Bosnians are losing their confidence in the West
On 2 October, Bosnia and Herzegovina will hold elections at a time of multiple crises. While its sovereignty is under routine assault by neighbouring states and Russia, Bosnians are losing their confidence in the intentions of the political West.
What is this about?
On 2 October, Bosnia and Herzegovina will hold its ninth general election since the conclusion of the 1992-1995 Bosnian War and the consequent signing of the US-brokered Dayton Peace Accords.
What is at stake?
Not since the first post-war elections, in 1996, have Bosnians headed to the polls in a more politically fraught moment, both domestically and internationally.
Why do these elections matter to Europe?
Bosnia is already one of the most geopolitically vulnerable polities in Europe, with its domestic politics frequently roiled by the interference of neighbouring Serbia and Croatia, but also Hungary and Russia.
In the month leading up to the elections of 2 October, Bosnia faces three intertwined crises. The first concerns an assault on the country’s institutional and political order by a coalition of Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat nationalist hardliners. The second pertains to ongoing threats to the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by various malign outside powers, chiefly Serbia, Russia, Hungary and Croatia.
The third crisis concerns ongoing attempts by the chief international diplomat in the country, High Representative Christian Schmidt, to amend Bosnia’s election laws only weeks ahead of the polls. His executive ‘Bonn Powers’, originating from the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995, allow Schmidt to write, scrap and amend nearly all laws in the country exclusively through his own executive action.
Originally, the Bonn Powers were intended as a way of moving Bosnia towards Euro-Atlantic governance standards when obstructionist local officials refused to abide by their international commitments. Their use to amend Bosnia’s election laws, however, has now become quite contentious, largely because of accusations that the High Representative’s proposed moves are not in line with the contents of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Rather than being wholly separate problems, they are interconnected phenomena. To begin with, the main Serb and Croat nationalist actors in Bosnia – Milorad Dodik and his Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) and Dragan Čović and his Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZ) – are each other’s closest allies within the country’s domestic political sphere.
Dodik’s SNSD is an overtly secessionist party, centred on the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity established as an administrative territory within the Bosnian state at Dayton in 1995. The country’s other primary entity is the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where most of Bosnia’s Bosniaks and Croats live.
Functionally, the SNSD government is a satellite of the Serbian state. Since 2006, when the party came to power in the entity, its leadership has attempted to detach itself from the Bosnian state in every way possible, while deepening financial, political and economic ties with Serbia.
Since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Dodik’s government has become increasingly illiberal and militant in its secessionist ambitions. His political adventurism has landed him and most of his senior circle on sanctions lists of the United States and United Kingdom, internally isolated and with Belgrade, Moscow and Budapest as his last remaining international backers.
To date, only one senior member of the HDZ has been sanctioned by the US: the party’s vice president, Marinko Čavara, for obstructing the appointment of judges in the Federation entity. This international reticence to confront the HDZ reflects the party’s nominal commitment to Bosnia’s territorial integrity. But this is a fig leaf. In practice, Čović and his chief lieutenants frequently speak of their desire to unilaterally ‘reorganise’ the country’s territory, which refers to their long-time aim to recreate the wartime era self-declared ‘Herceg-Bosna’, essentially a Croat nationalist version of the Serbian ideal of an independent Republika Srpska.
Dodik and Čović both enjoy the explicit support of Moscow and Budapest
Their positions to this effect are frequently endorsed by Dodik and the SNSD, who use them as evidence of the need to formally dissolve the Bosnian state along explicitly ethic lines. In other words, the two play off of each other to paint a picture of Bosnia as, what Dodik calls, an “impossible state”.
They have also increasingly come to rely on the same network of international benefactors; Dodik and Čović both enjoy the explicit support of Moscow and Budapest. Both men have made private visits to Moscow, although Dodik has done so on nearly a dozen occasions in recent years and Čović only once in 2020. Nonetheless, both have had their respective political positions endorsed in the statements of the Russian Embassy in Sarajevo, and both their respective parties have voted against resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine on repeated occasions.
Hungary, meanwhile, has explicitly used its veto power within EU institutions to shield Dodik from sanctions, with Viktor Orbán going so far as to offer the entity government in the city Banja Luka 100 million euros if Brussels were somehow able to impose any blockades on Dodik’s regime. And in the Hungarian prime minister’s now infamous ‘mixed races’ speech from July, he also endorsed Čović’s attempts to amend Bosnia’s election laws along explicitly sectarian lines.
More importantly, however, both Dodik and Čović enjoy the benefaction of Belgrade and Zagreb respectively, and the two have emerged as an important link in the strategic thawing between Serbia and Croatia. While the two countries remain at loggerheads over nearly every other issue, they enjoy a broad understanding that Bosnia is a state that should be functionally, if not explicitly, partitioned between its two larger neighbours.
During the recent Brdo-Brijuni summit in Slovenia, for instance, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić explicitly endorsed Croatia’s demands for the insertion of a contentious reference to Bosnia’s constitution needing to be amended to ensure so-called “legitimate representation” of the country’s Bosniak, Serb and Croat communities. The term, widely rejected by Bosnian leaders, was coined in Zagreb and meant to characterise non-nationalist Bosnian Serbs and Croats – i.e., those voting for and representing moderate, multi-ethnic, non-nationalist parties – as ‘illegitimate’ representatives of their communities.
Croatian leaders, in turn, in particular the country’s president, Zoran Milanović, have begun routinely meeting with Dodik, even as his government has increasingly run afoul of the EU and NATO. Even as Dodik has made overt threats to Bosnia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, Milanović has referred to him as an ‘ally’ for achieving Zagreb’s interests in the country.
Tumult over Bosnia’s election laws
In recent months, Croatia has become especially brazen in its attempts to interfere in the ongoing tumult over the reform of Bosnia’s election laws. Specifically, Zagreb wants Bosnia’s election laws and voting processes to be explicitly ethnically segregated to prevent non-Croats and Croats residing in non-majority Croat areas from voting for positions designated for ethnic Croats according to Bosnia’s existing constitution.
Croatia, a NATO and EU member state, has become so categorical in its insistence on its right to shape Bosnia’s domestic legislation (in practice, to the exclusive interests of its proxies in Čović’s HDZ) that the country’s president urged his parliament to hold up Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO accession until leaders in Bosnia – a non-NATO and non-EU state – until Bosnian leaders amended the country’s election laws according to Croatia’s will.
That did not happen of course, but in July 2022 news broke that High Representative Christian Schmidt was preparing to use his Bonn Powers to impose a new election law in the Federation entity. That Bosnia needed electoral and constitutional reform was not at issue. Eight separate rulings by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and the country’s Constitutional Court have found that large swathes of Bosnia’s constitution were flagrantly discriminatory, largely because most rights to representation in the constitution are reserved to the so-called ‘constituent peoples’: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.1
Schmidt, however, was preparing to only implement one of the abovementioned decisions: the Bosnian Constitutional Court’s ‘Ljubić’ decision. If taken in isolation of the seven other rulings, this would make the country’s electoral regime only more rigidly sectarian and discriminatory because it would actually add an additional layer of functional ethnic segregation to the voting process but without implementing the outstanding decisions which would move the country’s electoral code to more closely match the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. Moreover, Schmidt’s move would itself have, implicitly, violated Bosnia’s own constitution. Article 2.2 states that the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights “shall have priority over all other law”.2
By pointedly refusing to address the rulings of the ECHR, and only concerning himself with the Ljubić rulings, Schmidt would have potentially brought even the Office of the High Representative (OHR) into conflict with the ECHR.
Even worse, Bosnian media then revealed that the actual text of Schmidt’s proposed electoral amendments had been initially prepared by the Croatian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The result was an unprecedent firestorm of controversy and outrage against the OHR by the Bosnian public.
Christian Schmidt’s ill-considered electoral interventions have significantly undermined the confidence of Bosnians in the intentions of the West
Bosnia’s House of Representatives passed a thinly veiled resolution lambasting Schmidt as attacking the country’s multi-ethnic character. Legislators in nearly all major Western capitals rebuked the former German parliamentarian and, ultimately, some 7,000 people protested in front of the OHR’s office in Sarajevo.
Schmidt ultimately relented, albeit without ever fully acknowledging what his original intentions were, and opted to only impose minor technical amendments to the electoral code. However, public fears persist that he will make another attempt, and media reports to the same effect have reiterated these fears, possibly even on the day of the elections themselves. Croatian diplomats and officials have likewise openly urged Schmidt to press ahead, regardless of the public backlash.
Bosnia is already one of the most geopolitically vulnerable polities in Europe. With its sovereignty under routine assault by neighbouring states, often with the assistance of hostile powers like Russia, Sarajevo has traditionally relied on the support of the Atlantic community.
Christian Schmidt’s ill-considered electoral interventions have significantly undermined the confidence of Bosnians in the intentions of the West. That is a situation neither side – Bosnians nor the West – can afford in the current climate. Care must be taken after October to reset that relationship on the best terms possible, which may require Schmidt’s departure after barely over a year on the job. The scale of the combined Serb and Croat nationalist assault on the Bosnia’s sovereignty requires someone in that position who is able to address the facts of the situation clearly, and respond accordingly.
- 1For instance, only Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats are allowed to serve on the state presidency, while the the state-level House of People, the parliament’s upper chamber, likewise only allows for the election Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats.
- 2Article II.2 of the Bosnian Constitution reads: “The rights and freedoms set forth in the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and its Protocols shall apply directly in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These shall have priority over all other law”.