Bosnia’s general elections take place on Sunday amidst looming concerns of massive election fraud, heightened tensions – and fears that either political gridlock or the country’s broken election law could block the formation of new governments.
While the election results are likely to be as uncertain and inconclusive as ever, experts agree that even in the best scenario, the establishment of new governments will take months; that the process will be chaotic and that eventual new governments will most likely bring only more of the old self-centred, divisive politics.
If this is the best-case scenario, what are the worse ones?
Those could include a complete blockade of the implementation of the election results, either by some of the parties, dissatisfied with their election results, or because of the failure to fix the election law.
Either scenario could lead to the disintegration of the financial and political system in Bosnia’s Federation entity by year’s end, which would, in turn, affect the state and possibly other administrative levels.
The main responsibility for this dire situation lies primarily with the country’s own politicians its intellectuals, NGOs, the media and finally, its own citizens.
The one foreign actor that might have turned the tide of Bosnia’s zero-sum, destructive politics was the European Union.
However, once again, in Bosnia, the EU did not miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
From moving goalposts to removing the playing field
The EU’s latest failure to address recent developments threatens to turn into a major political blunder with potentially devastating repercussions.
The stage for this blunder was set by a series of events this summer, which were supposed to mark a turning point in the slow process of integrating the six countries of the Western Balkans into Western frameworks.
However, after the EU-Western Balkan get-together in Sofia in May, an EU summit in Brussels in June and the Western Balkans Summit in London in July, EU membership has only further receded into the distance.
Besides handshakes and photos, the Sofia, Brussels and London summits produced vague commitments to speed up the process of integration at some later, undefined stage – at least after the European Parliament elections in May 2019.
The substance, however, told a different story – that Europe is consumed by its own internal problems, firstly the migrant crisis; Britain’s torturous exit from the bloc; but even more so by the growing conservatism and anti-EU feeling in a number of EU countries.
As a result, these three events showed the Balkan peoples only that EU expansion to the region will not be a topic of serious discussion for a long time, if ever.
The EU, which has long been (in)famous for changing its criteria and requirements – a practice known as “moving the goalposts” – has this time removed the entire playing field.
The full extent of this tectonic movement has yet to be revealed but its importance may be better comprehended in light of the fact that the EU perspective – no matter how distant – has been the last hope of the Balkan peoples for the past three decades.
Hope is the last thing to die – but what when it does?
The effective disappearance of the EU perspective has an impact that goes far beyond economic wellbeing and social reforms.
Hope of a future life within EU borders was the only thing that silenced the nationalist and separatist tendencies in the Balkans that erupted when the former Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s.
The effective disappearance of this European perspective will encourage new tensions, as well as new drives towards the establishment of a “Greater Albania”, “Greater Bosnia”, “Greater Croatia”, “Greater Serbia” or even a “Greater Turkey”.
The process may have already started, after the presidents of Serbia, Kosovo and Albania, Aleksandar Vucic, Hashim Thaci and Edi Rama, during the summer for the first time openly started debating a possible resolution of Serbia-Kosovo relations through an exchange of territories in Serbia and Kosovo.
One might argue that the second piece in this “domino effect” in the Balkans was the failure of last Sunday’s referendum in Macedonia on a deal with Greece.
In addition to all the other internal reasons – including the lack of support for the referendum from the opposition parties and an apparently big discrepancy between the number of registered voters and the number of people who still live in Macedonia – part of the responsibility for this setback also lies with the EU.
While European officials in recent months offered strong verbal support for the Macedonian referendum and a deal with Greece, the EU failed to do the one thing that could have made a real difference.
Macedonia, as well as Albania, had hoped to receive a date for the start of their EU negotiations during the EU summit in Brussels in July.
This symbolic announcement would have cost the EU nothing but would have made a big difference across the Balkans.
Instead, the EU postponed a decision owing to the objections from some EU member countries, especially France and The Netherlands.
Some experts warned that this move could come at a high price for the Balkans – but those words fell on deaf ears.
While the failure of Macedonia’s referendum does not necessarily means the Greek deal is doomed, it puts the country in a much more difficult position, as local politicians ponder their next moves, including possible new snap elections.
After Macedonia, Bosnia is well set as the next domino to fall.
With its quarrelling politicians, weak civil society, divided media and citizens, many of whom only wish to leave the country, Bosnia is ill-prepared for the difficult upcoming legal and political challenges, and their likely economic and social consequences.
EU seems to have forgotten how it started
The EU seems to have lost any institutional memory of its own beginnings – which were motivated by security needs besides economic reasons – as well as its experiences from the breakup of former Yugoslavia.
As a result, the EU has ignored the growing warnings signs from the Balkans and their potential to destabilize Europe.
Instead, preoccupied with its internal problems, many EU member countries have apparently assumed the new egocentric policy of the US under President Donald Trump – “America first” – and are replicating it.
While “Italy first,” “Hungary first”, “Poland first”, and similar narratives threaten the foundation of the European Union, the EU continues appeasing Balkans leaders with verbal innuendos to buy more time, at least until next year’s European Parliament elections indicate the EU’s immediate future.
Meanwhile, local and international experts have condemned the appearance of alternative ideas about a resolution of Balkan issues through exchanges of ethnic territories, warning that changes to borders will only lead to new conflicts.
They insist that the EU still remains the only alternative for the Balkans, even as the US and the EU seem to move away from their own principles and ideals.
But empty warnings do not work on Balkan politicians who are all too familiar with this tactic, having used it themselves so often in their own election campaigns.
Instead, some local leaders seem to be moving ahead with their new alternative plans and ideas.
On August 2, for example, Albania’s Diaspora Minister, Pandeli Majko, provocatively said that the physical borders between Albania and Kosovo would be removed by the beginning of 2019.
This was reiterated on September 19 by Kosovo’s Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj.
The statements expectedly triggered strong reactions from Serbia, which threatened to defend what it still insists is Serbia’s own borders with force, if need be.
Amidst its heated pre-election campaign, Bosnia has seen its own share of nationalist initiatives.
The Bosnian Serb strongman, Milorad Dodik, has gone beyond his usual calls for of independence of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, hinting at an actual unification of Serbia and Republika Srpska.
His Bosnian Croat counterpart, Dragan Covic, has warned that his Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, will block the establishment of new governments if it dislikes the election results.
The leader of the main Bosniak (Muslim) party, the Party of Democratic Action, SDA, Bakir Izetbegovic, has responded in kind, warning that Bosniaks will defend Bosnia’s territorial and constitutional integrity by all means necessary.
Choosing between a range of lesser evils:
In an environment of open political hostilities, it is difficult to perceive how these same parties will establish new governments after the October elections, even if the country’s broken election law gets fixed.
This will mean that all three neuralgic spots in the Balkans – Bosnia, Macedonia and Serbia-Kosovo relations – will continue generating new crises in the near future.
The way out of the Balkan quagmire seems uncertain, with the best option – the effective revival of EU enlargement – being currently unavailable.
The Balkans is left, therefore, with different, worse scenarios.
One option is to continue insisting on the EU’s “reform agenda”. But this approach now looks dead, and would need to be quickly revitalized, to regain traction in the Balkans.
Instead of empty words, the EU would have to fill in the space between now and uncertain enlargement with concrete funds, projects and programs that would address real problems in the Balkans – poor infrastructure, declining agriculture and divided and corrupt political and rule of law systems.
Yet the EU seems unprepared to even contemplate something like this.
Meanwhile, other international actors seem ready to try a different approach and support local initiatives for resolution of Balkan issues through changes of borders, such as between Kosovo and Serbia.
As many experts have pointed out, this risky notion has brought about bloodshed in the Balkans in the past.
But blocking such initiatives carries its own risks as well.
If such initiatives gain public support, condemning them only risks increasing tensions, while not stopping them anyway. If the West blocks such local bilateral initiatives, it could only inspire even more dangerous unilateral moves.
Without a realistic EU option, choosing between lesser evils in the Balkans offers no guarantees that the region does not end up in the worst-case scenario that its peoples hoped to avoid.
*Srecko Latal is a journalist, editor and analyst who has been covering the Balkans since the 1990s.