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Is Bosnia Facing Another Major Crisis? – OpEd

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Thirty years ago, Bosnia witnessed the first major crisis to hit Europe after World War II. It had all the elements of extreme prejudice and bigotry faced by a Slavic Muslim community that had declared independence for their country where they constituted a majority. Europe, true to her innate hypocrisy, did not want to see an independent Bosnia simply because of the ‘Muslim factor’. Forgotten there was the unambiguous fact that the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) were the most secularized people in the entire Balkan. 

The Bosniaks were let to fight a well-armed Russian-backed Serb fascist force with their hands virtually tied behind. Truly, if they had gotten a fraction of what has been supplied to the Ukrainians fighting now against the invading Russians, they would have won against the Serbs within a week. Instead, the poor Bosniaks, with arms embargo imposed on them, had to defend their cities for 1425 days. No European city had endured a longer seize of its capital city. During that siege, about 350,000 residents remained trapped in their multiethnic city, subjected to daily shelling and sniper attacks, and cut off from regular access to electricity, food, water, medicine, and the outside world. They survived on limited humanitarian supplies provided by the United Nations, drank from wells, and scavenged for food.

America’s renowned diplomat, late Richard Holbrooke called the Bosnian Crisis, “the greatest collective security failure of the West since the 1930s.” In his book, “To End a War”, Holbrooke ascribed the failure to five factors: (1) a misreading of Balkan history, holding that the ethnic strife was too ancient and ingrained to be prevented by outsiders (i.e., let them sort it out themselves by killing each other); (2) the apparent loss of Yugoslavia’s strategic importance after the Cold War; (3) the triumph of nationalism over democracy as the dominant ideology of post-Communist Yugoslavia; (4) the reluctance of the George H.W. Bush administration to undertake another military commitment so soon after the 1991 Iraq war; and (5) the decision of the United States to turn the issue over to Europe instead of NATO, and the confused and passive European response. 

Holbrooke was partially right. He omitted the ‘Muslim factor’, which was recognized by President Bill Clinton in his book My Life: The Presidential Years” as the key factor for the deplorable European reluctance. Clinton said that Europe did not want to see a Muslim state emerge in the heart of Christian Europe and thus, did not want to help the Bosniaks. 

In that war, nearly a hundred thousand people died, being unfortunate victims of a genocidal campaign perpetrated by the Serbian Orthodox Christians that wanted to eliminate the Bosniaks. More than 11,000 people, including over 1,000 children, were killed by Serb snipers and mortars in the capital city alone as they went about their daily lives in Sarajevo during the siege. Rape was used as a weapon of war to terrorize and traumatize the Bosniaks. Ultimately, the Bosniaks were coerced into signing the Dayton Peace Accord, which was neither fair nor just to them. Still, the good thing is it gave peace a chance and stopped the war. 

During my short trip to Sarajevo in May 2022 to attend and speak in a Genocide Convention workshop, I was able to visit many parts of the city. While Sarajevo has gone through a facelift but the brutality of the longest seize in European history could not all be erased. The scars of the war are clearly visible in many buildings and streets, some thirty years after the Dayton Peace Accord was signed. The scars of the heart are difficult to be healed!

And yet, I found, Bosniaks who are by nature a very friendly, hospitable, and kind-hearted people, willing to forget and forgive their former tormentors. But the same cannot be said of the Bosnian Serbs who seem to have a different agenda. Divorced from the ground reality and hard facts, they are locked up in a mythical past, and still dream of a Greater Serbia to rebuild their false sense of greatness or grandiosity, which they truly never had. They remain unabashed supporters of Russia. Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, pro-Russian rallies, often featuring far-right groups with direct ties to Russia, have cropped up in Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Hundreds of Serb volunteers have already joined, and others are ready to fight alongside their Russian ‘blood’ brothers. Equally problematic is the fact that the convicted war criminals of the Bosnian War are celebrated as ‘national heroes’ by the Serbs. They deny Bosnian genocide and have thus refused to hand-over the Serbian war criminals to be tried in The Hague. 

As I recounted in my latest book – 64 Hours in Sarajevo: A journey through the historic landscape of the Balkans(available from Amazon.com)– Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has renewed worries that the country will use its proxies in Bosnia and Herzegovina to open a second front (a Bosnian Serb “Donbas”) against the West in the Western Balkans. 

The Dayton Peace Accord was more like a temporary first aid that’s applied to stop the bleeding process. It retained Bosnia and Herzegovina’s international boundaries and created a multiethnic government charged with conducting foreign, diplomatic, and fiscal policy. It also recognized a second tier of government composed of two entities roughly equal in size: the predominantly Bosniak-Bosnian Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH) and the predominantly Bosnian Serb-led Republika Srpska (RS). The Federation and RS governments are responsible for overseeing most government functions. 

In its efforts to bring the Serbs who were not only guilty of committing genocide and comprised less than a third of the population to the negotiation table, sadly, the Accord rewarded them handsomely by giving control over nearly half the country. Additionally, the Bosnian Constitution, an annex of the Dayton Accord, is the most unwieldly, complex, highly undemocratic and discriminatory system in our world. It created a weak central government. It stipulates that the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina shall consist of three Members: one Bosniak and one Croat, each directly elected from the territory of the Federation, and one Serb directly elected from the RS. The three members of the Presidency are elected by plurality. The three members elected at any one election serve a collective four-year term. One member is designated as Chairperson. The position of Chairperson rotates twice around the three members every eight months, with the candidate receiving the most votes overall becoming the first Chairperson over the four-year term. 

The Parliamentary Assembly has two chambers: the House of Peoples and the House of Representatives, to serve 4-year terms. The House of Peoples, the upper chamber, comprises 15 Delegates (5 Bosniak, 5 Croat, 5 Serb) who are designated by their respective Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s House of Peoples and the Republika Srpska’s National Assembly. The House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Bosnian Parliament, has 42 members (14 from each religious community) who are elected at entity level according to proportional representation. 

At the entity level, FBiH has a bicameral legislature that consists of the House of Peoples (58 seats – 17 Bosniak, 17 Croat, 17 Serb, 7 other) and the House of Representatives (98 seats; members directly elected by proportional representation vote to serve 4-year terms). On the other hand, Republika Srpska’s unicameral legislature is the National Assembly (83 directly elected delegates serve 4-year terms).

Suffice it to say that the Dayton Accords left a huge mess and the blueprint for a very fragile and dysfunctional democracy that promotes ethno-nationalism instead of nation building. It’s faulty in that in this Accord lies the very elements that could once again trigger another civil war and division of the country along ethnic lines. It is also unjust since it rewarded the Serbs who’re guilty of abetting and participating in the genocide against the Bosniaks. 

As expected, Bosnian post-war politics have been dominated by a clique of nationalist parties that have maintained power by fueling sectarian divisions. Bosnian Serb leaders were openly calling for secession and joining the Republic of Serbia. 

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Bosnia’s voters went to the polls on October 2, which was held for all levels of government in both the Serb-dominated and Bosniak-Croat parts of the Balkan country, as well as for the joint central institutions. The turnout was above 50%. Nationalist rhetoric evoking memories of the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 dominated the election campaign. Surprisingly, the election results show that after nearly three decades of growing social and economic stagnation and decay, Bosnian voters have clearly delivered mandates to disparate coalition of reformist actors. 

In the presidential election, voters in the Federation elected Bosniak Denis Bećirović and re-elected Croat Željko Komšić.  Their victories mean that for the first time in history the majority of Bosnia’s executive will be composed of left-wing, anti-nationalist members. The voters in the RS elected Serb Željka Cvijanović, who like her predecessor, Milorad Dodik, the outgoing Serb president, was sanctioned by the United Kingdom for attempting to undermine the legitimacy of Bosnia and Herzegovina. On April 11, 2022, the then British Foreign Secretary (currently Prime Minister) Liz Truss stated that Dodik and Cvijanović “are deliberately undermining the hard-won peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Encouraged by Putin [Vladimir Putin], their reckless behavior threatens stability and security across the Western Balkans.” [Note: Dodik has ruled practically unchallenged for years despite being sanctioned by the West for advocating the separation of Republika Srpska from the rest of Bosnia. He is expected to continue as president of Bosnia’s autonomous Serb Republic.] Cvijanović favors ties with Russia and China over those with U.S. and EU. 

The Dayton Accords established the Office of the High Representative to oversee the implementation of the civilian aspects of the agreement. The Peace Implementation Council at its conference in Bonn in 1997 also gave the High Representative the authority to impose legislation and remove officials, the so-called “Bonn Powers.”  

It was these powers that Christian Schmidt, the EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, used to impose wide-ranging amendments to Bosnia’s election law only minutes after the polls had closed on October 2. He changed the formula for the appointment of delegates to the upper chamber of the FBiH entity parliament, the House of Peoples. He upped the number of delegates to 80 (23 Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs each, along with 11 others). While the entire assemblies in each canton used to decide on which particular ethnic representatives would go to the House of Peoples, now it is only their ethnic caucus that gets to approve the delegates. 

As can be seen, although Schmidt’s intervention was promoted as a change that would bring parity in power in FBiH and give the minorities more rights to be represented, it favors big ethnonationalist parties and their candidates. In fact, it delivered a permanent monopoly to the HDZ (an ethnocentric Croat party) in the chamber’s Croat caucus, and thus the entire chamber as only two-third of one caucus is required to invoke a veto. 

Jasmin Mujanovic, a political observer, notes in Al Jazeera, “This monopoly is critical as it will allow this single party, which only won approximately 15 percent of the national vote, to hold up virtually all legislation and government formation – as they have done for much of the preceding four years – without any evident route to circumventing their dominance.” Allegedly, “by its own admission, Croatia’s government has worked closely with Schmidt to realize these amendments to the explicit partisan benefit of its clients in the Bosnian HDZ.

Nedim Ademović, a professor of constitutional law, told Euronews, “The legitimacy of the delegates is now purely ethnic.” “The body is not elected according to the ‘one-person-one-vote’ principle, but rather according to the principle of proportional representation of constitutive peoples.” He complained,“That tells you a lot about the relationship that the international community has towards Bosnia. The standards that apply abroad are not respected in Bosnia,” he added, pointing out that this sends the message “that in Bosnia, everything is allowed.”

Schmidt has also been accused of empowering an extremist party that has spent months threatening violence, years holding up government formation, and explicitly coordinating its moves with the secessionist SNSD, while enjoying the benefaction not only of Zagreb and Budapest but also increasingly Moscow and Russian-allied Belgrade. 

According to Jasmin Mujanovic, “Rather than addressing any meaningful aspect of Bosnia’s years-long political and constitutional crisis, Schmidt has strengthened the hand of those most responsible for holding the country back. And he has done so on a night during which actual Bosnian citizens had clearly demonstrated their growing opposition to the country’s artificially entrenched nationalist establishment.

Schmidt’s change was an extraordinary development, something that has been called an “illiberal putsch attempt” than anything even vaguely resembling the practice of democratic reform in a European country in the 21st century. It is feared that Bosnia would become more unstable and dysfunctional state with these changes.

On his part, Schmidt has maintained that his reform amendments were aimed to resolve a lengthy standoff that has taken a nasty turn, with politicians threatening a return to armed conflict, and to fend off a secessionist threat by the Serbs. The secessionist sentiment in Republika Srpska, combined with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has upended those calculations. Schmidt now enjoys the backing of the U.S. and several European states. The foreign support that Schmidt enjoys also shows starkly how far Bosnia has regressed. 

What is needed is that the international community should establish two hard conditions: Bosnia’s territorial integrity must be maintained; and the small EU military mission in the country should remain, because it has the capacity to call in rapid NATO reinforcements if necessary.

Lately, the European Commission recommended on October 12 that Bosnia and Herzegovina be granted the status of candidate to join the European Union, on the understanding that it reinforces democracy and takes other steps.

“Wind of change is once again blowing through Europe and we have to capture this momentum,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU’s executive arm, said in a speech. “The Western Balkans belong in our family, and we have to make this very, very clear.”

Only the coming days would show how serious and sincere the newly elected leaders are to build a functioning state of Bosnia. While the EU and the United States appear to remain ready and willing to help, Bosnians ultimately must take responsibility for Bosnia. 

Dr. Habib Siddiqui

Dr. Habib Siddiqui has a long history as a peaceful activist in an effort towards improving human rights and creating a just and equitable world. He has written extensively in the arena of humanity, global politics, social conscience and human rights since 1980, many of which have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and the Internet. He has tirelessly championed the cause of the disadvantaged, the poor and the forgotten here in Americas and abroad. Commenting on his articles, others have said, "His meticulously researched essays and articles combined with real human dimensions on the plight of the displaced peoples of Rohingya in Myanmar, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo and Palestine, and American Muslims in the post-9/11 era have made him a singular important intellectual offering a sane voice with counterpoints to the shrill threats of the oppressors and the powerful. He offers a fresh and insightful perspective on a whole generation of a misunderstood and displaced people with little or no voice of their own." He has authored 11 books, five of which are now available through Amazon.com. His latest book - Devotional Stories is published by A.S. Noordeen, Malaysia.

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