Ozren Kebo / Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union: A path with no beginning yet in sight

Ozren Kebo, leading Bosnian journalist and publicist, was born in 1959, in Mostar. He has published four books: Sarajevo for the Beginners, How beautiful my Vectra is, Life and Other Surprises, and In the Dragon’s Nest. He is editor of the portal analiziraj.ba, one of the most important media in Bosnia and Herzegovina

 

Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European Union: A path with no beginning yet in sight

By Ozren Kebo

Of all the European countries that are not yet member states of the European Union but have aspirations, at least formally, to become one, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH) is probably in the most difficult situation. This country, which emerged from war two and a half decades ago, has still not consolidated politically, or economically, or culturally. Instead of consolidating, the country has been mired for years in a sort of depressive stagnation that occasionally threatens ominous backsliding. Such a state could even descend into war, though such a brutal turn of events is unlikely. But not impossible.

To begin with, there is no political consensus within Bosnia and Herzegovina around whether all the interested parties actually aspire to join the EU. By “interested parties” we mean the tripartite government consisting of two entities—the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska—founded on the ethnic principle. Formally, the country is being governed to a lesser or greater degree by three ethnonational parties, largely nationalistic in orientation. On paper, all the political forces proclaim their support for respecting human rights, the rule of law, economic progress and joining the EU. In fact, however, they are all collapsing under the weight of corruption, nepotism, and constant long-term blows to the legal state.

There is no consensus here about what sort of society we want, nor, in the constellation we now have, is such a consensus even possible. There are those who are for prioritizing the civic over the national (meaning the ethnic principle), while others call this unitarism. The Party of Democratic Action—representing Bosniaks with leader Bakir Izetbegović—also pay formal lip service to this principle, but in the Bosnian and Herzegovinian territory under their control they have made no effort whatsoever to implement the tenets of a legal state at any level. Milorad Dodik, at the forefront of Republika Srpska and the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, has been calling openly for the secession of Republika Srpska, the smaller of the two entities, and he is doing everything in his power to obstruct the state, after which he triumphantly declares: “Life here is impossible!” And, indeed, it is, but only because he is making it so. Had he invested this same amount of energy in building up instead of tearing down, everyone would be better off. As it is, sometimes one gets the impression that the Serbian people have fared the worst from his destructive behavior.

The third player in this story, the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina with their leader, Dragan Čović, are much closer to Dodik’s separatist vision—and behave accordingly—than they are to any sort of constructive political directive, meanwhile regularly swearing up and down that they wholeheartedly support Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is literally faced with a checkmate, and the representatives of the international community are fitting into this smoothly. The Office of the High Representative, a body set up by the Dayton Agreement, exists in the country. Its role over the last few years has dwindled to uniform, monotonous expressions of concern about the stagnation and destruction. Meanwhile the Austrian, Valentin Inzko, the High Representative until recently, was replaced by the German, Christian Schmidt. All the signals Schmidt has been sending until late August have been very controversial: Dodik has refused, in the name of the entire Republika Srpska, to recognize Schmidt and his function, and he is being encouraged to obstruct in this way by the Russian and Chinese embassies, so the checkmate is now spreading from internal affairs to external affairs. This autumn there will have to be a resolution of the existing situation: BH is too small for the two of them—Schmidt and Dodik—at this political juncture. If the High Representative were to acquiesce to Republika Srpska’s stance of failing to recognize him and refusing to follow or implement his measures, his authority will have irretrievably reduced to bearing responsibility for only one of the entities—the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—instead of both. It is difficult to imagine political life in Bosnia and Herzegovina functioning in such a way. For this reason, many predict that this will be a “hot autumn.” This article is being written in late August, at a moment when predicting the outcome of the total paralysis now gripping all political levels is a thankless task, but one thing is already crystal clear—relations cannot remain as they are. Some sort of radical change must happen.

 

The most recent resolution issued by the European Union regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina was met with an array of reactions across the country. We are already inculcated, here, in the tradition that each of the interested parties interprets all international decisions and messages in whatever way best suits them, most often claiming themselves the victor. Living with so many victors has now become impossible. There are those who rejoice because the EU, as they see it, is acquiescing to the reality on the ground, meaning the existence of the “three founding peoples,” while others add—yes, the EU does not deny the fact that BH is, at this moment, a state comprised of three founding peoples. However, with its resolution, the EU has once again flatly rejected the possibility of BH remaining a state based on the principle of founding peoples.

 

And this is the point. Bosnia and Herzegovina truly cannot survive, and there is not a single country that could last for long while relying on the principles laid out in the Dayton Agreement, which did play an exceptional role in the history of the country, bringing to an end the bloody and destructive war. But after two and a half decades these principles are completely spent and are now an impediment to any further progress.

 

Denis Čarkadžić, a legal expert from Sarajevo, summed up the EU’s stance regarding BH, as follows, in short:

“–The Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee has not adopted rules of procedure because some of the BH delegates are insisting that provisions be included on the ethnic principle of voting, a provision which is not in line with European standards.

– At the House of Peoples, most of the members of each of the entities may declare a certain decision to be a “threat” to their vital interest (the right to a veto on the basis of “vital national interest”). This veto, based on ethnic membership, is impeding the work of the Parliamentary Assembly and raises the risk of encumbering the legal process.

– The entities’ constitutions mandate appointing judges by a simple majority vote in each of the assemblies, and this creates the risk of politicized, ethnically motivated nominations. The professional standards and independence of judges on the Constitutional Court should instead be bolstered, starting with improving the criteria for their selection and the nomination procedures.

– Each constitution contains provisions invoking ethnic membership and place of residence, and these are not in keeping with the European Convention on Human Rights and its protocols. There are provisions regulating the naming of the head of state and the executive and legal bodies, their composition, and their decision-making procedures, since certain electoral rights have been reserved for those citizens who are part of the “founding peoples”—the Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Significant additional reforms are needed in order to insure that all citizens can effectively realize their political rights in line with the judicial practice of the European Court for Human Rights in the case of Sejdić–Finci.

– Ethnically based veto provisions also have a negative impact on the work of the Parliament and legislative assemblies of the entities and should be reassessed.

– It is time to fundamentally improve the institutional framework, including at the constitutional level, in order to insure that all administrative organs are obliged to implement the acquis based exclusively on professionalism and that the right to veto be expunged from the process of taking decisions, in keeping with the acquis…”

 

The Croatian representatives in the bodies of the European Union fiercely object to any changes in Bosnia and Herzegovina that would move in the direction of annulling the ethnic principle. This resistance is longstanding, it had been going on for years, and is rooted in intense lobbying, but it has not had much success. Someone recently remarked on Twitter: Željana Zovko, a member of the European Parliament, feels that the fundamental values of Europea are not in line with the Dayton Agreement and therefore the EU should change them. This sarcastic comment precisely delineates the divisions, irreconciliable for now, within Bosnia and Herzegovina and the archaic political positions of individual forces. On the table are opposing political concepts, although the EU will one day demand no less or more than what is implicit in a functional state, founded on rights and justice. This is such a distant and unattainable goal that Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot hope for membership before 2040. Eliminating the war legacy and the fatal post-war practices of corruption, nepotism and lawlessness, would be challenging strategic objectives for far stronger countries than Bosnia and Herzegovina.

 

Translated by Ellen Ellis-Bursać