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Bosnia elections: No improvement in sight

September 30, 2022

Bosnia and Herzegovina goes to the polls on Sunday. Even though the country is racked by clientelism, corruption and poverty, the ruling nationalists need not fear electoral defeat.

Bosnian flags outside the Greece–Bosnia and Herzegovina Friendship Building
The Friendship Building houses the council of ministers of Bosnia and HerzegovinaImage: DW/Mehmed Smajic

The situation is serious: "There is no threat of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the political crisis runs very deep," said Christian Schmidt, international High Representative (HR) for Bosnia and Herzegovina, at a press conference in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, in spring 2022.

This was not the first time Schmidt, a former German minister of agriculture, had stressed the gravity of the situation in the Western Balkan country. In a report to the UN Secretary-General in November 2021, he warned of the "greatest existential threat" to Bosnia since the end of the war in 1995.

The country's constitution specifically mentions three "constituent peoples" of Bosnia and Herzegovina: the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Croats. It is the nationalist parties of these three constituent peoples that are causing the threat Schmidt was talking about: the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), the Serb Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ).

High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina Christian Schmidt, Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 11, 2022
Former German Minister Christian Schmidt is High Representative for Bosnia and HerzegovinaImage: Elman Omic/AA/picture alliance

Over the past 27 years, these parties have caused deep political rifts within Bosnia and divided up the country between them.

The legacy of the Dayton Accords

The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina will vote in a number of elections on a variety of different levels. Bosnia's highly complex political and administrative structure is the product of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina — also known as the Dayton Accords — which was agreed at the US airbase in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995.

While the Dayton Accords ended the Bosnian War, which began in 1992 and cost about 120,000 lives, they also created a state where the national principle is dominant.

One country, two entities

The dominance of the national principle starts with the division of the country into two "entities:" Republika Srpska (RS), where the population is predominantly Bosnian Serb, and the 10 cantons of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), where the population is predominantly Bosniak and Bosnian Croat. Most largely Bosniak regions are dominated by the Bosniak SDA, while most largely Croatian regions are dominated by the Croat HDZ.

Map showing the entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina

Each entity has its own parliament and government. The president and parliament of Republika Srpska will be elected on October 2, as will the parliaments of both the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its cantons. At national level, the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the three members of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the country's tripartite head of state) will be elected on the same day.

The High Representative's extensive powers

The Dayton Accords also created the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which was given sweeping powers known as the "Bonn Powers." The head of this office, the High Representative, is charged with monitoring and — if necessary — even steering the observance of the provisions of the peace accords. In this respect, the HR has the power to rewrite laws and to dismiss elected politicians and civil servants.

Session of the parliament of Republika Srpska in Banja Luka, September 2022
The flag of the Bosnian entity of Republika Srpska – and not the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina – takes pride of place on the wall of the parliament of Republika Srpska in Banja LukaImage: Dragan Maksimovic/DW

On top of all this, the political order in post-war Bosnia is built exclusively on the ethnic principle. This means that only those who belong to one of the three constituent peoples have full active and passive voting rights at all levels of state. Those who belong to one of Bosnia's several minorities — Roma, Jews and any citizens who do not want to define themselves by any one ethnicity — cannot run for the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Nepotism, corruption and the 'ethnic key'

For the nationalist parties, the so-called "ethnic key" is quite literally the key to gaining and retaining power. Attention is paid not only to ethnicity but also and above all to party political affiliation when filling almost every post in administrations, in the apparatus of state and in Bosnia's many state-owned or state-run companies. These are ideal preconditions for nepotism and corruption. They also knit the groups even more tightly together politically.

Milorad Dodik
Milorad Dodik, the representative of the Bosnian Serbs in the country's three-member presidency, regularly threatens that Republika Srpska will secede from Bosnia and HerzegovinaImage: Dragan Maksimović/DW

Another consequence is that the country is effectively ungovernable. Because the nationalist parties focus first and foremost on consolidating influence within their respective ethnic groups, they show little interest in functioning joint — or even central — institutions. The Bosnian Constitutional Court, for example, has for months had several vacant seats, the government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has for years been working on a provisional basis only and important laws cannot be passed because the relevant parliaments are blocked time and again.

Nationalist saber-rattling

To make matters worse, the leader of the Serb SNSD, Milorad Dodik, who is also the representative of the Bosnian Serbs in the country's three-member presidency, regularly threatens that Republika Srpska will secede. In doing so, Dodik keeps both the Bosnian public and the representatives of the international community in the country in a kind of permanent state of emergency.

Dodik is supported by the HDZ. The Croatian nationalists justify their lack of cooperation in state-level institutions with their dissatisfaction with the electoral law they say heavily favors Bosniaks over Croats in Bosnia. Dragan Covic, the leader of the HDZ has, for example, complained that the current representative of the Croats in the three-member presidency, Zeljko Komsic, was elected primarily by Bosniak citizens. Covic says that this means that Komsic — a Social Democrat and non-Nationalist — does not represent Bosnian Croats.

Croatian Prime Minister  Andrej Plenkovic (right) and Dragan Covic (left) during Plenkovic's visit to Bosnia in December 2021
Dragan Covic (left), leader of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ), maintains close ties with Croatia.Image: Vera Soldo/DW

And what about the SDA? The Bosniak party, which portrays itself as a guarantor of a joint Bosnian state, showed again recently that it is also perfectly capable of banging the nationalist drum. Unhappy with the High Representative's announcement that he wanted to change the electoral law, allegedly in favor of the Croats, the SDA organized mass protests outside the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo. President of the SDA, Bakir Izetbegovic, even spoke of the "possibility of armed resistance." Christian Schmidt subsequently dropped his plans, instead introducing only a number of smaller technical amendments.

Support from abroad

The nationalists in Bosnia also have supporters abroad. Dodik, for example, regularly appears with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and makes no bones of the fact that the Serbian capital, Belgrade, is more important to him than the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

Covic's demands have the backing of leading politicians in the Croatian capital, Zagreb.

Protesters outside the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo in July 2022
The Bosniak party SDA organised protests outside the Office of the High Representative in Sarajevo in July 2022Image: Klix.ba

Izetbegovic, for his part, virtually boasts about how close he is ideologically, politically and even personally to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Bosnia damaged by political stalemate

The years of political stalemate caused by the blocking tactics of the nationalist parties and their mentors in Bosnia's neighboring countries has ruined Bosnia, which now ranks 110th out of 180 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index.

Bosnia's economy is one of the weakest in Europe. Poverty is rife and unemployment stands at around 16%. A growing number of people are leaving the country. About half a million have left since 2013 and about 170,000 emigrated in 2021 alone. The population of Bosnia and Herzegovina was just under 4.4 million in 1991. By 2020, it had dropped to just 3.3 million.

Long road to EU accession

Most of those who have emigrated have gone to EU Member States. Joining the EU has been the stated aim of all political forces in the country for more than 25 years. However, even though Bosnia officially applied for membership in 2016, it is still far from being granted candidate status. Brussels drew up a checklist of 14 requirements that would have to be met before the path to accession negotiations could at least officially be opened. To date, not one of these requirements has been met.

It is unlikely that Sunday's elections will bring about any change for the better in Bosnia. In view of all this, the High Representative's assessment that there is at least no threat of war in the Western Balkan country is reassuring.

This article was originally published in German.

What's next for Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Head shot of a man (Zoran Arbutina) with gray hair and a beard
Zoran Arbutina Editor, writer, reporter