Bosnia and Herzegovina ahead of the elections: Hatred and warmongering instead of political vision


Today elections are being held in Bosnia and Herzegovina: before getting out to vote, the nationalists' radical noises have brought the atmosphere to boiling point. There are threats of secession. Republika Srpska’s government desires a Greater Serbia, Croat leaders are pushing for their own entity – the wartime goals of the 90s are coming back to life. In an extremely jingoistic atmosphere, critical or alternative forces are threatened or even murdered.


Billboard "Welcome to the Croat Republic of Herceg-Bosnia"

Bosnia and Herzegovina ahead of the elections:  Hatred and warmongering instead of political vision

Today elections are being held in Bosnia and Herzegovina: before getting out to vote, the nationalists' radical noises have brought the atmosphere to boiling point. There are threats of secession. Republika Srpska’s government desires a Greater Serbia, Croat leaders are pushing for their own entity – the wartime goals of the 90s are coming back to life. In an extremely jingoistic atmosphere, critical or alternative forces are threatened or even murdered.                       

The images were shocking: the young man's face was bloated. Remains of blood on the skin, all the way to the ears. This was the mutilated face of David Dragičević, a young student and musician from Banja Luka; an image that had been making the rounds online for weeks. It was established meanwhile that the youth had been brutally murdered in mid-March, and his body then thrown into the river.

The father of the victim, Davor, says he has proof that his son was killed by policemen, Interior Ministry officials. For months, he has been mobilising citizens in his native town of Banja Luka, in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian entity dominated by the Serbs. Accompanied by people loyal to his cause lending him their support, he has stood every day on the main town square, sending his main message: “Justice and truth”.

Despite it clearly having been a case of violence, officials in Banja Luka clung for a long time to the version that David's death had been an accident. Up until now, the judicial bodies have held that there is no reason to investigate further or bring charges. Instead, they have sought to smear David and portray him as a thief and a drug-abusing criminal.

With the increasing number of details that the father and his helpers have made public, it soon became perfectly clear: the increasingly authoritarian regime has used allegations and constructs of involvement in criminal acts to silence its critics. At the very top of this pyramid sits RS President Milorad Dodik. The candidate on whom the international community had once laid its hopes, and whose party has operated under the banner of social democracy only to turn nationalist, has for years played the radicalisation card. In the meantime, he has quite openly articulated his secessionist intentions: his mantra is that the RS must be unified with the Serb motherland.

Dodik, who has denied Bosnia and Herzegovina's statehood and constantly flouted state institutions, will run in the upcoming elections, to be held in early October, for the seat of the Serb member of the state Presidency. A travesty that best describes how politics is done in Bosnia. If Dodik were to win the election, this would cause further dysfunction in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian system – precisely his goal.

The economic situation is as desperate in the RS as in the rest of the country. And yet, Dodik and his followers have offered nothing of substance in their electoral campaign other than open nationalism and revanchism. This includes brute force: critics, such as journalists, are threatened, beaten up; in the words of a representative of the media, there exists a “lynching atmosphere”. Since the beginning of the year, 43 journalists have been assaulted around the country.

The dominant atmosphere is of exclusion, marginalisation, and hatred; an atmosphere where reconciliation is wilfully disrupted: Dodik has forcefully cast doubt upon the Srebrenica genocide in which more than 8200 Muslim boys and men, young and old, have been killed. The fact that the RS is a product of a brutal policy of ethnic cleansing is simply denied. In August, the report on the crime in Srebrenica, which had up until that point been officially recognised, was simply dismissed through a vote in the National Assembly of RS, as it allegedly contains “incorrect information”.

The radicalisation of the Croats

Dragan Čović, the Croat representative in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian State Presidency, has likewise behaved destructively, seeking to impede the long-term functioning of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In recent months, the Croat leader was the one who has to a large extent obstructed significant reform processes. His party, the HDZ's – and thus his own – goal is to secure for themselves a power base. All the significant political actors know: the more Bosnia and Herzegovina develops into a functioning state, with a satisfactorily operating independent judiciary, the sooner might high-level politicians have to answer for decades-long corruption and nepotism. Therefore, the priority goal is to maintain authority by any means.

The examples of the recently convicted Ivo Sanader, from Croatia, and the former Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who just last week had his conviction for corruption affirmed, have shown what happens to politicians who split up their countries into spheres of interest and distribute their resources amongst themselves. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the best example of such structures of state capture: led by the parties that function as power cartels, positions and jobs are handed to relatives, spouses and party members, and during elections, the employment apparatus is used for blackmail. Those working in the public sector often have to have images on their mobile phone to prove which party they voted for.

23 years after the war has ended, the nationalists, who in recent years have built up and reinforced their influence, thanks to the weakness of the international community led by the European Union, have a lot to lose. Hence, the ongoing, increasingly dirty electoral campaign is heating up. There are obvious irregularities: in many districts the numbers of voters on electoral rolls exceed the populations; there are thousands of deceased people on the rolls, according to the Central Election Commission. In the Bosnian-Herzegovinian election process, Gogol's “Dead Souls” have become sad reality. Confronted by evident manipulations, representatives of the international community believed that they have to appeal to politicians to allow voters free and fair elections.

Currently, there is practically no mention either of real politics or this little country's numerous problems: mass unemployment, endemic corruption, alarming levels of smog, hopeless health care system; on the contrary, by targeted propaganda and sowing panic, the political caste has tried to warn of the dangers posed by other ethnic groups. Our own ethnic group is in peril – this has been the most important message throughout the election campaign.

A system of fear is purposefully being created in order to draw attention away from real problems and own failures. This way, voters are to be confined to their own ethnic groups for re-mobilization at elections – and to be kept inert in-between.

Croatia's role and the “Herceg-Bosna” project

The current electoral campaign has above all clearly shown one thing: both the RS and the Croats have sought to put through the goals of the ‘90s, this time by other means. The ghost of Herceg-Bosna, the criminal wartime para-state that was supposed to extract parts of Herzegovina from the Bosnian-Herzegovinian federation, is alive – according to a criticism by Slavo Kukić, a Mostar sociologist.

In the Croatian part of the still-divided town of Mostar, where no elections have been held since 2008 and citizens have been prevented for years from enjoying their basic human rights as without parliamentary oversight, the Croat HDZ and Bosniak SDA can more easily take care of their own business. Herceg-Bosna flags fly en masse. The fact that this ideological project is tied to war crimes that had ultimately, in November 2017, led to life imprisonment sentences being handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague (ICTY) doesn't appear to bother their sister-party, the HDZ in Zagreb.

Just the opposite: Croatia is still bound to the project of Herceg-Bosna and its main actors: following the suicide in a Hague courtroom of the Bosnian-Croatian general Slobodan Praljak, whose first-instance conviction was confirmed in 2017, the Croatian Parliament in Zagreb held a minute of silence. In Croatia, Croat war criminals from Bosnia and Herzegovina are considered heroes. It is clear that a European Union member has been assisting this. Due to nationalist motives an entire region is held in instability and chaos. The peaceful order engendered in Dayton is under attack.

Izetbegović's kowtowing to Ankara

The Bosniak side has also been all too eager to play the radicalism card. Early this year, Bakir Izetbegović, the Bosniak representative in the Presidency, has informed the public that only war could bring about a third entity. The Izetbegović family has for long dominated the political scene, but after two terms, Bakir can no longer run in these elections. Instead, his wife Sebija, who has been given a sinecure as director of the University Clinical Centre (Koševo Hospital), will run for office, but not as a candidate for member of the Presidency. The SDA is expecting to lose ground, and has therefore put forward a candidate from Izetbegović's sphere of influence so as to protect the influential family from any harm. Izetbegović's open kowtowing to Turkey and its autocratic president, Reçep Tayyıp Erdoğan, has generated disgust among a large part of the population, the Bosniaks included.

During a contentious appearance by Erdoğan at his own election rally in central Sarajevo, held in May 2018, which wasn't agreed on with other members of the Presidency, Izetbegović humbly and publicly praised his guest from Ankara, saying that God himself had sent him. This comment was accompanied by a call to Turks living in Germany and Austria to vote for Erdoğan in the upcoming presidential elections.

That the Turkish Embassy in Sarajevo wouldn't issue press accreditations to critically-minded media representatives to attend the Godsend's manifestation is just another piece of evidence that the Bosniak SDA has also firmly refused to take the essential steps of democratisation. In addition, by ceding the organisational authority for Erdoğan's appearance – glorified as a mega-event – to the Turkish representation, Izetbegović has cast permanent doubt on his country's sovereignty. The SDA also aims to alleviate its relative weakness in the electoral campaign through use of the deceased founder of the state, Alija Izetbegović, on huge posters appealing to Bosniak voters to stay faithful to his party.

Fahrudin Radončić, of SBB (Better Future Party), has unambiguously distanced himself from the SDA, positioning himself with a key message, “Economy, not Dynasty”. It is no secret that, naturally, Radončić himself is a colourful political figure, which has for years constantly been seen as connected to mafia circles, someone who, especially according to his critics, has a tendency to take drastic steps. Radončić is considered one of the most powerful people in the country, who, using his Avaz newspaper empire, has shown a marked sense for conducting a political campaign that is currently portraying his party as the country's saviour.

Wanted: alternatives oriented towards democracy

All in all, the number of political cadres interested in modernisation and democratisation in Bosnia is more than limited. Liberally-minded and non-nationalist voters nevertheless do have a small number of alternatives on offer: the former president Željko Komšić is running on the Democratic Front ticket. Although ethnically Croat, the radical HDZ has smeared him by saying he is not a “real” Croat, in order to reduce his chances of success. All in all, it is doubtful that the social-democrat SDP, which – nevertheless – has addressed deep-seated social problems at its election rallies, or the multi-ethnic Our Party, which has especially strong support in Sarajevo, will achieve decisive success in an atmosphere of nationalist reheating of passions.

There is enough reason to punish the ruling political caste and its destructive ethnic nationalism with election results: while in other Western Balkan countries the modest reform impulses have, albeit slowly, been gathering pace, Bosnia has lagged behind internationally as well (see Heinrich Böll Foundation documentation[1]). Whether it's the unemployment rate (highest in Europe) and the state of democracy[2] (level with Morocco and Burkina Faso), or the rate of mortality caused by air pollution, on which Bosnia has managed to achieve second place, behind North Korea.[3] This small Balkan country is desperate in nearly every sphere of politics, economy and the environment.

While Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has been making efforts to peacefully resolve the dispute with Greece around the name of the country, in order to bring it closer to the European Union, while in Albania a professional screening process is being used in an attempt to renew the endemically corrupt judiciary, while Montenegro's decision to join NATO has managed to check the destructive influence of Russia, Bosnian politicians prefer to use the narratives and jingoistic slogans of the past, thus placing the country in the absolute last place in Europe.

The hopeless economic and social situation, constant fanning of aggressive rhetoric of hatred towards other ethnic groups, marginalisation and discrimination of minorities such as Jews and Roma, antagonising LGBT persons and, finally, constant glorifying of war criminals and their deeds are even now pushing hundreds of thousands of people to leave the country. For ages, it has not been only the young and the educated turning their backs on Bosnia and its war zone rhetoric – entire families have locked their homes and left for Austria or Germany to seek their professional and private happiness there. The extent of this mass exodus, where the most liberal forces have turned their backs on the country, doesn't give hope for a better future for Bosnia.

It is left to us to wait and see whether the election results will succeed in changing some of the negative predictions. The only certainty is that it is impossible to make a state, in the real sense of the word, with the politicians who have pulled the strings and who have so far left their marks on the political discourse in Bosnia and Herzegovina, who used their parties and positions solely for private enrichment – of themselves and their cronies. With them, the changes that would liberate the country from the clutches of ethnic nationalism destroying it will not come about. If these forces were to win these elections, reconciliation and democracy – which, to be sure, played no part during this electoral campaign – would grow entirely distant in the period to come.

Translation by Hana Dvornik


[1]           See: The consequences of Bad Governance in BiH, Heinrich Böll Stiftung Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2018

[2]           See: The Economist Democracy Index 2017

[3]           See: WHO studies