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The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities
Report 42 / Europe & Central Asia

Doing Democracy a Disservice

The stakes in Bosnia’s forthcoming elections, the fifth internationally-supervised poll since the end of the war, could not be higher, for Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and also for the international community.

Executive Summary

The stakes in Bosnia’s forthcoming elections, the fifth internationally-supervised poll since the end of the war, could not be higher, for Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia) and also for the international community.  Having invested enormous financial and political capital in the peace process, the international community expects a return on its investment.  That is why leading international figures including US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have entered the Bosnian political fray, urging Bosnians to back parties which “support Dayton” and threatening to withdraw aid if they do not.  The elections will bring some changes so the event will be hailed as a triumph.  However, they will not lay the ground for a self-sustaining peace process.  That can only be achieved by political reform and, in particular, a redesign of the electoral system to guarantee Bosnians ethnic security.

Democratic elections are all too often simplistically put forward in the West as a panacea, as if by itself the act of voting will all cure ills within a society.  Here it is worth bearing in mind that both Bosnia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia had already held democratic elections when they fell apart in war.  Indeed, their disintegration can, in part, be attributed to the nature of the democracy which emerged.  In Bosnia the 1990 election amounted to a poor ethnic census and as politicians exclusively represented the narrow interests of their own ethnic group and not the entire electorate, Bosnian society polarised and politics degenerated into a zero-sum affair.

The issue of democracy in a multi-ethnic state has generated a great deal of academic debate.  Early political philosophers such as John Stuart Mill were sceptical about the prospects for democracy in a multi-ethnic state arguing that “free institutions are next to impossible in an country made up of different nationalities”.  Contemporary political scientists have a more optimistic view and look to designing democratic institutions in such a way that they reconcile legitimate interests of different communities based on local conditions.  In Bosnia, therefore, the environment for democracy, the conditions and the political and electoral systems are critical.

Though elections formed the cornerstone of the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA), the conditions in which any kind of fair poll could take place simply did not and could not exist without a major restructuring of Bosnian society.  Before giving the go-ahead to Bosnia’s 1996 elections, the OSCE’s then Chairman-in-Office Flavio Cotti warned that if minimal prerequisites were not met before polling day, the vote ought not to take place as it would lead to “pseudo-democratic legitimisation of extreme nationalist power structures”.  His words were prophetic.  The elections simply ratified the status quo, conferring mandates on the nationalists who had prosecuted the war who continued to pursue the same policies.  The result was further zero-sum politics.  The current elections will again ratify the status quo.  They will not of themselves take the peace process forward.  However, today’s Bosnia is very different from that of 1996.

The changes which will be hailed as electoral breakthroughs should not be attributed to the flowering of democracy in Bosnia.  They are instead the result of the way in which the international community has ridden roughshod over Bosnia’s democratic institutions.  The status quo has been forcibly changed by interventionist policies aimed at loosening the grip of the political parties which emerged victorious in the 1996 poll.  Snatch operations against indicted war criminals, robust SFOR intervention in Banja Luka in the summer of 1997, SFOR seizure of Bosnian Serb television’s transmitters in October 1997, destroying the financial base of hard-line politicians, dismissing officials and striking candidates from electoral lists have created a new Bosnian reality.

The greatest changes will be among Serbs in Republika Srpska where support for the SDS is likely to disintegrate.  The SDS already lost control over the entity’s National Assembly in November 1997, has seen its financial base disappear, and has been deprived of access to media.  In recent months the power struggle has spilled over into violence with one assassination and another attempted assassination.  The post-electoral alliances may prove interesting.

Among Bosniacs, the changes will be less dramatic.  The main opposition party, the SDP, is likely to do better because there should be no repetition of the fraud which marred the 1996 poll, electors who backed Haris Silajdzic in 1996 will probably switch allegiance, and the party has waged a successful campaign.  At the presidential level, however, the SDP did not bother even to put up a candidate against the incumbent Alija Izetbegovic.  This throws up an interesting possibility in the battle for the Croat member of the Presidency because of a quirk in the electoral system.  Electors in the Federation have one vote at the presidential level and can choose whether to use it for a Bosniac or a Croat candidate.  Since Izetbegovic’s election is a foregone conclusion, a large number of Bosniacs in the Federation may opt to vote for the Croat member of the Presidency, in which case the HDZ’s candidate and favourite Ante Jelavic could be defeated.  Otherwise, the NHI, the new Croat party of Kresimir Zubak is likely to make modest inroads which could, nevertheless, transform politics in certain cantons.

Despite the changes in parties and personnel in power, the elections will not have much impact on the logic of Bosnian politics.  Having been elected on the basis of votes of a single community, ethnically-based parties will only represent the interests, or what they deem to be the interests of that one ethnic group and feel no obligation to the rest of Bosnia’s population.  Instead of seeking accommodation, these parties will view every political issue as a “zero-sum” game in which there will inevitably be a winner and a loser and thus fail to reach compromise.  The fundamental flaw is the lack of ethnic security.  This is the underlying reason for conflict within the country as well as for the lack of trust between ethnic groups.  Moreover, the lack of ethnic security undermines everything the international community is attempting to achieve and fails to offer Bosnians a future.  As a result, many young, educated Bosnians are voting with their feet and emigrating.

In every country, the electoral system has a profound effect on political life, influencing the way parties campaign and political elites behave.  In multi-ethnic societies the choice of system is especially important.  Depending on the system selected, it can either provide incentives for parties to be broad-based and accommodating, or it can achieve the opposite, namely to encourage parties to form around narrow appeals to ethnicity.  ICG has proposed a radical reform of the electoral system requiring candidates to seek the support of all ethnic groups, not just their own.  Moreover, a permanent electoral law is currently being drawn up for Bosnia which should be passed by the end of the year.  For democracy to thrive in Bosnia, for Bosnians to have a future and the peace process to become self-sustaining in the absence of today’s colossal international presence, it is critical that the new law builds in ethnic security.

Sarajevo, 9 September 1998

The Western Balkans: Fragile Majorities

Political instability keeps growing in the Western Balkans amid geopolitical contests and increased tensions with Russia. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – First Update early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to engage intensively to ensure the political space for avoiding more serious crisis does nto entirely vanish in the Western Balkans.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – First Update.

Mounting political instability in the Western Balkans has the potential to spark new crises on the EU’s immediate borders. Political tensions are particularly high in Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Many EU policymakers are concerned that Russia aims to exacerbate this disorder, a worry that has intensified since elements of the Russian intelligence service were implicated in a failed coup in Montenegro last year. But the region’s crises are rooted in a prevalent winner-takes-all party politics and flaws inherent in the political settlements forged to end the Yugo­slav wars. While Russia has deep-seated interests in the Balkans, its interventions are more opportunistic than strategic.

[T]he EU [...] should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections.

The Balkans are a part of the ongoing geopolitical contest, but local sensitivities are much stronger drivers of events and risks in the region than geopolitics: the EU therefore should concentrate on local sources of instability, which often are linked to ruling parties’ refusal to give up power despite losing elections. Regional states – including those discussed below – have endured on-and-off political tensions since the 1990s, so far without sliding back into secessionist wars. But the political space for avoiding more serious crises is narrowing, and the EU must engage intensively to ensure it does not entirely vanish. This will play out differently in each context but at its core the EU should seek to impose meaningful financial costs on, and slow down the pace of EU accession for actors who violate basic norms, and in particular on parties that obstruct a peaceful transfer of power.


The risk of a serious crisis is highest in Macedonia. National elections in 2016 failed to restore stability after a period of political turmoil and sporadic violence. The incumbent right to far-right VMRO-DPMNE party has refused to cede power to a majority coalition of parties led by the Social Democratic SDSM party. A central point of contention is the SDSM’s willingness to make some political concessions to the Albanian minority, which VMRO claims threaten the state’s existence. This invalid claim has resulted in daily anti-Albanian rallies in the capital, Skopje, as well as in growing alienation among ethnic Albanians. While the Macedonian Albanian minority’s leaders generally have remained committed to working within Macedonia’s political structures since the country came close to civil war in 2001, the current crisis could undermine this uneasy bargain.

Civil society groups have called for targeted sanctions against senior VMRO officials, and the European Parliament’s rapporteur has echoed these calls. The EU should use the threat of possible sanctions to press the VMRO to accept its electoral defeat and play the role of responsible opposition. Leaders of the European People’s Party (EPP), of which VMRO is a member, should use their contacts in Skopje to insist that VMRO stop blocking the transfer of power; if it does not the EPP should consider suspending VMRO.


The political climate in Kosovo has been poisonous since the ruling PDK party refused to cede power after losing elections in 2014. The nationalist opposition party – VV – has responded with public protests and accusations that the PDK is too generous to the ethnic Serb minority. The PDK subsequently reached a power-sharing arrangement with another part of the opposition, the centrist LDK, though this political deal failed to bridge deeper societal divides. While the EU previously coaxed Belgrade and Pristina into constructive talks, relations have worsened and there were tensions this winter over a Kosovo Serb plan to build a wall in the divided city of Mitrovica. Although EU officials keep a close watch on the situation, inter-ethnic tensions are liable to recur if the PDK and opposition exploit them as part of their standoff.

Domestic and international civil society groups have launched a dialogue between the PDK and opposition, and the EU should continue to support this. In particular, it should encourage these civil society efforts to bring ethnic Serb minority parties and representatives into the dialogue, while using its leverage with Belgrade to persuade Serbia not to obstruct the process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

BiH potentially faces a decisive test of its sustainability as a state in 2018-2019. The country could be unable to replace the current legislature and executive when their terms expire in October 2018. The constitutional court has struck down elements of the electoral law, and all major Bosniak, Croat and Serb parties will have to agree on amendments to the law if state-wide polls are to take place next year. Given the polarisation of BiH politics, there is a significant danger that this will prove impossible.

Failure to hold elections in 2018 would result in the state’s gradual paralysis. In a worst-case scenario this would allow Republika Srpska to press anew for its secession from the federal state. The EU, supported by BiH’s neighbours Croatia and Serbia, should use the leverage of the accession process and related assistance to push all sides to amend the electoral law as quickly as possible, and emphasise its long-term focus on the country by, for example, committing to keep in place EUFOR, the small EU-led peacekeeping force, for as long as necessary.