Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Changing Dynamics in the Western Balkans
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 3 minutes

Divide and Misrule

A crisis brewing in Mostar should be ringing alarm bells far beyond this ethnically separated city. 

Over the past 10 months the special system of local governance in the Herzegovinian city of Mostar has collapsed into paralysis: The city council has refused to elect a mayor, pass a budget, or transact any business at all since the election in October 2008. Financing of everything from municipal salaries to elementary schools and the fire department depends on an emergency decree issued in July by the Office of the High Representative, the international community's body in charge of implementing the 1995 peace accords.

The Bosnian war left Mostar a shattered and divided ruin. Among Bosnia's sizable cities, Mostar is the only one not dominated by one of the three main ethnic groups and one of only two in which no group is in a position to dominate. Over 15 years of peace the city has largely rebuilt itself. Bosniaks cross to the Croat side without fear, and vice versa; no one expects a return to violence. The city is home to some of the country's most iconic and beautiful architecture and seems ripe for development.

The city also operates with a unique, internationally imposed city statute that replicates many of the features of Bosnia's central government. Each ethnic group is guaranteed a quota of seats in the city council and a share in town government; all important decisions require inter-ethnic consensus.

Why, then, is Mostar falling apart? The immediate cause is an inexplicable loophole opened by the Office of the High Representative in the city's procedure for electing the mayor, allowing the city council to remain in a deadlock that the city's statute was designed to avoid. Neither the Croat nor the Bosniak councilors have enough votes to elect the mayor by themselves, and both sides prefer prolonging the interregnum to letting the other side win.

The statute, negotiated by Bosnian leaders but imposed in 2004 by the high representative of the time, Paddy Ashdown, was designed to unify the city while preventing the majority - in this case, the Croats - from abusing the interests of the minorities, in particular the Bosniaks. Mostar's history provides many examples of such abuse. But Croats point out that no other city in Bosnia places such limits on majority rule.


Other reasons for deadlock lie below the surface. Many Croats think of the Mostar mayoralty as the only important office open to them, since - unlike the Serbs and Bosniaks - they do not dominate either of Bosnia's two entity governments. This city's mayoralty is thus symbolically very important to them. Mostar's Bosniaks, who were brutally persecuted by their Croat neighbors during the war, and for years afterwards, feel with some justification that the mayor's office should be theirs (the main Bosniak party also scored the best results in the October elections). Conflicting views of these fundamental issues - the Croats' sense of statewide disenfranchisement in Bosnia, and the Bosniaks' unresolved wartime grievances - make compromise elusive.

The international community has responded by lecturing Mostar's leaders about their irresponsibility and urging them to overcome their differences and elect a mayor. But the most important reason for the deadlock is Bosnians' expectation that if they hold out long enough, the high representative will take the problem out of their hands by using his power to impose legislative and executive decisions. Mostar's leaders are behaving rationally: Why take the heat for an unpopular compromise when the internationals will do it for you? Mostar's Croats also hope the standoff may induce the high representative to issue changes to the city's statute - an election system without ethnic quotas; a directly elected mayor - that they cannot win on their own.

This is the problem of dependence. The July decision by the current high representative, Valentin Inzko, to extend emergency financing to keep city services running, while humane and well-intentioned, may inadvertently enhance expectations of international rescue. And his decision to block the salaries of the city councilors is unlikely to have much effect, since city council seats are low-paid, part-time posts whose incumbents have other sources of income.

Bosnia's addiction to international decision-making is not limited to Mostar. The same dynamic is at work at the state level, paralyzing efforts to reform the constitution, pass needed legislation, and fill important state-level executive posts. To break this addiction, the international community must step back from its parental role in Bosnia and tell the country's leaders that no one will act in their place.

In Mostar, the high representative should limit himself to facilitating a solution by clarifying the procedure for electing the mayor in line with the statute's intent to prevent deadlock. The city council should then follow those procedures and elect a mayor without further delay. If necessary, the council must use its own authority to amend the statute so as to prevent a recurrence of the deadlock.

But that is only the beginning. The Mostar crisis shows what happens to a system based on consensus when the parties cannot agree; what is happening in Mostar today threatens to paralyze all of Bosnia tomorrow. Bosnia's leaders will have to consider far-reaching changes to their country's constitutional architecture, reducing its vulnerability to ethnic veto and paralysis while retaining protections for the interests of all three of Bosnia's constituent peoples.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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