Analysis: Ethnic politics are destroying Bosnia

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This article was originally appeared in New York Transatlantic on June 7, 2017.


Graffiti in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina which translates to “we are stronger together.” | Stephanie Sugars

In 2011, the Football Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina was suspended by the Union of European Football Associations for violating a new statute: that the organization must be led by a single president. The Bosnian FA, mirroring the tripartite presidency of the state, had three: a Bosniak (Muslim), a Croat (Catholic), and a Serb (Orthodox). Following boycotts by national team members and public opposition, the system was changed and a single president elected by the end of 2012.

But while the existence of three heads of state has had far graver repercussions, constitutional reform has stalled. The sense of urgency brought to bear on the Bosnian FA has not fallen upon the Bosnian presidency, and politicians are complacent with a status quo that they directly benefit from.

Though a quarter-century has passed since the end of the Bosnian War, tensions remain between the egalitarian aims of the constitution and the divided reality. Its provisions for power sharing have inundated the top levels of the Bosnian government with ethnic politics and political parties. In an attempt to preserve and even extend their power and influence, politicians rally around ethnicity-based issues—such as proposed independence referendums—that “would be tremendously destabilizing, and almost certainly precipitate violence,” said Kurt Bassuener of the Democratization Policy Council in an email interview.

Politicians use rhetoric reminiscent of that deployed during the war, exploit fears to justify ethnic parties, and reinforce a system of patronage and clientelism. “People vote for these parties because they recognize that the best and sometimes only way to get a job is through a connection with these political parties,” said Jasmin Mujanović, a political scientist and analyst focused on Southeast Europe. This framing has spread into all aspects of life, disseminated too often by the media and with everything from school curricula to war memorials perceived through this lens.

A divided, Bosniak-Croat school in Travnik, BiH. (Photo:

In some towns with Croat and Bosniak populations, “two schools under one roof” continue to segregate students. Attending classes at different times or entering through separate doors, the children are taught separate histories and languages (even though Croatian and Bosnian are mutually intelligible). This system is necessary to perpetuate the histories their separate textbooks and war memorials tell, highlighting their own losses while minimizing misdeeds. Things often don’t improve in adulthood, as even with advanced degrees many young Bosnians describe employment as dependent on their connections, ethnicity, and, often, ability to pay a bribe. At nearly 60 percent, Bosnia has one of the world’s highest rates of youth unemployment.

The fact that politicians benefit from the status quo keeps the state paralyzed.

Politicians’ obsession with ethnic gain and zero-sum view of the political and social sphere has left Bosnia economically insolvent. Around 40 percent of the population is officially unemployed—though the informal economy is thriving—and at least 20 percent live in poverty. Only the commitment of national and local political leaders to meaningful change could break this system of clientelism and corruption, but the fact that politicians benefit from the status quo keeps the state paralyzed. And so, the Bosnian economy sputters and stagnates as ethnicity remains center stage.

The War and the Dayton Accords

With the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, war broke out in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Following NATO’s intervention in 1995, which ultimately ended the war, the United States and European Union brokered a deal between the presidents of Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia. In November 1995, the Dayton Accords were signed, enacting a ceasefire and establishing the constitution of an independent Bosnia-Herzegovina comprised of two semi-autonomous entities: the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Serb Republika Srpska. A 2013 census confirmed that 92 percent of Serbs live in Republika Srpska, and 91 percent of Bosniaks and 88 percent of Croats live in the Federation. While this partitioning ended the war, it has proven to be little more than a band-aid.

The Accords sought to prevent future conflict by providing each of the three constitutionally recognized ethnicities with equal representation. It established a tripartite presidency where each ethnic group elects a representative for a four-year term, who then rotates as chairperson of the presidency every eight months. This system mandated elections of Bosnia’s highest officials on the basis of ethnicity, thereby entrenching ethnicity in the politics of the state.

Constitutional Change

A 2009 ruling by the European Court of Justice found the power-sharing provisions of Bosnia’s presidency to be a violation of ethnic minorities’ human rights. Until Bosnia resolves this violation, it is barred from membership in the EU—the clearest road to reviving Bosnia’s economy. In response, the Bosnian Parliament started a reform process in 2011, but it has stalled. “Constitutional reform is essential,” Mujanović said, “but there is zero political will, there is no incentive.”

Politicians benefit from the system of ethnic politics, and they evaluate policy based on perceived ethnic gains or losses, not considerations of the national welfare. In January, Bakir Izetbegović, the Bosniak member of the presidency, independently requested a reexamination of the International Court of Justice case ruling against Serbia’s culpability for genocide in Bosnia. “It was clear from the get go that it wasn’t in good faith,” said Mujanović.

This type of ethnic stunt is used to “shore up support,” wrote Florian Bieber, a political scientist and historian at the University of Graz. And yet, more often than not, these stunts “undermine institutions further,” as was the case earlier this year. While Izetbegović’s request was denied, citing lack of support from all three presidents, it deepened a crack in the state structure whose future is already uncertain.

“If you take an authoritarian regime, or at least an illiberal one—which Bosnia is—and divide it in three, you don’t make a democracy. You create three one-party states.”

In addition to the continued calls of Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik for an independence referendum, members of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) have renewed their calls for a third, Croat entity. Either of these changes to the entities would destabilize the balance of power and increase the risk of conflict and oppression. “I fail to see how it would improve the function of the state in any way, shape or form,” Mujanović says. “If you take an authoritarian regime, or at least an illiberal one—which Bosnia is—and divide it in three, you don’t make a democracy. You create three one-party states.”

Politicians from all three ethnicities seem to approve of this option, Bassuener said, as they would all have “equally untrammeled power in [their] fiefdom.” It appears that only disputed borders between the territories stands in the way of consensus between politicians from the three ethnic groups. But further federalization of the state would result in three illiberal pseudo-states prone to instability and conflict. “All it would take would be one spectacular violent incident to initiate a chain reaction,” Bassuener said, with not every EUFOR capable of “deterring or reacting to such a challenge.”

Despite its numerous failings, many see the Dayton Accords and the constitution it established as the only thing that ended the war and held the peace over the past 20 years. Yet economic stagnation, patronage, and political fragmentation threaten this peace. The need for constitutional change is at a critical juncture where reform or its absence will define the future, form, and survival of the state. Without it, Mujanović sees an impending unraveling: “When pensions dry up and state assistance dries up and people lose their jobs… then there will be fire and brimstone.” Though the 2014 protests in response to rising unemployment and pervasive corruption yielded little to no change, the underlying grievances remain and are only growing.

Photo: “We are stronger together.” Street art in Mostar, BiH / Stephanie Sugars.