This is a guest post by John O’Brennan from Maynooth University, Ireland
On Sunday 12 October beleaguered Bosnia Herzegovina went to the polls for the seventh time since the signing of the Dayton Agreement. The election took place after a turbulent period when the Balkan state was rendered politically catatonic by legislative stasis and simultaneously rocked by street protests which underlined the deep social tensions which have accumulated since the 1990s.
A total of 65 parties, 7,743 candidates and 732 candidates’ lists were certified by the Central Election Commission. Bosnia Herzegovina has a unique tripartite presidency. Bakir Izetbegovic, son of the country’s wartime leader, was a clear winner of the seat of the Bosniaks. Dragan Covic of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZBiH) won the contest for the Croat seat. But in a major shock Zelka Cvijanovic, the candidate of Republika Srpska (RS) strongman Milorad Dodik and the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SSND), may well lose out to Mladen Ivanic of the opposition Party of Democratic Progress (PDP). Ivanic is perceived as a moderate by RS standards and as someone who will be more accommodating of Bosniak and Croat sensibilities. Whilst Dodik, who has strong ties to Moscow, and has been a long-time thorn in the side of pro-Dayton forces, did hold onto the Presidency of Republika Srpska, his position within the Bosnian Serb community has been considerably weakened, not least because his party has lost its grip on the Republika Srpska Assembly in Banja Luka.
The election saw little change in the approach of the ethnically-based parties across the country with Bosniaks arguing for greater centralization of the Federation, Bosnian Croats arguing for greater autonomy within the Muslim-Croat Federation, and Bosnian Serbs asserting the separatist case as they have in every electoral contest since 1991. The fossilizing impact of the consociational Dayton model means that ethno-nationalist agendas remain the only game in town within an ossified electoral architecture. But observers see some hope in the changed constellation within some key regional assemblies (such as that of RS) which may finally signal a change in the ways Bosnia is governed.
The Bosnian crisis is multi-faceted and truly existential, encompassing simultaneously economic, demographic, constitutional, institutional and social elements, which taken together point to something approaching a ‘failed state’ on the borders of the European Union. Endemic corruption and organized crime blight the country after two decades of unsuccessful attempts to ‘bed down’ the Dayton Agreement, which brought an end to the war in Bosnia in 1995. Engagement with the European Union through the enlargement process has been haphazard and crippled both by poor coordination on the Bosnian side and ‘enlargement fatigue’ on the EU side. If transition was meant to lead to an EU-anchored transformation of administrative, economic and social standards in Bosnia that goal seems as far away now as at any point in the post-war period.
In the wake of Dayton Bosnia became increasingly associated with discernible patterns of state capture as criminal groups managed to suborn political, judicial and economic structures, hampering much-needed reforms (the reforms which were being implemented across much of Central and Eastern Europe), and depriving citizens of an impartial rule of law. Organized crime groups succeeded in instrumentalizing municipal and national political actors with the result that organized crime seeped into every discernible crevice of public life, bearing significant influence over political stability, rule of law, and socio-economic development.
Bosnia thus conforms to what Jeffrey Winters terms a ‘criminal democracy’ in that it is both democratic and deeply corrupt and oligarchs use their wealth both to compete unfairly for office and to defeat the rule of law where their interests are threatened. Its agents sponsor political supplicants who walk and talk like politicians of a normal European state, but in practice loyally serve their network allies.
Bosnians have suffered under this predatory and vertiginous regime for two decades as deregulation, privatization and monopoly practices have enriched the ‘elect’ and substantially eroded the social contract. National regulatory bodies are pitifully ill-equipped to match the excesses of organized crime units which increasingly operate within a global regime which facilitates financial largesse. To make matters worse the Bosnian judiciary is also deeply implicated in these activities. The state – far from representing a countervailing force to oligarchy – is comfortably accommodated within its tentacles. Little wonder then that, for a majority of Bosnian voters, these elections constituted an absurd pantomime act where ‘one bunch of criminals replaces another’.
Politicians from all three sides eschew cooperation in favour of carving up the public sphere at every level of the political matrix. The period since the last elections in October 2010 saw all three ethno-political blocs fragmenting as they quarrelled over the distribution of spoils. An existential legislative crisis was evident in the extreme stasis which pervaded parliamentary activity: virtually no legislation of any substantive kind was passed in the four year mandate of the previous parliament. The perception remains widespread that the convoluted (and now hydra-headed) Dayton model of representation has inordinately aided the creation and maintenance of a ‘hierarchy of thieves’.
But 2014 has seen Bosnians mobilize against these pathologies which pervade the economy and political system. The immediate trigger was in Tuzla in February where workers from several privatized factories united to demand their unpaid salaries and pensions. They were soon joined by a wide range of groups, including students and Bosnians from all ethno-national communities. Responding to a dramatic deterioration in incomes and living standards, the demands of protestors included calls to reverse what are perceived to have been illegal and/or criminally-linked (and extremely opaque) privatizations, the replacement of party-based local government with competent technocratic administration, a reduction in the salaries of Bosnian politicians (which are amongst the highest in Europe in relative terms at approximately five times the average Bosnian salary) and an end to the outrageous abuses of public procurement processes. The economic figures tell us an important part of the story. Unemployment across Bosnia now exceeds 550, 000, or 44 per cent of the population, with youth joblessness significantly higher again, even against a backdrop of sustained outward migration by the young. And this is hardship which crosses the traditional ethno-national lines: unemployment and corruption do not stop at internal borders in Bosnia.
The protest movement threw up so-called ‘Civic plenums’ (or self-governing citizens’ assemblies), which took place in numerous jurisdictions with citizens encouraged to openly debate issues and problems. This was a true anti-politics and anti-regime rebellion as Bosnians railed against oligarchy and political corruption. And it was different in that participants crossed ethnic and religious lines in arguing for a polity based on dignity of the person and respect for the rule of law. The poison of ethno-nationalist conflict gave way to normalized discourses of citizenship. That the protest movement fizzled out matters little: it put down a marker which Bosnia’s politicians can no longer evade.
The protests were followed by devastating floods and landslides in May and June which destroyed houses, businesses and a wide range of infrastructure. This was the worst such natural disaster in modern times in Bosnia and is estimated to have cost €2 billion, equivalent to 15 per cent of Bosnia’s GDP, and displaced almost 100,000 people. Politicians made little attempt to address the crisis. Months after the floods struck international observers complain that virtually no action plans have been drawn up to properly coordinate re-construction efforts.
Bosnians now face yet another period of instability as the political parties begin negotiations on forming a government. Absent any real differences on policy these negotiations will revolve around a familiar pattern of distributing spoils. But the dramatic events of the spring and summer may well have changed Bosnia in ways that the ethnically-rooted political class now cannot ignore. Any reversion to the status quo ante will run up against lingering anger amongst Bosnian citizens at egregious corruption and recurring failures of economic management. The extreme social dislocation which the Dayton model is now associated with means that this time around Bosnia’s very existence may well be at stake.
John O’Brennan lectures in European Politics and Societies and is Director of European Studies at Maynooth University, Ireland and is currently on sabbatical leave in the Balkans.