The debate raging within Bosnia & Herzegovina over the newly announced census data is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of political tussles usually pitting the leaders of the mainly ethnic Serb Republika Srpska against the national government and that of the Bosniak-Croat Federation.
The failure of the three governments to reach agreement on critical issues has already stalled Bosnia’s EU membership application and put at risk a €550mn International Monetary Fund (IMF) deal, and could have even more serious consequences for the country.
The long-awaited results of the 2013 census, released on June 30, showed a significant change in the ethnic composition of the country since the last census was held back in 1991. Critically, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) are now an absolute majority of 50.11%, while Serbs make up 30.78% and Croats 15.43%. Despite suffering lighter losses in the Bosnian wars, the Serb and Croat populations have dwindled, most likely due to emigration to Serbia and Croatia.
The census is a hot political issue in Bosnia because many of the constitutional mechanisms laid out in the Dayton Agreement that ended the 1992-1995 Bosnian war were based on the 1991 census. Back then, 43.5% of the population identified as Muslims, 31.2% as Serbs and 17.4% as Croats.
“Before the war, no group had a majority and Bosnia was perceived as a country of three constituent nations. Now the census has declared that the Bosniaks have an absolute majority, which implies they could impose their will on the minority,” says Marko Attila Hoare, historian and associate professor at the UK’s Kingston University.
However, in practical terms he does not expect changes to Bosnia’s complex and cumbersome power-sharing system as a result of the census. “The system is very heavily entrenched and there is strong resistance to change from both Republika Srpska and the international community. I don’t think the results will make a big difference.”
“In practice a kind of rotating ethnic oligarchy emerged over the next 20 years [after the Dayton Agreement], so I don’t think the census will influence the mechanism of the state - in so much as it operates at all,” says analyst Jasmin Mujanovic. “The real consequence of the census will be on the day to day political discourse, as we have already seen. It has become an opportunity in this constant bickering and brinkmanship that the three main ethno-nationalist blocs engage in.”
The bickering erupted even before publication of the census, which the Republika Srpska authorities tried to block, most likely suspecting what the results would be. Banja Luka claims around 200,000 people - mainly Muslims - living abroad were wrongly counted in the census. Removing them would push the proportion of Bosniaks back below 50%. The leader of the Serb Democratic Party, founded by wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, has filed an appeal with the constitutional court, and the statistics office in Republika Srpska plans to publish its own version of the census within six months.
Publication of the census was always going to be incendiary, but it was one of the three requirements for Bosnia to make its application for EU membership credible, after it formally applied for membership in February.
The other two steps – adopting a working coordination mechanism and adjusting Bosnia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) in line with Croatia’s entry to the EU – have not yet been taken. A coordination mechanism was quietly approved back in February, sparking anger from Republika Srpska officials who said they had not been consulted. Discussions on the mechanism have since restarted.
Officials from the Serb entity also say proposed changes to the SAA would seriously harm its agricultural sector, though they could be edging towards a compromise. All three steps are required for Bosnia’s application to be approved by EU foreign ministers.
Observers say the delays in Bosnia’s EU integration process are unsurprising since according to Mujanovic, “Bosnia, realistically speaking, was not even ready to be a candidate”. While submitting the application provided a political boost for Sarajevo, it “had nothing to do with reality”.
A connected dispute has put at risk Sarajevo’s hopes of inking the new IMF arrangement agreed in May following a year of negotiations. The governments of both Bosnian entities want an IMF deal to help cover their budget deficits. Additional funding from the EU and the World Bank is expected only after an IMF deal is finalised. But both the head of the national government Denis Zvizdic and the Federation’s Prime Minister Fadil Novalic have refused to sign the letter of intent to the IMF until Republika Srpska agrees to adapt the SAA.
These disputes stem partly from divisions dating back to the war and before that. Reconciliation is a slow process and divisions remain. The rift within Bosnia was highlighted recently by the refusal of Republika Srpska officials to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre on July 11. The entity’s President Milorad Dodik denies genocide took place during the war and has continued to defend Karadzic despite his conviction for genocide and other war crimes.
But there are also strategic reasons for Dodik’s awkwardness. Since his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) is in opposition in the central government, he risks being left out of important decisions and some of his nationalist posturing is most likely intended to force concessions from the national government. He is also trying to divert attention from a corruption probe concerning his 2007 purchase of a luxury villa in Belgrade.
After the publication of the census results, the SNSD again threatened to call a referendum in Republika Srpska, according to local daily Nezavisine Novine. Dodik’s previous proposal for a referendum on the authority of the state-level institutions, which would have breached the Dayton Agreement, was put on hold last year following heavy international pressure. This time the SNSD wants a referendum over the proposed Republic Day public holiday that has been banned by the state-level constitutional court.
Previously, Dodik raised tensions in December when the Republika Srpska temporarily decided to end cooperation with national courts, prosecutors and the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA), and warned it would authorise the local police to resist officers from the central authorities.
Boiling the frog
Despite Dodik’s nationalist posturing, Hoare does not believe he seriously wants independence for Republika Srpska, which would presumably be followed by absorption into Serbia and a lesser role for Dodik himself. “Dodik will only push for a referendum if he feels it’s in his interests to do so. The status quo suits him quite well, whereas independence would bring risks.”
However, the steady stream of provocations from Republika Srpska are damaging to stability in Bosnia, according to both Hoare and Mujanovic, who likens the situation to “boiling the frog”, where a very gradual escalation in tensions leads to red flags being ignored.
“My concern with Bosnia is not that any of these largely theatrical threats from Republika Srpska will lead to renewed conflict ... but that over time it will get more serious and more dangerous,” Mujanovic warns.
The decision to pull out of the state security apparatus was “to all extents and purposes a declaration of war ... a major escalation. I fear it’s just a matter of time before someone goes too far and people realise there isn’t the institutional framework in the country to deal with these kinds of dangerous games.”
Not only does Bosnia have weak institutions, its struggle to contain internal divisions continues amid potentially dangerous changes in the regional and global geopolitical situations. Within the Western Balkans, both Kosovo and Macedonia face a breakdown of governance, while Croatia is in the midst of a constitutional crisis and in Serbia Aleksandar Vucic’s government is rapidly consolidating its control of the state.
From a wider perspective, the EU has been battered by the migrant crisis and the Brexit vote, a weakness that Russia is poised to take advantage of, including in the Western Balkans. Other security factors, such as the return of Bosnian jihadis from Syria, could pose additional threats to the country.
“It isn’t so much the census or the Srebrenica anniversary ... it’s the problem of structural instability and that to me is incredibly worrying,” says Mujanovic. “Democracy and the transition process have been revealed as being quite hollow and there aren’t the strong, functioning institutions in the region that one would have hoped for after 20 years of EU and US engagement.”
Meanwhile, amid the focus on the ethnic dimension of the census, other disturbing information has been virtually ignored. Bosnia’s population has gone down by almost one fifth or over 800,000 people since 1991, a figure that most likely represents emigration by those who see few prospects in their home country as well as the wartime deaths. In terms of development indicators, at 2.82% Bosnia’s illiteracy rate is higher than in neighbouring countries, and just 12.7% of the population have higher education - both are worrying given the extremely high level of unemployment in Bosnia.