It’s better than another war: a beginner’s guide to Bosnian politics

Bosnia has the world's most complicated system of government: a gerrymandered mess overseen by an unelected mandarin. While it pleases almost nobody, the system has helped keep the peace since the end of the Bosnian War. It has also, however, stifled the development of genuine democracy.

Grab a notepad, a pen, and stock up on patience. Few countries on earth have a political structure as complex as Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). Ostensibly one country split into two entities, myriads of autonomous regions and ethnic divisions have led to the creation of endless layers of government which, even with a great deal of goodwill, would make running the country difficult. In the Balkans alas, goodwill is often in short supply, and Bosnia is no exception. As such, the country at times appears to be ungovernable. No wonder some commentators have compared it to a failed state. The country’s latest round of elections, held at the beginning of October 2018, were predictably inconclusive, voters – as usual – electing politicians on purely ethnic criteria. Five months on, the country has yet to form a new government.

“Bosnia’s political instability should be a cause for concern for both the European Union and NATO,” says Damir Kurtagic, a Europe fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. “As the most ethnically diverse country in the Western Balkans, Bosnia’s institutional strength is pivotal to deterring the influence of outside powers such as Turkey and Russia.”

Blame Dayton

The current morass is the direct result of the Dayton Agreement, which ended the 1992-95 Bosnian War. The agreement set out to create a multi-ethnic state within Bosnia’s existing borders in which the country’s three major ethnic groups (Croats, Serbs and Bosnian Muslims – usually referred to as Bosniaks) would each have a guaranteed share of power.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s head of state is nominally the country’s president, elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term. However, the country has not one, but three presidents – a collective, each representing the three ethnic groups which make up the country’s population. Each of the three serves for eight months at a time on a rotating basis during the four years of the presidency, meaning that each of the three will spend a total of 16 months in office over the course of the four years (two eight-month terms). In last year’s elections, Bosniak voters returned Šefik Džaferović as their member of the presidency, Croats opted for Željko Komšić. The Serbs put Milorad Dodik, who openly calls for the unification of the Serb-dominated entity, the Republika Srpska, with Serbia, into office.

While the presidency sets Bosnia’s foreign policy agenda (it also proposes the state budget and has control of the military), executive power at country-wide level is the responsibility of the Council of Ministers, headed by a chairman (the de facto prime minister) chosen by the presidency. One third of the council’s ministers must be from the Republika Srpska.

The Bosnian parliament is split into two chambers: the house of representatives and the house of peoples. Members of both houses are elected for four-year terms, with seats split equally between the three ethnic groups.

Day-to-day government in Bosnia however is generally left to the two separate entities which make up the country: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (populated primarily by Bosniaks and Croats) and the Republika Srpska (predominantly Serb). The Federation has its own president, bicameral parliament, and is itself split into 10 autonomous provinces with their own governments and assemblies. The Republika Srpska also has its own president, assembly and government. Parliaments in both entities have jurisdiction over policing, education, agriculture, healthcare, labour policy and internal affairs. At both state and entity level, parliaments are obliged to ensure that all legislation is acceptable to all ethnic groups.

If that were not complicated enough already, the eastern province of Brčko is a multicultural district of the country which falls inside the territory of both the Federation and the Republika Srpska, and is administered jointly by both entities.

Within the system are a number of fault lines, created by those in the Republika Srpska who long for an independent state (or, like Mr Dodik, unification with Serbia), Croats in the Federation who would like their own entity, and Bosniaks who would like the country to be more centralised.

High representative

Overseeing the whole political process – with the authority to dismiss any Bosnian official, elected or otherwise – is the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR), a post created in 1995 immediately after the signing of the Dayton Agreement. The high representative is appointed by the 55 countries and organisations which make up the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), the international body charged with implementing Dayton. The current high representative is an Austrian, Valentin Inzko, appointed in 2009. He is the longest-serving high representative, and many in Bosnia hope that he will be the last.

“The current structural issue with the OHR is that its actions are rooted in a degree of political consensus on the PIC which once existed but no longer does,” says Jasmin Mujanović, a political scientist and analyst of southeast European and international affairs. “In other words, the issue with the OHR is the lack of political will for more meaningful engagement in European capitals, rather than the institution as such.”

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s latest Democracy Index categorises Bosnia as a hybrid regime, ranked 101st globally: slightly more democratic than Belarus, but less democratic than Kyrgyzstan. While the country scores relatively high in the areas of electoral process (not without flaws, but generally free) and political participation, it performs (unsurprisingly) poorly when it comes to functioning of government.

“Granted, the OHR may appear nominally incompatible with idealised democratic processes, but BiH is not an ideal democratic polity, in no so small part because of the Dayton constitution which has so fatally undermined just such politics, to the advantage of entrenched, corrupt, ethno-nationalist elites of various stripes,” Mr Mujanović tells Emerging Europe.

The European dream, the Turkish nightmare

The European Union’s vague promises of eventual membership (as well as vast amounts of financial support) have for a number of years done much to prevent the total collapse of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

However, in its Western Balkans Strategy, published in 2018, the European Commission’s promises were more vague than ever. No date was given for the beginning of accession talks (indeed, Bosnia has yet to be invited to formally apply for EU membership) and the best the commission could offer was a fiercely non-committal statement that suggested the country could eventually become a candidate for accession “with sustained effort and engagement.”

No wonder then, that a number of Bosnians are having their heads turned by alternatives to the EU, notably Turkey and Russia.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan has not been slow to spot an opportunity. He held a rally in Sarajevo in May 2018, and was welcomed by Bakir Izetbegović, the then Bosnian Muslim chairman of the tripartite presidency, with the words: “God has sent [our] nations one person to return them to their religion. He is Recep Tayyip Erdogan. We remain standing with God’s help.” A leader of diaspora Turks hailed Sarajevo as “Jerusalem at the heart of Europe”.

“For Erdogan, the Balkans is the region that can put him in a position to realise his political goal of reviving some semblance of the Ottoman Empire while undermining the EU’s influence in these countries,” says Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Centre for Global Affairs at NYU.

European leaders have already been voicing concerns over Turkey’s influence in the Balkans. Last year French President Emmanuel Macron declared: “I don’t want a Balkans that turns toward Turkey or Russia”. It may be too late, although NATO membership – on the table, if not widely expected any time soon – could ease some of the pain.

“Bosnian Muslims have lost their hopes that their trinitarian state will become an EU member,” says Xhemal Ahmeti, a historian and expert on the Balkans. “Paradoxically, though, while the Bosnians Muslims seek Erdogan’s protection from the Orthodox (Serbs and Russians), Erdogan’s close allies are Putin and [Serbia’s president] Vucic.”

“BiH’s future progress is largely dependent on two dynamics coming together: bottom-up, civil society pressure, in particular for reform, and international support for such efforts,” concludes Jasmin Mujanović. “BiH’s recently reactivated NATO accession path is one concrete objective both locals and internationals can fruitfully work towards. But whether that happens is, as ever, a matter of political will.”

The election of Mr Dodik in the Republika Srpska – who opposes NATO membership and who has the power to veto it – suggests that political will may not be forthcoming anytime soon.