In Bosnian Elections, New Leaders Inherit Old Problems

6 MINS READOct 11, 2014 | 13:01 GMT
Campaign posters line the streets of Sarajevo in October 2014.

Bosnia-Herzegovina will hold elections Oct. 12 to choose representatives for its tripartite presidency as well as for the main entities that constitute the national and local governments. However, the next Bosnian government will have to govern over a fragmented political landscape and through an extremely complex institutional framework, which has made decision-making slow and has prevented reforms from being applied in the past. With little prospect for political or economic reforms, social unrest will remain a permanent threat to the stability of the country.

In 1945, Yugoslav diplomat and writer Ivo Andric published The Bridge over the Drina, a novel that many believe was key to Andric's receipt of the Nobel Prize in literature 16 years later. The novel, set in what is today Bosnia-Herzegovina, uses a bridge to tell the story of five centuries of regional history, from Ottoman control through Habsburg conquest and Serbian advance. It captures the region's ethnic struggles by narrating the lives and relationships of Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Jews living in a tiny town by the Drina River.

If the term "Balkan" is associated with the idea of ethnic violence, political instability and economic fragility, then Bosnia-Herzegovina is the archetypical Balkan country.  Its location on the European borderlands has made the country ripe for foreign conquest, and centuries of invasions have generated a complex ethnic landscape comprising Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosniaks. And though the Yugoslav period was, for the most part, an era of coexistence, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, a vicious civil war raged during the first half of the 1990s.

The Dayton Agreements of 1995 ended the war but also froze the underlying conflict. The peace plan created a largely decentralized federation comprising two autonomous entities and one region with a local government: The Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, inhabited primarily by Bosniaks and Croats; Republika Srpska, inhabited mostly by Serbs; and the Brcko District, where roughly half the population is Bosniak. It also created a three-member presidency composed of a member of each major ethnic group.

The plan, however, also enabled conflicting political aspirations by the country's different groups to complicate governance. Serb parties in Republika Srpska often demand more autonomy, and some nationalist elements even sometimes call for independence. Croat parties tend to push for the creation of a third autonomous entity to represent the Croats, while many Bosniak parties campaign for more central representation. Ultimately, the agreement, meant to appease ethnic tensions, ended up upsetting almost everyone.

Economic Constraints

The effort to create ethnic balance made decision-making complex and inefficient, undermining the country's prospects for economic development. Unemployment hovers around 27 percent, and youth unemployment now approaches 60 percent. According to the World Bank, roughly one in five people in Bosnia-Herzegovina live in poverty. And, according to the International Monetary Fund, the Bosnian economy will grow by a mere 0.7 percent this year. The stagnant growth is a representation of Bosnia-Herzegovina's struggle — shared by most of the former Yugoslavia — to transition its economy from a state-planned model to a free-market one. The reforms are difficult and often lead to social protests.

The European crisis made the situation worse, as remittances from Bosnians living abroad declined while prices on utilities and healthcare rose. Floods in the country in May dealt an additional blow to the Bosnian economy, inflicting roughly 2 billion euros ($2.5 billion at current conversion rates) — about 15 percent of the country's gross domestic product — worth of damages.

In early February, people demanding better living conditions staged protests in several Bosnian cities (mostly in the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina). Notably, the protests were one of the rare occasions when complaints about the dire situation in the country overshadowed ethnic conflicts. Demonstrators demanded that politicians step down but succeeded in persuading only a handful of resignations before the protests faded away.

A Complex Electoral System

On Sunday, voters in Bosnia-Herzegovina will elect representatives to fill positions in the country's three administrative levels: The federal government of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which includes a tripartite presidency made up of one member from each ethnic group and the federal parliament; the autonomous governments of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, which include regional leaders and parliaments; and the local assemblies in the cantons within each entity. While the tripartite presidency has some exclusive duties — such as foreign policy and defense — most policies impacting people's daily lives fall to the constituent entities.

Opinion polls show a fragmented political landscape, which will lead to complex post-election negotiations for the formation of coalitions. (In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, it took 15 months to form a governing coalition.) The elections are unlikely to spark significant reforms for the country, as none of the country's mainstream political parties are interested in substantial political change. Most parties benefit from considerable amounts of power at least at some level of government (federal, state or cantonal) and are not interested in replacing a system that benefits them. Corruption and patronage systems, which fall strictly along ethnic lines, reinforce people's dependence on local leaders.

Political change in Bosnia will probably not come from the ruling elites. The change will more likely come from citizens, if it comes at all. The economic and social situation offers fertile ground for social unrest to continue, or even worsen, in the coming months and years. However, Bosnia's ethnic divides will make it difficult for a countrywide movement to emerge. In the long run, yet-to-be-formed political parties could benefit from Bosnia's widespread frustration with the status quo, but ethnic fragmentation will remain a powerful force dividing them.

The International Factor

Furthermore, the next Bosnian government will have to deal with a weakening European Union. Bosnia-Herzegovina is interested in eventually joining the European Union, but the process has been extremely slow because of the country's complex decision-making structures and Europe's concerns about corruption and organized crime in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Moreover, Europe's economic crisis has reduced the European Union's appetite for enlargement, and Bosnia-Herzegovina is unlikely to join the continental bloc any time soon. Europe's refugee crisis is also negatively affecting Bosnia-Herzegovina: Countries including Germany recently declared Bosnia (as well as Serbia and Macedonia) a "safe country," meaning Berlin will accept fewer asylum seekers from Bosnia now that it is no longer considered to be in a state of humanitarian crisis.

The newly elected Bosnian government will also try to rely on Russia for financial assistance, but Moscow's interest in the country will remain mostly limited to Republika Srpska because of Russia's traditional ties with the Orthodox Serb population. Finally, Turkey, party to a free trade agreement with the country, will continue to be a source of investment and assistance for Bosnia-Herzegovina. In late September, Turkey agreed to supply the country a loan of 50 million euros to support business. Furthermore, Ankara has recently been pushing for the unification of Bosniak parties and factions, but with little success.

The Bridge over the Drina concludes with the start of World War I, thus omitting a significant and painful period of Bosnian history. However, Andric's book describes a region where wounds are always fresh and the past is never forgotten, and where foreign powers are always present. Sunday's elections will initiate a new chapter in the complex and often violent history of Bosnia-Herzegovina. No matter who wins the elections and how the governments are shaped, the new leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina will still be limited by the country's historical reality.

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