Democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, once considered a rare transatlantic success story, is in danger of unraveling, writes a leading analyst. While economic crisis and the return to office of allies of former leader Slobodan Milosevic are also raising questions about the resilience of democracy in neighboring Serbia.
The crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina arises from proposed revisions to the electoral law proposed by an alliance of the Social Democratic Party and HDZ, the largest Bosnian Croat party, which “reinforces Bosnia’s growing ethnic and religious tribalism,” writes Michael Haltzel, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Transatlantic Relations:
The draft electoral law, included in a complex set of constitutional amendments, would lock in representation of each of Bosnia’s three constituent peoples in areas where they compose a majority at the expense of the “others” — Roma, Jews, other ethnic minority citizens and the large number of Bosnians who choose not to identify with any single ethnic group. The Bosnian Croats living in areas governed by the HDZ would be most favored, receiving a virtual veto over national legislation. This division of spoils would be especially inequitable since Bosnia’s next census, in 2013, is expected to show that the country’s “others” group is as least as numerous as the Bosnian Croat community. The leader of the Serb entity, Republika Srpska, sees the law as furthering his own separatist ambitions.
The proposal is likely to cement ethnic-based political allegiances at a time when alternative political identities and formations are beginning to emerge.
Recent election successes 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 recently told the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy (below).
“Civil society organizations are mobilizing to defeat the legislation, slated for a vote in the coming weeks,” says Haltzel, former European policy adviser to then-Senator Joe Biden, noting that Bosnian NGOs sent an open letter to U.S. lawmakers, likening the legislation to the three-fifths formula for evaluating slaves that preceded the 14th Amendment.
The draft law would “introduce a highly discriminatory concept of ‘vote value’ [which] would assign greater value to votes of citizens belonging to a majority ethnic group within the country’s administrative units. The provision would, in essence, devalue the vote of citizens who are of Jewish, Roma, Polish, Slovak, Czech, German, Albanian, or other recognized minority background, to 40 percent of those who identify themselves as Croats, Serbs or Bosniaks,” said the letter from a coalition of BiH civil society groups:
Before the XIV Amendment, the Constitution of the United States of America stated that “Representatives (…) shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, (…) and three fifths of all other Persons.” If the SDP-HDZ agreement is adopted in the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country’s constitution will de facto assign a lesser value to a whole group of its citizens, much like the U.S. Constitution did before the abolition of slavery.
Democracy is looking notably fragile in the Balkans, according to a recent report by Freedom House. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, and Macedonia all suffered declines in democratic governance over the past five years, driven in part by the overlap between business and political interests and the nagging problem of organized crime.
In Serbia, economic concerns allied to the election of Ivica Dacic, Milosevic’s wartime spokesman, as prime minister and the elevation to the presidency of Tomislav Nikolic, a deputy prime minister of the former Yugoslavia toward the end of Milosevic’s regime, are raising concerns about a “more nationalistic” threat to Serbia’s fragile democracy.
“One of the risks is that people turn to more nationalistic behavior if the economy is deteriorating,” said Svetlana Logar, research director at Ipsos Strategic Marketing in Belgrade, said in an interview in her office. “Democracy has always been very confusing for Serbians and they’re not aware that democracy is a way to a stronger economy and jobs.”
It is difficult to see how Bosnia’s proposed electoral law would enhance stability, Haltzel writes in the Washington Post:
Cementing the power of ethnic fiefdoms runs directly against the tide of 21st-century European history. Cutting large segments of the population out of meaningful political participation will exacerbate tensions, not foster a unifying attachment to the state.
The contrast with two of Bosnia’s neighbors could not be greater. NATO member Croatia will join the European Union next year. Montenegro, which has integrated large Albanian and Slavic Muslim minorities into its national life, reached the negotiating stage of its E.U. membership in June and is well on its way to joining NATO.
With Brussels apparently acquiescing to the proposed electoral law, civil society groups are looking to Washington to take a stance against the provisions.
“It is our fear that the European Union will fail to see the threat facing the human rights of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s citizens, especially minorities,” says Zasto ne (Why Not), a Sarajevo-based nongovernmental organization that promotes civic activism, government accountability, and the use of digital media to deepen democracy in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“Eager to see ‘progress’ at any cost, the EU appears likely to accept the proposed SDP-HDZ agreement,” it said.
In the run-up to Bosnia’s next census, the electoral law also threatens what Ivana Howard, the National Endowment for Democracy’s senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe, has called (below) a unique opportunity for civil society “to consolidate an alternative constituency, a ‘Fourth BiH’ that transcends the three main ethnicities.”
The failure of recent constitutional reform efforts only served to highlight and confirm the “dysfunctional and discriminatory” nature of the political system, she said. A new social compact should also incorporate a “redefinition of civil society,” that would help close the “great distance between NGOs and citizens,” the result of foreign-funded NGOs too often reflecting an international agenda that fails to address local needs and aspirations.