Bosnia faces dangerous year

Bosnia faces dangerous year
Soldiers at the controversial Independence Day celebrations in Bosnia's Republika Srpska.
By Denitsa Koseva in Sofia May 15, 2017

While Macedonia’s chances of a non-violent exit from its long-standing political crisis are still unclear, a crisis of similar magnitude is brewing in Bosnia & Herzegovina ahead of the general and presidential elections next year, as politicians prioritise their personal agendas over the country’s stability. 

Bosnia will hold elections in October 2018 and political tensions in the already very unstable country are expected to significantly increase in the run-up to the vote. Indeed they are the primary tool used by the leaders of the three main ethnic parties — Bakir Izetbegovic of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Milorad Dodik of the Serb Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) party and Dragan Covic of the Croat Peoples Assembly (HNS) — to gain more support and to divert attention from real problems.

“In Bosnia, political crises intensify ahead of elections – this is the mechanism of local politicians to manipulate people,” Banja Luka-based political analyst and lead researcher with Prime Communications agency Srdjan Puhalo told bne IntelliNews.

Many analysts agree that Bosnian politicians are putting a lot of effort into diverting attention away from the real problems in the country — the bad economic situation, one of the highest unemployment levels in the world, widespread corruption, extreme poverty and lack of prospects for the population — by playing dangerously on ethnic rivalries.

Bosnia’s “respective nationalist blocs are only able to campaign through political brinkmanship so they are certain to invent some kind of polarising, zero-sum feud in time for the 2018 general elections,” analyst Jasmin Mujanovic said.

Despite this, however tense the situation becomes, most analysts believe the situation will not erupt into armed clashes or all out war, as ordinary Bosnians are fighting for their everyday survival and have little time to think of actually going out on the streets and provoking clashes or revolting against politicians. Moreover, so far the tensions seem to result only in verbal fights between politicians, while ordinary people scared of renewed conflict continue to vote for the leaders representing their ethnic groups, and hope they will rescue them from war once again.

“People in BiH have difficult lives and their priority is the fight for their own existence. Adding to that political clashes and interethnic tensions, there is a little space left for revolt of citizens against those in power … The civil war in former Yugoslavia started when the living standard was much higher,” independent analyst Zeljko Raljic tells bne IntelliNews.

According to the latest statistics office data, the average net wage in the country stood at around €430 in February, down by a real 0.1% y/y. At the same time, the unemployment rate stood at 40.5% in February, the employment agency has said. 

The consequences of the bloody 1992-1995 Bosnian war are one of the reasons for the high unemployment level, but probably more significant is the constant political uncertainty that is deterring foreign investors that could create new jobs. The latest such example was the decision of German retailer Lidl to abandon plans for entering Bosnia.

And while another conflict seems unlikely, some observers warn that the situation could escalate, and people could finally lose the patience and tolerance that has resulted in an often uneasy peace for the last two decades.

“The long-term results of such collective disregard for democratic norms by Mr Dodik, Izetebgovic, and Covic will have as its most immediate result, I suspect, a return to scenes like those we saw during the 2014 protests [in Bosnia] and have seen since in Macedonia,” Mujanovic said.

The fellow former Yugoslavian state has been without a government since the December 2016 election, itself intended to resolve the long-standing political crisis. This erupted into mass protests in 2015 and 2016, and again in 2017 when angry demonstrators stormed the parliament in April. 

Crippled democracy

Bosnian democracy also seems to be crippled and non-functional, as it provides freedom of choice only in theory. The main issue is that since Bosnian politicians are elected exclusively by the votes of one of Bosnia’s peoples, they consider themselves answerable to that people only, Christopher Bennett, a former journalist who served as deputy high representative in Bosnia before moving to academia, tells bne IntelliNews.

“I like to compare the peace process in Bosnia and Herzegovina to the film “Groundhog Day” … The same old issues dominate the agenda and it seems that there is no way out,” he says, adding that Bosnia was stuck in the second phase - the suicidal phase during which the movie’s main character has had enough and just wishes to end it all. 

In the movie, the lead character Phil, played by Bill Murray, is a weatherman told to cover the annual emergence of a groundhog from its hole. He gets caught in a blizzard that he didn't predict and trapped in a time warp, doomed to re-live the same day over and over again until he gets it right.

According to Bennett, the main problem is that the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war has been obsolete for many years and is now paralysing the country. 

Mujanovic agrees, and says that Dayton has already ceased to exist for some time. “The question is only how long BiH's citizens are willing to tolerate living in a fragmented mafia state,” he tells bne IntelliNews.

Bosnia’s paralysed institutions have been criticised by many international organisations. In April, Freedom House said in its latest index assessing democratic governance in 29 post-communist states that the country’s political institutions remained crippled in 2016 and the situation is unlikely to improve this year.

“Parliamentary democracy is also undermined by the established practice of politicians making key decisions in private meetings. Rather than discussing problems openly in parliamentary debates, the usual practice — which international community representatives have encouraged in order to get results — is for political party leaders to meet in hotels and restaurants for backroom negotiations,” Freedom House said.

Bosnia remained on the list of countries labelled as partly free in this year’s report, as it has been for years. Its score also slightly worsened to 4.5 from 4.46 in 2015 and the forecast for this year is that it will continue worsening.

International pressure rising

Bosnian politicians seem both unable and unwilling to come up with new tactics in their campaigns ahead of the elections, and will most likely focus on pushing the same buttons of fear and insecurity for each of the three constituent peoples.

However, the picture is not altogether gloomy. Many analysts believe that rising pressure from international institutions could bring some new hope to the country as they could push top politicians to undertake key reforms and unfreeze the country’s economy.

“It is obvious that the international community is increasing the pressure on key political leaders in BiH, trying to restrain them and force them to focus more on people’s real problems and to implement reforms they have pledged and signed,” Raljic said.

In one example of this, the US imposed sanctions against Dodik at the beginning of this year after he ignored a ban from Bosnia's state-level constitutional court to hold Republic Day celebrations in January.

According to some analysts, the international community is trying to back Dodik into a political corner, and eventually remove him from Bosnia’s political stage. While he still enjoys relatively high support, it will most likely start declining as without international support he will not be able to secure financing for the entity’s budget.

Izetbegovic also received the message that his attempts to reopen old wounds are not welcome, when the International Court of Justice declined to accept his appeal against an earlier verdict over the Srebrenica massacre. Specifically, the court said it was rejecting the appeal as there was no consensus among the three presidents of the country.

Meanwhile, Bosnian Croat leader Covic's attempts to further split the already divided country by insisting on the establishment of a third entity had a frosty reception. The international community gave him clear signal that such a move could be accepted only if supported by all three peoples.

According to Raljic, this, along with ongoing investigations against top politicians in the country, gives the top three politicians little room to provoke serious crises, as this could cost them the political careers.

“[A]ny event that would have as its result Mr Izetbegovic's departure from BiH politics (much as with Dodik and Covic) would be a good thing for the country. The three represent a destructive triad that has paralysed the country for the better part of two decades and has lost virtually all credibility and legitimacy in their claim to governance,” Mujanovic concluded.

The international community has a very strong tool to influence Bosnian politicians — namely cheap loans. The governments of the two entities are unable to survive without them as they have significant debts and poor revenue collection. Analysts believe that local politicians could be forced to implement real reforms and play by the rules if this is the only way to get fresh funds. Otherwise they could go bankrupt easily.

In a sign of the consequences of failing to comply with the international community’s demands, Bosnia’s deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was put on hold after officials were unable to reach agreement on the fund’s required reforms. Strong disagreements between politicians could cost them the deal as they have missed all deadlines set by the fund so far.

At the same time, Bosnia’s neighbours Serbia and Croatia seem to have their own agendas in the country, supporting more or less publicly the Serbs and Croats respectively. However, Serbia has backed off from Dodik and did not support the referendum - banned by the state-level constitutional court - on the celebration of Republika Srpska’s Republic Day. The referendum provoked significant tensions in the country. As expected, these benefitted the nationalistic parties of Dodik and Izetbegovic, which won the local elections a week later.

Croatia, which is an EU member, also seemed distant when Covic’s party renewed the talks about establishment of a Croat entity in Bosnia earlier this year.

While Russia seems the most serious external factor that could influence Bosnia’s political life, with President Vladimir Putin openly supporting Dodik, many analysts believe that Moscow has only limited capability to dictate events in the Balkan state thanks to the still strong presence of the US.

“At the moment, Russia does not play a significant role in BiH, because the US are still the dominant political factor in this area,” Raljic said.

At the same time, however, after formally applying to the EU in 2016, Bosnia’s EU perspective now appears to be frozen and the country has little chance of getting candidate status anytime soon, unless politicians start making real reforms.