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Rebuilding a Multi-Ethnic Sarajevo: The need for Minority Returns
Rebuilding a Multi-Ethnic Sarajevo: The need for Minority Returns
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report 30 / Europe & Central Asia

Rebuilding a Multi-Ethnic Sarajevo: The need for Minority Returns

To many who followed the Bosnian war from abroad, Sarajevo symbolised Bosnia and Herzegovina’s rich tradition of multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity.

Executive Summary

To many who followed the Bosnian war from abroad, Sarajevo symbolised Bosnia and Herzegovina’s rich tradition of multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity. While the Bosnian capital came under daily bombardment from Republika Srpska forces, its citizens of all faiths, Bosniacs, Serbs, Croats and others, suffered and survived together in the spirit of tolerance in which they had lived together for centuries. For multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity to re-emerge in Bosnia after the war, this spirit must be rekindled in peace.

The Sarajevo Canton, which comprises nine municipalities, is one of the few areas in Bosnia in which a significant, albeit drastically reduced, proportion of minorities continue to live among the majority Bosniac population. Indeed, more than half of all minority returns which have taken place since the Dayton Peace Agreement (DPA) was signed have been to this canton. Sadly, however, this stresses the generally grim state of minority returns rather than Sarajevo Canton’s good record. Though Bosniac political leaders have generally supported the DPA, their actions have fallen behind their words and the overall record is poor. Minority returnees face a variety of problems, including discriminatory property legislation; administrative obstacles; threats to personal security; discrimination in employment and a hostile school curriculum.

According to statistics from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Sarajevo’s population has slumped from 500,000 in 1991 to 349,000 today. At the same time, the Bosniac population has jumped from 252,000, or 50 percent of the total, in 1991 to 303,000, or 87 percent, today; the Serb population has dwindled from 139,000, or 28 percent, in 1991, to 18,000, or 5 percent, today; and the Croat population has fallen back from 35,000, or 7 percent, in 1991, to 21,000, or 6 percent, today. Sarajevo is also home to a large number of internally displaced persons who make up about a quarter of the canton’s population. Of these, some 89,000 are Bosniacs, 2,000 Croats and 1,000 Serbs. The UNHCR estimates that 13,200 Croats and 5,600 Serbs have returned to the canton since the end of the war. Meanwhile, 75,600 Bosniacs have either returned or resettled in the Bosnian capital in the same period.

While much of Sarajevo’s housing stock was destroyed in the war, the principal obstacle to returns is not space. Indeed, the number of people per property, that is the housing crush, is actually less than before the war. In practice, much of Sarajevo’s housing woes are the result of the often deliberate misallocation of property, and the fact that many politically-connected families have come to occupy several homes in the course of, and since, the war.

In the former Yugoslavia, housing was both privately and socially-owned. Socially-owned property belonged to the state or a state-owned company and the construction was financed out of a fund to which every working person was obliged to pay. The tenant of a socially-owned apartment paid minimal rent and the occupancy right could be inherited by a family member. The Sarajevo Canton had 80,400 socially-owned apartments before the war, comprising 56 percent of the total housing stock.

War-time legislation on abandoned apartments stipulating that occupancy-right holders must reclaim their apartments within seven days, or within 15 days if living abroad, of the end of the war prevent most displaced persons from returning home. Most occupancy-right holders did not even know of the existence of the legislation until after the deadlines expired. The Office of the High Representative has drafted amendments to both the war-time property legislation and a series of additional property-related laws which impede the right to return as specified in the DPA. Despite a 31 January 1998 deadline (set at December’s Bonn meeting of the Peace Implementation Council), the Federation parliament is yet to adopt the amendments. The fate of the Jewish community is especially illustrative. Despite drawing up a legal agreement with the city authorities and applying to return to their homes by the draconian deadline set in the war-time laws, all but a handful have failed to get their homes back.

Aspiring returnees often find themselves in catch 22. In order to reclaim their homes, they must have a Federation identification card, to get such a card they must have a home address and without a home address they cannot register for basic food or medical assistance. There have also been a series of attacks on minority members and buildings owned by minority communities. The incidence of these attacks has been declining and the International Police Task Force (IPTF) feels that the cantonal police perform their tasks professionally. Nevertheless, minority representation on the police force is well below the ratios agreed in February 1996. Of certified officers, 1,358 are Bosniacs, 102 Croats and only 19 Serbs. Moreover, employment ratios are similar in other fields.

In order to revive multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity in the Bosnian capital, the Office of the High Representative is hosting a conference on return to the Sarajevo Canton on 3 February. International Crisis Group (ICG) has a series of recommendations contained at the end of the report which, if implemented, could expedite the process. Above all, ICG recommends that, since the Federation parliament has failed to adopt amendments to the property laws by 31 January, the High Representative should invoke his power to impose them.

Sarajevo, 3 February 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.