Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Report 232 / Europe & Central Asia

Bosnia’s Future

While the physical scars of the 1992-1995 Bosnia war have healed, political agony and ethnic tension persist. Real peace requires a new constitution and bottom-up political change.

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH, or Bosnia) poses little risk of deadly conflict, but after billions of dollars in foreign aid and intrusive international administration and despite a supportive European neighbourhood, it is slowly spiralling toward disintegration. Its three communities’ conflicting goals and interests are a permanent source of crisis, exacerbated by a constitution that meets no group’s needs. The political elite enjoys mastery over all government levels and much of the economy, with no practical way for voters to dislodge it. The European Union (EU) imposes tasks BiH cannot fulfil. A countrywide popular uprising torched government buildings and demanded urgent reforms in February 2014, but possible solutions are not politically feasible; those that might be politically feasible seem unlikely to work. Bosnia’s leaders, with international support, must begin an urgent search for a new constitutional foundation.

The international project to rebuild Bosnia has had success: war’s physical scars are largely gone, and the country is peaceful. The political agonies, however, show the intervention’s limits. Years of well-intentioned reforms, imposed or urged, have left a governing structure leaders circumvent, ignore or despise. May’s floods left scores dead and thousands homeless, exposing the price of poor governance. With growing frequency, Bosnians ask the questions that preceded the 1992-1995 war: shall it be one country, two, or even three; if one country, shall it have one, two or three constituent entities, and how shall it be governed?

The heart of the problem is in Annex 4 to the Dayton Peace Agreement, known as the constitution (and in several changes imposed by courts and international officials). It defines BiH as a state of two entities, in effect but not explicitly federal, but also the state of three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs), and yet, simultaneously, of all citizens. A suffocating layer of ethnic quotas has been added, providing sinecures for officials increasingly remote from the communities they represent. The tensions created by constitutional schizophrenia are pushing BiH to the breaking point. A new design is needed: a normal federation, territorially defined, without a special role for constituent peoples, but responsive to the interests of its three communities and the rights of all citizens.

The state administration’s need to reform is made acute by a 2009 decision of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) that in effect requires BiH to change the ethnicity-based way it chooses its chief executive and part of its legislature. Existing proposals try to squeeze the constituent peoples into an ostensibly ethnicity-blind structure on top of which a complicated network of indirect elections would allow party leaders to choose the executive with as little democratic input as possible. The EU and the outside world support this tinkering with Dayton to satisfy the decision, though such proposals have manifestly failed. Bosnians need to rebuild their political structure from the bottom up.

There is no consensus on where to start, but Bosnia may have to break from its political system based on constituent peoples and their rights. Crisis Group has not reached this conclusion lightly. It reflects long experience and observation that no one has been able to frame a broadly attractive vision on the existing flawed basis. With stresses and frustrations accumulating in all communities, Bosnia must conceive new foundations to survive. Agreement may take years and much experimentation and debate, but the search should begin.

BiH is home to three political communities: those primarily loyal to the Bosnian state, usually but not always Bosniaks; those loyal to Republika Srpska (RS), usually Serbs; and those desirous of Croat self-government, usually Croats. Giving the Croats what they want, their own entity to make a three-entity Bosnia, is absolutely rejected by Bosniaks. Building virtual representative units for the three communities, possibly with new emphasis on municipalities as basic building blocks, is intellectually plausible but requires a leap of faith few seem ready to take. A purely civic state is inconceivable to Serbs and Croats.

Neither leaders nor civil society have deeply explored alternatives to three constituent peoples in two entities; any consensus would take time. Nevertheless, the goal should be clear. The head of state should reflect Bosnia’s diversity, something a collective does better than an individual. The same body could be the executive government. Some decisions should require consensus, others a majority. All three communities should be represented, not necessarily in equal numbers. There should be no ethnic quotas; representation should reflect self-defined regions and all their voters. Poorly performing, unnecessary state agencies and ministries should be slimmed or abolished, with powers reverting to the entities; but the state would need new ministries and agencies required for EU membership. The ten cantons in the larger of BiH’s two entities, the Federation (FBiH), are an underperforming, superfluous layer. They could be abolished, their powers divided between the municipalities and the entity government.

Political culture is part of the problem; an informal “Sextet” of party leaders in effect controls government and much of the economy. A multi-ethnic coalition persists, election to election, with only minor adjustments. Membership is earned by winning opaque intra-party competitions in which voters have little say. Change in this system can only come from within: Bosnians should join parties and participate in genuine leadership contests. Sextet power is further buttressed by control of hiring, investment and commercial decisions at state-owned firms, a situation that chokes private investment and growth.

Bosnia is unimaginable without the work of international officials who did much to shape political institutions and implement peace, but the international community has become more obstacle than help. BiH is trapped in a cycle of poorly thought-out, internationally-imposed tasks designed to show leaders’ readiness to take responsibility but that put that moment forever out of reach. The only way to encourage leaders to take responsibility is to treat the country normally, without extraneous tests or High Representatives. The EU could signal a new start by stating it will receive a membership application – the first of many steps on the long accession road. It should then be an engaged, not over-didactic partner in Bosnia’s search for a way to disentangle the constitutional knot.

Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Crisis Group expert Marko Prelec about the precarious situation in the Western Balkans, as Serb separatism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the frozen Kosovo-Serbia dispute continue to stoke regional instability.

The Western Balkans, a region defined in part by not being in the European Union, also contains several countries that were devastated by war in the 1990s. Now it faces new troubles, driven in part by the legacies of the old. Bosnia and Herzegovina is confronted with calls for secession in the autonomous Serb-dominated region, Republika Srpska, as well as the ongoing electoral grievances of its Croat minority. Meanwhile, efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence have come to a standstill, leaving minority communities on both sides of the border vulnerable.

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker talks to Marko Prelec, Crisis Group’s Consulting Senior Analyst for the Balkans, about why ethnic tensions persist in the region and whether there is any risk of a return to conflict. They discuss the prospects for European integration, asking whether the promise of EU membership remains an effective incentive for resolving these longstanding disputes. They also consider what impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had for stability in the Western Balkans, a region where painful memories of war are still very salient today.



Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more of Crisis Group’s analysis, make sure to check out our Balkans regional page and keep an eye out for our upcoming report on the risk of instability in the Western Balkans.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.