Citizen rage in Mostar - “The EU speaks to the mafia, but not to us“


For twelve years, the citizens of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian city of Mostar have not been able to vote. Thus, Mostar is the only city in Europe in which the right on elections at the local level has been systematically denied. Now there is an agreement between those very extremist representatives who have been preventing the people from going to the polls for years. The deal was also supported by the EU – and the citizens of Mostar are asking indignantly why they were not involved in the political decision-making processes. And why questionable deals are promoted by the state institutions. The agreement, or so the accusations, is only cementing the destructive ethno-nationalism in the country.

Mostar Ruin
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Mostar Ruine

Citizen rage in Mostar - “The EU speaks to the mafia, but not to us“

Mostar, the city on the green Neretva River, stands as a sad symbol for where blind nationalism and hatred of others will lead you. The numerous ruins and skeletons of buildings shot to pieces in the urban landscape along the still existent ethnic dividing lines still bear witness of the brutal fights twenty-five years after the end of the Bosnian War. Even though those were officially ended, the conflict is still being further fuelled by the relevant actors as a Cold War – with the goal of remaining in power.

Croatian and Bosniak extremists are to be blamed for that, represented by the nationalist parties Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ BiH) and the Party of Democratic Action (SDA). The two factions have divided the city – and primarily the budget of Mostar – among themselves and now use it without restraint, for the benefit of fellow party members and favourites. In order to prevent all parliamentary control, they have blocked people from going to the polls in Mostar for over a decade, a unique occurrence in Europe.

Now there is a pact between the nationalists – accordingly, for the first time elections are supposed to be held again in Mostar in December 2020. The so-called “agreement“ was also supported by the international community, above all the EU and the USA.[1]

And it is precisely this approach that has provoked the resentment of the citizens. The Mostar candidate of the Naša stranka party, Irma Baralija, called it a “plan from hell“ in an interview after the deal became known[2]. From the perspective of those who were advocating an undivided Mostar, the agreement and the consequential amendment of the Election Law was “disastrous.“

Baralija sued Bosnia and Herzegovina before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and won the case. The court judgement of October 2019 gave the Bosnian authorities six months’ time for implementing the decision. However, Baralija is not satisfied with the current situation – and together with her, many other citizens are at odds with the agreement that seems to be opening questions rather than answering them.

Indeed, the elections are now planned for December 20, at least that part of the agreement has found the approval of the inhabitants of Mostar. However, the second part of the agreement is highly debatable, as in response to pressure of the nationally oriented HDZ BiH a claim to power has been formulated at the state level, which appears grotesque; the underlying desire is that the party wishes to permanently establish its claim to sole representation of the Croats living in the country. That certainly has nothing to do with democratic, European principles.

Likewise, from over nine parties, only two did contribute to the agreement. And precisely that has been met with resistance by many citizens. The EU is setting inacceptable “double standards“ by supporting the agreement, Amna Popovac assesses the situation; a self-employed entrepreneur from Mostar and local politician of the still young party Platform for Progress. Popovac is demanding: It would be nice if the EU would implement its principles, which apply everywhere in Europe, here as well“, she says angrily. We are not some project, we are a state.“

“I am the sovereign!“

Apparently one also needs to explain to the international representatives why citizens constitute a state, the political scientist Husein Orucevic from Mostar emphasises, who is standing for election on the independent list Right on the City. Orucevic is asking provocatively what legitimacy the two nationalist leaders even had to make an agreement affecting all inhabitants of the city? “Who is Bakir Izetbegovic (Note: chief of the SDA), who is Dragan Covic (Note: chief of the HDZ BiH), to have the right to conclude this agreement? I am the sovereign here. The citizen!“, Orucevic states categorically.

The candidate of the First Party of Mostar, Adela Gosto, believes that the role of the EU is highly questionable: “Is such a power struggle desired in Mostar, is the EU manipulating us here, and if it is – why?“ she is asking. It is a priority for Gosto to prevent the unrestrained exploitation of public finances by the SDA and the HDZ BiH. There is enough money in Mostar, however it is lining private pockets, the young politician laments. Laws and the Constitution have been violated for years – without having any consequences.

Marin Bago, an environmental activist, who will stand in elections for the first time as a candidate on the independent list Right on the City, acknowledges: This agreement only came in existence because there is the judgement from Strasbourg. In the form in which it was launched, it was not in the interest of the citizens though to support democratisation and reforms of the corrupt structures.

Selling out European values: What about the responsibility towards the citizens?

I believe that the main motive of the representatives of the European Union who have negotiated this agreement was their own career. They merely helped in agreeing something before the expiry of the deadline (established by the European Court in Strasbourg, author’s note). It was a clever move of the European Union for the advancement of personal careers, without a vision, without respect for the citizens of Mostar, without responsibility!“ Overall, Bago concludes, the agreement is clearly violating European values.

The entrepreneur Amna Popovac agrees: The people sitting in the European Parliament should know that their representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina is violating international agreements, by promoting that agreement. Under the pretext of introducing democracy, international law is violated here – and we, the citizens of Mostar, continue to be enslaved.“ Popovac wants to show with her candidature that real politics with creative force can be made in Bosnia and Herzegovina again, and especially in Mostar – beyond the destructive approaches of the nationalist forces.

Overall it is good that now, after all those years, elections are being held again, that is the general tenor on the Neretva. The non-transparent and extra-institutional realisation of the “agreement“, and the non-inclusion of all actors who cannot be classified into the nationalist categories, is aggravating the citizens though. Therefore, they are already calling it “non-agreement” in colloquial speech.

The pensioner Jasminka Torlo, who fled during the war with her family to Norway and only came back after the end of the armed conflicts, emphatically demands: “We need more Europe here, we particularly need to strengthen the civic principle.“ According to her, that is the only way to achieve democratic success.

In this context, the publicist Stefica Galic points to the problem of all judgements of the European Court of Human Rights against Bosnia and Herzegovina (Sejdic-Finci/Zornic/Pilav), which still have not been implemented. They are clearly connected to the civic element in the Dayton Constitution, so that citizens of other “nationalities“ can stand for elections, Galic emphasises, even when they do not belong to the majority group. Representatives of the Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, established as constituent peoples by the Constitution, exploit their special position in the country for themselves and their parties mercilessly. Democratic fundamental rights are trampled all over in this way. The ethno-nationalists have blocked the implementation of the Strasbourg court judgements purposefully, in some cases for over ten years, Galic criticises. Bosnia and Herzegovina is thereby prevented to catch up with European standards. This permanent blockade needs to be ended finally, Galic says.

Entrenchment of destructive nationalism

While the Head of the EU Delegation Johann Sattler is praising the agreement as a “shining example“ on the reform path, precisely the opposite effect is achieved in the view of many citizens of Mostar: The international community legitimises the nationalists, their influence is further reinforced, NGO activist Vernes Voloder argues for instance. Together with an organisation, Voloder is working on mitigating the apartheid-like situation existing in some schools and enable Catholic and Muslim children a normal coexistence, if only for a few hours.

 “The international community has embarked in the game and suspended the state by accepting such agreements“, Voloder says. We are witnessing how important decisions for the future of this state are made in pubs and backrooms. Already several years ago, Milorad Dodik, the Serbian representative in the State Presidency, and Bakir Izetbegović discussed some of those reforms in a pub in East Sarajevo“, he criticises. Besides that, Voloder points out the current attacks from the neighbouring states: “Visits of important party representatives from Zagreb and Belgrade occur frequently. The region is currently attempting with an increasing intensity to circumvent state institutions in Bosnia and to reduce Bosnia and Herzegovina to three ethnically exclusive parts.“


[1] Present at the signing of the Mostar Agreement by SDA chief Bakir Izetbegovic and HDZ BiH chief Dragan Covic were: Head of the EU-Delegation Johann Sattler, High Representative Valentin Inzko, US Ambassador Eric Nelson, Head of the OSCE Mission Kathleen Kavalec, and British Ambassador Matthew Field.


Ruins of Mostar

According to him, one would actually expect from the EU to oppose those questionable approaches, as this represents a continuation of the war agendas of the 90s. Citizens and alternative forces need to be sustainably strengthened and supported in their struggle for democracy and human rights, as many people in Mostar who are fighting for reforms demand. But like this, there is a clandestine approach, as the widespread criticism goes, camaraderie on the part of the international community with the established, corrupt and criminal party clans, which are brutally defending their power at the elections as well – by manipulating electoral registers and by exerting extortive pressure on the staff in administration and state-owned companies. Across the country, they are supposedly forced to vote for the nationalists – otherwise they have to fear losing their jobs.

Stefica Galic, who has been harassed and threatened by Croatian nationalists for a long time, and thus was included in the programme “Parliamentarians Protect Parliamentarians[1] of the German Bundestag in 2019 on the initiative of the member of the Bundestag from the Green Party Manuel Sarrazin, uses quite drastic words to express her disappointment: “The EU is speaking to the mafia instead to the citizens.“

Ethnic ghettoisation as the nucleus of official policy

The politics of the nationalists is the status quo of a frozen conflict, without responsibility, without the further development of the society, culture and economy“, Galic says. In this environment, Mostar is made into a divided city, in which today´s youth have no contacts whatsoever to the other group, because everyone is living in their own “ethnic ghetto“.

In the view of book author and activist Enisa Bukvic, the principle of “two schools under one roof“ poses the biggest problem in the Herzegovina. This school form is founded on strict ethnic segregation, it offers separate school entrances for Bosniak and Croatian children, different classrooms, different times of the school breaks and different curricula – a worked out apartheid system in the heart of Europe.  

The strict division of the children allows the political clans to manipulate the families of the respective ethnic or religious group to the widest possible extent. In this way, a new generation of nationalists is brought up, who are afraid of the other group, Bukvic criticises. The only way out of this destructive spiral would be if all those who feel deterred by those machinations would vote anti-nationalist at the upcoming Local Elections. The goal has to be the abolishment of the predominant discrimination in the country and the introduction of equal rights for all. When it comes to the implementation of those goals, Bukvic believes that especially the international community needs to get involved as well: antidiscrimination and equality are crucial “prerequisites for lasting peace and prosperity“, the activist emphasises.

Croats continue to glorify the wartime parastate Herceg-Bosna“ until today

The former mayor of Bremen, Hans Koschnik, who had tried until 1996 as the EU Administrator on the Neretva to appease the nationalists from both camps and to normalise the political circumstances in the divided city, was exposed to brutal attacks during his mission, primarily by the Croatian HDZ and their followers. Koschnik survived an assassination attempt and left the city on the Neretva River without noteworthy success.

Since then, the dominance of the nationalists has remained unbroken – they have caused lasting harm to the city. On 9 November 1993, Croatian units blew up the historical Ottoman bridge over the Neretva River, the leadership of the Croats proclaimed the criminal parastate Herceg-Bosna already in 1991, which was sentenced with a total of 111 years in front of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Den Haag[2]. The flags of this criminal project, which was run from Zagreb with the goal of creating Greater Croatia, are still hanging in the Croatian dominated Western part of Mostar – as evidence that no lessons have been learned from the war.

The end of November will see the anniversary of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which ended the military operations on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, for the 25th time. It is about time for Mostar to receive a new chance now – and with Mostar the whole country. Citizen participation is an essential foundation of the European Union, just like the principle of anti-discrimination, which is granting the same rights to all citizens. Without those fundamental principles, there can be no democracy.

Thus, the Heinrich Böll Foundation has initiated a civil dialogue, in which Mostar’s citizens, who are active politically, can formulate their view of the current situation, their demands and desires for a political transformation in Bosnia. Thereby, especially the actions of the EU delegation in BiH were criticised. Many feel literally betrayed by the EU representatives: they say that the nationalists, who have pursued a never-ending blockade policy for 25 years to the detriment of the whole country, are rendered legitimate, the will of the citizens and visions of a denationalisation of politics are ignored.