After World War II, Europe enjoyed a period of false peace. Although tensions between the United States (US) lead North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Soviet Union’s mutual defense alliance the Warsaw Pact remained high, there were no major cases of military conflict on the continent. This peace however would not last, as in 1991 the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, a neutral country in Southeastern Europe, would explode in a series of conflicts called the Yugoslav Wars.
Ethnic tensions tore the Federation apart, with the newly emerged countries of Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia fighting against what remained of Yugoslavia for their independence. The deadliest of these conflicts was the Bosnian War, which lasted for 3 years and 8 months and in which two hundred thousand people were killed with the only other European genocide since the Holocaust taking place. After an intervention of NATO, the war was supposed to be settled in the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, but the scars are yet to heal. The Agreement oversaw the creation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but it has been criticized as unsuccessful: deepening ethnic divisions and creating a deeply flawed state with one of the most complex political systems in Europe and even the world.
The state of Bosnia and its three “constituent peoples”
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) is a bicameral federal republic made up of three federal “entities”: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH), Republika Srpska (RS) and District Brčko. To understand the politics of this state, one must understand its citizens. Situated between two other South Slavic states of Croatia and Serbia, it is home to three and half million people according to the most recent census. A melting pot since its time as a part of Yugoslavia, the population of Bosnia is made up of around 50% Muslim Bosniaks, 30% Orthodox Christian Serbs and 15% Catholic Christian Croats. The two major entities in the federation are dominated by these groups: with the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina having 70% Bosniak and 30% Croat populations while Republica Srpska has over 80% Serb population. As a legacy of the Bosnian War, the ethnic identities of its people are entwined within the institutional framework of the country as an attempt to make sure no one group has enough power to harm the others.
The federal entity: Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Despite what the name might have you believe, Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the country of the same name are two separate existences. FBiH constitutes 51% of the country’s territory and 62% of the population. Its capital is Sarajevo which also serves as the national capital and largest city. The Federation is divided into 10 units called “cantons”, each having its own assembly, ministries and courts. This entity is dominated by Bosniaks and Croats, with Serbs making up just 2% of the population. The Muslim population is concentrated within the central parts of the entity and the capital, where Bosniak political parties control canton politics while most Croats live in in the Southwest, near the border with Croatia.
Even by federal standards, FBiH is highly autonomous unit. It has its own constitution that outlines an executive, a legislature, and a judiciary. It can set its own taxes, manages its own schools, builds its own infrastructure. Perhaps the only thing that stops it from being a state is that it cannot create an army. However, the systems of FBiH are incredibly complex and do more to deepen division between its two major peoples. At the base level, a person can have three legislative assemblies, three presidents and prime ministers (canton, entity, national). Institutions are riddled with ethnic quotas and election requirement making who can and cannot run a complex affair. Cantons are usually ethnically homogenous, with some being Bosniak, others Croat and the few that are more diverse divided into ethnic pockets. The country’s fifth largest city, Mostar is famously split along a river with the eastern part of the city being a Muslim majority while the west being Catholic. In multiethnic cities, schools are separated because of the “two schools under one roof” system, where pupils from different ethnicities are under the same roof but in two different worlds, learning different interpretations of history, from different textbooks, and little opportunity to talk to each other.
The unitary entity: Republika Srpska
The second major part of Bosnia is Republika Srpska and it constitutes the other 49% of the country’s territory and 35% of its population. The constitutional capital of this entity is Sarajevo, but all its governmental institutions are held in Bosnia’s second largest city, Banja Luka. As the name implies, the dominant group here are the Bosnian Serbs that make up over 80% of the entity’s population. The second largest demographic are Muslim Bosniaks with 15% and finally Croats with a little over 2% of the population. Just like its counterpart, RS is highly autonomous and has its own constitution under the trias politica model. Where the differences lie is that Republika Srpska is much more centralized resembling a unitary state like Serbia. It is split in municipalities and has a single unicameral legislature in the National Assembly of Republika Srpska. It can make laws, approve budgets and elect an executive cabinet for the Council of Ministers.
The people of Srpska can also directly elect a President but it has relatively weaker powers compared to the Assembly. Due to RS’s homogenous population and parliamentary model, entity politics have been dominated by Serb nationalist political parties. The political culture and society of this entity has been criticized for its historical revisionism and war crime denial in regards to the role of the Army of Republica Srpska in the Bosnian war and genocide. It’s close economic and military ties with Serbia and Russia have also put it at odds with the more NATO and European Union oriented Federation. The hostile relationship between the two entities has been common place in Bosnia’s modern political history, and always done in the background of secession threats from Srpska.
The city-state entity: District Brčko
District Brčko comprises a small strip of land in the northern part of the country. In this territory, none of the major ethnic groups hold a majority, with Bosniaks being 42% of the population, Serbs 34% and Croats 20%. The city’s special status is owed due to a dispute of ownership between the Federation and Srpska that could not be resolved in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords. As a compromise, it was “given” to both but left to govern itself under supervision from the international community. The district has its own legislature called the District Assembly of Brčko. It is made up of 29 councilors elected for four-year terms through a proportional representation electoral system. The District Assembly has the competencies of adopting the budget, laws, and appointing and dismissing the mayor. The executive branch is the District Government of Brčko that is headed by a mayor.
Candidates for mayor are nominated by the District Assembly and elected with a 3/4 majority votes from the total number of councilors. The mayor has the right to appoint heads of departments that run the day-to-day functions of the city. Due to its unique status, residents of Brčko can choose to vote on the national level as citizens of FBiH or RS. The city-state, despite its modest size, holds a key geopolitical role within Bosnia. It is the connecting bridge between the western and eastern parts of Republika Srpska which would be separated in two without it. For FBiH, it is the largest river port in the country, connecting the almost landlocked entity with the rest of Europe through the navigable Sava River. Although the little district has preserved its independence, the question of its ownership would certainly become a focal point were a conflict between its larger siblings to break out.
Institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Perpetuating the division
It’s rare to find a state where the ethnic identities of its people are as deeply ingrained in its political structure as they are in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The poster child for this is the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unlike in other countries with similar institutions, the Presidency is made up of three members. One Bosniak and one Croat president that are directly elected from the territory of FBiH and one Serb elected directly from RS. Together, they take turns being the head of state (called the Chairperson of the Presidency) rotating every eight months for the position. The Chairperson has all the powers and duties of the President: directing foreign policy, appointing ambassadors, etc. but any decision they make can be vetoed by the “stand-by” presidents to make sure they are being held in check. The ethnic design language is prevalent in all of Bosnia’s national institutions. The legislature has two chambers: the lower house having 42 representatives, twenty-eight elected from the FBiH and fourteen from RS. The higher house has fifteen, five for each of the three main ethnic groups. The executive Council of Ministers must not be made up of more than 2/3 citizens of the FBiH. The Constitutional Court of BiH has 9 judges: four selected by FBiH, two by RS, and three are foreign citizens appointed by the President of the European Court of Human Rights.
This rigid adherence to the representation of the three constituent peoples means that around 5% of the country’s population that do not identify with any of the three main ethnicities go unrepresented. The strict territorial requirements for offices also mean that 17% of Respublika Srpska that are Bosniaks and Croats as well as the 2% Serbs of the Federation are not represented on the national level. Finally, the central government of Bosnia can be described as weak. The state does not have enough authority to restraint the entities, and most infrastructure projects, legislation, administration, and tax collection is done by the entity governments. The Bosnian central government has instead fallen into a coordinating role, trying to be a bridge for communication between FBiH and RS. Bosnia is an asymmetric federation but it’s unlike any other, sharing more characteristics with confederations. This has caused fatigue in the citizens of Bosnia, as they perceive the bloated government model too weak to solve their problems, leading to weak election turnout rates.
The High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the implications of the “Bonn Powers”
As part of the Dayton Agreement, one more unique institution was created. The Peace Implementation Council, of which 55 countries are a part of, was allowed to set up the office of the High Representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the purpose of avoiding delays in the implementation of the Agreement. The High Representative (HR) was given the so called “Bonn Powers/Authority” which allows the office holder to do two things: 1. They can adopt binding decisions and pass legislature without the approval of the democratic systems of Bosnia. 2. They can remove any official from office who is perceived to violate the Dayton Agreement. The High Representative was not elected by the people of Bosnia and the state has no mechanism to remove a person from office. This position has been described as a “modern day viceroy,” imposing the will of their colonial masters on an unwilling population, while others contend that it’s a necessary evil to avoid the political gridlock that Bosnia and Herzegovina often faces.
The most recent example was when a HR passed a legislation that banned genocide denial before leaving office bypassing the state. For years, this law had been blocked by the authorities of Republika Srpska. While this action would be considered moral and justified to most in the Federation and the Western world, it has triggered instability in Bosnia and renewed talks of secession in the Serbian entity. Others have criticized the HR for passing this law while on “his way out”, never to be held accountable for the act. Whatever the case, the power of the High Representative is far reaching and should be examined closely.
A state with an uncertain future
The Bosnian state was created by the West in an attempt to heal the deep wound left by the Bosnian war. However, in the attempt to restrain the people of Bosnia from renewing their ethnic hatred, the West created an expansive labyrinth of competing institutions and systems. A labyrinth that has reinforced ethnic divisions it was supposed to mend. Today, the three different groups find themselves alienated from the state in different ways. The Bosniak population has little control over the country they are a majority of, both politically because of the institutional deadlock; and militarily, as any action to reform the state by force will be met by reciprocity from Croatia and Serbia. The Serbs of Bosnia find their independence movement in limbo with Serbia being unwilling to back them and out of fear of a possible US reprisal. Bosnian Croats, despite being the third largest ethnic group, are the only ones to not have an entity on their own, an injustice some wish to be rectified. A government that spends 50% of its GDP to sustain itself and has been unable to handle crises such as the extreme unemployment rate and brain drain must be reformed. That will not be an easy process for it to succeed, the international community must be aware exactly why Dayton failed, so that they can guide the people of Bosnia out of their labyrinth and not trap them in another.
Photo by Yu SIang Teo on Unsplash