Bosnia and Herzegovina is sometimes described as a mini-Yugoslavia. Of all the republics of the former Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia, BiH was and is the most ethnically diverse. That diversity, while enriching in times of peace, is also one of the reasons that the Balkan Wars of the 1990s hit this country the hardest, as ethnicity became a mobilizing factor leveraged by political leaders in the war. The siege of Sarajevo was the longest of any capital in modern history.[i] The three warring factions—Bosnian Serbs (supported by Serbian forces), Bosnian Croats (supported by Croatian forces), and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks, supported by an influx of foreign fighters)—eventually came to peace through the 1995 Dayton Accords. The accords were a vehicle for peace, but not a plan for sustainable governance, thus leaving BiH today in a precarious political position. As one interviewee explains, and others echo, “Until the Bosnia and Herzegovina issue is resolved, there cannot be stability in the region.”
The state of Bosnia and Herzegovina is, in reality, comprised of two main entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska (RS).[ii] Both entities are facing demographic and political challenges that affect the future integrity of the current political system. Within the Federation, disputes among its two largest ethnicities, the Bosniaks and Croats, over power sharing and electoral law continue to affect the overall stability of the country, as the shrinking number of Croats become increasingly frustrated by a lack of representation in key positions throughout the political structure. Separately, within RS, the dominance of one political party and lack of opposition has allowed for a virtual stranglehold on legislation at the federal level for the past decade. These challenges originate from the political structure that the Dayton Accords put in place to end the war.
Within that structure, only three large ethnic groups are recognized by the constitution. Furthermore, both RS and the Federation of BiH control their own healthcare, education, agriculture, culture, veterans’ issues, labor, police, and internal affairs. RS also has its own assembly, president, and other political structures. By law, the president of Republika Srpska must be a Bosnian Serb and the regional assembly of RS is entitled to veto legislation at the national level if 25 percent of its members agree.
The international intervention and external state-making that brought about peace also left the country divided and without a common identity, particularly as there is no unifying federal education system. The “two schools, one roof policy” often separates children by ethnicity starting in kindergarten, where they are taught history, for example, from different vantage points that diverge along ethnic lines. Corrupt governments use ethnic tensions to distract voters from other problems. As one academic says, “The bigwigs in the war twenty years ago aren’t being convicted and people are noticing.” However, there are bright spots of potential unity that could be realized in BiH. One official in an international organization suggests that a protest of economic issues in February 2014 did not take on an ethno-nationalistic bent “because everyone was united by the same problems.”
Demographic shifts during the past two decades further complicate matters. The 1990 census reported that the population was 43 percent Bosniak, 31 percent Serb, and 17 percent Croat.[iii]* The most recent census—conducted in 2013 and the only one since the war—was released after a three-year delay caused by political concerns over the results.[iv] Bosniaks now comprise over 50 percent of the population and Serbs and Croats have fallen to 30 and 15 percent respectively. The census itself was contentious. People and politicians with nationalist aims have incentives to campaign for a more prominent role in BiH’s decision-making. Others reported a preference for identifying with a common Bosnian citizenship, rather than with an ethnicity or religion, but were unable to do so. One businessman relays a story of a friend who identifies as Bosnian, but had to identify as Bosniak (Muslim) in order to take a quota-based government position. However, as one interviewee argues, these provisions exist within the constitution in order to preserve a multinational, multiethnic character that is essential to maintaining cohesion in the country.
The presidency of the country consists of a tripartite system that mandates a representative from each of the three major ethnic groups, resulting in three members of the presidency. Each representative takes a turn serving as chair once every eight months. No other ethnic minority is allowed to run for political office. Although this provision was found to be in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights in the 2009 Sejdić and Finci case, no tangible changes have been made.[v]** Such a system precludes effective reform and change. Some left-wing parties have even advocated for adding a fourth chair to the presidency to account for minorities not of the three major ethnic groups. However, given the current political environment, it is unlikely that any of the three constituent groups would cede power to a fourth.
“Bosnia and Herzegovina can’t perform the functions of a state,” says one interviewee. Echoes a U.S. government official, “The political system in BiH is so ossified it can’t change on its own. It needs outside help.” This situation is compounded on the local level. Each of the administrative cantons can decide whether to adopt a federal law. “This makes it notoriously difficult to start projects because cantons are continually changing where they stand,” explains one businessperson. “It is very hard to get them together toward the same goal.”
This stagnation, along with an entrenched political elite, has resulted in voter apathy. The leading Party of Democratic Action (SDA) is a “political machine” with few other parties able to compete against it other than Croatian Democratic Party (HDZ) and the Party of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), both parties that represent specific ethnicities. The opposition parties tend to be divided among themselves. Multiple regional experts and the public agree that the constitution needs to be reformed, and legislators have come close in the past. However, as one U.S. government official says, a British-German initiative[vi] went nowhere because “BiH did not take them seriously,” suggesting that a stronger leadership role would have yielded more positive results.
Of further concern are the continued rumblings from Republika Srpska calling for a referendum on independence. Although this secessionist talk is nothing new—a 2011 International Crisis Group report references it—its continuation can be destabilizing, even if the International Court of Justice explicitly forbids it.[vii] RS leader Milorad Dodik, however, has said that the republic “is a state and the fact that it has been disputed tells us how important it is.” In October 2016, voters in Republika Srpska passed a referendum confirming January 9, the day that RS declared independence from BiH in 1992, as a holiday.[viii] January 9 is also the day that Orthodox Serbs celebrate the patron saint of Republika Srpska, underscoring the way religious identity buttresses political aims. On January 17, 2017, the United States placed sanctions on Dodik for this act, which U.S. officials say undermines the Dayton Accords.[ix] In a sign of its willingness to intervene in the country’s disputes, Russia’s ambassador to BiH attended a celebration marking the January 9 holiday.[x]
Dodik has made a mess of the economy, says a U.S. government representative, diverting attention from problems by playing the nationalist card. “Dodik’s friends own everything. Transparency International and other organizations are under pressure. Political opposition is dealt with roughly.”
On a positive note, the Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka, which had been destroyed in the war, was recently reconstructed and reopened (with the help of the Turkish government).[xi] A 2001 attempt to lay a cornerstone and begin reconstruction had resulted in riots that killed one person.
The next two years are critical, as BiH prepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2018. Should Croats make common cause with Serbs as a bulwark against a now-majority Bosniak population, or if the Bosniaks show a reluctance to support ethnic power-sharing on the federal level, or if both Croats and Serbs push for more autonomy, there is a chance that the balance underpinning the current system could be undermined. “We have nationalists who are increasingly showing signs that they want to divide the country along ethnic lines by 2018,” says an opposition leader with whom we spoke. However, recent local elections showed growth in youth support in both the cities and in ethnically diverse villages in the countryside for Naša Stranka, a social-liberal opposition party that aims to be neutral. And within the ranks of the dominant nationalist SDA party, younger leaders such as Senad Sepić are reportedly talking about breaking away and forming their own parties. This could weaken the SDA grip and open the door for other parties to participate.
At issue for the left-leaning parties, which could—as the recent local elections indicate—have enough votes to form a coalition, is a vision for the country. Naša Stranka leader, Predag Kojović, wants to see a country that is post-ethnic and which doesn’t rely on ethnic designations for the presidency. Says Kojović, “There should be one chair that is available and accessible to everyone. The United States doesn’t mandate a white president and an African-American vice president. It took fifty years [following the civil rights movement] for a black president to rise up naturally in the United States. Maybe in the first cycles the inertia of ethnic democracy will continue, but at some point down the road this will break down.” Another interviewee counters this vision, saying that it would not work within the context of BiH, with the current political situation in BiH pitting ethno-nationalists of the three constituent peoples drifting further apart against a small group of liberals who need to continue to gain ground in a polarized environment.
* Please note that the data present is available on the BiH government’s website while the infographics data (page 14) is collected from the IMF, WB, CIA fact book, and UNICEF.
** Two citizens of BiH, one Roma and the other Jewish, charged that the constitution is discriminatory because it prevents people of their respective ethnicities from running for office.
[ii] BiH constitution; BiH, U. S. Ustavni sud Bosne i Hercegovine. Retrieved February 06, 2017, from http://www.ccbh.ba/osnovni-akti/ustav/?title=preambula
[iii] 1991 BiH census results; Popis stanovništva 1991 – Federalni zavod za statistiku. Retrieved February 06, 2017, from http://fzs.ba/index.php/popis-stanovnistva/popis-stanovnistva-1991-i-stariji/
[iv] 2013 BiH census results; Agencija za statistiku BiH. Retrieved February 06, 2017, from http://www.bhas.ba/index.php?option=com_publikacija&view=publikacija_pregled&ids=1&id=5&n=
[v] Sejdić and Finci case; CASE OF SEJDIĆ AND FINCI v. BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA (European Court of Human Rights December 22, 2009).
[vi] UK and German initiative for the revival of BiH’s EU membership process; Brown, S., & James, W. (2014, November 05). UK, Germany offer plan to break Bosnia’s EU deadlock. Retrieved March 03, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-bosnia-eu-accession-idUSKBN0IP1V620141105
[vii] International Crisis Group report on BiH; Bosnia: What Does Republika Srpska Want? (2016, November 11). Retrieved February 06, 2017, from https://www.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/balkans/bosnia-and-herzegovina/bosnia-what-does-republika-srpska-want
[viii] Republika Srpska voted on January 9 state holiday; Katana, G. (2016, October 25). Bosnian Serbs step back from confrontation over divisive national holiday. Retrieved February 06, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-bosnia-serbs-holiday-idUSKCN12P23Y
[ix] U.S. Department of Treasury imposes sanction on Milorad Dodik; U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Retrieved February 06, 2017, from https://www.treasury.gov/press-center/press-releases/Pages/jl0708.aspx
[x] Russian Ambassador to BiH attends the celebration of the Day of Republika Srpska; Toe, R. Defiant Bosnian Serbs Celebrate Banned Republic Day. Retrieved February 06, 2017, from
[xi] Turkish government supports reconstruction of Ferhadija mosque in Sarajevo, BiH; Borger, J. (2016, May 06). Banja Luka mosque rises from rubble, 23 years after it was destroyed. Retrieved February 06, 2017, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/06/banja-luka-mosque-bosnia-herzegovina-serbia-reopens-reconstruction