Bosnia’s war crimes court today sentenced two Bosnian Serbs to at least 30 years’ imprisonment for genocide against Muslims in the eastern town of Srebrenica during the 1992-95 Balkans conflict.
But the latest news from Srebrenica “forces us to rethink, or at least carefully examine, some of our most cherished political notions,” Michael Dobbs writes on Foreign Policy:
Rules approved this week by the high representative for Bosnia (a kind of international viceroy) will end the so-called “Srebrenica exception” that permitted Muslims expelled from the former United Nations “safe area” in July 1995 to continue to vote in municipal elections.
If confirmed, this latest development would appear to be yet another case of the ethno-politics that continues to distort the political process in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Yet there is considerable scope and potential for building a broad-based civic constituency based on the large swathes of Bosnian citizens who refuse to identify themselves as Bosniak, Serb or Croat on the country’s census, a Washington meeting heard this week.
In April 2013, Bosnia-Herzegovina will conduct its first census since independence and the end of the Balkans war, with major political implications for the distribution of power between the country’s three “constituent” ethnic groups. But as long as political allegiance and representation remains based on ethnic identity, the census and subsequent allocation of resources will only reinforce an inherently sectarian status quo rooted in an ethno-national model of governance.
While difficult to quantify precisely, recent election success by parties campaigning on civic values rather than ethnic identity suggest that “The Others” make up a “Fourth BiH” that is open to political mobilization, civil society activist Darko Brkan told the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (above).
Bosnian civil society “is weak but has never been stronger,” he said, giving a voice to a new civic constituency comprising a growing number of Bosnian citizens demanding a “new social contract” based on civic values and ethnically-blind criteria of citizenship, he said. International actors, NGOs, independent media and non-ethnic politicians all have a role in promoting “civic values and a civic identity that reinforces continued democratization.”
Next year’s census offers a unique opportunity for civil society “to consolidate an alternative constituency, a ‘Fourth BiH’ that transcends the three main ethnicities,” said Ivana Howard, the National Endowment for Democracy’s senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe.
The failure of recent constitutional reform efforts only served to highlight and confirm the “dysfunctional and discriminatory” nature of the political system.
A new social compact should also incorporate a “redefinition of civil society,” that would help close the “great distance between NGOs and citizens,” she said, the result of foreign-funded NGOs too often reflecting an international agenda that fails to address local needs and aspirations.
Darko Brkan is founding president of Zasto ne (Why Not), a Sarajevo-based nongovernmental organization that promotes civic activism, government accountability, and the use of digital media in deepening democracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In addition, he is a founding member of Dosta! (Enough!), one of Bosnia’s most prominent citizens’ movements for social justice and government accountability. Mr. Brkan began his career in civic activism more than ten years ago as coordinator of the Campaign for Conscientious Objection, an organization that promotes peace and conscientious objection to military service in BiH. During his fellowship, Mr. Brkan is exploring how information technologies, online tools, and new media can be used to promote democracy. He plans to share his findings and recommendations in the form of a strategy brief and toolkit on the use of new media in citizen mobilization in Bosnia-Herzegovina and beyond. Ms. Ivana Howard is a senior program officer for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy.