegovina at the moment is in a serious political crisis, to the point that it could be compared to a comatose state. Since the signing of the Dayton peace agreement in 1995, there have been more or less important crises, but today's is by far the biggest. There has been no progress on the Euro-Atlantic path from the second half of the last government’s term (2006-2010), but rather constant setbacks. The last step was taken in 2008, with the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. Stagnation has increased under the government ushered in by the parliamentary elections of 2010.


I believe that the cause of all that is the failure of the so-called “April package” of constitutional amendments. Since then, the international community has stepped out of the decision-making process. The leaders of different political parties continue to act only on a national [ethnic] basis, and in recent years have clearly demonstrated that they cannot agree, and often do not even want to, because the introduction of European legislation puts them at a disadvantage. Their goal is to keep Bosnia in a state of disorder as long as possible, because this is the only way political leaders, under the guise of defending alleged national interests, can remain in power. Bosnia was way ahead in the process of approaching the EU, but in a very short time it ended up at the bottom of the race on a regional level.


The creation of a new parliamentary majority in June, a few months after the formation of the Council of Ministers, has only deepened the divisions within the country, behind the screen of a false defense of national interests. People were expecting a lot more from the social-democratic option, particularly from [Bosnian Serb leader] Milorad Dodik's Independent Social Democratic Party (SNSD) and [Bosnian Muslim leader] Zlatko Lagumdzija's Social Democratic Party (SDP). In the end, however, it turned out that these two parties, in combination with the nationalists, are the main generators of the crisis. This will surely last up to the elections in 2014, with possible aggravations.




The SDP, after a decade in opposition, had developed a strong desire to go to the government, especially to strengthen its position in the state-owned companies, where power is concentrated. The government of the [Muslim-Croat] Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the two entities into which the country is divided, for months after its formation has dealt exclusively with the appointment of directors of companies and public institutions. Allegedly, conflict broke out between the SDP and the Bosnian Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) because of the SDA’s opposition to the adoption of the budget for 2012. In fact, the reasons are much deeper.


The SDP wanted to amend the Law on Internal Affairs of the federation in order to dismantle the independence of the police and rule the media, primarily the federal television. The SDA opposed this. The SDP also got companies formerly run by the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina (Stranka za BiH), SDA's partner in the previous government. The financial situation of these companies was not brilliant, so the SDP sought to expand its influence, finding the only chance in telecommunications – the Telekom is the most profitable state company. The SDA, however, tenaciously defended this company from being controlled by the SDP. I think this was the straw that broke the camel's back.


The SDP decided to discontinue any relationship with the SDA and began to fire its public servants. It found a strong partner in the BiH Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ BiH), another party only interested in positions of power. The bitter rivals joined to pursue the division of the state treasury in the interests of the party, under the false claim of defending national interests.




A detailed look at the recent agreement between the Serb SNSD and Bosniak SDP shows that Lagumdzija and Dodik want to turn Bosnia and Herzegovina into another Belarus and play the role of undisputed lords. Lagumdzija would become the lord of the Federation, Dodik of the country’s other political entity, the Republika Srpska. Dodik already is, but the agreement with Lagumdzija would keep him there for years, perhaps decades. Just consider that the proposed amendment to the electoral law, contained in the agreement, provides for the closure of the list of candidates, which means that the next seats in parliaments and assemblies would belong to political parties rather than those who are elected. The introduction of the so-called "imperative mandate" is the worst form of suffocation of democratic processes and demonstrates the complete disregard of citizens' will.


Lagumdzija and Dodik also want to eliminate the main center of the counting of votes at the state level, which only in the last elections unveiled 100 attempts at electoral fraud. Were it not for this control system, all those irregularities would have passed and the election results would have been far different in many municipalities. If the elections were conducted by the electoral commissions of entities and municipalities, as suggested in the agreement, not only would the electoral process in Bosnia fall apart, but this would open up the possibility of manipulation and electoral engineering.


This is a really crucial aspect that would guarantee the presidents of SDP and SNSD maximum durability in power, no matter the will of voters, who have significantly soured on these two parties in the last administrative elections. SDP and SNSD fear defeat in the 2014 elections, and with this agreement they seek to avoid it. Civil society organizations, for the first time, have joined together to oppose the agreement and urged local and international institutions, primarily the Council of Europe, to do something in defense of democracy in Bosnia.


The agreement between Dodik and Lagumdzija also contains an attack on the independence of the judiciary, in particular through the proposed amendments to the system of appointment of judges, which would be transferred from the High Council of the Judiciary to parliament. Other problematic issues relate to the functioning of the Central Bank and public energy companies. The verdict of the Strasbourg Court in the case of Sejdic-Finci, [which struck down the country’s constitutional provision that sets aside high political offices only for Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks] was not taken into account simply because it would be against the interests of political leaders and in favor of citizens.




In recent years, the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina has adopted a rather passive role. The Office of the High Representative has virtually disappeared, the OSCE mission now acts more as a consultant than anything else, just like the office of the Council of Europe. The same can be argued for the delegation of the European Commission in Sarajevo and its representative, Peter Sorensen, from whom we expected much more pressure on local politicians to lead the country along the Euro-Atlantic integration path. Instead, everyone constantly repeats that the whole responsibility lies with local leaders. I agree, but Brussels must have seen that local politicians do not have a shred of sense of responsibility.


The interests of parties continue to be dominant over those of citizens, which is why we are where we are: in a coma. Rumor has it that the Lagumdzija–Dodik agreement is supported by the international community, but I do not believe it. Otherwise, Stefano Sannino, director general for EU enlargement, would not have written to the Bosnian government warning it not to touch the resources of the state electricity company. The international community, however, could and should do more.


I think it is imperative that Bosnia become part of NATO and an EU candidate at least. If the international community exerted more pressure on the government to achieve these goals, many things would change. Citizens may breathe a sigh of relief, and international officials could reduce their influence. Invitations to local leaders to assume their responsibilities, however, will not bring anything. The greatest progress and reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina were made between 2002 and 2006, when the international community had an important role in decision-making. Sad, but true.




Simply, party leaders should work for the welfare of citizens. But they have already proved they do not want to. Since I do not think it possible to have an agreement without the SDA, nor even a functioning parliamentary majority, the political crisis will last two more years for sure.


The 2014 elections will be an opportunity to finally solve things. I think it is necessary to amend the electoral law and introduce compulsory voting at least for this election. It is not an anti-democratic measure; it is also applied in developed countries such as Finland, Belgium, and Australia. This system would discredit forever the parties' claim to have the citizens' full support. That 40 percent to 45 percent of voters who now do not go to polls, because they are totally disappointed with the present state of things, could change the situation. Should the situation remain the same after 2014, however, we could say that it is the will of the citizens of Bosnia. Until then, neither Dodik nor Lagumdzija can be leaders in Bosnia, because the votes they obtained is hardly 10 percent of the whole electorate.

Almir Terzic is a journalist for the Oslobodenje daily in Sarajevo. This article originally appeared on Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso.

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