Debating the need for constitutional reform in Bosnia

Valery Perry, whose work over the years in Bosnia I very much appreciate responded to my blog (reblogged at TransConflict) on constitutional change in Bosnia. She has been key in the K143 coalition I discussed in my original post. Here is my response to her comments for TransConflict.

 

1. I agree that the two proposals are fundamentally different. The ICG proposals point to full acknowledging the consociational nature of the state and finding ways to formalise informal structures and practices. The K143 has clearly more a centripetal approach as Donald Horowitz and other advocate it, moving away from consociationalism. They both share, as I point out, the belief that such constitutional change is possible and/or do not consider the risk that debating about third entity or abolishing entities is nothing but giving ammunition to political parties who like talking about constitution, threats to national interests and such “big topics”.

2. The suggestion that I do not consider the engagement of citizens as important is clearly a misreading of my comments. I was talking about the undesirability of constitutional reform and the surrounding debates at the moment. I strongly believe that citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve to have more inclusion in reform debates. However, this is exactly why I am skeptical about constitutional reform and the surrounding debates. First, they are inherently divisive and I cannot envisage a consensual cross-community and cross-entity debate on constitutional reform. Instead, constitutional reform debates benefit those who can talk about the need to protect national interests, etc. Second, the people who went to the streets in February did not focus on constitutional reforms. Their demand was not to get rid of the entities or to have a third entity, but to reduce corruption and mismanagement. Both are of course connected to the constitution, but not cannot be reduced to it. The fact that Sarajevo or Tuzla are not well governed is not a result of Dayton. I am not expecting change through elections in October and certainly have not argued this in my comment. In fact, I wrote in June that the “key question remains on how to change the incentive structure for Bosnian political elites.” Clearly this would require strong civic pressure.

3. I am quite aware of the difference between small scale, technical constitutional amendments and changes that touch on sensitive and potentially divisive issue. Thus, I can see some merit in addressing these issues. However, this makes the proposal like the ones by K143 and ICG even less relevant. It would have been more useful to identify realistic and incremental potential changes to the constitution, as the working group on the Federation did last year with support by the US embassy. What is important to note, however, is that many institutions and coordinating mechanisms (such as coordinating institutions need for EU accession do not require constitutional change.

4. I am certainly aware that change through parliamentary structures are difficult and have been unsuccessful so far, as I note in my comment. I would thus agree with Valery Perry that broader reform constituencies should be built up to keep up the pressure. My observation about the need to work through the institutions had two considerations in mind. First,there are no feasible extra-institutional venue: No “Dayton 2” will take place and there is no viable alternative to change through institutions. Thus, keeping this in mind, requires to recognise that MPs are unlikely to overturn a system that constitutes the basis of their mandate. Whether one likes it or not, they have no reason to abolish themselves—this is hardly specific to Bosnia. Fundamental institutional and constitutional change takes place in most countries very rarely and usually only in the context of significant exogenous shocks.

5. I am not suggesting that K143 or Valery Perry argue that constitutional reform is a panacea. However, prioritizing constitutional reform give it more weight than it deserve. There is no doubt that it would be desirable for Bosnia and Herzegovina to have a different constitution. Yet, the difference in perspective arises from a) the degree to which the constitution is seen as the source of the problems and b)  the realistic ability to overcome these through constitutional reform.

6. The comments I wrote were for a  briefing in Berlin, not a reflection of the discussions there. Thus, my comment does not necessarily reflect the view of other participants there and one should not deduct any official policy or thinking about Bosnia from my comments.

7. Unfortunately, Valery Perry leaves one question unanswered: How would the constitutional change be possible and how to avoid the capturing of any constitutional reform debate by ethno-nationalist elites?

Why constitutional reform will not solve the Bosnian blockade

At a meeting at the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin on the future of Bosnia with senior international officials and experts, I have had a chance to discuss the benefits and disadvantages of constitutional reform, a perennial topic for Bosnia. Here are some of the considerations I had the chance to present and discuss on why I remain skeptical of the need to prioritize constitutional reform.

The constitutional structure is often identified as the main problem of Bosnia and Herzegovina, including two recent proposals by a coalition of Bosnian NGOs K143 (drafted by the Democratization Policy Council) and the International Crisis Group. The Dayton constitution is indeed not much loved and would find few supporters in its entirety. Over the past 15 years or so, countless drafts and ideas have been floated and no self-respecting international think tank, political party and other observer would not have launched its own ideas. From abolishing the Federation (ESI), to abolishing the entities and replacing it with new multinational regions (SDP and SBiH), to creating a Croat entity (ICG) or just having strong municipalities (K143) there is hardly an option that has not been proposed. Indeed, considering the flaws of the constitution, it is easy to come up with better options. However, most proposals are unclear on one crucial question, how can such a change be brought about? A second question most proposals assume or leave unconsidered is whether such changes would unlock the country and bring about fundamental change.

Constitutional reform in Bosnia is inherently a process with a number of corollary reform needs. For examples, any reform of the state presidency to bring it in line with Sejdić-Finci ruling of the ECHR would require the amendment of a number of other laws, most notably the election law. Other constitutional reforms would require changing institutions (such as the constitutional court, parliament, council of ministers), thus constitutional reform per definition is more extensive than just changing Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Accords.

A comprehensive approach would reach even beyond this and at its foremost reform the constitution not just of the state, but also of sub-state units, in particular the Federation and Cantons. Furthermore, it would address larger question of the link between the constitution and the Dayton Peace Agreement. Currently, the constitution is still part of the Peace Agreement and its binding version is English, not BCS. This might be a small and banal point, but it means that the constitution remains embedded in a broader peace agreement that remains in place, including the OHR and the provisions on refugee return. A comprehensive approach in regard to Dayton would address these issues, and replace or reform the constitution in conjunction with Peace Agreement. The outcome would be a final peace settlement that would transform Dayton.

Another form the comprehensive approach would be to expand the matters to include issues not part of Dayton, but rather related to current needs of Bosnia, such as EU integration or reducing patronage and corruption in the Bosnian system. Thus, the package would be more transformative than constitutional reforms can be.

Taking a step back from these options, we need to consider the reasons for opting for a comprehensive approach. The first motivation is to unlock a number of blockages in the Bosnian system and thus transform the political dynamic in Bosnian beyond the constitution. The second approach would be to increase the pie to facilitate settlement. Here, the comprehensive approach provides for additional incentives for parties to accept constitutional reform that might not be palatable for them otherwise. Here, the relevant comparison is the April Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia that provided external incentives in the form of EU accession to both parties. The two motivations for a comprehensive approach are not easily compatible as the former seeks to address the problems of Bosnia comprehensively which inherently would include clipping the power of ethnonationalist political parties and their patronage networks, while the latter approach would be about securing a buy in from all parties.

The format of such a comprehensive approach would require extensive international mediation, probably over several rounds of negotiations, as short-term negotiated settlements might be more appealing, but risk failure considering the complexity of the subject matters and the varying incentives of the political actors involved. Such a comprehensive approach has not yet been tried in Bosnia and would require consensus among key international actors (in particular EU member states, the USA and preferably the two signatories of Dayton, Serbia and Croatia). A package solution also runs the risk of holding up reforms as they are all folded into the comprehensive package. Furthermore, external incentives for political actors are hard to come by, as currently rewards in terms of faster progress towards the EU appears to have little appeal.

If a comprehensive approach, or rather either of the two presented variants, appear unlikely, the option remains whether or not a constitutional reform by itself should be pursued and if so a gradual process or through a “big bang” approach. The gradual process would see passing of several constitutional reforms over time, either negotiated by party leaders (with all the normative problems this entails) or in parliament (with all the practical problems) and build on each other. The big bang would seek a larger reform package to be passed in one go. The former has the advantage of building gradual momentum, as well as normalizing the idea of constitutional change rather than reducing it to a one off event. However, such a process might take very long and failure at each step can derail the entire process. The big bang has the advantage of settling the most pressing issue at once and also allowing for some degree of horse trading that would provide the different parties incentives to compromise. The main problem is that both approaches have failed for ten years. Gradual change has not happened and the constitution has only been changed once since Dayton to include reference to the district of Brčko. The big bang approach also failed in April Package in 2006 and the Butmir Process in 2009 and also the Prud Agreement 2008 never reached fruition. Of course, the April package of constitutional reforms failed narrowly and was a near success. However, since Bosnian politics has become more intractable and thus the likelihood of a repetition of the constitutional reforms negotiated in 2006 appears slim.

The challenge arising from this observation is the tension between the ambitions of those who have made plans for constitutional changes in Bosnia and the ability to translate them into reality. Any realistic process of constitutional reform will have to take place through the existing Bosnian institutions. Even an international conference on Bosnia will not have the legitimacy or the ability to enforce a large-scale institutional change without consent of the elected officials of Bosnia. There is no other realistic scenario of institutional change in Bosnia—even mass protests would at best create pressure on the institutions to act rather than overthrow them altogether, especially not country-wide. Thus, it is imperative to reckon with the political interest of the office holders in the country. In addition, despite evidence of significant disillusionment with the dominant political parties and the system, there is little to show that Bosnian citizens have a shared political project and consider themselves to be part of one community. Of course, if voters would bring into power parties with radically different politics, this would change, but so far there is little evidence for this.

Keeping these constraints in mind, there is no reason to believe that a comprehensive and far-reaching reform of the Bosnian constitution would be possible that would abolish the entities, as a recent proposal by K143 a coalition of Bosnian NGOs proposed, or otherwise transform the governing structure. Why would any political party from the RS agree to give up the entity veto when it provides it with an easy mechanism to block any decision at the state level? Similar questions can be raised about all major stumbling blocks of constitutional change. The only manner to which some elements of corporatist ethno-territorial control could be loosened would be through deals that offer other incentives or safeguards. Thus, increasing the number of members of the House of People would for example increase the number of MPs needed to evoke an entity veto, creating potentially higher hurdles. At best, such changes will undo some of the most egregious examples of ethnonationalist blockages or quotes, but not fundamentally transform Bosnia into a different political system. Thus, the link between territory and group identity is likely to remain strong, veto rights will exist, as will quotes. Removing open discrimination and somewhat streamlining decision-making could be achieved. This, however, neglects one key factor: Is the main problem of Bosnia’s current crisis institutional or constitutional and can re-negotiated institutions alleviating these. The answer to the first part of the question is a partial yes, the later a no. Institutions are overly complex and blocked. However, it is telling that the protests in February focused on the local and cantonal level. In particular in Tuzla, neither does power-sharing matter nor is it one of the more dysfunctional cantons. Thus, grievances with political elites cannot be obviously fixed through constitutional amendments.

In effect the discussion about Sejdić-Finci in the aftermath of the protests in February seemed like the discussion among medieval angelology about how many angles can dance on the pin of a needle, esoteric and mostly irrelevant. Of course, discrimination is not desirable and deserves to be removed, yet the state of Roma is not going to change if one of them would have the theoretical chance of joining the state presidency as a Rom, as Roma could be elected as presidents in all neighboring countries without this having any practical effect.

Surely, the strong link between ethnicity, territory and governance has caused problems that contribute to the Bosnian crisis, but constitutional reform cannot hope to overcome this, but only to reduce its impact at best. At the same time, constitutional reform discussion have been reinforcing the power of established elites, as discussions on such reforms focus on protecting national interests, entity rights, threats to identity and the other topics that are the life-blood of ethnonationalist rhetoric. Constitutional reform thus entails a trade-off between seeking to achieve modest improvements to the institutional structure while at the same time sustaining public debates on the topic that sideline the main issues of concern for BiH citizens, povery, corruption and the economy.

A procedural approach to constitutional reform would shift the focus on benefits of a having a process that seeks to build consensus and thus re-establishes Bosnia as a consensus based polity, no matter the substance of the reforms themselves. Of course, taking a too liberal view of such a procedure of substance approach would be accept even problematic „deals“, such as the „reforms“ agreed between Milorad Dodik and Zlatko Lagumdžija in 2012.

What constitutional reform (at the state and entity level) in the short and medium term at best can deliver is technical fixes to some matters that blocked decision making in Bosnia (i.e. by increasing the number of MPs in both chapters to increase the number of MPs needed to block laws through the entity clause or the formation of the House of Peoples in the Federation). This can alleviate some of the blockages that Bosnia encounters, but is more likely a recipe for further procrastination than a panacea.

 

Civil Society after the Protests in Bosnia

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I had the pleasure to be part of a panel debate yesterday at the foreign ministry in Vienna on civil society. More meaningful than just “another” panel on Bosnia was the fact that it took place at the foreign ministry and was opened by Austria’s foreign minister and included also the head of the EU delegation Sörensen in Bosnia. On the other hand,it included no politicians from Bosnia and this was no coincidence. The message of the panel and the high level engagement by Austria and the EU is that it is no longer enough to talk with the political elites, but rather civil society needs to be engaged. This is a refreshing change from an approach that focuses mostly on the leaders of the main political parties. Similarly, the panel was less about formal and established civil society organizations, but rather activists, two from plena (Ajda Sejdić and Amna Popovac), musician Damir Imamović and Aleksandar Trifunović of independent media platform Buka.  The panel was a useful reminder that civil society is more than NGOs and not just there to providing technical expertise, but articulating voices from society.

The result was a refreshing debate. Yes, the problems are old and there is little disagreement about the responsibility of political elites. Little attention centered on the constitution and the Sejdić-Finci cases, but as the February protests highlighted, the main issues are poverty, economic mismanagement and corruption. As Damir Imamović noted, these grievances highlight that Bosnia’s problems are not fundamentally different from elsewhere. Yes, they express themselves differently or are compounded by the government structures, but they are not exotic and do not make the Balkans and Bosnia exceptional.

The key question to which there is no clear answer, is how to achieve change. It seemed clear that the plena have mostly run their course. While they have helped generate ideas and continue to operate, they themselves will not generate change in Bosnia. Yet, as in other countries, protests often require multiple waves and different forms until they become successful. While some politicians resigned and some small legal changes were made,  the main success of the protests and plena was not the number of political demands fulfilled, but rather showing the possibility of citizens to organize outside the formal structures and, if briefly, giving the political elite a real scare. There was a clear sense at the discussion that there is no need for new political parties to achieve change. In essence, the choice is between new political actors emerging within the structures or, I argued, in the ability of the EU and civil society to change the behavior of political elites in power. In fact, nationalist and reluctant reforms from Ivo Sanader, Milo Djukanović and Ivica Dačić or Aleksandar Vučić have been able to switch their political priorities. This was usually based on a rational calculation based on changing demand from below (for EU integration) and pressure from outside. The key question remains on how to change the incentive structure for Bosnian political elites.

The panel suggest that some EU member states and the EU start realizing that the transformative effect of the EU accession depends on allies within the country that scrutinize political elites and thus point out the discrepancy between the talk of EU integration in the country and the reality. However, this dynamic can only become effective if the prospect for EU membership remains real and the support for civil society becomes sustained and extends beyond a few high-level events.

 

 

 

What the floods reveal: Consequences of a disaster

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The floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and, to a lesser degree, in Croatia brought destruction and death to large areas. Thousands of homes were destroyed, some had been painstakingly rebuilt after the war, thousands of landmines swept away to new locations, livestock killed, mass graves from the war unearthed and roads ruined. Beyond the destruction, the floods also revealed the weakness and the strengths of the countries. It is a cliché to say that moments of crisis and disaster brings out the best and the worst in people. In Bosnia and Serbia, it mostly brought out the best in people, and the worst in states.

Natural disasters test states whether they are weak or strong and their response (or lack thereof) often shatters citizens trust. When the earthquake in Haiti struck in 2010 killing a quarter of million people, it destroyed the state itself, which been weakened by decades of crisis. In New Orleans hurricane Katerina brought misery and scenes nobody would imagine could occur in the United States. The response appeared to be of a state that did not care about its poor and ready to tolerate great misery among its citizens.

The floods in Bosnia and Serbia showed that two very different states were utterly unprepared for the disaster. Both states and their local (entity, etc.) authorities responded late, with limited means and inaptly. What is important here is the similarity between the two countries. Serbia is often considered more functional than Bosnia, with a centralized state, clear lines of authority and without complicated and competing authorities as in Bosnia. Yet, both did badly. This suggests that despite all justified critique of Bosnia’s complicated institutions, the cause of the incompetence lies elsewhere. Some of it lies with political leaders who did not take the problem seriously and in politicized, hierarchical systems: if the leader does not take it seriously,neither does the state. In fact, the state and political elites sometimes blamed citizens rather than shouldering responsibility.

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

In Serbia, the response to the floods also shed light on the authoritarian and populist tendencies of the current government. The disaster-management populist hubris, was reflected by multiple live transmissions of government sessions in its function as emergency committee (15 May, 23 May). The sessions had little calming effect, but rather gave the message “the situation is horrible, but we will take care of it”. It fit the image of the new prime minister as the serious, always concerned leader, taking the suffering of his citizens serious indeed. The personification of the disaster response fits the emerging character of the current government, dominated by the over-towering Vučić. The government spreads panic and then offers Vučić as the savior. Whether this strategy will succeed will depend on the ability of the government to either deal effectively with the aftermath of the floods or its ability to effectively deflect criticism.

The authoritarian side of the government became visible through the censorship the government appears to have engaged in. Websites and blogs critical of the government and Vučić were taken down (see here, here). In addition, a tabloid close to the government suggested that the floods were the pretext of a plot of businessmen and the opposition to take down Vučić.

The floods have also provide for a template on which to project different ideological visions and hopes. Srećko Horvat, for example, argues that it is the neo-liberal transformation that hollowed out the state to be unresponsive and inept. Such an observation is obviously implausible as the lack of investment into public infrastructure in Serbia and Bosnia over the past twenty years is not the result of neo-liberalism or the privatization of public utilities. Little has been privatized and certainly much less than elsewhere in Europe which copes better with natural calamities and the causes are very different. The state and the local authorities in Bosnia and Serbia have been ill-prepared to deal with the floods. Thus, the failure lies with the state, not private utility companies. Now, I would not argue that this necessarily means that the state should privatize public utilities and infrastructure, but the critique of neo-liberalism misses the point. The lack of investment and maintenance of the public infrastructure that became visible through the floods has several causes: a) neglect and destruction during the 1990s that takes a long time to address the consequences; b) party appointments and favoritism has undermined the public administration and reduced professionalism; c) hierarchical power-structures contribute to slow responses in times of crisis. Altogether, this would rather suggest that the problems are not with the private sector, but with the state. This does not mean that privatization would be the solution. As the far-reaching privatization of public utilities in some countries, such as the UK, demonstrated, this in itself it can also lead to underinvestment and convoluted lines of responsibility. The central question thus how to make the state more responsive. Besides the obvious need to reduce party appointments and focus on the re-professionalization of the public administration, it would also be good to think about ways in which state-owned companies and utilities can be better sheltered from political pressure and influence to be able to act independently.

The other theme that flood revealed is that of solidarity. The failure of the states to take of their citizens brought about a great degree of solidarity between citizens. In Bosnia the plena that had emerged as a result of the February protests organized assistance where the state failed and there are many reports of citizens helping others across lines of division, be they entity or state boundaries or ethnic borders. However, it might be once more overinterpreting the solidarity as a renewed “Yugoslav community” as for example Andrej Nikolaidis does. Support and assistance comes from others well beyond the Yugoslav space, thus reducing solidarity to the people of Yugoslavia is being unfair to those assisting beyond. The key question will be how to transform the solidarity of the floods into a more lasting form of rapprochement. Here, it merits to look south, to Greece and Turkey, who experienced a breakthrough in relations as a result of “earthquake diplomacy” following devastating earthquakes in both countries in 1999. James Ker-Lindsay noted at the time in an article that the earthquake in both countries did not bring about the rapprochement by itself, yet it helped  by providing it with a momentum that brought both citizens and political elites closer together. The floods, for all their horror thus provide an opportunity, whether it will be seized and become transformative remains to be seen.

 

The Authoritarian Temptation

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Here is the English version of a comment I wrote for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called “The Authorititarian Temptation in the Balkans”. It draws on an article (co-authored with Irena Ristić) and a book chapter published in 2012.

The Serbian elections 16th March end a year of political speculation. These are already the seventh early parliamentary elections since 1990, they are unnecessary as there was no government crisis ahead of them being called. The coalition government consisting of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS ) of Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialist Party (SPS ) of Ivica Dačić was stable and had a solid majority . However, SNS wanted elections to translate their popularity into a large parliamentary majority. In 2012 SPS could still bargain hard to obtain the post of prime minister. Today, this is hardly imaginable. Although the SNS is unlikely to be able to govern on its own after the election, it can determine the shape of the government.  The early elections are an example of the authoritarian temptation of governing parties in the Balkans, weaken the rule of law to secure their own dominance.

The “semi- democracies” of Southeast Europe

Regular studies of the Bertelsmann Foundation and by Freedom House show, that a particular type of democracy has taken hold in South Eastern Europe: elections are democratic, the political landscape is diverse, but populist and corrupt governments hinder the consolidation of democratic structures. Most post-communist countries in Central Europe developed into consolidated democracies. In the  South Eastern Europe, however, was intermediate form dominants, the democratic formalities be observed, but at the same time, populist parties control the state through patronage structures. This is particularly evident through the dominance of political parties over the media, the state and the weak rule of law.  The election campaign had not yet begun in Serbia, as the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vučić saved a child stuck with its family in a snowstorm on the highway from Belgrade to Budapest. Conveniently,  the state television on hand to film it. While this ‘performance’ was quickly mocked in social networks, the message got through : Vučić rescues children, while others go campaigning.

Not only in Serbia have governing parties used their dominance to engage in a continuous election campaign.  Even when elections are not upcoming [this was written before early elections were called in Macedonia], the ruling party of Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE constantly advertise their successes on billboards and in advertisements. Due to this non-stop campaign by governments, it is difficult for the opposition to formulate alternatives. In early elections governing parties already have a decisive edge.  A second aspect of the authoritarian temptation is reflected through control of the media. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade. The economic crisis and the state as the most important advertiser to have resulted in a media landscape in the region in which critical voices hardly find a place. This is particularly pronounced in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Macedonia all important critical media, such as the private channel A1 have been forced to close done and only few journalists dare to openly criticize the government. In Montenegro, there is often to attacks by “unknown” perpetrators against independent media. In Bosnia is the businessman and media tycoon Radoncic to became security minister [he was dismissed the day the article was published], despite persistent rumors of his contacts to the underworld. In the Republika Srpska the media is local President Dodik, criticism is only aimed at against the opposition, “Sarajevo” and foreign powers. In Serbia, only few media nowadays dare to openly criticize Vucic.
Media loyal to the government, however, weaken the opposition. Allegations of corruption, often without evidence, are part of the strategy here. The tabloids in Serbia regularly accuse members of the DS government that was in power until 2012 of corruption. Even if these allegations are certainly partly justified, they are used to discredit political opponents.  In addition to accusations of corruption, government media also regularly challenging the loyalty of the opposition and suggest that it is committing treason of the state or nation, particular in Macedonia or the Republika Srpska.
A final aspect is the dominance of political parties over the state. Careers in the public administration and in government-controlled companies are usually only possible with party membership. Thus,
parties acts as employment agencies and can thus secure the loyalty of its voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.

Political, not cultural causes
the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans. EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria show that with EU accession the danger is not over. The temptation is great to attribute this development to “Balkan political culture,” but it has more to do with weak states and social and economic crisis that predates the global economic crisis. Often the EU overlooks the authoritarian temptation too readily, as long as the governments
cooperate. Thus, the willingness of the Serbian government to compromise in dialogue with Kosovo helped to distract from domestic political populism. However, if the rule of law cannot take hold, this will either lead to social protests, as recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or to illiberal governments, which seek to preserve their power with populist means, as in Macedonia and, probably soon, Serbia.

I am making a list, I am checking it twice: Identifying the enemies of RS

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Most political parties are not successful publishers, but an exception seems to be Independent Alliance of Social Democrats (SNSD) of Milorad Dodik. In addition to the bestseller (according to Kurir the book  with the highest print run in RS in 2011) Dodik guardian of Srpska (besides Serbian also available in English, Russian, and Macedonian), it pubished the speeches of Dodik during the 2006 campaign, Police reform in Bosnia, Media in the service of the powerful, the Dissatisfaction of the People–The Powerlessness of Government, Attacks on Srspka, and just recently The Destruction of Republika Srpska.

This most recent book includes text by Nebojša Malić, who mostly contributes to antiwar.com and Stefan Karganović of the Srebrenica Historical Project, both usually busy with relativizing war crimes and promoting a revisionist history of the Bosnian war. Foreign authors include John Laughland, who has been attacking the Milošević trial and is currently working for a Russian sponsored institute in Paris.

The main argument of the book is that Western powers, in particular the US, have been sponsoring coups against governments in Central Europe for their imperial designs and that the RS is one of many targets. Karganović goes on to list “fake ‘non-governmental organisations’ with task that they are prepared that on the wink of foreign commanders to participate in creating unrest and to challenge the constitutional order.” And then he lists the organizations:
1. Transparency International;
2. Helsinški parlament građana Banje Luke;
3. Slobodna Republika;
4. BUKA;
5. GEA Centar za istraživanja i studije;
6. Inicijativa mladih za ljudska prava;
7. The Srpska Times;
8. „Udruženje veterana Republike Srpske“;

as well as websites and individuals.

There is nothing particularly unusual about such fantasies of ‘analysts’ on the internet. What is striking that a ruling political party openly publishes such a view and thus suggests that the organizations and individuals are traitors, under control of foreign powers.  Such a style is reminiscent of either Putin’s Russia (‘foreign agents’) and Milošević’s Serbia. In the aforementioned book “Dodik guardian of Srpska”, the author Milan Ljepojević (president of the association of ‘politcologists of the Republic of Srpska’) already published a long annex of photos of supposed foreign enemies of the RS. Listing domestic ‘enemies’ crosses another line and confirms the authoritarian self-understanding of the regime.

In addition to revealing an authoritarian attitude, such list-making also betrays the paranoia of the regime. It places events in the Ukraine in the context of the supposed threats against the RS and thus paints a picture of a government worried about foreign intervention and afraid of popular dissatisfaction.

Not making sense of the Bosnian Protests: International reporting

International media have been struggling in covering the protests in Bosnia that began last week. At first, there was silence. It seemed like a few blog posts, including Eric Gordy, Jasmin Mujanovic  and my analysis where the only ones who to comment. The subsequent string of articles in international media, such as the New York Times, CNN and Newsweek, but also others, suggest difficulty to grapple with the protests (the notable exception are journalists who have been regularly reporting on the Balkans, such as Andreas Ernst of the NZZ, Tim Judah of the Economist and Michael Martens for the FAZ). Much of the reporting betrays deep ignorance of Bosnia. For example, the first article by the NYT argued that “The chief American negotiator, Richard C. Holbrooke, who died in 2010, was widely hailed for his diplomatic skill in ending the slaughter. But the Bosnians have since added layers of complexity to the original design that have entrenched the political elite while often hindering economic development.” The idea that Bosnians added complexity to the original design of Dayton is a very silly suggestion–not much was added to the original design that is complex and whatever was added, was added by the High Representative. While probably an innocent mistake, it also (unconsciously) shifts the blame for the institutional complexity from international to local actors. Besides ignorance, international media often resort to the ‘war’ and employ an Orientalist framework, evoking violence and war as a typical part of the exotic Balkans. For example an article in Newsweek (besides quoting competent Velma Saric and Tim Judah), had to evoke the assassination of Franz Ferdinand (“The past has always haunted Bosnia. On June  28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austriaheir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife, Sophie, duchess of Hohenberg, were shot dead in Sarajevo, by Gavrilo Princip”). Would an article about mass protests in Berlin mention the Reichskristallnacht or a piece on strikes in France the French revolution and the use of the guillotine for French rulers?

Finally, the article quotes Rebecca West whose travelogue during the interwar period is often used as argument for the Manichean and ancient hatreds in the Balkans (West captured the essence of the cycle of hatred and violence: “Were I to go down into the marketplace…and take a peasant by the shoulders and whisper to him, ‘In your lifetime, have you known peace?’ … I would never hear the word ‘Yes,’ if I carried my questioning of the dead back for a thousand years. I would always hear, ‘No, there was fear, there were our enemies without, our rulers within, there was prison, there was torture, there was violent death.). Of course, this has little to do with the protests that have been explicitly not nationalist or framed ethnically. The problem with a number of journalists and commentators writing about Bosnia today is that they left off when the war ended (see also Christine Amanpour’s interview with Paddy Ashdown for CNN).

The combination of ignorance and looking at Bosnia exclusive through the lens of the war has produced a fairly weak coverage of the protests over the past week. This has been compounded by the nature of the protests themselves. The organization of plenums (or is it plena) as forms of direct democracy and demands of social economic justice does not fit with many other protests. While democratization is at the core of the protests, the message is also a critique of the Bosnia-type of market economy. The combination of demands for good governance and economic justice is a feature of recent protests, not just in Bosnia (as I have discussed here), but they do not fit into the classic protests of the region for more democracy and against autocratic regimes (as in Ukraine). These two features might actually be difficult to reconcile and the experiments with new forms of democracy might not succeed, but they are an experiment that does not fit an easy matrix of reporting about a land haunted by ethnic hatreds, violence and protestors demanding freedom. It is all just a bit more tricky and maybe time to look a little bit closer.

Is Change coming (finally)? Thoughts on the Bosnian Protests

Bosnian presidency Photo by Nidžara Ahmetašević

Bosnian presidency, the day after
Photo by Nidžara Ahmetašević

The protests that have erupted across Bosnia in recent days were in some ways no surprise. While the JMBG protests fizzled out last year , nothing was resolved and it was clear that new protests would occur, just when and how remained unclear (this also clearly emerged from the discussion at the conference on protests we organized in Graz in December, see here, here and here). What was a surprise was the extent to which they quickly spread from the first protests in Tuzla across Bosnia and the degree to which the occupation and burning down of government buildings became a central feature. Here are some features that have struck me in following the debates and the protests themselves in recent days:

Who protests?

In an interview for the Austrian daily Kurier, the current High Representative Valentin Inzko noted that the protests were primarily carried by Bosniaks, the Muslims (‘Die Träger der Proteste sind hauptsächlich Bosniaken, die Muslime’). Similarly, Tim Judah pointed out that the protests primarily took place in the Federation and in areas with a Bosniak majority. While these are not wrong observation, they do emphasize ethnicity when the protests had nothing to do with ethnicity at all. Of course, in Bosnia everything becomes easily an ethnic issue, but one has to be careful not to contribute to this. In fact, what is more remarkable that the protests took place in regions of Bosnia with a Bosniak majority, they also took place in Brčko and Mostar, two cities that are multiethnic, although in very different manners. The fact that violence in Mostar against the city and cantonal administration and the HQs of the two dominant ethnonationalist parties SDA and HDZ is particularly significant. A place where the threat of violence has been closer to the surface than elsewhere in Bosnia and the divisions are particularly tangible, such a protests is more significant than in less divided settings. So why are there protests in Tuzla, Zenica, Bihać, Sarajevo, Mostar and Brčko and not in Banja Luka, Bijelina (although some protests took place in the RS, just with a low turn out, including a bizarre counter-protest against protests in Bijelina) etc.? From the  perspective of the RS leadership, it is the dysfunctional nature of the Federation and another piece of evidence that Bosnia is not in the interest of the RS. While the argument is clearly self-serving, there is no doubt that the institutions of the Federation are more dysfunctional than the RS with its cantons, a largely superfluous layer of government. This does not capture the entire situation.

In the RS, the government has been more successful in buying social peace and controlling the public space through reducing the media and accusing potential protestors of being against the RS. It is also telling that the protests began in Tuzla against predominantly Socialdemocratic authorities. First, these protests are not about Dayton or nationalism, but they are about a much broader disappointment with the political class.

The epicentre is in a former working class city that also bucked the ethnonationalist trend during the war and reflects the disappointment with the Socialdemocrats who were the winners of the 2010 elections and have since squandered all their political capital by acting indistinguishable from the ethnonationalist parties. As a result, the protests express a sense of lack of alternatives, no party that can represent the grievances. Here, this might explain the location of protests, the lack of alternatives has been a characteristic in the RS for longer and thus holds less mobilizing potential. Furthermore, in Tuzla, Zenica and Bihać the protests could demonstrate that they were about badly governed towns and cantons, not about large questions where parties can give them an ethnic spin (as some are already doing).

Hooligans?

The main reason for the international muted response was probably the use of violence during the protests. The burning of buildings and finally of a part of the archives of Bosnia in the presidency building have led to media and politicians in and outside Bosnia using the term “hooligans” in the context of the protests.

Of course, the fact that historical buildings were damaged  and parts of the archives stored in the presidency is a tragedy. While initial reports of the damage might have been exaggerated (intentionally or unintentionally due the obvious parallels to the destruction of the national library in 1992), it also seems wrong, as director Jasmila Žbanić argued, to suggest that the destruction of part of the archives was a “lie”. Again, she probably meant reports that the complete archives were destroyed, but the formulation seems to downplay this doubtlessly tragic loss. Photos from the site show documents destroyed. However, does this make the protestors ‘hooligans’? I have not seen any reports indicating that the archives were deliberately targeted. Instead, it seems the tragedy lies in them being stored in the same building as the presidency.

Ditched Cars in Zenica, presumably from local politicians
Source: Twitter @YourAnonCentral

The term hooligans on the other hand is very loaded and authoritarian regimes like to use it again protestors (I remember this being used with some frequency by the Milošević regime) and it raises a difficult question: What level of violence is legitimate during protests? In democracies, the answer is usually none, as there are legal means of changing government not necessitating the use of force. In dictatorships, the use of violence is generally considered acceptable, while of course the scale and target of violence remains open for discussion. Nobody seriously considered the protestors in Belgrade on 5 October 2000 hooligans because they set fire to the Serbian radio and television station or ransacked the Federal parliament. Bosnia is a tricky case. While it is no dictatorship, many citizens who went to the streets feel that they cannot change the government through elections. This is true to a large extent, as the multiple layers of government mean that everybody is in power somewhere and at the entity and state level we witness complex and fluid coalitions that blur the line between government and opposition beyond recognition. The use of ethnonational mobilization has also systematically undermined the organization and articulation of other political concerns. As a consequence, the use of violence against buildings representing the current elite became a target. Statements that citizens destroyed their own property ring hollow (unless of course, we acknowledge that the limousines of politicians thrown into canals in Zenica where paid for by Bosnian taxpayers). The use of fear was a reflection of the anger of the citizens, as Elvira Jukić describes vividly in her blog. It also for the first time politicians became afraid of citizens, an observation made by many on Facebook and Twitter as cantonal governments resigned and some reportedly even left the country.

In addition, the violence of the protests was fairly systematically directed at buildings of the government, in particular cantonal administrations, the state presidency and some political party offices. Despite conflict reports, there seems to have not been wide-spread looting (a la Patike za Kosovo or the London riots) and the violence was targeted. While it is hard to condone the destruction of buildings, it is easy to understand.

Besides the unwanton damage, there are other risks with violence. It was striking when Al Jazeera Balkans, who had the best reporting on the events, described the scenes in Sarajevo as a ‘war zone’. This unfortunate comparison illustrates the risks: the one risk is that mass violence threatens the structures of the state and that this void is filled not by those originally protesting, but others who seek benefit from the use of force. Second danger is demobilizing citizens: Afraid of a new war or even images that remind of the war might mean that they will not attend protests for the fear of a fall back to the war. Third, there is the risk of Chekhov‘s principle for plays: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The International Response

The international response to the protests has been confused, displaying the gap between international actors and the reality on the ground. The EU and EU foreign ministers either officially or on twitter (see Carl Bildt, Štefan Füle) repeated the phrase that citizens should have the right to protest, but that they should remain peaceful. The current High Representative Valentin Inzko noted in the aforementioned  interview for the Austrian daily Kurier that “if the situation escalates, we might have to think about EU-troops (“Wenn die Lage eskaliert, werden wir eventuell an EU-Truppen denken müssen.”). Although he also calls the protests legitimate, the mention of EU troops triggered alarm bells , as it is unclear for or against whom this intervention would take place (later, the statement was clarified). Such talk risks additional securitizing the protests, and thus playing in the hands of those who would like to see the protests reduced to a violent threat to the status quo. Instead, the protests should be welcomed and not just treated as the expression of the right of citizens.

The protests, as in the Ukraine or in Bulgaria, should be understood as a clear message that citizens do not want corrupt elites that have in essence captured the state and govern it for their private good. This is all the EU should be about and the unwillingness and inability of elites to strike a compromise over recent years to move the country closer to the EU are a clear message that was unfortunately not reflected in the international response.

What is next?

In the middle of the protests, and they are far from over, it is impossible to guess the outcome. What is clear is that the current political elites, at least in the Federation, have widely lost their legitimacy. Whether this can lead to early elections is unclear. Bosnia has only had early elections once, in the RS in 1997, and early elections might just benefit the incumbents, while the demonstrators don’t have a political platform yet (there are demands of citizens from Tuzla and Sarajevo, however). It might be better to have an interim government, composed of “technocrats” to govern until elections to give the protestors time to organize and to also initiate some reforms.

Graffiti on government building in ‎Tuzla says “Resign all and Death To Nationalism” Source: Twitter @RadioNightwatch

Another defining feature of the protests is the combination of social grievances with dissatisfaction with government and corruption (see here how this fits into the larger picture). It is thus not just about opposition to the particular form of economic transition that Bosnia experienced, but also about the state capture. Now, a question that will not be easily settled is the degree to which the Dayton superstructure is to blame. I have been generally skeptical about scapegoating Dayton (here I disagree with Eric Gordy’s otherwise very insightful remarks on Bosnia), not because it is good, but because there are other causes. Many cities in Bosnia are badly governed, including Sarajevo, but Dayton has nothing to do with the functioning of the cities. The reasons that the cities (and cantons) are mismanaged, is less their institutional set-up, but the political elite that governs them. Of course, the complex power-sharing system that governs Bosnia is co-contributing to this elite, but it is simply too easy to blame for all of it (as a counter factual, there are similar elites in power in other countries of the region where there is no Dayton-like institutional system).  It thus seems important at this point not to focus on constitutional reform or other issues related to the organization of the state. While the Dayton constitution is far from ideal, talking of changing it is different from actually changing it (I am thus sympathetic to the argument Jasmin Mujanovic makes, but worry that it would not help the protests to achieve change and rather get bogged down in constitutional debates a la Sejdić-Finci, I have written more about this earlier). Constitutional reform has been the third rail of Bosnian politics since the war, it is divisive and will risk bringing ethnicity into the debate.

Finally, international actors will need to tread carefully as well. Sometimes, silence is golden and if any message should be clear, the strategy of talking to six party leaders and thinking that this is the way to change Bosnia for the better has failed and should be over. Before designing a new grand strategy for Bosnia, it would be better to ensure that citizens get a better say in how the country is governed, a new strategy–certainly needed–should come then.

A train to nowhere: Talgo in Bosnia

Talgo parked in Sarajevo train station (source: thehindu.com)

The Talgo trains, made in Spain, belong to the high-end trains rolling around Europe, North America and Asia. They travel at high speeds on conventional tracks and offer comfortable intercity and international travel. Bosnia (together with Kazachstan and Uzbekistan) has nine such trains (bought in , so far the good news. While the website of the railways of the Bosnian Federation (ZFBiH, there is no single Bosnian rail company) even has a link to Talgo reserations (including the tempting offer to travel in time: Register for a free Ride from 1/Nov/2010 to 31/Dec/2011), none of the trains is going anywhere. The trains had some test runs, but never entred service. Instead, the trains have been languishing for years in Sarajevom, partly in storage, partly in the open. When they were tested, they achieved the incredible maximum speed of 70km per hour. Of course, for such great speeds, it is necessary to have a train that can go 220 km per hour… Samir Kadrić from the railways of the Federation described it “as if you bought nine Ferarris and you don’t have roads to drive them on”. Besides old tracks and no realistic plan to improve them to anywhere close to the speeds the Talgo can travel, it took years to negotiate the use of the train with neighboring countries and meanwhile, the train to Belgrade no longer operates and there is only one train per day that takes 9 hours for the journey. Now the railway company does not have the money to maintain the trains, so they are not even riding at 70 km per hour, but just standing and waiting. The Talgo thus share the same fate as the Croatian-made Končar trains the ZFBiH bought in 2009 to run local lines and which the company now seeks to return to Croatia. Just for the Talgo trains, the ZFBiH payed 67.5 mio Euro which is tries to pay for by renting the trains to Turkey.

There is hardly a better metaphor for what is wrong in Bosnia today. The country cannot move on, or only at the speed of 19th century train travel in 40-year old run down cars. The alternative is there (and even paid for) but there is no plan, no will and no resources to accelerate. Instead of leapfrogging several train-generations (or in extension reforms) with the Talgo, the episode highlights that Bosnia needs new tracks, and not just for trains. The fact that nobody had to resign over this affair that raises suspicions not just about tremedous stupidity, but also corruption, also is indicative of how the scale of bad governance has created an incredible degree of hopelessness in the country.

Bad Metaphors and The Mostar Bridge

Twenty years ago, the bridge in Mostar was destroyed by Bosnian Croat forces, since it has been rebuilt nearly ten years ago. In the mean time, the bridge became the symbol of Bosnia and countless books and posters of Bosnia feature the bridge. The bridge has become overburdened with symbolic value which does not reflect the bridge or Bosnia. The bridge was not a symbol of multiethnic Bosnia, but part of the country’s Ottoman heritage that remains strongly contested. When it was destroyed it did not link two communities, but two parts of Mostar held by Bosnian government forces with a Bosniak majority. Its reconstruction thus neither  mended interethnic ties, nor could it be an appropriate symbol for it. Furthermore, a bridge is an ill-fitting metaphor for cooperation. Bridges are edifices to get from one place to another, but they are not a place to stay, a meeting point. I remember asking a Slovak diplomat some 15 years ago whether he saw his country as a bridge between East and West and he dismissed this suggestion quickly, noting that one does not want to live on a bridge, it is neither here nor there. bridge4Beyond being a bad metaphor, should the Mostar bridge have been rebuilt. I understand that the reconstruction of the bridge sent the signal that the ethnonationalist leaders and they militias cannot destroy the countries heritage. Yet, it is a fake. Just like the Berlin Stadtschloss or the Old theater in Skopje, it is a re-construction of a building that had disappeared. In this sense, the building pretends to be old, but it is not.

In addition to being disingenuous, it also is a reflection of the larger “reconstruction” paradigm that has been dominant in Bosnia and in other post-conflict countries. The “reconstruction paradigm” focuses on both the physical and societal reconstruction after the war. However, the reconstruction might be possible in the material sense (and even here it near impossible), the societal reconstruction is not possible. Instead the emphasis should be more on construction, i.e. on the ways in which a post-war society and country can be built and build itself. Thus, most of the focus on international policy makers has been on refugee return in the first post-war decade, but little thought went to other ways in with divisions could be overcome based on the post-war realities.

As such, the bridge is Mostar is not a symbol of reconstructing Bosnia, but rather of faking the past that was destroyed rather than building a new reality.

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