Bosnia: A Test of Political Maturity in Mostar
Europe Briefing N°54
27 Jul 2009
The administration of Mostar is collapsing, a warning sign for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). There has been no mayor, budget or functioning city council since an October 2008 election; tension threatens to poison relations between the leading Bosniak and Croat parties, which are coalition partners throughout BiH. The crisis is rooted in ethnic demographics, recent conflict history and a city statute that replicates many of the power-sharing rules that govern the state. Mostar’s Croat majority, much like the state’s Bosniak majority, chafes against these rules, considering them illegitimate and foreign-imposed, and seeks to force the Office of the High Representative (OHR – the international community’s peace implementation body) to impose a solution on its behalf. Yet, a fair solution is within the council’s competence and, like the city’s chronic grievances, can best be handled without the High Representative using his extraordinary (Bonn) powers. The international community should deliver the message that fourteen years after the end of their war, it is time for the Bosnians to take responsibility for their own futures.
Some of the heaviest and most destructive fighting of the Bosnian war took place in downtown Mostar, which until recently had districts of almost lunar desolation. During the fighting, Croat authorities conducted a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against their Bosniak neighbours, and a quieter version of this persecution lasted years after the Dayton Accords brought peace. Wartime experiences still strongly affect political expectations, especially among the Bosniaks, and Mostar is today Bosnia and Herzegovina’s only truly divided city. Still, healing has begun. Long considered the Beirut of the Balkans, it is today peaceful and bustling. The long-hovering threat of renewed violence has decisively receded. The statute imposed by the High Representative after consultation with local and national leaders in 2004 has united the city administratively.
Nevertheless, peace and unification have not kept Mostar from a general breakdown of its government. Its multi-ethnic city council has failed on fourteen separate occasions to elect a mayor, and councillors have begun boycotting sessions. The city has not paid its employees, schoolteachers and firemen, as well as the construction workers and staff of its many publicly-owned companies since March 2009. The council has transacted no business since passing a temporary budget, long since expired. As townspeople wish a pox on all of them, the city’s divided political elites are escalating their rhetoric and invoking wartime injustices with worrying frequency.
The immediate crisis concerns the procedure for electing the mayor, but it has brought older, deeper and more fundamental problems to the surface that will persist long after Mostar finally gets its chief executive. The real disputes are over Mostar’s role in the broader Croat community, the Croats’ position in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and most generally, how majority rule and minority rights can coexist in a multi-ethnic environment. These problems mirror those that afflict BiH as a whole, and the prescription for the city’s ills points the way toward countrywide reform. A full resolution to Mostar’s problems cannot be found within its city limits; it can only be part of a general reform of the state and the entities.
Mostar’s ethnic structure and political landscape are similar to BiH’s, but with the players reversed. Alone among Bosnia’s cities, it runs on laws and institutions built on the same, internationally-designed framework used to build the Bosnian state. The Croat majority is frustrated, internally divided and deeply hostile to the city’s power sharing statute, which it seeks to replace with a less restrictive form of majority rule. The Croats also try to compensate through Mostar for their lack of a home territorial unit. The large and assertive Bosniak minority is fiercely protective of its legal privileges, enshrined in that same statute, but complains of neglect at the hands of both its more prosperous Croat neighbours and the Bosniak national leadership, whose interests are elsewhere. The tiny Serb minority, remnant of wartime ethnic cleansing carried out by Bosniaks and Croats alike, deals with its perceived vulnerability largely through ingratiation and emigration.
The breakdown of Mostar’s internationally-imposed government shows what happens to a consensus-based system in the absence of inter-ethnic agreement. The solution requires that the mayoral deadlock be addressed urgently:
the High Representative should facilitate a solution by clarifying the law, previous statements from his office notwithstanding; and
the city council must honour the statutory provision for electing the mayor by secret ballot. After formally adopting the imposed statute, the city council should amend the statute if it considers that any ambiguity remains, so as to allow the election of the mayor by a majority of those present and voting in the council in a third and final round, thereby guaranteeing the election of a new chief executive.
But Mostar’s leaders should not stop there. They must work together to articulate a vision of their common home that recognises its symbolic importance to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Croats, while ensuring Bosniaks and Serbs a fair share in the city’s administration and development. They should begin with practical local measures, including:
the city council and the new mayor should complete the consolidation of the city’s utilities and publicly-owned companies, taking into account not only the ethnic balance but also the rights and interests of the companies concerned; and
the city council should take steps to reduce opportunities for corruption and favouritism, especially in the lucrative regulation of construction permits, by streamlining procedures in line with World Bank recommendations.
Responsibility falls also on Bosnia’s leaders, who should in due course:
change Mostar’s electoral system, as part of a general reform of the country’s constitutional order, to bring it into line with the rest of the country; institute direct election of the mayor; and adopt provisions that retain protection for Bosniak and Serb political interests; and
work toward a national constitutional solution that meet the needs of all three constituent peoples.
Much like counterparts in Sarajevo and Banja Luka, Mostar’s leaders expect the international community, in the form of the High Representative, to rescue them from their failure to compromise. Since ambiguities in the statute imposed by the High Representative and a subsequent interpretation by his office have contributed to the present crisis, such an intervention could be justified. But the threat of imminent violence does not hang over this crisis in a way that would require a last-resort, imposed solution, and taking responsibility out of Bosnian hands would weaken national capacity and reinforce a culture of dependence countrywide. The solution to Mostar’s ills, like BiH’s, is within the reach of local and national leaders. The OHR will likely close soon, and those leaders will have to assume full responsibility for their country. Bosnians must show the political maturity – and not only in Mostar – to run their own affairs.
Sarajevo/Brussels, 27 July 2009