Bosnia’s Only Starting on Road to Democracy

Lack of agreement on whether Bosnia’s root problem is the Dayton structures, corruption, inequality – or something else – is a reminder of the challenges facing the protest movement.

by Dr. Soeren Keil

Much has been written about the recent protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some commentators have focused on the role of international actors in the recent unrest while others have concentrated on the demands for long-term change. More recently, the focus has shifted towards assessing the impact of widespread public protests on democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Eldar Sarajlic states in his analysis: “Recent unrest in Bosnia has exposed the age-old dilemma about democracy once again: is democracy procedural or substantive? In other words, are procedures required by basic democratic standards, such as political equality, freedom of speech and free elections, sufficient for democracy?”

Others, such as Florian Bieber, have focused on the potential for long-term change in Bosnia as a result of the protests. He argues that “In the middle of the protests, and they are far from over, it is impossible to guess the outcome. What is clear is that the current political elites, at least in the Federation, have widely lost their legitimacy.”

Many commentators agree that the current unrest, sparked by unpaid wages and disillusioned workers in Tuzla, has had an impact that will change Bosnia in the future. While some hope that this will lead to a more open and democratic society, others, such as the Republika Srpska’s President Milorad Dodik, have argued that the protests demonstrate the failure of the Bosnian state. 

People directly involved in the protests have pointed out that they do not have any other option but to protest and to continue to put pressure on political elites. As Nidzara Ahmetasevic argues: “Twenty years of democratisation taught us only that those who are irresponsible and careless, supported by a plethora of international organisations, plus those in the EU who have supported these politicians for years as partners, are not the way we want to go. 

“Now we have a chance to articulate something different, something that will truly belong to us. We will see how it will go. I believe we are brave enough to reach the final goal – a democratic state that respects the basic rights of the people, and in the first place their social rights.”   

While people in Bosnia crave change, and the formation of citizens’ plenums across the country are a good sign, the truth is that the country is on a long road towards democracy. Democratization processes in other countries and academic studies on democratization and regime change teach us that Bosnia faces many obstacles and challenges towards long-term democratic change. 

The problem of the elites:

For one, there are the current leaders in Bosnia. Most of them control nationalist exclusive parties and have done everything to stay in power. Even parties such as the Social Democratic Party, SDP, which claims to represent a multi-ethnic vision of the country, have lost respect and legitimacy, because they have agreed political deals that kept their officials in power but damaged the country. These elites have reacted to the protests by trying to instigate traditional ethnic stereotypes.

Bosniak elites argue that the Serbs organised the protests to bring the country to a standstill and to demonstrate that Bosnia is not working. Milorad Dodik, President of the Republika Srpska (the mainly Serb-inhabited part of the country) has meanwhile argued the protests demonstrate that Bosnia is not functioning and should therefore dissolve. He blames Bosniaks for the failure of reforms in the Federation of BiH (the mainly Bosniak and Croat part of the country), and says Bosniak politicians want to utilize these protests to abolish Bosnia’s federal structure and implement a unitary system.

Croat political elites have also blamed Bosniaks and their ambition to centralize the state, and have used the protests to highlight their claim that Croats are being discriminated, particularly in the Federation, which many Croats see as Bosniak-dominated.

This blame game is typical for Bosnian politics. Instead of listening to the demonstrators, politicians employ two main strategies in these protests. First, they are evoking ethnic stereotypes and traditional fears of being dominated by the other group. By doing so, they are playing on people’s fears and traditional political images of rivalry between the three dominant groups in the country. This also needs to be interpreted in the light of upcoming elections in October 2014, for which nationalist elites rely on ethnic mobilization and stereotypical stigmatization of “Others” to remain in office. 

Second, at least at entity and national level, elites “sit and wait” for the protests to be over. While some cantonal governments in the Federation had to step down, no such changes have happened at entity or national level. At the same time, none of the leading politicians in the entities and in the central institutions has offered to meet the protesters and discuss their demands. While this has happened at regional level, in Tuzla, for example, entity elites and those in power at central level abstain from engaging directly with the protesters, as they are well aware that the demands raised are not about ethnic issues but about social and economic problems. 

However, it remains to be seen how the demands of the protesters will be channeled through the traditional lines of party politics. It seems unlikely that the dominant ethno-national parties will pick up these demands, as the protests raise non-ethnic issues such as social equality, the fight against corruption, and a reform of the payment system for civil servants and politicians. Many citizens’ plenums argue for the installation of “technocratic governments,” though the experiences in Greece and Italy demonstrate that these are incredibly unpopular once they start implementing painful reforms.

Having said this, a number of small parties and NGOs might be able to pick up the protesters’ demands and be rewarded with greater electoral success in the forthcoming elections. It remains to be seen whether Zeljko Komsic’s party, Nasa Stranka, or others, can really make a difference. However, it is unlikely that major reform demands will be implemented if they are not channeled through political parties. This is one of the perils of procedural democracy. 

Are the institutions the problem?

This raises the question of the extent to which change is possible in the current institutional set-up in Bosnia. The country is based on the principle of strict sharing of ethnic power, coupled with a highly decentralised state organisation. Some, like Eric Gordy, argue that change is unlikely within the current institutional structure. Others, such as Florian Bieber, have argued that a distinction needs to be made between the Dayton institutional structure and the politicians that have utilized it to their advantages. 

The truth is that even if Bosnia had the most advanced, open, and democratic institutions in the world, the political elites would still have used them to their advantage. The problem in Bosnia is not the institutional set-up but the political representatives in these institutions. However, the strict power-sharing system, coupled with ethnically homogenous regions in a highly decentralised federal structure, has made it easier for political elites to abuse the system and manipulate it. Playing the card of ethnic rivalry: (“Vote for us, we will protect you; the other group is a threat to our group and only we can save you”) works best when people live in ethnically homogenous areas and have little contact with members of the other ethnic groups. 

Interpreting all political negotiations and compromise findings as zero-sum games is easier when the institutions allow for easy possibilities to veto decisions. Blocking decisions at central level and bringing decision-making to a standstill works much more easily in a decentralised system where most decisions are taken at entity and cantonal level anyway. Hence, though the institutional framework is not to blame for the problems of post-Dayton Bosnia, it has also not contributed to liberalisation and democratisation, or lessened ethnic tensions. 

Yet, it is important to note that Bosnia remains a divided society. Even if these protests have not been about ethnic issues (despite of what politicians claim), ethnic issues matter in Bosnia more than in most countries. Hence, some form of power-sharing will need to remain the main framework to unite the Bosnian people in common institutions. However, more incentives for cooperation, and the imposition of higher political costson those blocking the system would improve flexibility and potentially also better policy-output. 

The international community’s agenda:

From the neighbouring countries to the EU and the US, everyone has felt the need to engage with the Bosnian protests. While the EU and US focus on security and High Representative Valentin Inzko has even threatened to bring in EU military forces to restore public order, Croatian and Serbian politicians have used the protests to support their ethnic kin and join the blame game. 

We know from other cases of democratization that the international environment, both the neighbourhood and the wider international scene, are important for the success or failure of democratisation movements. While many international actors see the protests as a chance for change in Bosnia, the real nature of change required is often not clear.

Wolfgang Petritsch, a former High Representative in Bosnia, for example argues that Bosnia needs to implement the Sejdic-Finci judgment of the European Court of Human Rights and needs a new “Marshall Plan.” 

But it remains unclear how this would address the main demands of the protesters for more social equality, less corruption, more transparency and more participation. While the Sejdic-Finci judgment is not unimportant, it would only address the discrimination against the “Others” in the institutional structure of the country. It would not deal with questions of social justice or with the overall transparency of the political process. Most importantly, it is unclear how these suggestions would lead to a generation of new elites that are not corrupt and nationalist, and more accountable to their electorate. The last thing Bosnia needs today is more money being poured into it. The amount of money that has been wasted already is shocking. By 1999, less than four years after the war, the New York Times estimated that about $1 billion had been lost in Bosnia to corruption and theft.

Neither the EU, nor the US, have pushed politicians hard enough to engage with the demands of the protesters. Co-opted sessions of government should be held in which the authorities have to justify themselves to the citizens’ plenums. NGOs and think tanks should play a key role in the formulation of alternative policies and advise the plenums so that they can formulate key policy guidelines for the new governments at all levels of decision-making. International actors should support these reforms from the outside rather than directly intervening in the political process in Bosnia.

This has been counter-productive. Instead, the EU needs to rebuild its reputation by supporting the protesters and citizens’ forums and keeping up the pressure on political elites to engage with the protesters.  

Protesters also a problem?

It might sounds strange to call the protesters part of the problem in the democratisation process in Bosnia. Yet, little is known about them. They seem to come from all age groups and all social backgrounds but are by no means a coherent group. Different people have different reasons to protest. To manage this diversity and put it into a coherent policy frame for future reforms will be challenging. The citizen forums already demonstrated that getting a lot of people together and involving them in policy-making is not easy. Yet, the assemblies also demonstrate that it is not impossible. Ultimately, it is simple – people know best what is good for them. 

Having said this, although protests are ongoing throughout Bosnia, the number of people protesting is far lower than two weeks ago, when protests started. It remains to be seen whether the protesters can keep up the pressure on elites and formulate clear and tangible goals.  

Change is coming to Bosnia. The need now is not for more division, but to find a common language. Common policy ambitions and strategic plans need to be formulated and implemented. The future of the institutional set-up needs to be discussed. It remains to be seen if these protests can lead to long-term changes. The chances are not bad. In fact, they are better than they have ever been since the war ended. 

Dr Soeren Keil is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Canterbury University in the UK. His book “Multinational Federalism in Bosnia and Herzegovina” was published last year with Ashgate. He has also worked with think tanks and NGOs in Bosnia and the wider Western Balkans.

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