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Report 39 / Europe & Central Asia

Changing Course?

The reintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) has been consistently obstructed by the main Bosnian Croat party, the Croat Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZBiH).

Executive Summary

The reintegration of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) has been consistently obstructed by the main Bosnian Croat party, the Croat Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HDZBiH).  The HDZBiH is dominated by hard-liners who emphasise the consolidation of a pure Croat-inhabited territory centred on western Herzegovina, with the eventual aim of seceding and joining Croatia.  This policy has received support from hard-line elements in Croatia, including the president, Franjo Tudjman.

Long-standing divisions between those who emphasise western Herzegovina and those who wish to secure the future of Croats throughout Bosnia have led to a split in the HDZBiH and the formation of the New Croat Initiative (Nova Hrvatska inicijativa or NHI), led by the Croat member of the joint Bosnian presidency, Kresimir Zubak.  The rift in the HDZBiH widened after the death, at the beginning of May 1998, of the Croatian defence minister, Gojko Susak, which left the HDZBiH without a figure with the authority to hold together its different strands.  At the HDZBiH congress in May 1998, the party's hard-liners, against Tudjman's wishes, secured the election of the Bosnian Federation's defence minister, Ante Jelavic, as party president, defeating the comparatively moderate candidate favoured by Zubak, Bozo Ljubic.

Despite Zubak's record as a leading member of the HDZBiH, his support for the reintegration of Bosnia and the return of refugees and displaced persons appears genuine.  Zubak has consistently argued for the defence of Croat interests throughout Bosnia, even tendering his resignation as Federation president in November 1995 when the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) assigned most of northern Posavina, a region which before the war had a large Croat population, to Republika Srpska.  By contrast, Jelavic, despite his recent expressions of commitment to Bosnia and the DPA, is supported by those in the HDZBiH who have sought to make Croat-controlled western Herzegovina ethnically pure and shown scant interest in helping anybody return home, whether Croats or non-Croats.

The HDZBiH has intimidated officials and others considering switching from the HDZBiH to the NHI by threatening removal from posts, loss of pensions or benefits and other financial repercussions.  In response, the OSCE has struck HDZ candidates from party lists in three cantons and has recommended that the Mayor of Orasje be removed.  Despite these measures, the intimidatory tactics are having an impact, especially in western Herzegovina, where the HDZBiH controls patronage and a climate of fear pervades.

Nevertheless, the NHI is likely to do well in the September elections in certain regions, such as central Bosnia and Posavina.  Elsewhere, much will depend on whether and how Croat refugees, especially those in Croatia and Germany, will vote, as well as displaced Croats from central Bosnia now in western Herzegovina.  Zubak presents a strong challenge to Jelavic in the race for the Croat member of the joint presidency, if the HDZBiH’s intimidation can be countered.  He is the incumbent and also likely to receive some support from Serbs in the Federation, as well as from some Bosniacs who conclude that a vote for the Bosniac member would be wasted, as Alija Izetbegovic is sure to win.

The campaign has witnessed a bitter propaganda war, as the rivals have sought to tarnish each other with alleged revelations from their pasts.  Critical to Zubak’s prospects is fair access to the media.  The European Union  has presented a demarche to the Croatian television station, HRT, regarding its status in Bosnia and its pre-election coverage.

The formation of the NHI represents an important change in Bosnian Croat politics which improves the chances for reintegrating Bosnia.  While its success in the current climate and with the present electoral system may be limited, it is important that it should establish itself as the strongest possible alternative to the HDZBiH.  It will then be able to take advantage in the long-anticipated event of deeper changes in the Croat political scene both in Bosnia and in Croatia.  This becomes increasingly likely as the aged Tudjman ails, and as the day of reckoning between rival wings of the HDZ approaches.

With these points in mind, ICG recommends the following:

  • The NHI and Zubak personally need to campaign as actively as possible, among Croats in Bosnia and refugees abroad, in order to get their message across to Croat voters.  To promote a level playing field, the international community should do what it can to counter the intimidatory tactics of the HDZBiH, monitoring closely, striking candidates from party lists, removing public officials involved and decertifying offending police.
  • The pre-election reporting of HRT should be scrutinised, and careful consideration given to closing the station down in Bosnia if its coverage fails to improve.
  • In order to break the hold of political hard-liners in the HDZBiH, the network of corruption, crime and cronyism which is at the heart of Bosnian Croat political life needs to be attacked.  However, the lack of independence of the police and judiciary in western Herzegovina, and the climate of fear there, makes action from that source unlikely.  The international community must therefore take the initiative and intervene to bring criminals to justice and, at the same time, pressure Croatia to move against criminal elements among the Bosnian Croats.  Given the poisonous effect of the presence of such criminal gangs in Bosnia on Croatia itself, it is hard to see how Croatia can continue for long to allow the situation in Herzegovina to continue.

Skopje/Sarajevo, 13 August 1998

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.

Executive Summary

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.