New possibilities but old problems after Bosnian elections

By bne IntelliNews October 12, 2010

Andrew MacDowall in Sarajevo and Banja Luka -

Bosnia-Herzegovina's election has opened up some new possibilities, but for the time being the divided country and its beleaguered economy look to be in for more of the same.

The multi-layered elections to a bewildering array of state, entity and cantonal parliaments and presidencies turned up a few surprises. Most strikingly, the contest for the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) member of the three-man presidency (one for each of the main ethnic groups) was won by Bakir Izetbegtovic, who defeated the incumbent Haris Silajdzic.

Silajdzic was increasingly perceived as a Bosniak nationalist who wanted to dissolve the Bosnian Serb Republic, the country's semi-independent Serb entity, and reunify the country. Silajdzic was largely held responsible for blocking constitutional reforms backed by the international community in 2006, saying that they did not go far enough to shift power to the centre from the Bosnian Serb Republic and the Bosnian Federation, the Muslim- and Croat-dominated other half of the country.

Izetbegtovic's Bosniak SDA and the non-sectarian (but largely Bosniak- and Croat-backed) SDP both performed well in the parliamentary polls, indicating that Silajdzic's hard line had alienated many Muslims willing to accept the existence of the Bosnian Serb Republic for the time being. In the contest for the Serb member of the state presidency, the incumbent, a member of the separatist SNSD, was run surprisingly close by a moderate opposition coalition candidate.

However, elsewhere there was more of the same, with nationalist parties to the fore. Many Croats plumped for the HDZ and its more radical offshoot, the HDZ 1990, which call for a third, Croat entity to be carved out of the Bosnian Federation. And the SNSD triumphed in the Bosnian Serb Republic, while its maverick populist leader, Milorad Dodik, took more than 50% of the vote for the entity's presidency. Dodik has made it clear he considers the formation of Bosnia in its current form a mistake and wants the Bosnian Serb Republic to move towards independence - which many expect to be a precursor to unification with Serbia.


The complex political structure of the country, the stances of the successful parties and the nature of Balkan horse-trading mean that it is likely to take many weeks in smoke-filled rooms for a viable coalition government to emerge at the state level. Even Valentin Inzko, High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina (the senior EU diplomat appointed by the international community to oversee the country), has said that he does not expect a deal until February - and his Office of the High Representative (OHR) is known for its upbeat view of the country.

It seems likely that Dodik and his SNSD will retain a strong grip of the Bosnian Serb Republic, despite opposition threats to take to the streets to overthrow the government. Dodik's popularity and the SNSD's reputed control of the media, security forces and the civil service in the Bosnian Serb Republic, which already has a great deal of autonomy, will make him a powerful player on the scene for the foreseeable future. Most analysts bne spoke to take the view that his calls for independence are bluster designed to claw more power from Sarajevo and to maintain support among the Bosnian Serb Republic's restive population.

Dodik has said that he will work with the HDZ at state level to block centralisation efforts. The Croats' desire for a third entity, however, looks geographically difficult, as their population outside the heartlands of Herzegovina is fairly scattered.

The departure of Silajdzic may mean that nationalist Serbs and Croats have less to push back against, however. Many moderate Bosnians agree with Izetbegtovic that "Silajdzic created space for Dodik to become what he has." The extent to which the SDA and SDP, both committed to the ideal of a united, multi-ethnic Bosnia, are minded to compromise with the SNSD and HDZ remains to be seen, but the nationalist parties have more scope to soften their stance to Sarajevo now that Silajdzic is off the scene.

Some analysts suggest that the SDA in particular could come round to the idea of greater devolution of powers to the Bosnian Serb Republic and Croat cantons (if not a new entity) on the premise that proposals for independence or union with Croatia and Serbia are buried for the foreseeable future. Cynics argue that the SDA and other Bosniak parties could see devolution as actually being to their advantage, allowing them to hive off non-Muslim areas and consolidate power in central Bosnia.


While few certainties have emerged from this election, it is at least apparent that only Bosniaks voted convincingly for change. Whoever forms the government at state level faces serious challenges beyond addressing the delicate balance of power between the three ethnicities. They include making real progress towards EU accession, which in turn will involve strengthening the public administration and bringing the judicial system into line with European norms. Corruption and organised crime are serious threats both to Bosnia and to the region - Drew Sullivan, a Sarajevo-based journalist, suggests that the country could descend into a "Mexico situation" of banditry and violence.

After an election fought with much nationalist rhetoric, the ruling parties will now have to find concrete solutions for long-term economic growth. The economy shrank by 3% last year and is expected to achieve 1% growth at best in 2010. Domestic demand remains subdued and it is hard to identify sources of economic dynamism, according to Milan Cuc, the International Monetary Fund's representative in Sarajevo.

Red tape, multiple layers of government, a shaky legal system and poor infrastructure all inhibit enterprise; the centralised Bosnian Serb Republic has achieved more than the Bosnian Federation in tackling these issues in recent years, but opponents say that there is less to Dodik's Wirtschaftswunder than meets the eye on the scrubbed and affluent streets of Banja Luka, alleging that graft and cronyism are rife.

There are reasons for optimism: IMF-led reforms of public wages and the social transfer system are progressing, and Bosnia is of increasing interest to energy firms looking to address the region's power deficit.

But there is no doubt that, once the horse-trading has delivered a new government, serious constitutional, social and economic questions will demand answers.

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