Nothing new in Bosnia?

Teaser Image Caption
Künstlerische Auseinandersetzung mit 100 Jahren (1914-2014) Frauengeschichte in Bosnien - Ausstellung im Historischen Museum in Sarajevo.

Elections, Coalition building and a new chance for the European Integration: What has to change now in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The October elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina brought an end to one of least succesful terms in country’s recent history. The 2010-2014 term will be remembered by perpetual political crisis, with conflicting party politics pervading every sphere of governance and manifesting itself through failure to implement administrative, social and economic reforms; a complete halt of the EU accession process and an increasing discontent of impoverished and frustrated BiH citizens, which exploded in February 2014 through mass protests in several BiH cities. After the official election results were published, a topic of who will form parliamentary majorities and governments on state and entity levels was opened, followed by the announcement from British and German ministers of foreign affairs that a new initiative for BiH will be launched towards the European Union.

The post-electoral situation

The 2014 General elections (October 12th) saw some significant reshuffling of the vote, the most prominent being a sharp decrease in votes for the Social-democratic Party (SDP), which has lost no less than 173.117 votes for the state Parliament alone, dropping from 8 to 3 MP seats in the House of Representatives. Much of this vote went to Demokratska fronta (DF), a party founded as recent as 2013 by then-member of BiH Presidency, Željko Komšić. DF won 150.767 votes on the state level, coming second to SDA among the parties from the Federation of BiH. The third one is SBB with 4 seats, while the Croat-Democratic Union (HDZ) won one new seat in the Parliament.

At the same time, Dodik’s Union of the Independent Socialdemokrats (SNSD) lost two MPs, while the oponing Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) saw a significant rise in votes, winning one new seat and their coalition partner, the Party for Democratic Progress (PDP), held the one it had before. Another new factor on the political scene in Republika Srpska, coalition "Domovina" (Home), acting as a political voice of Bosniak and Croat returnees in the Republika Srpska (RS), also won a seat in the Parliamentary Assembly.  

Looking at the election results, we could say that the structure of electoral body is divided into 4 groups, out of which three are more or less steadily directed towards the ethnically defined parties, while the fourth group inclines towards the parties who define themselves as civic and/or multiethnic. This is the vote that went predominantly to SDP BiH in 2010, but in the 2014 elections it was largely dispersed between SDP, DF, NS and, to some extent, SBB. It can also be asumed that a significant number of abstinents and/or voters who annuled their ballots also falls into this cathegory, which has traditionally been more likely to boycott the electoral process as a means to express the dissatisfaction with the political situation in the country.

The first move towards a post-electoral coalition came in a form of an agreement between SDA, DF and the SDS-PDP-NDP coalition on a joint platform on the state level. Although initially HDZ's Dragan Covic was firmly aligned with Dodik and SNSD, recently an agreement was signed between HDZ, SDA and DF for a coalition on the level of FBiH and Covic's rethorics started to move away from insisting on SNSD's participation in the state-level government, to emphasizing that the Government of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) should be a foundation for composing the Conucil of ministers. At the same time, SDS-PDP-NDP and Domovina decided to act together in RS Parliament.

The Parliament of Republika Srpska is, however, shaken by a political scandal in the past days. Current RS prime minister, SNSD's Željka Cvijanović, was taped while openly saying that SNSD "bought" two MPs in order to secure a parliamentary majority in Republika Srpska, after the announcement that they might lose the support of two other MPs. After the audio was leaked to the public, the RS police focused exclusively on the topic of illegal "survailance" of RS prime minister, showing no intent to investigate the political corruption itself. Similarly, despite requests from opposition parties to investigate the case, the constituent session of RS Parliament was held in the midst of the scandal and SNSD managed to get the short parliamentary majority. Since the representatives in the state House of Peoples are appointed from entity Parliaments, Dodik immediately announced that he will use this to block all the processes in the state Parliament in case the Council of ministers is constituted without SNSD, adding to his well-known refrain on Republika Srpska's secession, spiced by an utterly unrealistic idea of it forming a new state with Serbia.

Where could the coalitions go in terms of constitutional reform?

If the present agreements are implemented, the BiH Council of Minister will have a rather different composure to that of 2010-2014. Out of seven parties that went through it in the previous term, SDA, HDZ and SDS (although now in coalition with PDP and NDP) will be there again, but a new party (DF) will enter and the biggest change will certainly be SNSD's absence from this body. The Presidency of BiH already reflects this potential structure, where only SDA kept its member, while, this time, the two others come from HDZ and PDP.

The question of constitutional reform is already a part of SDA-DF-SDS/PDP/NDP agreement and it is decisively directed towards insuring the same constituent rights to all BiH citizens. If HDZ does become a part of this coalition, it should be expected to happen under the term of accepting this fact and giving up on previous attempts to "hijack" the process of constitutional reform for the "Croat issue". This would have to be the prerogative of Demokratska fronta, since the party itself was formed after its founder, Željko Komšić, left his previous party precisely because of SDP's mishandling this issue, when they agreed to HDZ's terms for implementation of Sejdić and Finci verdict. DF is also profiled as the most prominent voice of "the others" in the current political setting, after SDP compromised this position in the previous term.

German-British Initiative: last chance for Bosnia?

The disappointment was very high after the negotiation process on constitutional reform between the leaders of the main political parties, lead by Stefan Füle, former EU Commissioner for Enlargement, failed. Experts, civil society and informed public expected a very clear message, stating i.a. who is responsible that no solution was found for the implementation of the Sejdic-Finci decision and that the political blockade continued. Unfortunately, there was no naming and shaming. After his last visit in February 2014, Füle stated his “deep disappointment on Sejdić-Finci implementation” but did not go into details. He did not commit that the discussion between the party leaders was more focused on the topic how to solve the “Croat issue” then on the real problem: the ethnic discrimination within the political system. The frustration among activists became even bigger, because the European Union confirmed its existing approach being not direct enough with the leaders who are keeping their citizens in a status quo, supporting them in their positions in a way and weakening civil society initiatives. 

The failure of the closed process made it clear that the European Union won´t go on like this with Bosnia. The February protests and the May floods have put the lights on other priorities. Poverty, low incomes, a bad health system and no social security very soon were stated as the key problems. Unfortunately, almost no one in the mainstream debate spoke about the ethnic discrimination within the political system.

Vesna Pusic, Croatian Foreign Minister, called her European colleagues already in March 2014 for a new “European approach towards Bosnia”, stating clear that there won´t be any reduction of integration criteria, but that there will be a closer cooperation, as Bosnia needs more efforts then other states, because “conditionality” obviously doesn´t work. And when everyone has forgotten about the Croatian initiative, we have been surprised by the message communicated by the British and German Foreign Minister at the beginning of November.

The German-British Initiative became, few days after it was public, a European-wide initiative. The European Foreign Ministers accepted it at the Council of the European Union mid November.

Bosnian political leaders were invited to present, as soon as possible, a written commitment, listing what reforms they want to work on, focusing dominantly on economic and social issues. Based on this letter, the EU Council may finally put in force the Stabilization and Association Agreement between Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union, which has been on hold for years because of the non-implementation of the Sejdic-Finci-decision. If the new government proves to be committed and reforms are being implemented, a candidate status may be even granted to the country. And all of this comes in the right moment, during the period when Bosnia is waiting for the official election results, the inauguration of the new elected parliaments and the forming of government majorities. A new chance for the new four-year period.

Not a simple thing to do

Someone may conclude: but it can´t be that easy. And that is right. The invitation of the British and German Governments is one of the last options left for Bosnia. Even the two governments which almost always had opposite opinions on what the involvement of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina should look like, after all the frustration with the “April package” (2006), “Butmir Process” (2009) and the blockade of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, this time they came together. The British “top-down state building” and the German “local ownership” found a medium solution in this initiative. This also confirms how serious this proposal is.

Two main problems can be pointed out, however. First, it is very utopian to expect the new political majority to bring any relevant change in the upcoming period. It seems that the Bosniak SDA, Croat HDZ and a Serbian coalition lead by SDS will form the state government. Even partially reformed, the three nationalist parties are the ones who lead Bosnia in the last 25 years and who brought the country in the very unstable position it’s in now. In a way, these parties (except SDS) have been the targets of the protests in February. It will be interesting to observe if they they will show a will to bring real reforms, which will also mean radical cuts in the public sector, where their voters’ basis is located, particularly when it comes to the parties from FBiH, since SDS hasn't been in power on entity level for the two previous terms. 

The second problem is the illusion that socio-economic reforms can go ahead and be successful without the democratization of the political system. Public sector reform can´t be implemented if we are ignoring the ethnic discrimination that is also taking place in this sector. Liberal democracy, freedom and social justice is a parallel development that needs to come with economic reforms. Only a free and inclusive society can keep the level of development in a society.

There is, therefore, a significant thing to point out when discussing the potential scenarios of the proposed initiative. Even though this initiative postpones the implementation of Sejdić and Finci ruling in order to unblock the EU accession process, the time for this issue to be put back on the table will certainly come, most likely in this term. When this happens, it is imperative that the essence of the ruling is not jeopardized by the political actors whose such attempts were the main reason that the ruling wasn’t implemented in the previous term. The ECHR ruling in this case, followed by a similar one in case of Azra Zornić, is clear – Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to change its Constitution in a manner, which will provide equal political and civic rights to all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnic or national identity. Any attempt to hijack this process and to introduce constitutional reform, which would increase the present discrimination rather than abolish it, will, without a doubt, once again be met with strong opposition, first and foremost from BiH civil society. This might not be a threatening prospect for the ethnically defined parties who don’t see their electoral “capital” in ending ethnic discrimination; but, for any party which considers or presents itself as civic, multi-ethnic, inclusive or antinationalist, agreeing to such terms of negotiations would be detrimental – as the case of SDP’s electoral demise has clearly shown. Hopefully, when this question is reopened, the EU representatives will not support such tendencies by facilitating completely side-tracked negotiations between party leaders and failing to stand behind the principles and merits of the ECHR ruling itself, as was the case in the previous term.

The case of political corruption in RS and statements from Milorad Dodik on his intent to continue to block political processes, pose another question for the EU - will they continue to treat all the party leaders as equal partners in the negotiations, or will the "buying" of MPs and open announcement of the intent to destabilize the state finally deem Dodik unfit for such a treatment from the international community?

But, all of this is not a reason not to give it a try. It is obvious that we are choosing between two solutions. The first solution is keeping Bosnia in a status quo until it does implement the Sejdic-Finci ruling. In a way, Bosnia would become a black whole in Europe, without a realistic chance for needed constitutional reforms. The second option is the proposed model: opening up the negotiation process and reforming the one-condition (Sejdic-Finci) situation into a broad conditionally integration process, that will include the problem of the ethnic discrimination, but won´t make it being the only condition. After all the problems we have faced, lets give it a try.